Young Liars of the Right

Today, Ruth Shalit glows in the knowledge that at the age of 25 she is the most successful of the young, right-wing writers now patrolling the opinion pages or sporting their prejudices in the Sunday magazines. Shalit has a $45,000 contract with GQ, showed up in The New York Times Magazine with a cover story on Bob Dole, and recently gained pleasing notoriety with an attack on affirmative action at The Washington Post, published in The New Republic, where she is an associate editor.Shalit (pronounced "shall eat") is a hot property in Washington and an emblematic one, too. She has made all the proper moves along a path well trodden by careerists seeking fortune in right-wing journalism. First, attacks on "multiculturalism" or "PC" while at a college newspaper; next, arrival within the Beltway as an aide to a political figure or for one of the Right's think tanks; then on to work at a conservative publication.Common to all these careers are calculated forays into racism, in the manner of Dinesh D'Souza; boorishness, along the lines pioneered by Emmett Tyrrell and P.J. O'Rourke; and a hostility to facts or truth so blatant that it often amounts to vulgar lying. Shalit embodies all of these unattractive traits, and renders her deserving of energetic inquiry. In her 13-page article on the Post, which created a great journalistic stir in Washington, she committed at least 50 mistakes, distortions and perversions of fact, an average of one per roughly 250 words. Incompetence and journalistic malfeasance on this scale would normally finish off a career.Shalit's Oct. 2 story in The New Republic, "Race In The Newsroom: The Washington Post in black and white," claimed that the Post's "determined diversity hiring" has produced a strong backlash, with both white and black reporters feeling "aggrieved and victimized by discrimination." Black staffers at the Post, apparently acting out of racial solidarity, have sought to cover up the failures of the city's political elite. Furthermore, the newspaper's once aggressive "coverage of the social pathologies at the heart of Washington's black underclass -- chronic welfare dependence, adolescent childbearing, neighborhood crime and violence -- has increasingly given way to puffery."Now there are many reasons to criticize the Post, a newspaper which in recent years has carefully bleached out any tincture of liberalism. But Shalit's piece wasn't about the Post. In the tradition of D'Souza and Charles Murray, it was an attack on African Americans dressed up as social science.Editors "will end up with a nearly all-white staff," Shalit wrote, if they hire purely on the basis of qualifications." A "newspaper's mandate -- to be an arbiter of truth, an enemy of euphemism, a check on social complacency -- is directly at odds with the ideology of diversity management, with its ethos of sensitivity and conflict avoidance at all costs."Yet despite attempts to diversify, the Post is still largely a white institution -- minority journalists make up roughly 18 percent of its professional staff -- in a city which is overwhelmingly black and minority. "Why shouldn't black people be encouraged to write about a black city and black government?," asks Jill Nelson, who chronicled her 1986 to 1990 tenure at the Post in Volunteer Slavery. "White men have traditionally held a privileged position in the world of journalism. When occasional attempts to level the playing field have been made, white men, and sometimes white women, have freaked out."Shalit calls herself a "social liberal," and insists that she "tried to be scrupulously fair" in preparing her story. "If any of the goals of affirmative action are to be preserved, affirmative action must be reformed. The only way to do that is to criticize its excesses," she wrote in a letter to The New York Times in which she defended the Post article.Scrupulous fairness and candor are not conspicuous in Shalit's CV. At Princeton University, from which she graduated in 1992, Shalit served as editor-in-chief for the Sentinel, a right-wing publication in the tradition of the Dartmouth Review and propped up with checks from a variety of reactionary foundations, including the Madison Center, an outfit founded by William Bennett. In addition to Shalit, the Sentinelwas the testing ground for Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and David Miller of U.S. News & World Report.In her letter to the Times, Shalit distanced herself from D'Souza. But as editor of the Sentinel, she published at least one article by D'Souza (in which he attacked Rigoberto Menchu, the Guatemalan Indian who later won the Nobel Peace Prize), as well as a slavish review of his first book, Illiberal Education.Shalit herself wrote essays attacking "hand wringing" multiculturalists, that favorite target of the campus Right. She also penned an odd article in which she argued that the War on Poverty had been "as clumsy, protracted and casualty-filled as Vietnam," though fortunately the national malaise resulting from the latter had been "buried ... in the sands of Kuwait."In 1992, Shalit worked for the Bush campaign, during which she became close to James Pinkerton, a big wallah on the Republican right and the man credited by The Washington Times with "putting the ['88 Bush] campaign on the trail of furloughed killer Willie Horton." After Bush's defeat by Clinton, Shalit dropped out of politics and soon bobbed up as an intern at The New Republic, where she enjoyed the patronage of Fred Barnes, now an editor at Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard.A 1994 story in Mediaweek reported Shalit's zeal to "rise early on weekday mornings to accompany [Newt] Gingrich on his daily constitutional through the tree-lined avenues of his Capitol Hill neighborhood," and also that she had been the House Speaker's dancing partner at a black-tie event held by the Cato Institute in 1994 ("a cadre of young editorial writers from The Wall Street Journal looked on, waiting to cut in").Shalit's attacks on African Americans have been unremitting. One of her earliest pieces at The New Republic was a hatchet job on Carol Moseley-Braun, the first and only black woman senator. In 1993, Shalit sped to Harvard after hearing a rumor that an article by a black law school professor had actually been written by his students. The story turned out to be false, but Shalit wrote an article anyway, under the pretense that the "pseudo-scandal" had "energized racial politics across the campus." She has also penned a foolish piece on the evils of diversity at the government level, in which she quoted neo-con Ben Wattenberg as saying that the Clinton administration was "turning into a walking billboard for a quota society."Shalit makes so many mistakes that nothing that she writes can be trusted. Among the dozens of errors in her article on the Post: in what her target calls a "nice libel suit," Shalit erroneously wrote that Roy Littlejohn, a city contractor, once "served time" for corruption; she mistakenly claimed that Jeanne Fox-Alston, the Post's director of hiring and recruiting, had formerly worked as a copy editor (one of at least 5 errors that Shalit makes in regard to job titles and job descriptions). Fox-Alston was one of Shalit's prime targets because of her alleged role in "winnowing out white males" -- that oppressed group which holds almost all of the top positions at the Post, and whose members have been selected for 123 of 330 newsroom positions over the past nine years. Shalit also falsely stated that the late Herb Denton was part of an equal employment opportunity suit filed against the Post in 1972; she charges that Graciela Sevilla, who worked at the Post between 1992 and 1995, quit "after less than a year."Even physical descriptions were beyond Shalit's ability. Kevin Merida, a Post Assistant Managing Editor, is 5'9, 175 pounds. Shalit describes him as "lanky." Fox-Alston, said Shalit, wore her hair in a "gray topknot," though her hair isn't gray and Fox-Alston says that she has never worn it in a topknot.Roughly half of the 28 former and current Post staffers Shalit talked to say she misquoted them or manipulated their remarks. In Shalit's article, Merida complains that at the Post, minority reporters have a "general sense" that their value "is not completely taken into account," which Shalit calls the "classic plight of the affirmative action baby." But Merida says that his words were yanked out of context: "I wasn't whining; I have a great gig. I was talking about what black journalists feel in general. She used the quote as a prop to further her thesis."Or consider the case of James Ragland, a black journalist described in Shalit's piece as having "quit [the Post] in frustration after the '94 mayoral campaign," and who is quoted as saying that stories "that should get in the paper without any trouble become much more difficult [because of race]. I understand the need to be sensitive, but it goes overboard."Ragland, now at the Dallas Morning News, says he "specifically and directly" told Shalit that he did not quit in frustration, but left because of a highly attractive offer from the News. "It was a very tough decision," he says about leaving the Post. Ragland says that at one point he had be en frustrated by editorial "heavyhandedness," but that a meeting was called after he had complained and problems had been resolved to his satisfaction. Ragland says that the quote Shalit attributes to him was not verbatim but patched together from different parts of the interview. He also says that in three-and-a-half years at the Post, he never saw a story killed for reasons of race.Ragland wrote a letter to The New Republic charging that the quote had been "fabricated." Shalit called him before it was published, and, after much tearful pleading and apologizing, convinced Ragland to strike the word "fabricated," and generally tone down his remarks. Then, in replying to his letter, Shalit wrote that Ragland "was quoted accurately and in context."Nor was Shalit averse to outright lies. She claimed that Jill Nelson -- supposedly "summering on the Vineyard" -- wouldn't talk to her for the story. Nelson, now in New York and working on a second book, says that she spent the summer at her apartment in Harlem, and that Shalit never called her, though her number is listed with directory assistance.Citing unnamed sources, Shalit claims that Michael Getler, the Post's deputy managing editor, was keen to hire Douglas Farah (now working as a correspondent from Central America) because he thought Farah was Latino. "Gee, Doug, everyone is just so excited at the prospect of hiring such a talented Hispanic reporter," Getler is said to have blurted out, only to be crushed when Farah replied, "I'm happy to be a Hispanic reporter if you'd like me to be, but I'm from Kansas."Both Getler and Farah deny that such a meeting took place. Prior to publication, Shalit called Getler to ask about the meeting. He told her that he had no memory of it or of ever having said anything resembling what he was quoted as saying. He relented when Shalit told him that Farah was her source. But Shalit never talked to Farah, and the latter, in a letter that The New Republic refused to publish, wrote, "I could never have said I was from Kansas, as that is simply not true" (Farah was born in Massachusetts). Shalit claimed in her article that she had unsuccessfully tried to reach Farah, but he says that she never called him at the Post's bureau in San Salvador, and that "there was not a single fact about me [in her story] that was true."At a substantive level, many of Shalit's charges are bizarre. The supposed mastermind behind the Post's plot to cover up for black politicians is Coleman -- a man who is best known to the public for having effectively killed Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign by publishing Jackson's comments about New York being "Hymietown."Shalit charges that Coleman is "socially close" to Mayor Marion Barry and other black power brokers, which results in overly sympathetic coverage -- a somewhat reckless allegation coming from Newt Gingrich's dancing partner. Of course, many D.C. journalists and publishers maintain indecently close ties with political leaders, starting with Shalit's boss, Martin Peretz, president of The New Republic and an intimate of Al Gore. The Post's former executive editor, Ben Bradlee, was a great friend of President Kennedy, while Katharine Graham is close to Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, among many other establishment figures. In Shalit's view, though, it's only black journalists whose social ties are problematic.Shalit is no doubt correct that the Post's attempts to diversify have created a backlash among white reporters and editors, which was reflected in the interviews (many of them off-the-record) she conducted with white staffers. One person complained to her that it was "a giant, giant, giant advantage" to be a minority in the newspaper business; others complained of minority colleagues that supposedly "can't write a lick" or are "dumb as a post."Shalit adroitly got the white staffers to make outrageous assertions, then presented these assertions as fact. She said that Merida had advanced from reporter to Assistant Managing Editor "in one fell swoop," and quoted one person as saying, "Have you ever heard of that happening in the entire history of the news business?" At least six staffers at the Post alone have had virtually the identical career trajectory.Another white staffer told Shalit, "Pick up the Sunday magazine these days. Every third issue, there's some black family on the cover, and then inside, a hacky sentimental story about what a wonderful, struggling black family this is."I picked up the past 60 issues of the magazine, from August of 1994 through October of 1995, and found a black family on the cover exactly once ( Dec. 11, 1994, a portrait of an "egalitarian marriage"). During this period there were also cover stories on Colin Powell; Rosa Parks, Rita Dove, U.S. poet laureate; and a black drop-out who had learned to read.I also found cover stories about a white woman who adopted a black boy from Montserrat; problems at the NAACP; a black kid who'd served time in jail; and a story by Keith Richburg, a black American who covered Africa for the Post for many years. He gave thanks to God that his ancestors had come to America as slaves because otherwise he'd have been born in the Africa, the site of "mindless waste of human life." This is not the record of a magazine shamelessly cowering to black sensitivities.The The New Republic published only a few of the outraged letters it received from Post employees over the Shalit article. Among those it didn't print was this from Warren Brown, an automotive writer."Dear Ruth:"Talk about lousy journalism! Your thinly disguised attack on affirmative action consumed 13 pages. If you had any guts, you could've done the job in one paragraph. To wit:"'We don't want any blacks, yellows, reds. Not one is as well-qualified as a white, or white derivative, to give America the news. All of this diversity stuff is taking jobs away from deserving white folks.'"Had you written that, you would've had my respect. Instead, you chose to hide your prejudice behind the veil of 'objective reporting'..."You've obviously never read a 'pre-diversity' newspaper. I did. I grew up in segregated New Orleans reading the now defunct New Orleans States-Item and the still published Times Picayune. Even as a kid, I knew what was going on in those newspapers: Black criminals were clearly identified by race. If there was no racial identification, that meant the perpetrator of the crime was white. Black people never got married, according to those newspapers. But whites got married. You could tell, because their photos and names were in the papers' social writeups. Black people never did anything well, except maybe sing and dance. White people were pretty damned near perfect. But, I suppose you call that kind of journalism 'truth.' "A final note: Shalit, who calls for candor and scrupulous fairness, ran away from discussion of her work. She refused to answer questions about the Post article, saying she was "all talked out."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.