The Politico's Reporting Problems

The Politico shouldn't stop apologizing yet.

On March 22, the nascent Beltway operation made news for all the wrong reasons when its online report erroneously announced that former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) was going to suspend his presidential campaign, if not drop out completely, because his wife had suffered a cancer relapse. The embarrassing gaffe made headlines, and The Politico quickly apologized for its sloppy work.

Based on recent offerings though, I don't think the much-hyped Beltway launch is finished handing out mea culpas -- The Politico ought to apologize to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and to Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) for a series of dishonest and misleading hit pieces this month that were every bit as egregious as the Edwards whiff. The Richardson

piece suggested he was being hounded about questions regarding his "behavior with women," and The Politico announced that Obama had a "Jewish problem."

That's right, a Baby Boomer Democratic governor with a habit for chasing skirts and a prominent black Democrat with a strained relationship with Jewish voters. Both stereotypes are extremely damaging and both in this case were created -- concocted, really -- by The Politico (much like the Edwards story), since neither the Richardson nor Obama accusation could be substantiated by The Politico in any way that reflected the norms of mainstream journalism.

The reporting simply reinforced the notion that Politico plays loose with the facts when dealing with Democratic candidates. I can't find similar examples of The Politico manufacturing phony controversies about Republican candidates. And honestly, I don't want it to. I just want Politico to practice sound journalism.

On March 7, The Politico published a critique of the Beltway daily ("Is Politico a GOP Shill?") by Simon Maloy of Media Matters for America. Maloy noted that it was The Politico's editor, John Harris, who had coined the misleading phrase "slow bleed," to describe House Democrats' strategy for the war in Iraq; a loaded and damning phrase the GOP then quickly co-opted.

Maloy also noted that in general Politico has been generous in printing Republican talking points in its news articles and columns. (See Monday's piece regarding the U.S. attorney purge for a perfect example of how pure GOP spin passes for analysis at Politico.) Maloy's essay sparked an extended back-and-forth among The Politico's editors and writers. (Maloy's piece ran approximately 900 words; The Politico's rebuttal was nearly 2,400 words.) While acknowledging some missteps, Politico staffers seemed to take comfort in the fact that because Media Matters identifies itself as a progressive organization, its analysis and criticism can be dismissed as "partisan" attacks. The Politico proudly announced it was free of any bias. (Although Maloy never alleged that Politico suffered from "bias.")

So before Politico bosses wave off another assessment by someone at Media Matters, let's be clear -- this critique has nothing to do with bias or partisanship. This critique revolves around facts. In other words, The Politico does not have a bias problem. The Politico has a reporting problem.

On March 8, The Politico's Ben Smith wrote a provocative piece about Richardson, a Democratic presidential hopeful. "Richardson Defense on Character Raises Questions," read the headline (later shortened to "Richardson Defense Raises Questions"), which was The Politico's featured article that day online. The article's first sentence was quite ominous: "New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's 2008 presidential campaign has been burdened by unusually public discussion about his behavior with women."

Indeed, the article stressed that "many Democrats say gossip about Richardson's personal behavior is an important factor keeping an exceptionally well-credentialed politician … from entering the top tier of 2008 candidates." The article suggested the Richardson camp might have trouble "shutting down speculation" about his personal behavior.

No candidate, and certainly no Democratic candidate in the wake of womanizing allegations made against former President Bill Clinton, wants to see that kind of press coverage during a campaign. And the fact that the discussion about "his behavior with women" had been "unusually public" only made things worse. If true, it spelled real trouble for a candidate already struggling to break out of the lower tier.

But was The Politico's premise accurate? Had there been "unusually public discussion" about Richardson's behavior with women, and had it been a burden on his 2008 campaign?

The Politico, pointing to its first, and presumably best, piece of evidence that Richardson was facing scrutiny, noted, "The lieutenant governor of New Mexico, Diane Denish was quoted in the Albuquerque Journal saying she avoids standing or sitting near Richardson because of his physical manner, which she said was not improper but was 'annoying.' The governor, she said, 'pinches my neck. He touches my hip, my thigh, sort of the side of my leg.' "

Here's the second piece of evidence from The Politico: "On repeated occasions, Richardson has been pressed by reporters or Democratic activists on whether his personal conduct can withstand public scrutiny."

Let's take the second one first. Despite the fact that Richardson has reportedly been "pressed" on "repeated occasions"
from two groups -- activists and journalists -- The Politico cited only a single instance when a Democratic activist posted speculation online about Richardson. The Politico failed to cite a single time any reporter did the same, which undercut the article's implication that "public" questions about Richards were coming fast and furious.

As for the curious quotes from Denish, readers who tracked down the original Albuquerque Journal article in which they first appeared would have learned several important facts. First, the newspaper reported high up in the piece that Denish considered Richardson's behavior to be "joking" and "joshing," which undercut The Politico's premise, and certainly its insinuation, that Richardson's behavior was inappropriately sexual.

Second, and more important, the Albuquerque Journal article was published 15 months ago, on December 17, 2005, or 13 months before Richardson announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. That severely undercut The Politico's premise that Richardson's "2008 presidential campaign" was being burdened by questions about his behavior, when in fact the highlighted quotes pre-dated his presidential campaign by almost a year. (Note that The Politico didn't mention until the 17th paragraph of its story that Denish's quote were quite dated.)

Bottom line: The highly suggestive Politico piece worked overtime implying Richardson has a behavioral problem (and more) with women. The allegation was supported by almost no facts.

In search of Obama's Jewish Problem

Five days after publishing the Richardson misadventure, Ben Smith, who was also responsible for the botched Edwards report, wrote an even more egregious, misleading piece online; "Obama's Jewish Problem." Leaning on lots of innuendo, The Politico announced:
It's a hard thing to pin down, Barack Obama's Jewish problem. But in the halls of the AIPAC Policy Conference yesterday, there was no denying that the members of the pro-Israel group -- largely Democrats, though they tilt right -- feel a real, if kind of inchoate, skepticism about the Illinois senator.
First, notice that article was not about Obama's alleged problem with Jewish voters (as the headline suggests), but it was about Obama's alleged problem with Jewish voters who attended a conference sponsored by the pro-Israel (and pro-war) group AIPAC. While unquestionably a powerful force within the Beltway, The Politico's implicit suggestion that AIPAC members reflect a larger Jewish concern about Obama was a misleading one.

Secondly, The Politico couldn't even confirm AIPAC had a problem with Obama because the only AIPAC rep quoted in the article actually supported Obama.

By way of explanation, Smith insisted that, "Several AIPAC attendees told me that while Obama is 'saying the right things,' they don't think his heart is in it." Yet if the feeling were so pervasive, why didn't The Politico quote even a single AIPAC attendee making that allegation about Obama? Instead, The Politico reported the anti-Obama "sentiment" had been "circulating largely on private email lists."

Isn't rather obvious that in today's digital age, virtually any "sentiment" about any candidate can be found circulating on private emails lists? Yet that doesn't mean that the sentiment qualifies as news.

Meanwhile, the lone news hook for the Politico piece was that a single "Iowa Democrat and AIPAC member" had written a letter to Obama asking the candidate to clarify comments he'd made about Palestinian suffering.

Every working journalist knows it takes three to make a trend. But at The Politico, apparently one will do. As an annoyed reader posted in The Politico's comment section, "You're attempting to create a controversy where none exists. One letter from a member of AIPAC asking for clarification of a comment is NOT a 'Jewish Problem.' " Indeed, if a lone activist lawyer who was a member of the NAACP wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asking for clarification on his remarks regarding civil rights and then released it to the press, would The Politico announce "McCain's Black Problem"?

Also, note that The Politico's take-away from an AIPAC conference about Obama having a "Jewish problem" was not echoed elsewhere in the media. For instance, reporting from an AIPAC summit in Chicago this month, Shmuel Rosner, U.S. correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, noted that Obama "sounded as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Giuliani. At least rhetorically, Obama passed any test anyone might have wanted him to pass. So, he is pro-Israel. Period."

Even Marty Peretz, the stridently pro-Israeli editor-in-chief of The New Republic praised Obama's speech at AIPAC: "I believe he must have satisfied (nearly) all of those who had been skeptical of his grasp of the Israeli conundrum. Very much satisfied them. Me, included. (His was an extremely sophisticated analysis.)"

Nonetheless, The Politico's Smith returned to the topic on March 19 with an article headlined "Obama Working to Boost Jewish Support" -- later changed to "Obama's Rhetoric Chills Some Supporters of Israel." (At least the offensive "Jewish Problem" wording has been exised.) Smith reported that the Obama camp was trying to "tamp down concerns among Democratic supporters," stressing the effort, "reflects a frustration that, despite Obama's staunch support of the Israeli government in his words and votes, he has been dogged by questions from some of the most vocal and focused representatives of the pro-Israel community." [Emphasis added.]

The article then promptly failed to confirm in any way that the Obama campaign was, in fact, concerned or frustrated by a supposed lack of Jewish support. (Readers simply had to take The Politico's word for that.) As for the "representatives" who are questioning Obama's commitment to Israel? The Politico quoted a representative of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, a representative of the right-wing pro-Israel group Norpac, and an editor for the right-wing New York Post. (A New York Post editor? Isn't that like writing an article about Republican Mitt Romney trying to woo conservative Christians and then quoting the editor of The Nation insisting that Romney wasn't getting the job done?)

In other words, in an article about Obama's alleged struggle to win over Jewish voters for the Democratic primaries, The Politico quoted right-wing commentators who were largely irrelevant to the Democratic primary process.

Keep in mind that when responding to Media Matters' complaint three weeks ago, Smith largely dismissed Simon Maloy's critique of The Politico, insisting that there were holes in his argument. "You didn't get a sense there was an editor standing over his shoulder saying, "Are you sure that's true? Prove it …" Smith wrote.

It's ironic, because reading The Politico's hollow allegations about Richardson's women problem and Obama's Jewish problem, you certainly never got the sense an editor was standing over anyone's shoulder saying, "Are you sure that's true? Prove it."

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