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May 30, 2012

Asymmetrical Skepticism: The Media's Odd Reluctance to Investigate Convicted Bombers

Byron York notices a partisan double standard in the media's willingness to investigate campaign scandals. First up, an uncorroborated accusation from a convicted felon regarding a Republican candidate (and by extension his father, a former Republican President):

"Fortunate Son" attracted attention because it reported that Bush, then the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, had been arrested for possessing cocaine when he was 26 years old. Hatfield wrote that Bush's father, the future President George H.W. Bush, used his influence to cover up the incident. "George W. was arrested for possession of cocaine in 1972 but due to his father's connections, the entire record was expunged by a state judge whom the elder Bush helped get elected," Hatfield quoted a "confidential source" as saying. George W. Bush denied the story, as did George H.W. Bush. Still, even though nobody had ever heard of Hatfield, for some reporters the revelation seemed final proof of a rumor that media types had been kicking around -- and sometimes publishing -- since the beginning of Bush's campaign. The New York Times, which had looked for evidence of cocaine before, looked again. "Reporters for The New York Times, which received an advance copy of Mr. Hatfield's book last week, spent several days looking for evidence that might corroborate his account," wrote Times reporter Frank Bruni, now a liberal columnist for the paper, on October 22, 1999. "But they did not find any, and the newspaper did not publish anything about the claim." Lots of other news organizations did. When both Bushes denied the story, the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Post, Los Angeles Times, and many others reported Hatfield's revelation. The New York Times also found a way to pass on the accusation without passing on the accusation; the paper published several articles about the controversy over the book, even if it did not directly quote the book itself. Times readers certainly got the idea. The party ended when the Dallas Morning News reported Hatfield was "a felon on parole, convicted in Dallas of hiring a hit man for a failed attempt to kill his employer with a car bomb in 1987." The publisher of "Fortunate Son," St. Martin's Press, quickly withdrew the book.

York contrasts the media's willing suspension of disbelief when handling unsubstantiated accusations against a Republican candidate with their extreme skepticism when the accusations involve a Democrat candidate:

Fast-forward to today. Klein's book reports that in the spring of 2008, in the middle of the presidential campaign and in the heat of the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons, a very close friend of Barack Obama's offered Wright a payoff if Wright would remain silent until after the November election. The source of the story is Jeremiah Wright himself. Wright told it, in his own words, in a nearly three-hour recorded interview with Klein. (The author gave the audio of the entire interview to me, as well as to other reporters who asked.)

So here's the standard the media appear to be applying. Uncorroborated allegations from a convicted felon? Passed on uncritically to the public. A recorded allegation from the minister with no criminal record who presided at the President's wedding and had a decades-long relationship with the Obamas? Ignore or play down. But there's another parallel here with relevance to the Brett Kimberlin story. You see, back in 1992 Brett Kimberlin - another convicted felon involved in a bombing that injured 3 people (one so seriously that he lost his leg) - came forward with a story eerily similar to one leveled against George W. Bush and his father:

During the 1992 Presidential campaign Singer wrote a story for the New Yorker about the allegations by Brett Kimberlin, a former marijuana dealer then in prison for a series of bombings, that he had once sold marijuana to Vice President Dan Quayle. (The cartoonist Garry Trudeau was another journalist who pushed this story hard.) After signing a book contract to expand the story, Singer invested more and more time,and became frustrated by holes, inconsistencies and dead ends in Kimberlin's tale.

The deceived journalist was so disgusted that he wrote an entire book about the experience. Once again, how did the media respond? A search of the Washington Post for "Brett Kimberlin" yielded this recent entry:

We’re not sure if his reading list includes stoner bible High Times , but his choice of reading material made us recall those claims on the eve of the 1988 presidential election by Brett Kimberlin, a federal prisoner who said he sold pot to Quayle in the 1970s.

Quayle always denied the allegation--and there was never any evidence to support it--but as he well knows, you can’t spell “potatoe” without “pot.”

A similar search at the NY Times yielded numerous outraged articles about dark Republican conspiracies to silence Kimberlin. Mentions of Mark Singer's searingly honest investigation into how a journalist was conned into smearing a politician on no evidence? One. Relegated to the Arts section. Of course, there was this gem regarding the widely reported Republican plot to "silence" Kimberlin:

Brett Kimberlin, the inmate who alleged that he sold marijuana to Vice President Dan Quayle while Mr. Quayle was a law student, was not silenced by the Government just before the 1988 Presidential election. Our investigation revealed that on the order of the Bureau of Prisons' Director, NBC News was granted an on-camera interview with Mr. Kimberlin four days before the election. That interview lasted some two hours.

Contrary to the implication of your editorial, Mr. Kimberlin was not placed in a "hole." He was placed in detention for protective custody after the Bureau of Prisons' Director was informed that Mr. Kimberlin had reported that a threat had been made against him.

During that detention, Mr. Kimberlin was given access to a telephone, which he used to call a number of reporters and repeat his allegations about Mr. Quayle. In less than 24 hours, it was determined that no credible threat existed and Mr. Kimberlin was released to the general population, where he continued making calls to the media.

Of course this information only made it into the Paper of Record because a prison official felt compelled to help the Times' perennially overtaxed Corrections department.

When evaluating the reliability of scandals involving Republican candidates, the media appear to find convicted bombers to be presumptively credible sources. Investigations by journalists who actually do their job (however belatedly), on the other hand, can be safely relegated to the Arts section or - if you're the Washington Post - ignored entirely.

Posted by Cassandra at May 30, 2012 07:21 AM

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I know I should be used to it by now, as should you, but I continue to share your outrage. Obviously there's not the slightest sense among journalists that they should employ some kind of even-handed standard. It's not about the credibility of the story, it's about its usefulness to the narrative. They're hacks and whores, pain and simple.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 1, 2012 09:57 AM