2008 election, 2012 election, birtherism, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Im-Politic, Jim Asher, Mark Penn, McClatchy, Newsweek, Obama, Politico, Sidney Blumenthal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME
We now have a foolproof test of whether the Mainstream Media deserves even a smidgeon of trust from readers and viewers for coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign: See how a news organization has reported – and whether it starts to report – that one of Hillary Clinton’s closest confidants is now credibly accused of spreading in 2008 the rumor that President Obama was born overseas (and therefore was never eligible according to the U.S. Constitution to serve in the Oval Office).
Before fans of the Democratic presidential nominee and/or haters of her Republican rival Donald Trump become apoplectic at reading this, please keep in mind that posing the above challenge does not mean that I endorse Trump for president, that I think he’s a good person, or that I don’t recognize his own prominent role in pushing the so-called “birther” story. Nor does this position of mine mean that I view as fact the claim about Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal. (For the record, he has called it “false. Period.”)
What it does mean is that I’m arguing that the country’s leading sources of information about the world’s most important political event – a U.S. presidential election – have now been presented with a claim from an entirely respectable source (one of their own!) that one of the earliest proponents of the birther story (which of course has been denied by the president himself and indignantly by former Secretary Clinton) was a long-time associate of the Democratic nominee. And so far, the verdict is clear: Much of the Mainstream Media has flunked badly.
Let’s leave out opinion columns and unsigned editorials, since they’re not supposed to be objective accounts of events. Let’s even leave out so-called “news analyses” – which although they tend to appear in the news sections of publications and websites, are at least labeled as something other than supposedly straight reporting. And let’s quickly review what we know for sure.
Yesterday on Twitter, a former head of the McClatchy newspaper chain’s Washington, D.C. Bureau stated that Blumenthal had told him “in person” during the 2008 Democratic primaries that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya. Then-Senator Clinton was the future president’s opponent for that year’s Democratic nomination in the White House race. McClatchy is a national newspaper chain that publishes major dailies in cities including Miami, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; and Kansas City, Missouri.
As for Blumenthal, this lengthy account, among others, should make clear that his intimate association with both Clintons stretches back several decades. Indeed, Hillary Clinton intended to name him as one of her senior aides at the State Department. And even though the new Obama administration quickly scotched the idea, the new Secretary and Blumenthal stayed in continual touch during her tenure – as so many hundred of her released emails show. His access, in fact, was so good that 24 of them contained information that was classified at the time as confidential or secret – and still is. (See the previous linked item.)
So the contention by former McClatchy newsman Jim Asher was undeniably important. In a subsequent email to his former colleagues, he elaborated:
“Mr. Blumenthal and I met together in my office and he strongly urged me to investigate the exact place of President Obama’s birth, which he suggested was in Kenya. We assigned a reporter to go to Kenya, and that reporter determined that the allegation was false.
“At the time of Mr. Blumenthal’s conversation with me, there had been a few news articles published in various outlets reporting on rumors about Obama’s birthplace. While Mr. Blumenthal offered no concrete proof of Obama’s Kenyan birth, I felt that, as journalists, we had a responsibility to determine whether or not those rumors were true. They were not.”
So how did The New York Times, which has long fancied itself the world’s “newspaper of record,” deal with this development? It didn’t. The paper’s main article about the latest birther-related developments contained no mention of the Blumenthal. And the only reference to the 2008 Clinton campaign was this brief paragraph:
“During the 2008 Democratic contest, a senior strategist for Mrs. Clinton at one point pondered, in an internal memo that was later leaked, the ways in which Mr. Obama’s personal background differed from those of many Americans.”
(Just FYI, the senior strategist in question – pollster Mark Penn – was really senior, and also a leading Clinton adviser for many years.)
The Washington Post‘s main news story also ignored Blumenthal’s reported actions, though it did mention the Penn memo – which it said was written in 2007 (i.e., incredibly early in the 2008 campaign). In addition, the Post quoted by name a then-top Clinton campaign official’s for-attribution claim that a volunteer in Iowa was let go for a similar suggestion.
The newspaper Politico doesn’t have the national reach of The Times or the Post, but it is considered must-reading by the intertwined political-media-and policy establishments in Washington. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with this publication where hard news ends and that murky news analysis category begins. But three of its posts on the alleged Clinton campaign role in fostering birtherism omitted any mention of the Blumenthal-related charges, too. They’re found here, here, and here.
Moreover, here’s what could be more disturbing: the apparent failure of any Mainstream Media types to investigate Asher’s charger further, rather than simply include Blumenthal’s denial in the accounts that do mention him, and leave the impression that we’re left with an intriguing but ultimately unresolvable “He said, he said” situation.
For Blumenthal is well known throughout the national political press corps, and it’s very difficult to believe that McClatchy was the only news organization to which he attempted to sell his own birther insinuation. Indeed, it’s almost as difficult as believing that Blumenthal acted in 2008 without Clinton’s knowledge.
As a result, the major news organizations still have a chance to redeem themselves. First, their reporters could directly ask Clinton about Blumenthal’s actions. Second, they could ask each other whether or not they were contacted by Blumenthal. I’ll certainly be watching to see if the press is interested in improving its so-far failing grade. If you’re really interested in the health of our democracy, whatever your political leanings, you should be, too.