November 20, 2011 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
When does a myth become a “fact”? When the myth is reported as fact on the pages of the New York Times. That hardening of myth into fact is even stronger when the supposedly liberal “paper of record” publishes a negative characterization of a liberal candidate. And if the paper piles on a series of misstatements, innuendo and Republican talking points, the myth becomes an indisputable truism.
On Saturday, the New York Times published a report by Nicholas Confessore ostensibly about Wall Street’s financial support for Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), support which Confessore documents was extraordinary even before financial reformer Elizabeth Warren challenged Brown, and which has greatly intensified since she announced her candidacy for Brown’s Senate seat.
To introduce the reader to Warren, Confessore quotes, well, an invitation to a fundraiser for Scott Brown. Seems fair:
‘Senator Brown is a free-market advocate who believes that our strength as a nation comes from the ingenuity and hard work of its people.’ … His Democratic opponent, the invitation noted, was all but certain to be the financial industry’s most prominent foe: ‘big government liberal Elizabeth Warren.’
Okay, so even though the characterization of Warren is negative from the get-go, at least we know the source here is bound to be biased. Next, Confessore gives us his own, supposedly impartial reportorial take on Warren:
… a law professor and consumer advocate who has described herself as an intellectual godmother of the Occupy Wall Street movement…. [Emphasis added here & elsewhere.]
Evidently Confessore is basing his claim that Warren “described herself as the intellectual godmother of the OWS movement” on an interview she gave Samuel Jacobs of the Daily Beast. In his original report of October 24, Jacobs wrote,
So what does she think about the Occupy Wall Street protests that are roiling the country? ‘I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do,’ she says. ‘I support what they do.’
Warren does say that her own academic work provides a foundation for the protests and that she supports the work of the protesters. She does not, however, describe herself, as Confessore claims, “as an intellectual godmother” of the movement. Maybe Confessore got that “godmother” idea from the headline on this Los Angeles Times article by James Oliphant: “GOP casts Elizabeth Warren as ‘radical’ mother of Occupy Wall Street.” Note that the headline is referring to the Republican characterization of Warren, not to her self-description. Or, more likely, Confessore stole his line from some source like the headline on this right-wing screed by the anonymous “Liberty Lover”: “Meet the Occupy Godmother – Progressive Elizabeth Warren.”
The next time Confessore’s report concentrates on Elizabeth Warren, it reads,
This month, Crossroads GPS began a half-million dollar advertising campaign seeking to tie Ms. Warren to the anti-Wall Street protesters in New York and around the country.
‘Elizabeth Warren sides with extreme left protests,’ the ad charges, where ‘protesters attack police, do drugs, and trash public parks.’
Again, we have a negative description of Warren. And this one is really negative. She is an extremist supporter of lawless riots and substance abuse! It’s true that Confessore doesn’t say that himself. Crossroads GPS does. But what or who is Crossroad GPS? Confessor does not write that Crossroads is a secretive conservative advocacy organization which has raised and spent tens of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors to elect Republicans. He does not mention that its organizers and operators are GOP political gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. In the context of the New York Times story, the reader might assume Crossroads is a Wall Street firm. But, heck, it could be a company that makes Global Positioning Systems. Or it could be a good-government advocacy group. There’s no way to know. Confessore does not in any way identify the backer of the anti-Warren campaign. But the reader finds out some organization is willing to spend half-a-million dollars warning the public that Warren is a danger to society.
In the next paragraph, Confessore writes,
In a sign of how volatile the Wall Street debate has become, Ms. Warren has since sought to distance herself from the Occupy Wall Street movement, describing it as ‘organic’ and calling for demonstrators to obey the law.
Oh. After this undefined Crossroads group slammed her as a supporter of physically attacking police, doing drugs and trashing parks, Warren “sought to distance herself” from OWS and urged protesters to obey the law? That is the only way a reader would understand Confessore’s report.
Now let’s see if his report is true. To do so, we’ll have to go back and look at what Elizabeth Warren actually told the Daily Beast’s Samuel Jacobs. As Jacobs wrote in a follow-up column published on October 26, his October 24 post “irritated the right.” I guess. In this October 26 post, Jacobs re-published Warren’s remark, this time in the context of their Q&A, which took place on October 12:
TDB: I’m curious: Is there something that is keeping you away from this movement? Is there a reason why you haven’t embraced it?
EW: Look, everybody has to follow the law. That’s the starting point. I’ve been fighting this fight for years and years now. As I see it, this is about two central points: one, this is about the lack of accountability. That Wall Street has not been held accountable for how they broke the economy. The second is a values question, a fundamental fairness around the way that markets have been distorted and families have been hurt. I’m still fighting that fight. I’m just fighting it from this angle. I’m fighting it from … I want to fight it from the floor of the United States Senate. I think that is a place to make this difference.
TDB: Is showing solidarity with them going to get in the way of that?
EW: It’s not a question of solidarity. I just don’t think that’s the right way to say it. I support what they do. I want to say this in a way that doesn’t sound puffy. I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do. That’s the right thing. There has to be multiple ways for people to get involved and take back our country. The fight that I’m fighting now is one that is directed towards the United State Senate. That’s just how I see it.
The first words out of Warren’s mouth are that “everybody has to follow the law.” She says this before she mentions Occupy’s goals of making Wall Street accountable and returning fundamental fairness to the financial system.
Then, in response to Jacobs’ next question, Warren denies that she has “showed solidarity” with Occupy Wall Street. Instead, she says, her work helped provide a foundation for those goals she mentioned in answer to the first question – the answer she began by emphasizing the importance of obeying the law.
The sequence of Warren’s remarks is exactly the opposite of the New York Times‘ claim. Confessore reported that Warren had only distanced herself from OWS after the right criticized her. But in fact she denied solidarity with OWS and spoke out against law-breaking before she even mentioned that she shared OWS’s goals of accountability and fairness. Confessore got it backwards.
Worse, his article never mentions what it was about Occupy that Warren said she supported. As far as the reader can tell from Confessore’s report, Warren supports violent riots, destruction of public property and drug abuse. Confessore never reveals that what Warren said she had in common with Occupy Wall Street were their aims to hold Wall Street accountable for the financial meltdown and return fairness to the market economy. Confessore leaves the reader with the misapprehension of Warren that her opponents want the public to believe: that she’s a pro-violence, radical leftist. But her published remarks show the opposite to be the case: she supports a free and fair market economy. That, she says, is what she’s been “fighting for, for years.” Pretty conventional. And hardly controversial – unless you’re a Wall Street financier seeking to profit from lack of accountability and unfair advantages.
(The article does include a statement from Mindy Myers, Warren’s campaign manager, but the statement does not refute the content of the Crossroads ad or Confessore’s inaccurate timeline.)
So here’s a question: Who is the New York Times‘ fact-checker? Karl Rove? Maybe the Times editors think to be “fair and balanced” in a report that theoretically centers on Scott Brown’s ties to Wall Street, they should slam his opponent, too. Maybe that’s their new definition of “objectivity.” But accuracy should win out over misstatements, innuendo and the other side’s talking points. Today at the New York Times, accuracy lost.
Nicholas Confessore’s story, as it relates to Elizabeth Warren, is not a news report. It is not news analysis. And since it is not accurate, at least in regard to Warren, it is not even suitable op-ed material. It’s yellow journalism.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com and until recently was a popular commenter on New York Times op-ed columns. A short time ago, she began boycotting theTimes because of a change in Times policies that stratifies “trusted” and “mistrusted” commenters.