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He Said/He Said – Fact-Free Reporting at the New York Times

January 24, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Gingrich 2012

By Marie Burns:

Four New York Times reporters worked on yesterday’s front-page story about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich “trading jabs” as they geared up for the Florida GOP presidential primary election. Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg got the byline, and Susan Saulny and Nicholas Confessore contributed to the report. In the report, they write,

Mr. Romney’s campaign also indicated that it would continue pressing Mr. Gingrich to share what it maintains are hundreds if not thousands of pages of details relating to the ethics committee investigation, when Mr. Gingrich was accused of inappropriately claiming tax-exempt status for a class he taught at Kennesaw State University in Georgia; the panel alleged that the course he ran had partisan, political aims of pushing his economic platform.

Speaking on CNN on Sunday, Mr. Gingrich said the $300,000 he paid after the investigation was actually a reimbursement of the costs. He said all 1,300 pages of the ethics report were online.

So we have a fact in dispute: “hundreds if not thousands of pages of detail relating to the ethics committee investigation” which, on the one hand, Romney’s campaign has said Gingrich would not “share”; that is, he would not release them to the public. Gingrich, on the other hand, maintains that “all 1,300 pages of the ethics report are online.” Greg Sargent of the Washington Post wrote,

It’s still hard to understand what the Romney camp means by this. The report is already up on line right here. The Times account treats this as a he-said-she-said argument, noting that Gingrich ‘said’ the report is online already. But it is online already. Why is this a matter for debate?

After listening to a clip of Romney himself complaining that Gingrich would not release the details of the ethics report, I thought Sargent got it wrong. Sargent and I had an e-mail exchange about it, and he set me straight. Yet here’s Romney himself – not his “campaign” – speaking a few days ago in South Carolina:

He [Gingrich] was pushed out of the House by his fellow members. I think over 80 percent of Republican congressman voted to reprimand the speaker of the House. First time in history. And Nancy Pelosi has the full record of that ethics investigation. You know it’s going to get out before the general election. Sure, he ought to get it out now.

That video clip of Romney talking to voters appeared in the CNN report that the New York Times reporters cited in their article. So the reporters certainly had access to it. The Times report suggests it is Romney’s campaign staff who are pressing for release of documents. They don’t tell us that the candidate himself has made the claim that Gingrich was withholding “the full record.”

Let’s look at the backstory on this. In early December, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo: “One of these days we’ll have a conversation about Newt Gingrich. I know a lot about him. I served on the investigative committee that investigated him, four of us locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year. A thousand pages of his stuff.” [Emphasis added.]

Beutler himself created the confusion in his report. He wrote that Pelosi “wouldn’t go further. ‘Not right here,’ Pelosi joked. ‘When the time’s right.’” Then Beutler added, “Which is to say that if Gingrich somehow clinches the nomination, there’s one hell of an oppo dump coming.” That suggested to me, and to many others, that Pelosi would release – dump – a load of previously undisclosed incriminating evidence against Gingrich “when the time was right.”

Gingrich went ballistic – but with a caveat:

If she’s suggesting she’s going to use material that she developed when she was in the ethics committee – that is a fundamental violation of the rules of the House and would I hope that members would immediately file charges against her the second she does. And I think what she said to you today should explain a great deal about what happened in the ethics process when Nancy Pelosi was at the heart of it and is now prepared to totally abuse the House process.

Gingrich knew what documents Pelosi was talking about. After all, the ethics investigation was one of the primary rationales for his ouster from the House. I’m sure he’s stewed about it for years. That’s what the “if” caveat in his remarks was about. He knew what Pelosi meant, but Beutler’s post had given the misimpression that Pelosi meant something else. The confusion gave Gingrich the opportunity to pounce. Republicans have made Nancy Pelosi into a caricature of a villainous woman. Gingrich used the incident to demonstrate how Cruella di Pelosi had a long history of victimizing him. Gingrich said,

I think it tells you how capriciously political that committee was, that she was on it. It tells you how tainted the outcome was, that she was on it. And I think what she said to you today should explain a great deal about what happened in the ethics process when Nancy Pelosi was at the heart of it and is now prepared to totally abuse the House process.

In a Fox “News” interview conducted two days after Beutler publicized Pelosi’s remarks, Gingrich called the old ethics investigation “a Nancy Pelosi-driven effort.” (Both FactCheck.org and Media Matters amply demonstrated that Gingrich’s efforts to blame Pelosi and “capricious politics” didn’t pass the laugh test. Pelosi was a junior member of the House in 1995-96 when the committee investigated Gingrich, and the chair of the committee was a Republican. The vote out of the bipartisan committee [4 members from each party] was 7-1 to accept the negotiated agreement, and the vote in the full, Republican-dominated House was “395-28 in favor of the punishment.”)

Pelosi never intended to dump any documents, and she made that clear immediately. Her clarification was widely-reported. Here’s Lucy Madison of CBS News reporting 24 hours after Beutler published his post:

Pelosi clarified Monday that the ‘conversation’ she wants to have about her knowledge of Newt Gingrich’s past will be based on information already in the public record – not anything confidential she learned while investigating the former House Speaker during a year-long ethics investigation into his actions…. In a statement Monday, Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill told Hotsheet the minority leader was ‘clearly referring to the extensive amount of information that is in the public record,’ when she made the statement – ‘including the comprehensive committee report with which the public may not be fully aware.’

The “details” Mitt Romney says he wants Gingrich to “share” are here. As Newt said, they were already online. Let me count the pages: 1,280. Because Pelosi had referred to “a thousand pages of his stuff” in her original remarks to Beutler, anyone familiar with the investigation – including Newt Gingrich of course – knew that she meant the committee report. Pelosi said a thousand, Gingrich said 1,300. The online report is the same “stuff” Pelosi was talking about in early December. I have no doubt Mitt Romney’s oppo research team long ago went over all 1,280 pages with a fine-toothed comb. If Willard were really interested in getting some other committee documents released he could call on Nancy Johnson, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, who chaired the Gingrich ethics investigation. Willard probably knows Johnson personally from his days as moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts – that state right next-door to the one moderate Republican Rep. Johnson represented. Gov. Romney and Rep. Johnson held office simultaneously.

When Mitt Romney and his campaign tell voters that Nancy Pelosi is holding reams of evidence against Gingrich which Gingrich will not release, they are not telling the truth. When Romney tells voters “You know it’s going to get out before the general election,” he is attempting to make voters believe that there is this boatload of undisclosed evidence against Gingrich that Nancy Pelosi would give the Obama campaign, evidence that would destroy candidate Gingrich should he become the GOP nominee. That’s not true, either. The New York Times reporters – since they raised the issue in their report – had a duty to tell the readers that Romney was blowing smoke when he made those charges.

That’s not the end of it. The Times reporters made it worse. Not content to let Romney and his campaign off the hook for claiming Gingrich wouldn’t release documents available to anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection, the reporters let Newt get away with a whopper, too. They write, “Speaking on CNN on Sunday, Mr. Gingrich said the $300,000 he paid after the investigation was actually a reimbursement of the costs.” Though the Times report does not quote him, Gingrich said flat-out in his interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, “I was not fined.”

That’s nonsense. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the Times report. The reporters could have, at the very least, directed readers to this PolitiFact analysis, which determined, in part,

Gingrich accepted what amounted to a negotiated plea bargain. He agreed to admit one count of wrongdoing and pay $300,000, which was the estimated cost of the investigation. If he didn’t believe in the fairness of the process, he could have refused to admit wrongdoing and taken his chances on the House floor, where he led a sizable majority.

In another analysis, PolitiFact rated as true this pro-Romney SuperPac claim: “Newt has a ton of baggage. He was fined $300,000 for ethics violations….” [Emphasis added.] The penalty Gingrich agreed to pay was equal to the ethics committee’s estimated additional costs incurred as a result of Gingrich’s making false statements to the committee. (The Washington Post has links to contemporaneous reports on the findings of the ethics committee’s special counsel, on committee negotiations and on the House vote here.) FactCheck.org is a little more generous to Gingrich, but not much:

It’s also true that Gingrich had to pay $300,000 to settle the charges against him. He still denies that it was a ‘fine,’ and technically he’s correct: The Ethics Committee report (page 94) didn’t call it a fine, but rather a ‘payment reimbursing the House for some of the costs of the investigation.’ But whether the $300,000 was a ‘fine,’ or just a required ‘payment,’ is, shall we say, a rather fine distinction.

As PolitiFact emphasized, the penalty was a negotiated settlement. You can bet describing the fine as a “reimbursement” was a major negotiating point. Calling Gingrich’s penalty a “reimbursement” for the extra costs the committee incurred as a result of his lying to the committee is like calling a traffic ticket a “reimbursement” to the municipality for the extra costs the city incurs in enforcing its traffic laws. In actual English, Gingrich received a fine, not a reimbursement of the cost of the investigation. If some group brought false charges against you, would you pay them $300,000 for their efforts to smear you? Of course not.

I should add that Candy Crowley is a terrible interviewer. Gingrich made several fact-challenged statements during the course of the interview, and Crowley’s response, each time, was “Okay.” Asked and answered. Why not just let Gingrich read a prepared statement or make a stump speech? What’s the point of an interview if the interviewer doesn’t challenge a politician’s questionable or baseless remarks? This kind of friendly interview does more harm than good. It allows a politician to put a story into the air, and if s/he gets to repeat it often enough, the falsehood is bound to find its way into later news reports. A little more than 24 hours later, Michael O’Brien of NBC, in a report on last night’s GOP debate, writes about “… Romney’s demand that Gingrich release records related to … a 1997 investigation into Gingrich during his speakership that resulted in an official House reprimand and a $300,000 bill to reimburse investigatory costs.” [Emphasis added.] That didn’t take long. “Thank you, Candy Crowley. Love, Newt.”

Less than two weeks ago, New York Times public editor Art Brisbane caused a media-wide mini-tsunami when he asked readers if they thought “news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the Times quickly responded, “Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists. We do it every day….” Not every day, Ms. Abramson. In a column for the New York Times eXaminer, I demonstrated that New York Times reporters did not regularly fact-check “newsmakers’ assertions” and I predicted that would not change. Sure enough, it’s still business as usual at the New York Times.

Fact-checking at the Times remains optional, even when four reporters are on a front-page story and the newsmakers are the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.


Marie Burns blogs at
RealityChex.com

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