Subject Says Ron Fournier Mischaracterized an Old Interview

Yesterday, National Journal published a piece by Ron Fournier titled "Why (and How) Romney is Playing the Race Card." Fournier's story repurposes an old interview with two white Michigan voters in order to reveal the supposed racial subtext in their language. But Benson Brundage, one of the two men mentioned in the story, accuses Fournier of mischaracterizing the discussion and putting words in his mouth that he neither said nor meant. 

In fact, Benson says he went out of his way to make clear to Fournier at the time that he was not talking about minorities.

Fournier's opening line, "A few months ago, I returned to my hometown of Detroit..." isn't accurate, not unless 11 months count as "a few." The article for which Fournier originally did this interview was published on October 6th last year. You can tell, because identical quotes appear in both pieces, though they are used to make different points. Obviously, last October was months before the primaries, meaning Brundage and Miller were not commenting about the election or with Mitt Romney's ads in mind. "He's taking an article that he wrote back in October and he's linking it to what Mitt Romney is doing now," Benson told me. 

But rather than explain what he's doing, Fournier leaves it to readers to wade through his past work to figure it out.

The real core of Fournier's piece is his translations of what his subjects said into what, he claims, they really meant. This is hardly a new idea, though it is not one usually associated with solid journalism. Decades ago MAD Magazine used to run ad parodies in which messages for familiar products were deconstructed into simple, often cynical language. It was the kind of pseudo-intellectual pose the magazine was known for, one which appeals to eleven-year-olds of every generation. Fournier essentially revives the MAD gimmick in yesterday's piece to "crack the code" behind the plain language used in the interview:

I share this story to crack the code – the subtle language of distrust and prejudice that whites use to communicate deep-set fears, and that cynical politicians translate into votes. Translating Miller and Benson:

“Subsidization” = Welfare

“Generational Apathy” = Lazy

“They Slept All Day” = Blacks Sleep All Day

“I Feel Like a Fool” = I’m Mad As Hell

"There's no code," Benson told me from his home in Michigan, "None of this was said by Dave and I. All of this code is his code." 

Perhaps it's time to reconsider the journalistic value of literally putting words in someone's mouth? Fournier does the same trick with the text of Romney's welfare ad a bit later in the article, and it's these translations that make up the tent poles of his piece. Remove them and all Fournier has to offer are whispers from a few unnamed sources.

For his part, Benson Brundage was not happy at being characterized as a bigot and a rude one at that. He notes, for starters, that he did not grab anything out of Fournier's hands as claimed in the piece. He "politely" asked if he could see the survey results and Fournier handed them to him. It's a minor point, but also the kind of thing a writer can use to characterize an interview subject. In this case, Fournier seems determined to make Brundage look bad.

As Benson recalls it, the "direction he [Fournier] was heading in was how blacks view the American dream vs. whites." Indeed, that is the subject of the previous article. And because he and Miller were well aware they were discussing a racially tinged topic he says they both "worked overtime to make it clear that we were not talking about Blacks or Latinos." In order to make this clear, Benson says he used Lake County, an area of northern Michigan which is overwhelmingly white (85 percent according to Wikipedia) as an example during the discussion. Benson told Fournier that some people stay busy in Lake county during the summer tourism season, then file for unemployment during the winter and "sleep all day." As a small government conservative, this is the kind of "subsidization" Benson says has a problem with.

Benson was especially upset by the paragraph that comes immediately after the "translation" above. Fournier writes:

Please understand that Miller and working-class whites like him have reason to be angry and cynical. First, life is tough and getting tougher for the shrinking middle class, regardless of race. Second, as the National Journal reported in the story involving Miller a year ago, minorities are steadily pushing their way into the middle class, which was once the province of whites.

While Benson isn't mentioned by name, the flow of the article and the catchphrase "working-class whites like him" clearly includes him. But the idea that he is angry about the growth of a minority middle-class did not sit well with Benson. 

"I am not angry when minorities make their way into the middle class and that's what this paragraph implies," he told me. "I want nothing more than for minorities to make their way into the middle-class and beyond. And [Fournier] mischaracterized that."

At base, Benson disagrees that his (or Miller's) comments had any racial subtext. "There was nothing subtle about the language and nothing I said communicated distrust or prejudice toward minorities. My language communicated distrust and prejudice against the government's motives in perpetuating these programs." 

Like a lot of conservatives, Benson sees an underlying transaction wherein Democrats promise benefits in return for votes. The problem is that the system is unsustainable, something that cities and states across the country have been realizing recently.

As the title of Fournier's article suggests, he sets out to explain the Romney campaign's racial subtext. But to get there he used some highly questionable tactics and, according to Benson, mischaracterized an 11-month-old interview on a somewhat different topic. By yesterday afternoon, Greg Sargent was hoping that Fournier's reputation would help "make this a safer topic among some of the top-shelf commentator and journalist types." 

Based on my discussion with Benson Brundage, those commentators and journalists should probably think twice about climbing on this particular bandwagon.


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