Newsweek's David A. Graham, Bill O'Reilly and Me

Last week, a post I wrote for Big Journalism which, unbeknownst to me, possibly inspired Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points Memo later that evening. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t notice it at the time. I watch Bill and the rest of the Fox guys when I can, but with three kids in the house it’s not every day. In any case, my post and Bill’s memo were strongly worded critiques of this David A. Graham piece for Newsweek in which he downplayed the New Black Panther story. Last Friday, Graham issued a somewhat belated response to Bill and me (okay, I admit, I like saying that). Here’s how his piece opens:

Last week, I found myself in the crosshairs of conservative ire because a news analysis I wrote didn’t take the allegations of voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party story as seriously as conservatives felt it should.

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Right off the bat we’ve shifted the goalposts. My critique was based on Graham’s biased handling of the material, in particular his use of the hacks and non-entities at Media Matters as a primary source, as well as his failure to get even Media Matters’ highly spun version of the story straight. Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

That second link-the one about questionable testimony-goes right back to Media Matters. David A. Graham summarizes MM’s lengthy hit piece by saying, “there are doubts about whether he was actually present for the incidents he described.” Well, no, there are not doubts about that at all. In his interview with Megyn Kelly (which Media Matters transcribes), [J. Christian] Adams plainly states that he wasn’t there…

That’s not a critique of Graham’s news judgment; it’s a critique of his facts. Rather than address the problem directly or issue a correction, he simply revises his original claim in the new piece:

In an interview with Fox’s Kelly…Adams admitted that he had not personally witnessed many of the events he described…

That’s what it should have said the first time. But beyond the one factual error there is the obvious bias problem. In his follow up, Graham describes the initial piece as “news analysis.” But as O’Reilly and I both noted, there’s nothing on the page labeling it as such. In fact, in the new piece, Graham describes himself as a “Newsweek reporter.” And, to his credit, the new version seems more like an attempt to report rather than rely on Media Matters spin. And yet, when we get down to the end of the piece, it seems to become something else:

O’Reilly spent three minutes discussing not the substance of my story, but instead attacking my age and showing five-year-old pictures of me he apparently found on the Internet. (Hi Bill! You might want to check your facts, too. If you do another segment on me, I’m 23, not 24, and I’d be happy to send you a more recent photograph).

I’m sure that was upsetting, but is this analysis again or is Graham writing news as he implied? It’s really difficult to tell and that’s the problem, albeit probably not something under Graham’s control. Newsweek‘s editors should label the piece to reflect the type of content it purports to be. That way readers know whether they’re getting a down-the-middle take or, as in the earlier piece, Media Matters’ take.

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There are more problems of which I’ll note two. Graham opens paragraph two with:

According to the more sensational takes circulating in conservative media and legal circles, the story goes this way…

Hold up just a minute. Isn’t “the more sensational takes circulating in conservative media” pretty vague? Circulating where and circulated by whom? This seems like hand waving designed to obscure the fact that the sites he originally linked (Hot Air and Michelle Malkin) weren’t offering sensationalism but substance (more on that below).

Also, Graham no longer tries to loosely associate this situation with the ACORN story. It was the core of his previous piece, i.e. that both cases were discredited. But as I noted in my post on Big Journalism, the ACORN story has not been discredited according to the New York Times public editor. Once again, Graham doesn’t issue a correction; he just drops the matter without comment.

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Finally, since Graham wants us to focus on the facts of the case, let’s address them. Here’s the bulk of his summary:

First, though, the undisputed facts: On Nov. 4, 2008, Republican poll watchers spotted two members of the New Black Panther Party–a fringe black supremacist group not affiliated with its 1960s namesake–outside a Philadelphia polling station in a predominantly black neighborhood. One was carrying a billy club.

So far, so good. My initial critique noted that Graham didn’t embed the video. At least this time he describes what happened a bit more carefully.

Police were summoned and escorted the men away (one was caught on video shouting racist slurs as he left), although no voters reported having been intimidated (Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, a lawyer who has made the case a personal cause célèbre, has tried to hedge this by arguing that a poll watcher was intimidated, although this obviously isn’t the same thing).

Here’s our first problem, and it’s a big one. There were actually two poll watchers who were intimidated. One was Chris Hill, who testified in the case, and the other was a poll watcher whom he described as “visibly upset” because he’d been called a “race traitor.” In addition, Mr. Hill testified as follows (see page 50):

People were put off when — there were a couple of people that walked up, couple of people that drove up, and they would come to a screeching halt because it’s not something you expect to see in front of a polling place. As I was standing on the corner, I had two older ladies and an older gentleman stop right next to me, ask what was going on. I said, “Truthfully, we don’t really know. All we know is there’s two Black Panthers here.” And the lady said, “Well, we’ll just come back.” And so, they walked away. I didn’t see anybody other than them leave, but I did see those three leave.

That’s eyewitness testimony of voter intimidation. Bartle Bull, former publisher of the Village Voice, testified immediately after Mr. Hill and corroborated his testimony on the point (page 56):

Our poll watchers were driven out of the polls in five or six places I went to. And while we were examining those situations, we had a call on the radio — on the cell phone, excuse me, saying that on — on — at Fairmount Street, there were two Black Panthers intimidating voters and poll watchers, as you just heard. [Emphasis added]

So while it’s true that no intimidated voter came forward, there is sworn eyewitness testimony backed up by a second sworn source that voters left the polling station because they were intimidated by the Panthers. This seems like a fairly important detail. In fact, I don’t see how Newsweek‘s readers can judge the matter fairly without this information. Continuing with Graham’s summary of facts:

The Bush-era Department of Justice considered criminal charges against the two men, the party, and its chairman, then opted for a civil suit. After the Obama administration took power, Justice obtained an injunction against the man with the baton from displaying a weapon near a polling place on election days and dropped the rest of the civil charges in May 2009.

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Once again this is incomplete. Prosecutors did file a civil complaint against the Panthers, but when the Panthers failed to respond in court they were facing a default judgment against them. It was at this point, with a pending win in the bag so to speak, that Eric Holder’s justice department dropped part of the case, making the resulting judgment weaker. Put simply, the DOJ threw away a win, or part of one. The question is why?

And here is where David A. Graham’s summary fudges another important element of the story. J. Christian Adams quit the department and turned whistle-blower, claiming DOJ displayed racial bias in how it handled cases. His truthfulness has been attacked because he is an admitted conservative. So how can we determine what is true? Graham notes that the one person who might know, can’t say:

In fairness to Adams, there is one man who might be able to back up his stories–and one who figures prominently in some of them, but he’s not talking. That’s Christopher Coates, a career attorney who led Justice’s voting-rights section from January 2008 to January 2009. Coates gave a speech to employees at a going-away party that has been much celebrated among Justice critics because of what observers say was an impassioned defense of his decision to pursue both the Ike Brown and New Black Panthers cases, the two with black defendants. The party marked Coates’s departure from Washington to a Justice Department posting in South Carolina, a transfer Justice says he requested. But Coates can’t testify before the Commission on Civil Rights because the department has refused to let him comply with a subpoena…

Kudos to Graham for pointing out that there is someone who can back up Adams’s story. That’s the sort of balance that was missing from the original piece. Unfortunately that’s where Graham loses interest. Most reporters would be a little suspicious that the one man who could back up Adams’ claims was transferred to South Carolina after he was subpoenaed and that, coincidentally, South Carolina is “outside the commission’s statutory subpoena range.”

Ask yourself which is more likely, that Coates — who supported the Panther’s prosecution– asked to be transferred so he could avoid testifying and that the Justice Department quickly complied with his wish to avoid a subpoena or that someone is trying to shut him up?

Come on, David, you’ve got to smell something rotten here. You didn’t get where you are at 24 by being tone deaf to a good story. This one practically screams cover up. Wouldn’t you much rather go for the big scoop than settle for a sloppy Media Matters rehash that fooled no one? I believe you can do better and I hope, in future, you will.


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