Last week, controversy over Barack Obama’s involvement with Chicago’s “New Party” unfolded on two fronts: the story itself and its coverage by Ben Smith, former Politico blogger/Journolister and now editor of BuzzFeed Politics.
The Obama campaign in 2008 pilloried National Review’s Stanley Kurtz as a “hatchet man” “conspiracy theorist” spreading a “crackpot smear” about candidate Obama–that he was a member of the far-left New Party in the mid-’90s. Smith, then still at Politico, sought comment from New Party founder Joel Rogers and dutifully repeated a line that the New Party “didn’t really have members.”
After Kurtz uncovered meeting minutes that explicitly stated Obama “joined the New Party,” Smith followed up with Rogers, only to repeat his talking points again with slightly less credulity. Smith expresses frustration that “Kurtz also doesn’t make clear what membership could have meant, and it’s a bit hard to untangle in the defunct organization.”
Luckily, two conservative authors unsatisfied with said lack of clarity asked the questions and went to the sources Smith either didn’t think to or was unwilling to ask and visit. Morgen Richmond of Hot Air and John Sexton of Breitbart News used that most exclusive of journalistic tools–the Wayback Machine–on that most obscure of sources–primary documents from the organization being covered–and proved Rogers’ defense was false.Smith added Morgen’s links to his piece sometime in the late morning or early afternoon Friday, the same day it originally posted. Sexton submitted an article that evening which reported further details on what may have been required for membership from then-candidate Obama.
In the ongoing saga of the New Party, has Ben Smith actively tried to suppress or kill the story? There’s not enough evidence to make that kind of mind-reading assumption. What evidence we do have, though, shows an extreme lack of intellectual curiosity.
In his interviews with Rogers, Smith could have figured the University of Wisconsin Madison professor, a progressive contemporary of Obama’s, might have a personal stake in protecting the President from this story’s potential backlash. It would make sense, then, to hold his claims to at least a “trust but verify” standard, but Smith only achieves the former.
To his credit, Smith does admit this revelation is one of many “fishy” statements from Obama’s 2008 campaign, but his tone is far more demanding of Kurtz than Rogers. As quoted earlier, Smith says Kurtz isn’t “clear” what membership meant and makes a note of his failure to post the minutes he cites online. Did it not occur to Smith that Rogers may also have access to these minutes and any party literature on what “joining” the party, as those minutes said of Obama, might mean?
This is a familiar complaint within the right-wing blogosphere: claims by conservative pundits and journalists are met with the highest degree of skepticism, whereas “trusted” sources in progressive institutions such as academia are taken at their word. Conservatives have been happy to take on the challenge and show their work, recalling the famous Avis “We Try Harder” ad campaign. But in this case, the level of research required to try harder than Smith and the rest of the mainstream press is simply embarrassing.
“Researchers have been aware of the NewParty.org site on the Internet Archive for a long time,” Richmond stated in an email. “Someone who was familiar with the New Party story would have been aware of this and would have been able to find ample evidence that they were a member-driven party very easily.”
BuzzFeed Politics’ M.O. so far has been sending its reporters to dig up past documents and media relating to the candidates of the 2012 presidential race. This was a story rife for just such a find–a 2008 campaign controversy given further clarity by the discovery of documents contradicting the Obama campaign’s black and white claims. When anyone familiar with the story could have found a primary source demolishing Rogers’ assertions “very easily,” it’s a definite blot on BuzzFeed and Smith’s record to have let conservatives do such (not so) heavy lifting for them.