Our Incorrigible Media

Column: Conservatives report, liberals whine

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• February 15, 2013 4:59 am


For the last several weeks, as you are no doubt aware, the Washington Free Beacon and other news outlets—most of them conservative—have been investigating secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s positions, finances, associations, career history, and utterances. Which seems to us to be precisely what you would expect an intrepid and creative and entrepreneurial press to do when the president of the United States nominates a controversial former senator to one of the most important cabinet posts in the land.

Apparently, though, and without our knowing it, you and I have passed through an inter-dimensional portal and have entered a black-is-white, up-is-down twilight zone in which asking for information pertaining to a public figure constitutes participation not only in a McCarthyite "smear machine," but also in a "campaign, orchestrated by controversial anti-Arab figures," with the goal of "smearing and intimidating the Arab-American community." And "this demonizing of the Arab community is very troubling," a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) tells Dylan Byers, a cub reporter for Politico. "The FBI was in here last week because of those types of threats." The line separating inquiry and bigotry is, it would seem, rather thin. The ADC sees "the right-wing’s attacks in racial terms," Byers writes. So the right wing better shut up. After all: Their witch-hunt has "come up empty."

Except our reporting on Hagel hasn’t come up empty, not one bit, and the so-called mainstream media’s own coverage of public affairs proves it. Their blindness to this fact only confirms their incorrigibility. Remarkable, it really is, that the much-derided and condescended-to conservative media, even as the left cries and stamps its feet and blows raspberries at us, has led the way in reporting on the nomination of Brett McGurk to be ambassador to Iraq, the potential nomination of Susan Rice to be secretary of state, the ethics complaint filed against Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), and, most recently, the nomination to secretary of defense of a man with a "buffoonish image" who "neutered himself" at his confirmation hearing.

Consider, again, the quotes from our friends at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Earlier this week, James Rosen of Fox News Channel reported that Chuck Hagel "did not disclose at least two recent speeches on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict." The Senate Armed Services Committee had asked Hagel for records of all speeches he’d delivered since 2008. But the materials Hagel presented the committee omitted talks he gave at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in September 2008, and at the annual conference of the ADC in June 2008. "The content of Hagel’s speeches at these locations have not surfaced," wrote Rosen.

A look at that content is one of the reasons reporters for the Free Beacon visited the offices of the ADC after Rosen’s report. But another reason, and what turns out to be the more interesting one, was to obtain a copy of the group’s IRS Form 990, which as a tax-exempt organization they are required to present to the public upon request. Here is a link to the relevant IRS instructions. Check out, specifically, the passage on page 74 in which the IRS writes that organizations filing under Section 501(c)3 of the tax code are required to "provide a copy without charge … other than a reasonable fee for reproduction and actual postage costs, of all or any part of any application or return required to be made available for public inspection to any individual who makes a request for a copy in person or in writing."

Would the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee comply with IRS instructions and allow reporters for the Free Beacon to look upon the organization’s 990, so that the public might be better informed about the funding sources of an organization that has been injected into a national political debate?

The answer was no. And not only was the answer no, but these particular Free Beacon reporters were not allowed into the group’s offices. Nor were the Free Beacon reporters’ phone calls returned. Receipt of a hand-delivered request for the Form 990, provided to the security guard at the ADC’s headquarters, was not acknowledged. And when a Free Beacon reporter did get a representative of the ADC on the line, and attempted to explain the pertinent regulations and reasonable nature of this actually somewhat pedestrian request, that reporter was told he was being offensive and racist and harassing taxpaying Americans and the authorities had been informed of his existence.

That Chuck Hagel speech we mentioned? Sorry: It was in an "archive" somewhere in Maryland. Better luck next time. And that was where the matter stood, Wednesday evening, on the eve of the full Senate’s first vote on the Hagel nomination.

Then the matter took an unexpected turn. At 1:47 p.m. EST on Valentine’s Day, Dylan Byers and Mackenzie Weinger posted an item on Politico headlined, "ADC: Hagel’s 2008 speech, long sought by right-wing blogs, comes up empty."

"Right-wing media outlets have been aggressively pushing the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League [sic] to locate and release video footage" of a Chuck Hagel speech, Politico readers were informed. And the "hope" of these right-wingers, readers were further informed, was to "reveal more fodder for their case that Hagel has a history of making anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic statements." How Byers and Weinger knew the hopes and dreams of these conservative nut-balls wasn’t exactly clear, since they never once in their original post quoted directly the speech of an actual living, breathing conservative. But they did quote, directly and extensively, ADC spokesman Abed Ayoub, who said Free Beacon reporters may have come close to committing a hate crime. "They came to our offices—threatening us, demanding information, arguing with security. They got very abrasive, very aggressive. In fact, the FBI was in here last week because of those type of threats."

As for the Hagel speech in question: "The tape comes up clean," Byers wrote, over an hour before he actually seems to have watched it and posted it on Politico. The real story was that the Free Beacon appeared at the ADC "and harassed them for the tape." The real story, ADC went on in a separate press release, was that "Senator Hagel has been attacked over and over merely for speaking to Arab Americans." You can "send a strong message to those who want to isolate us" by writing ADC a $300 check. But don’t delay, because the intolerant mob could impose their reign of terror any day now. That’s spelled A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n. …

Not once did Byers and Weinger mention in their original post the Free Beacon’s completely legal and innocent request for the ADC’s Form 990. Not once did Byers and Weinger see fit to, I don’t know, pick up the damn phone and ask the WFB reporters for their reaction to charges of racism and hate. Byers and Weinger say that wasn’t necessary because they quoted from a WFB news story reporting on the allegations against our reporters. But the news story was precisely that—a news story—and thus did not contain the personal reflections of the reporters involved in writing it. Nor should it. Have political reporters become incapable of separating their sentiments and emotions from the information they seek to convey to the reading public? And have conservatives become so completely detested in polite society that their sentiments and emotions are not worthy of such conveyance?

And how does the search for a newsworthy speech "come up empty" when the search concludes in the release of the speech in question? Is any serious person willing to say that the video of Chuck Hagel’s address to the 2008 convention of the ADC would have been released had the Free Beacon and our friends not reported on it? And, not incidentally, where was the Form 990 at the center of this bizarre and needless controversy?

We contacted Dylan Byers, after he posted his scurrilous article, to make our case. Byers told us he’d write a follow-up once he called the ADC for reaction (exactly what he failed to do after originally taking Ayoub’s dictation). That second story, "Free Beacon: We did not harass ADC," was only slightly less misleading than the first. There was the requisite ass covering, to be sure. But there were also quotes from Ayoub that were incorrect. Ayoub "noted that copies of the ADC’s 990 were available online," Byers wrote. Now think about that for a second. If the forms were "available online," why would WFB reporters go to the ADC offices to request them? Of course the forms were not available online. That’s the basis of the ENTIRE STORY.

"You can’t just walk into the office in the middle of the day, while everyone is working, and request a 990," Ayoub told Byers. Ah, but you can! That’s the beauty of federal tax law. Why, the Free Beacon and Center for American Freedom provided Byers’s talented and expert colleague Ken Vogel our very own 990 not too long ago. Maybe Vogel is willing to provide his befuddled blogger a lesson in campaign finance?

What happened after Byers’s second post, though, was even more interesting. Shortly after we spoke to Byers, who spoke to Ayoub, a Free Beacon reporter received an email saying his formal request for the Form 990 had been received. And shortly after that, the ADC called the Free Beacon’s offices and said they would send Form 990s for the last three years to us by the end of the day. Which is to say: We may finally be able, after all, to report on an organization that awarded Chuck Hagel for his courageous and unconventional and blah, blah, blah, position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we will be able to do so only after our staff was dragged through the mud on one of the most highly trafficked websites in the country.

Such is our burden, I suppose. And I suppose, too, that when Chuck Hagel withdraws his nomination, and Bob Menendez resigns his Senate seat, the usual suspects will bemoan the state of affairs that have allowed horrible conservatives to besmirch the reputations of such honorable and decent men. The usual suspects, of course, will have missed the real lesson: reporting works. The media might want to try it some time.