Fun With “Journalists”: Sacramento Bee Edition
My eyebrows arched when I read Andrew McIntosh’s September 24 Sacramento Bee article on former eBay CEO-turned candidate for California governor Meg Whitman and her spotty voting record. I have interviewed Whitman on air a couple of times and knew she wasn’t particularly active in politics until she threw herself into Mitt Romney’s and then John McCain’s presidential campaigns in 2008. She had made a point of telling audiences that her record of voting in elections had been awful while apologizing for that fact, and so a newspaper report detailing how often she had failed to vote was to be expected. Sure enough McIntosh’s account led with the fact that Whitman had skipped California’s famously crazy recall election in 2003, passing by the opportunity to vote for Arnold, Arianna Huffington, Gary Coleman, or any of the other 132 candidates from that interesting episode in Golden State political history. McIntosh’s story went on to leave the impression that Whitman had never bothered to register or vote anywhere until 2002.
Two things stood out in the McIntosh piece that raised very red flags. Those flags got bright red indeed when I called McIntosh this morning and he wouldn’t answer any questions about the piece. “We are not going to discuss sources on any story,” he huffed, and then sent me on to his editor Amy Chance. When I got Chance on the phone and asked some very basic questions about the article, she became very defensive, demanded to know if I had gotten my information from the Whitman campaign, and then after objecting that I had called her cold, told me she needed to get back to a meeting and hung up on me. I’ll play the interview on today’s program.
To the red flags.
First, the “expert” McIntosh quotes to assess Whitman’s record is University of California, Irvine Professor Mark Petracca. Mark’s been a friend of mine for 20 years, and he’s to the left of President Obama and a long time Democratic activist. Asking Mark for an opinion on the significance of Whitman’s voting record is like quoting me and only me in a Bee story on Gavin Newsome’s temperament or Jerry Brown’s record on prisoner release litigation.
That’s the kind of signal that led me to read the piece very carefully indeed.
Even a modest level of attention should draw a reader’s eyes to this non-attributed assertion: “The San Francisco County elections office no longer retains records prior to 1992, but said that had she been registered and voting, her registration information would have been transferred to the current system. They have no record of her registration.” (My emphasis.)
“Offices” don’t make statements, people do, and no individual is quoted here. This is especially odd as voting data is not controversial, and such government offices routinely designate individuals to deal with press inquiries -individuals who can be quoted and whose quotes can be checked. These are public records after all –not state secrets.
The lack of a specific source is the sort of glaring omission that should have drawn an editor’s attention, but the Bee is rapidly losing altitude, and editors demanding that basic standards of old school journalism be upheld are probably in short supply and stretched too thin. Even with the thinnest of staffing, however, purposeful vagueness on such a key point combined with the convenient use of Petracca as the “expert” who condemned Whitman should have sounded alarms for editors and certainly for any reader with any background in the Bee’s long-standing habit of doing its best to bleed strong GOP candidates. Chance told me she was very confident of McIntosh’s sources, but wouldn’t’t give me even the name of one official McIntosh had spoken with in San francisco, the Ohio state office or Hamilton County -even though all are public offices charged with providing information to the public!
Sure enough, the “San Francisco County elections office” is staffed by real people, and one of them, Jocelyn Wong -the “Campaign Services Coordinator”-had previously responded to a request for registration information on such high profile San Francisco residents as Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi with a letter that states that “there is no registration records kept prior to 1992 kept by the Department.” (sic).
“Please also keep in mind that our database can only account for the voting history of voters from 1992 to the present since the Department switched databases that year,” Ms. Wong added.
Should McIntosh have provided such useful background to his story? After all, if the San Francisco Department of Elections cannot confirm the voting records of the Speaker of the House and the former-mayor of the city and now U.S. Senator, how certain could McIntosh’s source be about Whitman’s voting history -if he really had a source within the Department? Since the information Ms. Wong provided undercuts McIntosh’s central thesis that an inference can be drawn from the lack of registration data on Whitman and since Wong is willing to be on the record as opposed to the unnamed source McIntosh relied on, the possibility is real that McIntosh was played by someone who fed him a false line on the degree of certainty with which he could write his story. And though in our conversation Chance at first tries to argue to me that the Bee story leaves the question open as to whether Whitman voted or not, it clearly does not and intends for the reader to conclude that she didn’t vote while in San Francisco.
McIntosh used other assertions that have the appearance but not the reality of in-depth research and serious sourcing. After noting that Whitman lived in Ohio from 1979 to 1981 after graduating from Harvard, McIntosh wrote that
“[n]either Ohio State elections officials nor Hamilton County Board of Election officials found a record of Whitman registering or voting there.”
This is yet another odd, even purposefully misleading construction. “Joe Jones wasn’t registered” would be a direct response to a direct question, and such a statement from a Buckeye public official should come with a name attached. Again, these sort of questions are not the stuff that causes government employees to run for cover. These are public records.
I e-mailed Whitman campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds about the story. He produced a letter from Hamilton County’s Board of Elections’ Registration Clerk Jean Beirise stating unequivocally that Meg Whitman was registered in the county from April of 1980 through December of 1982, when her registration was canceled and stamped “MOVED OUT OF THE COUNTY.”
“Ohio election officials had confirmed in writing that Meg Whitman had registered in Hamilton County, Ohio while living there,” Bounds succinctly noted.
I pressed Bounds for any other errors in the Bee report, and while Bounds repeated again and again that Whitman makes no excuses for her spotty voting record, the Bee had missed evidence of her 1999 registration in Santa Clara County in addition to the error concerning Ohio and the misleading account concerning San Francisco’s records.
As you will hear when I play the interview today, Chance has no answer to my questions on sources but instead demands that I fax her the letter from the Jean Beirese. She also wanted to know if I got it from the Whitman campaign, as though that changes anything about the haphazard job her reporter did of checking the Ohio records.
The Bee story is a poorly sourced and very sloppy example either of agenda journalism or of lazy journalism, if you want to call it journalism at all. It conveys a level of certainty that is not deserved with a breathless sensationalism we’ve come to expect from the legacy media when in hunter-gatherer mode vis-?-vis Republicans. According to Bounds, Whitman actually recalls voting for Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988, and she contributed to both of the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, was part of the “Innovators for Bush” 2004 committee, and of course was a high-profile proponent first of Mitt Romney’s and then John McCain’s 2008 presidential bids. An honest assessment of Whitman’s voting record would have begun with what she has done in politics in the past few years and then accurately contrasted that record with her recollections of participation in the past, and perhaps have pointed out that the dismal state of San Francisco City and County voting operations precluded confirming her memories. Even a rookie reporter would have buttressed the Ohio falsehood with a named source to protect his paper’s reputation against even a cursory fact check. Such an accurate report on the facts of Whitman’s political record isn’t nearly as attention-grabbing as what McIntosh wrote and what his editors approved. Instead McIntosh rolled out a hit piece that no doubt will surface again and again in attacks on Whitman from her primary opponents.
I also asked Bounds about the Whitman 2003 campaign contribution to Barbara Boxer, and whether Whitman had contributed to Boxer’s campaigns in 1996 and 1990.
“No,” he responded. “As it has been reported in several news sources dating back to 2003, as CEO of eBay Meg joined other Republicans and Barbara Boxer to fight against internet taxes. This decision was good for Silicon Valley, good for eBay and good for Californians. Meg only contributed to [Boxer’s] 2004 re-election campaign and 94-percent of her contributions have gone to Republicans, a significantly higher percentage than Steve Poizner.”
I haven’t yet asked the Poizner campaign for a response on that last assertion, but will. I have had both Poizner and Whitman on the program, and will have them both back as well as former Congressman Tom Campbell as well. May the best GOP candidate win.
I am certain, however, that Republican voters ought not to trust reporting from the Sacramento Bee when making the decision on which is the best candidate. The refusal of Andrew McIntosh to answer any questions and of Amy Chance to take the opportunity to discuss the story in length, in a calm, measured, non-combative fashion and to answer obvious questions tells you everything you need to know about the Bee’s standards of reporting. When a newspaper screws up this badly on what it trumpets as an important story, you shouldn’t trust a word it writes on the candidate it attempted to smear for the duration of the race.