Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 28 2014 3:12 PM

“Problematic Entities,” the 2014 Election Euphemism of the Day

A December 2013 memo, produced for the Senate campaign of Georgia's Michelle Nunn, is great fun for any election nerd. There's the series of flowcharts from BlueLabs, the group credited by many (not least by itself) for figuring out how to turn the 2013 Virginia electorate into a diverse simulacrum of the 2012 electorate. There's the long and honest look at how and when funds will arrive.

And then there's the bit about vulnerabilities. National Review's Eliana Johnson, who scooped the memo, finds Nunn's advisers worrying about "grants to problematic entities" from her nonprofit, the Points of Light Foundation. (This story comes just six days after a Republican primary finally determined Nunn's opponent, businessman David Perdue.) Johnson homes in on one particular donation:

According to the IRS Form 990s that Points of Light filed in 2008 and 2011, the organization gave a grant of over $33,000 to Islamic Relief USA, a charity that says it strives to alleviate “hunger, illiteracy, and diseases worldwide.” Islamic Relief USA is part of a global network of charities that operate under the umbrella of Islamic Relief Worldwide. Islamic Relief USA says on its website that it is a legally separate entity from its parent organization, but that they share “a common vision, mission, and family identity.” Islamic Relief Worldwide has ties to Hamas, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization. In June, Israel banned the charity from operating in the country because, according to Israeli officials, it was funneling cash to Hamas. 

The Nunn campaign's response was quick: It did not actually give this money, but validated Islamic Relief USA (not Worldwide) as a worthwhile charity. Much more athletic than its response to a previous (also Johnson-scooped) scandal, in which Nunn backed away from Virtual Murrell, a former Black Panther who'd pleaded guilty to a 1994 bribe charge. Any attack like this is an attack on Nunn's studious, earned image as a figure born into, but not of, politics—the leaked memo actually runs through the Republicans who can probably come around to endorsing her.

But I'm not sure that these are Nunn's greatest problems. Democrats, who seriously lack for luck in this election cycle, are currently competitive or ahead in Georgia's race and Louisiana's Senate race. In both states, a candidate who fails to clear 50 percent of the vote in November has to fight a December runoff. In both states, black turnout among Democratic voters made the parties far more competitive in the 2008 elections (the last time these seats were up) than in the runoffs.

Update: Having talked to Nunn myself, this quote from the memo cuts too deep:

The political press is not inclined to cover a candidate repeating their message. In fact, many reporters see their job as getting the candidate to "reveal" what their "true" inclinations and orientation may lay or to cause a gaffe. Any deviation from that message will be newsworthy to them. They also understand that effective candidates and campaigns stick to their message, and will see a deviation in message as an erred campaign or candidate.
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July 28 2014 12:23 PM

Poll: Hillary Clinton Does Better With White Voters Than Any Democrat Since 1976

Long ago, before the God of Narratives decided that Hillary Clinton was an out-of-touch elitist, she was seen as a fearsome 2016 contender. As the theory went, she could outpoll Barack Obama with white voters while winning nonwhite voters. The new CNN poll suggests that this is still mostly true. In a fun, cheeky trial heat, CNN's pollster asked voters whom they'd support in a 2012 election do-over: Mitt Romney or Barack Obama? Romney won in a rout, the poor guy:

Next, the pollster asked voters to take sides in a hypothetical and inhumanely boring Clinton vs. Romney race. Clinton won easy, 55–42. It doesn't take true genius to figure out where those new Democratic votes came from. 

Would you look at that? Obama, who won only 39 percent of the white vote in 2012, is swooning because he's lost even more of it. But Clinton's grabbing 46 percent of the white vote. That's better than Obama did in 2008 (43 percent), better than John Kerry did in 2004 (41 percent), better than Al Gore did in 2000 (42 percent). It's even better than her husband did in 1996 (43 percent), though that result—like the 1992 result—is skewed by the presence of Ross Perot. You have to go back to 1976 to find a Democrat who polled better than 46 percent with whites. And when Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Gerald Ford, the electorate was 89 percent white overall. In 2016 it's likely to be closer to 70 percent white. In 2016 a Democrat who wins only 40 percent of the white vote and holds close to Barack Obama's totals with nonwhites can win easily.

Special bonus reason for Democratic gloating: In the theoretical Romney race, Clinton wins 62 percent of voters who make less than $50,000. Yes, even after the scandal of her speaking fees.

July 28 2014 11:58 AM

Paid Trackers Are Your New Press Corps

Last week a Democratic campaign sent me this photo of a tracker from one of their events. The America Rising videographer had shown up with something that looked very much like a press badge, the sort of thing that would allow her/him to be waved in to an event that might otherwise be closed.

When I asked America Rising about the badge, Executive Director Tim Miller sent me this 2012 shot of a similarly equipped tracker for the progressive American Bridge.

"As a tracker," said Miller, "you are often getting asked who you are and why you are videoing. The ID badges make those encounters easier ... except in circumstances where the candidates aren't having open events, our policy for full-time trackers is for them to be transparent about what they are doing."

Indeed, that's what Miller told me earlier in the year when I profiled AR. Local media shrinks; the paid tracker industry, with a different profit motive, gets to be the historical witness at campaign events. Campaigns can complain about the presence of trackers, but few have figured out an effective repulsion strategy beyond just refusing to let them in and hoping it doesn't look too bad on tape.

July 28 2014 9:55 AM

In Which a Democratic Candidate Turns Off the White House’s Lights

West Virginia's Natalie Tennant, who's running a Senate race that the handicappers expect her to lose, arrives on the airwaves with an expert trolling of the White House. In her first general election commercial, Tennant tsk-tsks a White House that doesn't even know where its "power comes from," then turns off an ACME-ish switch, which diverts all coal power away from the job-killer-in-chief.

Tennant's long-term program, should she get to the Senate, is not actually Barack Obama. If successful, she'll only overlap with the incumbent for two years. The green movement that's successfully gotten EPA rules and strictures on coal burning isn't giving up or going away. And the fracking boom, which has cut right through the coal industry, could go on for decades. But just as West Virginia's Sen. Joe Manchin established himself by literally shooting a hole through a copy of "cap and trade" legislation, so too has Tennant introduced herself as a warrior against Obama and those elitist greens.

July 28 2014 8:57 AM

Sarah Palin Joins the Bustling World of Paid Conservative News Sites

On Sunday, the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president announced a new subscription video service—just $99.95 per year for all the interviews and "fly on the wall" coverage you could want.

 

As Todd Spangler reports, the channel is being produced in partnership with the online news startup founded by the former chairman of NBC and president of CNN—lamestream media, basically. But how to distinguish this new venture, and how to find an audience?

Palin's effort, after all, comes two years after the debut of Herman Cain's CainTV, and one year after that site's subscription model withered away. (The main site, and its original content, has been replaced by links, analysis, and Cain-centric commentary.) It's three years since the more successful launch of Glenn Beck's GBTV, a subscription news service that granted conservatives special access to Beck's show and to a round of new programming. (S.E. Cupp, who used to host a show on the channel, now co-hosts Crossfire on CNN.)

All of this followed in the wake of Rush Limbaugh's Rush 24/7 program, which offered (and offers) access to Limbaugh's daily show whenever a subscriber wanted it, plus gifts and "exclusive Dittocam video." (This is a live video of Limbaugh sitting down and recording his show.) Limbaugh has remained unusually good at controlling his content; Palin, who has been a Fox News contract pundit for much of her post-gubernatorial career, has sometimes erred and broken news on the Mark Levin show or Breitbart.com. If she's about to correct that, and save her best stuff for subscribers, she's asking an audience that's given a lot to conservative media to dig a little deeper.

July 25 2014 10:05 PM

Buzzenfreude and Plagiarism

It started, as so many few things start, with an argument about socks. BuzzFeed's viral politics editor, Benny Johnson, had asked former President George H.W. Bush for advice on stylish ankle-concealing garments. (Johnson had been on this beat for a while.) The aggregation-heavy conservative site IJ Review basically stole Johnson's content—which included an exclusive quote from Bush—and Johnson tweet-shamed them into taking it down. (Believe it or not, IJ Review had also trafficked in Bush socks stories.)

That was the cue. On the blog Our Bad Media, writers known only as @blippoblappo and @crushingbort revealed that "a brief dip into the cesspool that is Johnson’s Buzzfeed articles quickly turned up several incidents of Johnson directly lifting from other reporters, Wikipedia, and Yahoo! Answers, a website where people go to ask if they can get pregnant from stepping on a rusty nail." They posted their evidence; BuzzFeed edited several of Johnson's stories to give proper credit. Not long after, Gawker's J.K. Trotter advanced the story with a comment from Buzzfeed's editor in chief, Ben Smith: "Benny Johnson is one of the web’s deeply original writers, as is clear from his body of work."

Ever since then (well, in the 28 hours since then) it's been open season on Johnson. He has not published anything since yesterday, and his body of BuzzFeed work is being "reviewed." (I sent Johnson an email but otherwise haven't contacted or heard from him about this.) Anyone with a working Google machine can compare Johnson's text, which typically consists of captions below photos or gifs, to existing content on Wikipedia or Yahoo—the sleuthing has turned up more short phrases and sentences that look cloned.

Why is there so much heat on Johnson? The hubris started it, but there's been a healthy burble of Internet hatred toward the guy for ages. Johnson was a college Republican and writer for Glenn Beck's website the Blaze before he joined BuzzFeed, facts exposed and shamed by the mysteriously-named FeedBuzz in 2013. On the left, Johnson's probably best known as the guy behind the viral post "How to Thank a Soldier, by George W. Bush," ("14. Cook them a big-ass dinner if you can.") so writers on the left have spared nothing in gloating about the scandal.

"Describing buzz feed benny johnson as a viral load does an allusive disservice to more noble organisms like the AIDS virus," wrote Jeb Lund, who writes for the Guardian.

"Hearing that @bennyjohnson is not a paragon of ethics—its like the day I found out Santa isn't real," wrote Matt Taibbi, who now writes for First Look Media.

You can follow the links to the sleuthing, but Dylan Byers has done the best job explaining the unseemly amount of schadenfreude.

In the eyes of many journalists, BuzzFeed is constantly walking a fine line between aggregation, or "curation," and theft. Go to BuzzFeed.com and click on any one of its lists. In very fine print, buried below each photo, there will be a link to another site -- usually Reddit -- which is where the photograph came from.
Is this plagiarism? Of course not. Does it feel a little seedy? Yeah, a bit.

This is not what Johnson did. I've seen Johnson in D.C. (and once in Iowa), arriving at events with a camera and notepad to feed his stories. He's a photojournalist who fills out his stories with captions, and it's the captions that have got him into trouble. But his photojournalism is all live and earned. Just a week ago, Johnson got a lot of attention for a pair of posts about ugly federal buildings in D.C.—one in which he gave readers a tour of their worst aspects, one in which he described how security guards tailed him and shooed him away. Johnson's last post before today's "review" was a photo essay about military dogs being reunited with their owners. The few D.C. outlets that covered it gave the story a quickie "this happened" text treatment. Johnson profiled several of the dogs and owners, using very few words but plenty of schmaltzy pics. People ignored the other stories and read his.

But that's not an excuse for the lifted text. The added irony, which is upping the schadenfreude quotient, is that BuzzFeed has cornered a market in hitting politicians for plagiarism. In the fall of 2013, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski made life hell for Sen. Rand Paul, pulling pages from his books and sections from his speeches that were lifted from Wikipedia or other sources. In 2014, Kaczynski expanded the franchise, shaming candidate after candidate for lifting grafs or phrases from other Republicans, usually (funny enough) Paul. 

Kaczynski's findings were baffling and pathetic. Who were these people, who cared enough about politics to mortgage their lives and reputations on runs for office, but didn't care enough to come up with their own thoughts? The cases of plagiarism were much more blatant than what Johnson's accused of. People have found him lifting sentences that included factoids; the pols were lifting bland political thoughts, word for word. But BuzzFeed was proving that catching plagiarism had become easy, and that lifting a few sentences without a link-back constituted outright fraud. 

The result of all this? An unusual coalition of people—liberals, Republican pols, journalists—gloating that BuzzFeed has been caught. At. Last. It would be very easy to Johnson to return to his beat, being more careful to credit his sources. But there's just so much glee and animosity about the circumstances.

Update: Shortly before midnight, BuzzFeed announced that Johnson had been fired. The most interesting part of the two relevant statements—one to readers, one to staff—is this.

BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.
Today, we are one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web. On the journalistic side, we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the people we cover to high standards. We must — and we will — hold ourselves to the same high standards. BuzzTeam, too, has, over the last two years, raised its game dramatically, focusing on creative and ambitious work, and increasingly careful attribution.

That's the website putting down a marker and promising that Bennyghazi (as at least one Twitter user has called it) was the moment BuzzFeed stopped tolerating slapdash, Reddit/Wikipedia content. More eyes will be looking for it now.

July 25 2014 5:50 PM

It Is Legal (Again) to Unlock Your Cellphone

Just a minor update to something that has moved in and out of the news cycle—the cellphone-unlocking ban is dead. First spotted by techies in 2012, first made infamous by Republican tech thinker Derek Khanna, the quirk in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that had banned unlocking has been erased. The House vote was unanimous.

The irony, of course, is that a vote that rockets through Congress with this much ease isn't very interesting. But there's another angle to this. The White House "We the People" widget, by which ordinary humans can start petitions and ask the president to respond to their concerns, has largely existed as farce. The most attention any petition got was for the the one that asked the White House to stimulate the economy by building a Death Star. Most of the newsy petitions have followed that format.

The unlocking petition is the first to travel from the website to actual action in Congress.

July 25 2014 5:42 PM

A Confusing Attempt to Denounce Obamacare

The young couple holding hands outside the entrance to “Creepy Carenival” held on the National Mall July 23rd were rather baffled by it. “I think it’s something about Obamacare?” the woman said. “I think they’re going to talk about it?” They had happened upon it on a walk; they weren’t sure if the message would be for or against. 

The event had been put on by Generation Opportunity, a lobby group of free-market minded youngsters who mostly advocate on millennial issues like youth unemployment and student debt. Obamacare, their spokesman informed me, was their first foray into healthcare. In case there’s any confusion, they’re against it: they say that it increases health premiums for those 27 and under who wish to buy healthcare through the federally mandated program. The carnival (“Where fun is Mandatory”) had catchy slogans to go with its theme, featuring a contortionist “bending the rules” and a kissing booth for love and law that are “too good to be true”, but somewhere the metaphor about how Obamacare failure is like (or unlike?) three ring fun may have been lost. None of the attendees I spoke to said they had any strong feelings about the law; mostly, they saw an opportunity for free snacks and fun for their kids and took it. In fact, there seemed to be as many staff and journalists as carnival goers (granted I arrived early). 

I chatted with a few performers and blue-shirted young men from Talk of the Town, the entertainment group whose games were hired out for the festivities. Their employer, it appears, did not provide health insurance: The young acrobat was still on her parents’— she says will think about what to do once she turns 26 (but "her views are her own and do not represent those of Generation Opportunity"). Another, older carnival worker said he bought his direct through the insurance company. A third young man, running the high striker, had been instructed to give a flimsy hammer to anyone under 27, and an actual sledgehammer to anyone older. I read aloud a placard at his station, which said that women under 27 would on average see their premiums rise by 44 percent, and men by 91 percent. “You’re the first person all day to read that,” he informed me. When I asked him about the meaning of the trick versus real hammers, he shrugged. Some staffers quickly swooped in to explain—something about the game being rigged against you—but the exact gist remained a bit opaque. But they were very kind in offering to point me to the right person for comment.

It hardly needs mention that millennials unhappy about Obamacare is bad for its chances of long-term success. For the law to work, the ACA needs healthy young people to subsidize the old—this is how insurance works, and it means an uptick in their premiums. But I’m not sure if anyone who didn’t already dislike the law would have walked away with their minds changed or having learned anything new. It was good fun. I asked for a teddy bear as a keepsake. I was informed they were technically for the winners of a raffle. But a kind staff member bent the rules and gave me one anyway. 

(Photo by David Weigel: "Creepy Uncle Sam" joins three "death panel" members in the Creepy Carenival's Haunted Hospital.)

July 25 2014 2:15 PM

How Did a Virginia Conservative Activist Become the Star of a North Carolina Abortion Ad?

Last month, in an episode of the podcast, I interviewed Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser about what her group was doing to prevent future abortion guests. SBAList was inviting pro-life candidates to training sessions where they had—my phrase, not hers—the stupid beat out of 'em.

"What's at the heart of it is a fear of addressing it in the hope that it won't come up," Dannenfelser told me. "We're 100 percent clear that it will come up. The best thing is one-on-one conversation—one-on-one conversation along the model of a murder board, preparing for a trial. That's what they deserve. It's throwing at you the question that I think is going to be the hardest in your campaign. It's a measure of how disastrous the results can be if you haven't prepared in your mind and your heart."

Today, Jeremy Peters reports on what these sessions actually look like. He also has more detail on SBAList's aggressive approach—what Dannenfelser described to me as "getting out the fetal position, ironically."

The group recently hired a polling firm to test messages. It found that when it told Florida voters that a Democratic candidate for an open House seat there, Alex Sink, did not support limiting abortion after five months, women in Democratic households shifted their support toward the Republican in the race, David Jolly.

Last month, the "super PAC" affiliated with the Susan B. Anthony List began testing this message in North Carolina against Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, in its first move in a Senate race this year. In a TV ad, a young couple talks about their daughter, who was born prematurely at 24 weeks. “These are babies,” the mother says. “This is human life. And we are their only voice.”

This was interesting, because in June, Hagan was the first potential messaging target Dannenfelser brought up. "Ask Kay Hagan, why did you say you couldn't possibly support a 20-week restriction on abortions?" asked Dannenfelser, previewing the attack. "That's wildly out of touch with North Carolinians."

Funny thing about that ad, though. The couple featured is Ned and Becca Ryun. Ned Ryun is the founder of American Majority, a conservative grassroots training group. The Ryuns first shared their story in a 2011 post for RedState.com. So this is the story of a family of activists—who live in Purcellville, Virginia. Not in Hagan's North Carolina.

July 25 2014 10:57 AM

Dinesh D’Souza and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

This blog has mostly covered Dinesh D'Souza's Obama-era adventures in punditry as an exercise in how to outrage the right and collect the profits. After some slow initial sales, D'Souza's America (the book, not the country) is at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Is it a sleeper hit? Is it getting a bounce from D'Souza's media campaign, in which he claims booksellers and search engines are trying to censor him? All we know is that the sales jumped after D'Souza turned buying America into a political cause, and that I really hope I can pull that off next year when my progressive rock book arrives. (If you hate King Crimson, you hate freedom.) 

My point is that D'Souza's sales and looming trial have proved newsy enough for the front page of the New York Times. The paper's straightforward profile explains that conservatives listen to D'Souza because, in a world of shouters and pundits, he comes off as an intellectual.

Born and raised in India, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth and has been affiliated with some of the country’s most respected conservative think tanks. ... Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” says Mr. D’Souza’s roots and scholarly bona fides give him “credibility” in right-wing circles. ... Some accuse him of cynically using his academic credentials to advance false, reductive ideas.

Let's establish that D'Souza is very smart and a world-class debater. Still: "scholarly bona fides"? "Scholar" is a pretty malleable word, often used ironically, but in the news context it's typically used to describe someone who devotes his time to scholarly research. Julian Zelizer, for example, often cited as a congressional politics scholar, holds a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in history. Norm Ornstein, a "resident scholar" at AEI and favorite quote for liberals looking for a critic of the right, holds a Ph.D. in political science. Arthur Brooks, the president of AEI, holds an M.A. in economics and Ph.D. in policy analysis. Jonathan Turley, often cited as a "constitutional scholar" (especially when he's criticizing Obama administration overreach), has a J.D. in law and teaches at GW's law school. Stanley Kurtz, who is often called a "scholar" by conservatives, has a Ph.D. in social anthropology. Newt Gingrich himself has a Ph.D. in European history. Generally, people get called "scholars" in the press if they're publishing/have published academic work relevant to what they're opining about. 

D'Souza has a B.A. in English from Dartmouth, and ... no, that's it. He got fantastic grades at an Ivy, then worked for D.C. think tanks, then started writing ambitious books. But he came at them with as much of a scholarly background as the average political pundit, which he basically was. His first books, especially The End of Racism, were ambitious and looked authoritative, but they were basically works of pop sociology. Again, there's a market for that, but actual scholars have found the books lacking, and D'Souza's later books (like America) have more closely resembled the average conservative bestsellers. Ronald Reagan was a great man, heaven is for real, etc. (Read paleolibertarian David Gordon, who has a Ph.D. in intellectual history, and who points out that D'Souza totally misread Darwin in order to cite him in the racism book.)

What's wrong with being a smart generalist pundit? Nothing. It's just unusual for such a pundit to be seen as a scholar on whatever topic he's writing about at that moment. (Also it's a little unfair to someone like the aforementioned Stanley Kurtz, who applies real rigor in his research into Barack Obama's past and his current economic plans.) The D'Souza story is being portrayed as a thoughtful scholar descending into mere politics. Isn't he just a right-wing pundit, regressing to the mean?

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