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How Politico bungled its Elizabeth Warren story

with 2 comments

(Okay, the headline’s a little extreme, but it was just too perfect)

In a story that stands out as poorly written even for political tabloid Politico, writers Manu Raju (@mkraju), David Catanese (@davecatanese), and contributor Maggie Haberman (@maggiepolitico) failed one of the primary rules of journalism: disclose the connections your sources have to the subjects of the story and to the media outlet itself. This is why, for example, every Washington Post article about Kaplan Co. will cite that it is the parent company of the Washington Post.

The story, “How Warren Bungled First Controversy”, was about Elizabeth Warren apparently listing herself as a minority law professor because of her 1/32 Native American heritage, an admittedly strange move, and her reaction to the ensuing hubbub.

The entire article feels like an attempt to stoke the coals of controversy, with a lot of misleading question-raising that places ideas in people’s heads under the guise of a genuine question (“he says he doesn’t torture puppies in his spare time, but how can we really be sure?”). See the following:

She said she listed her Native American heritage as a way to meet others who are “like” her, but law school directories listed her vaguely as a “minority” teacher for nearly a decade — not specifically as someone with tribal roots.

She said that she’s long been “proud” of her heritage, but that assertion seems to be undermined by her decision to delist herself as a minority teacher in the law directories and the fact that there is virtually no mention of her lineage over the past decade-and-half, including as she climbed the ranks in the Obama White House.

She said that listing her ethnicity was not part of her efforts to seek a job, yet she scrubbed that listing as she received tenure at Harvard.

While Warren insists she was hired solely on merit, the campaign has no plans to release records detailing whether she cited her minority status as she sought law jobs in the early part of her career.

But that’s not really what irked me. The segment that stood out to me as violating journalistic ethics was when they cited William Jacobson, the author of a conservative legal-focused blog Legal Insurrection, and law professor at Cornell Law. Even Cornell itself described it as “the conservative blog Legal Insurrection” in a story about Jacobson’s defense of the Tea Party.

Jacobson also is a fairly widely published conservative pundit, including at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, CBS Evening News, and Fox … oh and at Politico Arena. The reporters seem to feel no need to disclose this. Here’s the segment:

“If she is 1/32nd Native American … is it really appropriate to list yourself that way and knowing you will therefore be listed as a minority law professor?” asked William Jacobson, associate clinical professor of Cornell Law School, the author of a blog read in the legal community. “Why in the world would you list yourself when it is such a tenuous and distant relationship?”

“Why would she have done it, and why would she have stopped when she was at Harvard?” Jacobson said. “The whole thing makes no sense.”

In a normal question of law school tenures or something reasonably neutral, perhaps it would be okay to neglect to note Jacobson’s conservative background. But in a Senate race where Warren is the Democratic nominee? And when Jacobson has been regularly attacking Warren? Might be relevant.

In fact, Jacobson has been pushing the Warren Native American story HARD. He’s written no less than nine articles in the past week on the subject (more than one a day, for those watching at home), including favorites like “Elizabeth Warren’s claim of being 1/32 Cherokee in doubt” and Elizabeth Warren claims listed herself as minority to meet people, but story doesn’t hold up (Update: High cheekbones?). Check out the whole list here.

To be clear, I don’t have any issue with the content of what Jacobson said, and there wasn’t any wrongdoing by him. It’s also true that Warren’s move seems rather stupid. But, if we’re supposed to take Politico as a legitimate news organization, its writers owe us, the readers, context about speakers’ backgrounds and affiliations so that we can better evaluate their  motives and messages.

Hopefully, Politico will quickly update the story to disclose Jacobson’s conservative background, opposition to Warren, and his ties to Politico. And I hope they avoid similar issues in the future.

Edit: It came to my attention that my About page was not displaying on the right sidebar. Recognizing the obvious irony of a post urging disclosure without any easily accessible info about me on my (very new) blog, here goes: Kurt Walters, works at Public Campaign Action Fund, usual disclaimer about nothing I write speaking for anyone but myself.

Other edit: made a few small edits for clarity and to include the actual title of their piece (which has since changed). Otherwise this post’s title doesn’t make too much sense.


Written by rethoughtblog

May 4, 2012 at 11:44 am