They're at it again. Their latest anti-Bernie Sanders "scoop" landed this week, "Bernie Campaign Slams Warren As Candidate of the Elite."
Throughout the present presidential campaign, Sanders has refused to attack rival Elizabeth Warren. Even when repeatedly prompted to do so by "journalists," his answer was always the same: No. Warren, he said, is his longtime friend and political ally and he's not going to do that. He has even defended her. Warren has embraced the same policy toward Sanders.
Enter Politico's Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein:
"Sanders' campaign has begun stealthily attacking Warren as a candidate of the upper crust who could not expand the Democratic base in a general election, according to talking points his campaign is using to sway voters and obtained by POLITICO."At issue is this script allegedly provided by the Sanders campaign to its volunteers:
"The script instructs Sanders volunteers to tell voters leaning toward the Massachusetts senator that the 'people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what' and that 'she's bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.'"Right off the bat, it should be noted that, based on the description of the script provided by Thompson/Otterbein, the characterization of it as an attack is strictly tendentious. The script is complimentary toward Warren ("'I like Elizabeth Warren. [optional]' the script begins. 'In fact, she’s my second choice...'"). Polling extending back several months establishes that Warren supporters are all of the things it says. There have been a large volume of articles written on the subject. Back in July, Politico itself produced one of them. Its author was Holly Otterbein. The script accurately describes the following Warren has drawn. The data are entirely uncontroversial, the concerns they raise perfectly legitimate. In a sane world, drawing such contrasts would be seen as what it is: the entire point of a political primary.
Incredibly, at no point do Thompson and Otterbein offer any information on the provenance of the alleged script, not even to cite an anonymous source. From whence did it come? Was there any vetting of this source and if so, what was it? The article is silent. Which volunteers were supposed to be getting and using the script? Where is it being used? How widespread is its use? Not only does the article fail to address any of these questions--the script, in its telling, is just something from somewhere--it suggests that the authors don't even know.
"It is unclear whether the script is being used for phone calls or door knocking or both, or in which locations."Throughout their piece, Thompson and Otterbein flat-out say this entirely unsourced script is being used by the Sanders campaign but can't actually document its use anywhere, and aren't even sure what it is! Then, there's this nugget:
"'We were told never to go negative or contrast with other candidates,' a person close to Sanders' campaign told POLITICO. 'Bernie would let us know when it was O.K.. So if that’s happening, he's aware.'"That this source is apparently in a position to know about any such a script but clearly has no knowledge of it--if he did, that's what would be quoted--should have inspired a pause. The fact that volunteers were told not to do what the alleged script instructs them to do should immediately raise a range of questions about that document. Instead, the writers simply use the latter assertion, which may or may not be based on anything, to turn potentially exculpatory information into a damning indictment. A big portion of the article is devoted to asserting the script represents a significant shift in the race--the end of the non-aggression pact between Sanders and Warren--and teasing out implications from that, but the script itself is, as described, simply too innocuous to bear this interpretation and the extended punditry based on it is built on nothing.
Did the "journalists" try to contact any Sanders volunteers and ask about this? Their story gives no indication of any such thing but in its aftermath, scores of Sanders volunteers have hit Twitter, asserting that they'd never gotten anything like the alleged script and that it contradicted the instructions they had been given. ABC News reported that "several Sanders volunteers contacted by ABC News about the script said that they did not recognize such talking points." In a series of tweets, Eric Isaac of the Kings County Democratic Committee in New York--and a Sanders volunteer--offered an explanation of the origin of the document:
"A random user who's only ever posted once before posted that document in the Sanders volunteer Slack group. A moderator promptly removed it and stated that it was NOT a campaign source."
Issac writes that "Bernie is not sending his volunteers out to trash ANY candidate. We have a very strict code of conduct on how we MUST interact with voters if we want to be part of the campaign."
Issac's thread was widely circulated and Alex Thompson eventually responded to it, tweeting "Fwiw, this popular thread is not true. Attacking reporting and pushing misinformation is not just a right-wing phenomenon." Not a good look, nor was his trashing "Bernie trolls." In none of his tweets does Thompson establish any provenance for the alleged script--they're as blank on that as his article--and his defense of his story is just astonishing:
Well, I guess that settles that, doesn't it?"I provided all the info to Bernie's camp before publishing & they didn't deny its authenticity. The doc had 'Paid for by Bernie 2020'"
PAID FOR BY BERNIE 2020.
See? This article was produced by the Sanders campaign too! For something Thompson now seems to think is critically important in establishing the origin of the document--it's the only piece of information to that end he's offered--he and Otterbein had failed to provide even that tidbit in their article.
Here's something that shouldn't have to be explained: regardless of what Politico "journalists" think, it isn't up to Sanders to prove he didn't kill Cock Robin.
Things That Shouldn't Have To Be Explained #2: The Sanders campaign can't deny a story if they've been given no story to deny. A nationwide presidential campaign is a vast enterprise involving hundreds of people. If Sanders says his campaign isn't using any such document then it turns out some low-level volunteer has been passing the script around the half-dozen members of the Northeast Bainbridge For Bernie group, Sanders is the one who ends up with egg on his face (and, per usual, days of negative press). Sanders alluded to this himself in Iowa City, Iowa on Sunday:
"Look, I just read about it. We have over 500 people on our campaign. People do certain things. I'm sure that in Elizabeth’s campaign, people do certain things as well. But you have heard me for months. I have never said a negative word about Elizabeth Warren, who is a friend of mine. We have differences of issues, that's what the campaign is about. But no one is going to be attacking Elizabeth."Sanders reiterated that "Elizabeth Warren is a very good friend of mine... We will debate the issues. No one is going to trash Elizabeth." He called the whole matter "a bit of a media blow-up," and given the available facts, that's impossible to dispute. Nothing about the document except what it says has been established by the reporting--it's a scandal that the story was published in this form--and even if it turned out to be real, the heart of the story amounts to the accusation that Sanders is guilty of doing exactly what candidates are supposed to do in political primaries. Even if the document is exactly what Politico claims (but can't show), it doesn't really mean anything.
Something every political campaign brings out is dirty tricks. Is this one of them? A document manufactured by a rival campaign or interest? An unwarranted negative interpretation of an actual document fed, either directly or indirectly, to journalists by same? If Politico's reporters considered any of these questions, they give no indication of it. Isaac's narrative, which may or may not be accurate, strongly suggests the script is a dirty trick. Thompson said that account wasn't true but he offers no alternative to it. As far as his reporting is concerned, the script remains just something from somewhere, and an innocuous something at that.
Elizabeth Warren's immediate reaction to the original article was unfortunate; she embraced Politico's tendentious characterization and immediately went negative on Sanders:
"I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me. Bernie knows me, and has known me for a long time... Democrats want to win in 2020. We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that. Democrats need to unite our party. We cannot nominate someone who takes big chunks of the Democratic Coalition for granted. We need someone who will bring our party together. We need someone who will excite every part of the Democratic Party, someone who will be there. Someone that every Democrat can believe in. I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction."This "unity" talk, of course, rings rather hollow in the face of the ugly invocation of the (false) Clinton cult narrative that Sanders was responsible for Donald Trump's election. That is, in fact, the most inflammatory charge in Democratic politics for the last few years and while no one should begrudge Warren the right to a reasoned defense of the campaign she's trying to build, this doesn't qualify, and by immediately going nuclear, she probably did herself a lot of harm. She then made things worse by sending out a fundraising letter repeating it: "Let’s be clear: As a party, and as a country, we can’t afford to repeat the factionalism of the 2016 primary." Other Warren surrogates poured on the flames as well. The New York Times reported that "a top Warren supporter in Iowa, State Senator Claire Celsi... said she was unsurprised that the Sanders campaign was leveling it. 'Doesn't surprise me about Bernie,' she said. 'He went straight to the gutter with Hillary. More of the same.'" Julian Castro, who recently dropped out of the presidential race and is now acting as a Warren surrogate, told Politico he was "disappointed that Bernie would go negative on somebody that he’s known for a long time, and worked with, and whose character he must certainly know is good."
Thompson/Otterbeing reported that Castro comment in their follow-up article, devoted to Warren's response to the initial controversy. It's another gratuitously combative piece. Sanders, the authors write, "seemed to attribute the script, which read 'PAID FOR BY BERNIE 2020,' to a rogue employee"--the first appearance in a formal article of that "paid for" line. They quote Sanders saying "[n]o one is going to be attacking Elizabeth," then counter it with "Not everyone on Sanders’ campaign staff fell in line, however," and quote remarks by national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray in which she wasn't attacking Warren, merely pointing out the hazards of nominating, in the face of Trump, a "candidate who people don't feel so strongly abt," which not only seems an obvious concern for those who want to defeat Trump but one it would be irresponsible not to consider. Making these arguments, evaluating them and picking a strong candidate is supposed to be the point of a primary.
The press loves conflict--it's what sells--but artificially manufacturing conflict isn't journalism. However problematic it may be, it is the right of Politico to be editorially hostile to Sanders and to progressives in general. Crafting what are supposed to be straight news reports around that hostility is much more problematic, and the kind of journalistic misbehavior that has so often entailed is certainly something that should be called out. Add this one to the pile.
UPDATE (14 Jan., 2019) - Today, Thompson/Otterbein are reporting in Politico that "the controversial talking points attacking Elizabeth Warren that Bernie Sanders' campaign deployed were given to teams in at least two early voting states on Friday, three Sanders campaign officials confirmed."
That's the sort of thing that should have been established before the original story was ever published. Having finally gotten this confirmation, the authors write that "some Sanders’ supporters claimed over the weekend that the campaign script wasn't genuine and that the story was false," which doesn't address any of the legitimate problems with their initial story or acknowledge that those problems generated legitimate skepticism.
Moreover, the vagueness that plagued their earlier work continues. "Volunteers and staffers used the script on Saturday while canvassing for votes, meaning the talking points were more official than what Sanders previously suggested after POLITICO reported on the language." They hadn't previously established it was official, only asserted it. Their new report is that the script was used by canvassers in two states--they provide no information on how extensively--and that it was sent out on Friday night, used for one day, Saturday, then discontinued that night. Does use of the script extend beyond that one day? Who knows? Not, apparently, Thompson/Otterbein. They say the script was issued by "the Sanders campaign" but don't get any more specific than that, then, according to two Sanders officials, it was withdrawn and replaced--more specific. The vagueness here is perhaps less important; Sanders is the candidate and he's ultimately responsible for his campaign, whether he knew what was up at the time or not. The new narrative, that the script was used for one day in two--or parts of two--states, takes an awfully small original tale and makes it even smaller. It could be that the script was more widely used and Thompson/Otterbein only went with this because that's the information they were able to dig up but the fact that the small scale of this usage is all they have even days later suggests that the authors, at the time of their original piece, didn't report on it being used anywhere because they didn't actually know it was being used anywhere.
The tendentiousness of the original piece is still firmly in place. The script is still described as controversial," as "attacking Elizabeth Warren" and containing "attacks on the electability of Warren." The piece says the script "described Warren's appeal as limited to the highly educated and financially well off," when the script had only actually noted that this was the following Warren had drawn--again, an entirely uncontroversial fact--and expressed concern based on this.