A few thoughts on the Ilhan Omar marriage story
- I don’t blame reporters for chasing it.
- I don’t blame their outlets for publishing something.
- I do blame their outlets for what they published.
The basic outline of the story:
Power Line, a site preoccupied with elected officials’ faith (when those officials are Muslim) gets ahold of anonymous postings on a Somali web forum. The posts allege State Rep. candidate Ilhan Omar is a) a bigamist who b) married her brother to c) commit immigration fraud. Power Line searches a state database and discovers an active marriage license issued to Omar and a different man than the one she presents on the campaign trail as her husband.
Power Line seeks a response from Omar’s campaign. The campaign acknowledges receiving the inquiry. In a follow-up message, Power Line writer Scott Johnson— a lawyer — alleges a crime:
As I think about this, assuming the information I have is correct, it seems to me that the marriage to her brother would be void ab initio and entered into solely for dishonest purposes. I would appreciate your addressing that as well.
Power Line treats this as confirmation, and begins foot-stamping for the mainstream media to cover the story. “Will The Star Tribune Ask the Question?” “A Message to the Star Tribune.” And finally — after Strib reporter J. Patrick Coolican mentions the controversy in his morning newsletter — “A Message From The Star Tribune.”
Coolican then writes a full story. The lede:
Ilhan Omar, whose victory in a Minneapolis DFL primary last week virtually assured her of becoming the nation’s first Somali-American legislator, denied recent reports that she married her brother to commit immigration fraud while remaining married to the man who is the father of her three children.
Coolican reprints the Omar campaign’s specific denial: “Allegations that she married her brother and is legally married to two people are categorically ridiculous and false.”
Fox9 runs a story around the same time noting, “While Ilhan Omar’s campaign wouldn’t provide any documentation or explanation for the marriage licenses on file, they did release a statement calling the rumors about her personal life ‘absurd’ and ‘false.’”
Power Line’s Johnson is unsatisfied. According to Coolican: “’Neither Ilhan Omar nor her campaign has offered an explanation for what is going on here,’” [Johnson] said. “The voters of Omar’s district deserve a straight answer to a simple question. Now, they have failed to provide one either to me or to the Star Tribune.”
It’s pretty easy to spot the problem: “Do you deny you stopped being married to your brother to commit immigration fraud?” is the new “Do you deny you stopped beating your wife?”
Power Line published the allegation based on since-erased anonymous forum posts. Forum screenshots show nothing more than the (undisputed) marriage license and some Facebook posts where the legal husband refers to Ilhan’s kids as “nieces” and “nephews.” Neither Fox9 nor the Star Tribune could reach the alleged brother. Neither advanced proof of sibling or immigration ties, nor did Power Line. Yet the allegation received lurid play merely based on … nothing, really.
Should Fox9 and Coolican have worked the story? Absolutely. The marriage license situation alone justifies that.
While I am not fond of the “you wouldn’t complain about this if she was with the other party” defense that journalists frequently throw up, I agree with it here. If, say, Kurt Daudt listed a spouse on his campaign site but a leftblog found he was legally married to someone else, I’d expect mainstream reporters to chase and publish that story, if the facts were the same. Based on 35 years in the biz, I’m sure they would.
BUT. A big part of our job is knowing when NOT to publish things. For many years, a high-ranking politico was relentlessly rumored to be a serial philanderer. Some reporters chased the story, hard. No proof was found. Nothing was published.
Let’s say it took the pol 2–3 days to issue increasingly specific denials. Would reporters view that suspiciously? Hell yes. Would they continue to chase the story? Almost certainly. Would it see print without something more? No.
The brother and immigration allegations were based on nothing more. The Strib and Fox9 shouldn’t have retransmitted those until there was something.
Would Power Line have turned blue and screamed “media bias?” Almost certainly. Tough shit, Power Line.
Yes, the Strib and Fox9 would’ve had to white-knuckle it as other outlets onpassed Power Line’s virus. These days, it’s too easy for editors (where WERE the editors?) to green-light stories based on “it’s already out there.” But don’t flash your journalism awards and tell me about what separates you from the sleazoids then. Have some faith that your superior reporting will shut everyone up who cries “FIRST!”
For sure, the Omar campaign’s response was clumsy — first vague, then stonewalling, then FINALLY providing a plausible narrative — which fueled the story. However, the very point of wife-beating denials is that there is no win. I don’t know if the staff miscalculated in a tricky situation, or the candidate’s outrage constrained a fuller explanation. Again, though, it’s on us as journalists to require a minimum standard of proof before we retransmit.
Today, Omar’s supporters are touting her latest response, and lacerating media racism. Omar IS judged differently. The bigots are more likely to provoke, and more likely to find takers in a majority-culture ignorant of how the Muslim faith works. (This also constrains us from evaluating claims based on faith.) Some is pure circumstance: Omar is from a culture of relatively recent immigrants.
But there are other media-training lessons here. Ad hominem attacks on bigots’ motives — however valid — won’t sway good reporters. Calling a source an Islamphobe or Donald Trump, Jr. may be excellent politics, but it doesn’t suffice as a response. I don’t care who gives me the tip, though I’ll try to characterize my source honestly in my story — if it runs.
Also, while candidates who hide behind statements and spokespeople are often victors, an effective delaying tactic risks making journalists chase you longer and harder.
But it’s more important than ever that the media toughen up about how they are manipulated.
There’s an excellent Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece that’s just resurfaced on Donald Trump’s new campaign CEO, Steve Bannon. Bannon runs Breitbart News, but amid all the bigotry and misogyny, he deploys researchers who dig up actual documents and facts. He then passes them on to mainstream sites like the New York Times, understanding that, say, a Hillary Clinton hit is more effective coming from the Times than Breitbart — even filtered through the Times’ MSM standards.
Bannon’s money quote:
“’What you realize hanging out with investigative reporters is that, while they may be personally liberal, they don’t let that get in the way of a good story. And if you bring them a real story built on facts, they’re f — -ing badasses, and they’re fair.’”
That’s fine trade-off — your facts, our standards — if the standard is more than “People are saying, do you deny?” In the case of Power Line’s two most serious allegations, the Strib and Fox9 got played.