By Jamison Foser
When it became clear that Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke fabricated the story for which she and the paper were honored, Washington Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee apologized to the Pulitzer advisory board, and the prize was withdrawn.
When The Boston Globe found out Patricia Smith had fabricated columns for the newspaper, it asked the American Society of Newspaper Editors to rescind the Distinguished Writing Award it had recently given Smith, withdrew her columns from Pulitzer consideration, and asked her to resign.
That’s how news organizations should behave when they find out they have published fraudulent work: swiftly and thoroughly apologize, and return any awards won as a result of the bogus work.
And then there’s The New Republic, and its publication of Betsy McCaughey’s infamous hatchet job on the Clintons’ health care reform efforts. Long after it became clear that McCaughey’s 1994 health care horror story "No Exit" was fraudulent, The New Republic still holds onto the National Magazine Award it won for the article. Andrew Sullivan, TNR‘s editor at the time, still boasts in his official biography of the article’s influence and brags about the award.
Oh, sure, TNR has often tried to appear to distance itself from the article. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find another 15-year-old journalism scandal for which those responsible (most of them, anyway) remain more superficially apologetic than TNR‘s publication of "No Exit." From virtually the moment McCaughey’s apocalyptic take on the Clintons’ efforts to enact universal health care arrived on the scene, through the present day, New Republic reporters and editors have been debunking and apologizing for it — or, at least, trying very hard to appear to be apologizing for it.
The truth, however, is a little more complicated.
We begin with Andrew Sullivan, who as editor of The New Republic commissioned, edited, and ran McCaughey’s fraudulent hit job. Since doing so, Sullivan has been boastful of the article’s impact and awards won, expressed regret that such a lie-filled screed made it into his magazine, claimed to have been unaware of its flaws, admitted having been aware of its flaws, defiantly stood by his decision to publish it, and implied that the decision wasn’t his at all. And he has frequently taken several of those positions at once.
In response to criticism from Ezra Klein in 2007, Sullivan dashed off an all-over-the-map screed. In a span of about 300 words, Sullivan declared himself "proud" of his role in helping to defeat the Clinton health care plan; referred to the publication of "No Exit" as a "sin"; said he was "aware of the piece’s flaws but nonetheless was comfortable running it"; bragged about the award it won; called Hillary Clinton an "arrogant, paranoid self-righteous prick" (no, Andrew, Clinton has not conceded she behaved that way, any more than you have conceded being a dishonest jackass more interested in touting your own ill-gotten awards than in the truth); claimed he and TNR were trying to "rescue" universal health care; and insisted Clinton was "not a victim."
Earlier this week, Sullivan again addressed "No Exit":
I do not think it’s professional to air the specifics of internal battles after the fact, and I take full responsibility for being the editor of the magazine that published the piece. I accepted an award for it. I stood behind it. In my view, it had many interesting points and as an intellectual exercize in contemplating the full possible consequences of Hillary Clinton’s proposal, it was provocative and well worth running. But its premise that these potential consequences were indisputably in the bill in that kind of detail was simply wrong; and I failed to correct that, although all I can say is that I tried. One key paragraph — critical to framing the piece so it was not a declaration of fact but an assertion of what might happen if worst came to worst — became a battlefield with her for days; and all I can say is, I lost. I guess I could have quit. Maybe I should have.
I was the editor; I threatened to quit on another occasion; it was my call; and I took credit for its impact; and did not criticize her (and praised her tenacity) subsequently. No one else is responsible. In retrospect, it was not my finest hour. I think there was a fascinating and provocative piece in there.
Let’s stop there for a second. So far, in a single blog post, Sullivan has said he takes "full responsibility" for the piece, said "no one else is responsible," and implied that he did not actually have control over what was and was not in the article. He said it was "well worth running," and that he knew its premise was "simply wrong." He said he "accepted an award" for the piece and "stood behind it" and "took credit for its impact" and "did not criticize" McCaughey — and even praised her — then admitted it was not his "finest hour," but did not actually say he no longer stands behind it, did not say he regrets its impact, and did not say he will give back the award. After acknowledging the "premise" of the piece was "simply wrong," he again defends the article as "fascinating and provocative."
But look: it was one piece in a magazine. It’s being treated as if it were a turning point in history. Please. There’s one reason the Clinton healthcare bill failed and it isn’t Betsy McCaughey. It’s Hillary Clinton.
Just one paragraph earlier, Sullivan acknowledged he "took credit for its impact." Now he suggests it had none. But, as Atrios first noted, if you glance over to the right side of the page and click on "Andrew’s Bio," you’ll see Sullivan describe "No Exit" as an "essay that was widely credited with helping to torpedo the Clinton administration’s plans for universal health coverage."
Maybe that’s where people got the idea the article was a "turning point in history."
So, in a nutshell: Andrew Sullivan takes full responsibility; he knew McCaughey’s article was "simply wrong" in its premise; he tried to fix it but was unable to do so; maybe he should have quit, but "no one else is responsible"; and he has taken and continues to take credit for its impact, but people shouldn’t say it had an impact.
One thing — and only one thing — is certain: Sullivan has never clearly apologized for running the article or said he was wrong to do so — and, indeed, he continues to brag about having won awards for it.
At first glance, current New Republic editor Franklin Foer seems somewhat more consistent and apologetic. The Summer 2007 issue of Columbia University’s alumni magazine quotes Foer saying of McCaughey’s article, "We recanted that story in the first issue [of his tenure] and apologized for it." Earlier this month, Foer said, "To me, it’s an original sin that I hope we can expunge."
After reading through Sullivan’s occasionally defiant and always contradictory statements about "No Exit," Foer’s comments appear refreshingly straightforward.
But what do they really mean? What does he mean by "recanted" and "apologized" and "expunge"? That should be pretty clear, but if you look at what the magazine has actually done under his stewardship, you’ll find TNR and Foer spend more time claiming to have apologized than apologizing.
Take the word "expunge." To this day, "No Exit" is sitting right there on The New Republic‘s website, with no editor’s note attached, no factual errors noted — not even a link to the rebuttal by Mickey Kaus TNR published in 1995. That doesn’t sound very "expunged" to me.
How about Foer’s claim to have "recanted" and "apologized for" the article in the first issue of his tenure? If TNR actually did so, they’re not eager for you to read that apology. There is no apology available on Nexis, unlike much of the magazine. Nor does it seem to be available on TNR‘s website. If you hunt and dig long enough, you’ll find this June 2007 entry which links to "last year’s editorial advocating universal coverage, in which the Editors apologized for TNR’s role in its defeat." Maybe that’s the recantation and apology to which Foer referred? We’ll never know: The link doesn’t work.
Unless this is what Foer was referring to: a March 27, 2006, editorial headlined, "Moral Imperative," that begins:
Over the last 25 years, liberalism has lost both its good name and its sway over politics. But it is liberalism’s loss of imagination that is most disheartening. Since President Clinton’s health care plan unraveled in 1994 — a debacle that this magazine, regrettably, abetted — liberals have grown chastened and confused, afraid to think big ideas.
The editorial continued for 1,751 more words — not one of them having anything to do with Betsy McCaughey, "No Exit," or The New Republic‘s role in the unraveling of the Clinton health care plan.
Pretty weak stuff, as far as recantations and apologies go. It doesn’t even specifically mention the article or the author. The mea culpa is a mere seven words: "a debacle that this magazine, regrettably, abetted."
It’s such an insignificant little non-apology that TNR‘s Michelle Cottle didn’t bother to mention it in her recent evisceration of McCaughey. And why would she? It didn’t even mention McCaughey or her article.
Can that possibly be what Foer refers to as a recantation and an apology? If so, it’s almost enough to make Sullivan’s schizophrenic comments about "No Exit" look clear and forceful.
Then there’s Martin Peretz. Sullivan claims to have tried unsuccessfully to remove the falsehoods from McCaughey’s piece — a task that is a little like removing the water from the ocean: It’s a tremendous amount of work, and if you somehow succeed, there’s nothing left. But if Sullivan lost fights over the content of "No Exit," to whom did he lose? Surely McCaughey didn’t overrule him; Sullivan was TNR‘s editor. Presumably, Peretz, the magazine’s owner and editor-in-chief, interceded on her behalf.
Like Sullivan, McCaughey, and TNR itself, Peretz was a named recipient of the National Magazine Award. Like Foer, Peretz is currently on the magazine’s masthead, as editor-in-chief. And like McCaughey, Peretz has been unapologetic.
In January 2008, Peretz recalled "No Exit," without expressing a trace of remorse, by way of explaining what he imagines is Hillary Clinton’s snub of him at a Rose Garden event:
I don’t have an explanation. Except that The New Republic was not especially enamored of her health plan which, in retrospect, has impeded health reform for a decade and a half. As it happens, we had published a devastating analysis of the proposal by Elizabeth McCaughey; and somehow, in the mysteries of Washington, this became the vivid center of the debate. The White House actually put out what I recall as a nine page rebuttal to the TNR critique, another tactical mistake in the genius presidency. Anyway, it is to this article that her snub to me may be attributed. But it could be something even more petty.
Earlier this week, Peretz weighed in on McCaughey’s behalf:
"I do not think Betsy is an intellectual fraud. Not at all," Peretz wrote in an email.
"I have not read the Cottle piece and I do look forward to doing that," he continued. "But the issue that McCaughey went after was one of the most intricate and economically challenging ones that America has faced, as we can see from the present debate."
Needless to say, Peretz has not recanted or apologized for "No Exit."
For all of Foer’s talk about expunging and recanting and apologizing, it seems TNR has never actually done anything of the kind. It has tried to distance itself from the stink of "No Exit" without actually disowning it. And, it must be added, without renouncing the awards and honors the article illegitimately brought TNR. Sullivan boasts to this day of the National Magazine Award.
Salon’s Joe Conason argues that Sullivan and Peretz should "return the National Magazine Award, for the sake of the journalists and editors who have honestly earned that prize. That gesture might restore a semblance of sanity to the debate over healthcare."
Conason’s last line is key. TNR, Sullivan, Peretz — everyone involved — should fully renounce McCaughey’s article and the awards it brought in the most dramatic way possible for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do. It is what other news organizations have done when they have been honored for fraudulent work. It is what decency demands. But they should also do so because McCaughey continues to be granted a position of authority and influence by their fellow journalists, and TNR alone is in a position to take a dramatic step to make her dishonesty clear. An article eviscerating McCaughey — no matter how well written — is not sufficient. Not from the magazine that unleashed her lies in the first place. TNR can show it is serious by taking the serious step of apologizing for and returning the award.
Inexplicably, McCaughey is trotted out on television shows and in newspapers to provide "expert" analysis of current health care reform proposals. Incredibly, McCaughey is cast in precisely the role she performed so fraudulently last time around: as the just-the-facts Ph.D. who has, unlike the advocates of reform, actually read every page of the bill. Once again, she brings with her — and dramatically waves around — an almost unbelievably thick three-ring binder, which she incredulously announces is only half of the bill. She peppers her alarmist (and clearly false) claims about health care reform with footnotes and page numbers. Those page numbers happen to be the only things she says that actually appear in the bill. But never mind all that. She’s an "expert."
It’s exactly the same role she has played in the past. She doesn’t even have enough respect for her audience to come up with a new way to lie about health care. And why should she, when the news media keep showing that they’ll fall for the same old tricks again and again?
And when I say "the media," let me be clear: I am not referring to Fox News. They are not "the media"; they are propagandists and partisan operatives. Were McCaughey’s lies spread only by Fox News, the damage would be contained. They would barely be notable amidst the crazy-talk about indoctrination and Hitler Youth and FEMA camps.
But McCaughey’s lies are not contained to Fox News. Earlier this year, for example, CNN built a segment that purported to "fact check" health care provisions in the proposed stimulus package around McCaughey’s objections. (CNN apparently didn’t think viewers should know that McCaughey’s entire claim to fame — and to health care expertise — is having written a dishonest and fraudulent takedown of health care reform 15 years ago.)
Turning to McCaughey for a "fact check" on health care would be hilarious if it wasn’t so destructive. Facts just aren’t her expertise — faking facts is. It’s like asking Milli Vanilli to serve as judges on American Idol.
And yet McCaughey’s fake facts form the basis of CNN reports, she is invited to appear on MSNBC, her columns run in newspapers, her lies spark a media-wide frenzy about "death panels"; again and again, directly and indirectly, the media allow someone best known for lying about health care to drive the health care debate by lying about health care.
If Foer and TNR really regret inflicting McCaughey on an unsuspecting world, and if Sullivan really takes responsibility for publishing her, they’ll do the only appropriate thing: clearly and forcefully apologize, and return the award. That’s what news organizations do when they win awards for fraudulent articles. That’s what people who are really sorry and really want to make amends do.
Everything else is just talk.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.