CBS spreads Supreme Court rumor

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; 7:18 AM

The White House ripped CBS News on Thursday for publishing an online column by a blogger who made assertions about the sexual orientation of Solicitor General Elena Kagan, widely viewed as a leading candidate for the Supreme Court.

Ben Domenech, a former Bush administration aide and Republican Senate staffer, wrote that President Obama would "please" much of his base by picking the "first openly gay justice." An administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing personal matters, said Kagan is not a lesbian.

CBS initially refused to pull the posting, prompting Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director who is working with the administration on the high court vacancy, to say: "The fact that they've chosen to become enablers of people posting lies on their site tells us where the journalistic standards of CBS are in 2010." She said the network was giving a platform to a blogger "with a history of plagiarism" who was "applying old stereotypes to single women with successful careers."

The network deleted the posting Thursday night after Domenech said he was merely repeating a rumor. The flare-up underscores how quickly the battle over a Supreme Court nominee -- or even a potential nominee -- can turn searingly personal. Most major news organizations have policies against "outing" gays or reporting on the sex lives of public officials unless they are related to their public duties.

A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said he complained to CBS because the column "made false charges." Domenech later added an update to the post: "I have to correct my text here to say that Kagan is apparently still closeted -- odd, because her female partner is rather well known in Harvard circles."

CBS executives at first defended the column, noting that it appeared in an opinion section that contains contributions from blogs and publications on the left and right.

Dan Farber, editor in chief of, said that Domenech's column "just got through our filters" and that if his staff had seen "a controversial statement like that, we'd want to get more evidence of its accuracy" before publishing it. "But once it is out there," Farber said, "the better approach is just to address it head-on rather than trying to sweep it under the rug."

He changed his mind about yanking the column after receiving an e-mail from Domenech, which the blogger also sent to The Washington Post. Farber said in a statement that "after looking at the facts we determined that it was nothing but pure and irresponsible speculation on the blogger's part."

"I offer my sincere apologies to Ms. Kagan if she is offended at all by my repetition of a Harvard rumor in a speculative blog post," Domenech said. CBS initially added that statement to an editor's note that also reported the White House denial.

In his e-mail, Domenech said that the naming of an openly gay justice would show "how far we've come as a society" and that this "will be an issue of political discussion, whether we like it or not."

Domenech is editor of a year-old Web site called the New Ledger, from which the CBS column was reprinted. He is also editor of the City, a religion-oriented publication of Houston Baptist University.

The Post's Web site briefly hired Domenech as a conservative blogger in 2006. He resigned three days after his debut after a flurry of plagiarism allegations that were trumpeted by liberal Web sites. The sites found signs of plagiarism in a movie review he wrote for National Review Online and, earlier, in his writing for the College of William & Mary's student newspaper.

Domenech maintained that he did not knowingly use other people's writing without attribution but said the "firestorm" had "reached the point where there's nothing I can really do to defend myself."

Rumors invariably raise a difficult journalistic choice: whether to report on them and give them credence, or withhold them and fail to acknowledge what insiders are discussing. Marc Ambinder, a blogger for the Atlantic, wrote Monday about what he called "a baffling whisper campaign" about Kagan "among both gay rights activists and social conservatives. . . .

"So pervasive are these rumors that two senior administration officials I spoke with this weekend acknowledged hearing about them and did not know whether they were true. . . . Why is she the subject of these rumors? Who's behind them?"

Taking on Wall Street

A complicated bill has been bottled up for months on Capitol Hill. The president says he wants a bipartisan agreement. A Republican leader denounces the bill and Democrats say they may have to push it through on their own.

Sound familiar?

But the politics of the financial regulation bill feel very different than health care. On one hand, there's less sense of urgency about it: as devastating as the financial collapse was, most people aren't thinking about whether it could happen again next week, or next year. But the big banks are a much fatter target, and people aren't as nervous about the bill because it doesn't affect something supremely personal like their visits to the doctor.

As the WSJ reports: "The Obama administration is betting that widespread public resentment of Wall Street will make it harder for Republicans to oppose the bill. Administration officials are trying to splinter Republican opposition by courting individual senators, including Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Christopher 'Kit' Bond of Missouri."

Politico reports that the administration isn't in compromise mode:

"For weeks, the White House strategy on financial regulatory reform remained an open question: Would President Barack Obama water down his bill just to get something passed -- the way he did on health care?

"A Palinesque 'Hell no!' was the answer coming from the White House on Wednesday as the president, his senior aides and his allies on Capitol Hill issued an ultimatum to Republicans fighting Democrats' plans to overhaul financial oversight. . . .

"Democrats are so emboldened that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is prepared to bring the Banking Committee bill to the floor with no major concessions to Republicans and essentially dare them to vote against the measure, senior leadership aides said."

Christopher Buckley starts off with a shot at Rahm but then describes his own party as potentially suicidal:

"I wonder whether Emanuel felt that the banking system was in crisis and needed reform back in the late 1990s, when, as an investment banker, he managed to make nearly $20 million in less than two years. And having no experience at banking at all. Nice work if you can get it. . . .

"Republicans can at least be unapologetic about stuffing their pockets with Wall Street baksheesh. It's what they do. People expect them to be on the take! (I say this as a lifelong Republican. To us, corruption is just another way of saying, 'We are open for business!') Where Democrats disappoint is when they pretend to be above bribe-taking.

"With certain exceptions, such as Senator Olympia Snowe, one is left with the impression that the Republicans would rather kill the bill than suffer the ignominy of another hideous Obama legislative success between now and the November elections.

"But if the Republicans succeed in blocking the bill, they may end up electing a supermajority of Democrats in November. For if the Republican message in effect amounts to 'No, we must not, we cannot, we dare not regulate the thieving, manipulating swine who caused $9 trillion of your money to vanish! They're too important to American competitiveness!'--well, whatever the nuances in the bill, it's hard to imagine that voters won't punish obstinacy of that order."

The Lexington Herald Leader, the home-state paper of the top GOP senator, runs a stinging editorial:

"Fox Business reported on Monday that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell recently called on about 25 Wall Street executives, many of them hedge fund managers, to hear their complaints about proposals for regulating the financial industry. . . .

"McConnell's statements are perfectly calibrated to inflame the public. He insists the bill would 'allow endless taxpayer-funded bailouts for big Wall Street banks.' Their resemblance to the truth is another matter.

"The provision that McConnell claims would allow endless bailouts emerged from a bipartisan collaboration by Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. . . .McConnell, unabashedly courting Wall Street bankers for political money, is happy to scratch their backs if they'll scratch his."

Isn't that what lawmakers call constituent service?

Hannity Recalled

Sean Hannity has appeared at GOP events to raise money for the party. But now he's apparently gone too far:

"Fox News has pulled Sean Hannity from his starring role in a tea party rally just one week after Rupert Murdoch said the network should not be supporting the tea party movement.

"Hannity was set to broadcast Thursday night from a tea party rally in Cincinnati, but was rushing back to New York Thursday evening after network executives learned of the plan and said it was unacceptable.

" 'Fox News never agreed to allow the Cincinnati Tea Party organizers to use Sean Hannity's television program to profit from broadcasting his show from the event,' Bill Shine, the network's executive vice president of programming, told the Los Angeles Times. 'When senior executives in New York were made aware of this, we changed our plans for tonight's show.' "

Wary of Facebook

"First lady Michelle Obama says Facebook and other social media sites are a generational divide in raising her children.

"During her visit to Mexico, Mrs. Obama tells CNN en Espanol that she and President Barack Obama limit the use of computers for their daughters, Sasha and Malia, and ask the girls a lot of questions when they're on line. . . . Mrs. Obama said she and the president talk with their daughters about the dangers of Facebook, and 'that sort of gossip mill.' "

Tribune Vindicated

Long after the Blago scandal broke, Columbia Journalism Review reports:

"A just-revealed document, laying out the federal government's evidence against former Governor Rod Blagojevich, has given the Tribune Company a clean bill of health on their response to an alleged extortion attempt from the governor's staff.

"How so? According to the proffer, prepared by the office of United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, no one from Tribune Company was ever even offered the deal. . . .

"The tapes caught the governor's inner circle conspiring to make a deal that would have greased the skids for about $100 million in state financial assistance to the then-Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs in exchange for personnel changes to the Chicago Tribune's Blago-skeptic editorial board. '[O]ur recommendation is fire all those [bleeping] people, get 'em the [bleep] out of there and get us some editorial support,' Blagojevich told Harris"--his former chief of staff, John Harris.

"The wiretaps also recorded Harris, whom the governor had dispatched to lay on the knuckle, reporting back that he'd had a discussion with a financial advisor to the Tribune Company about toning down the editorials, and that the advisor had agreed to sound out Tribune's owner--Sam Zell--about the possibility. . . .

"Fitzgerald flatly concludes that 'Harris never had any intention of' approaching the Tribune Company about the deal. All those phone calls? Harris was just stringing his boss along, relaying discussions that he'd never had."

I am glad that no one at the Trib played ball. Now the company's only problem is that it's bankrupt.

Illegal Leaking?

Did you hear about the former National Security Agency official who was charged with leaking classified information?

"The indictment does not name the reporter, but The Washington Post has learned that she was Siobhan Gorman, a prize-winning intelligence correspondent for the Baltimore Sun at the time and subsequently at the Wall Street Journal. Gorman published a string of articles that spotlighted poor management of NSA facilities and its failure to set priorities."

I spoke with two noted First Amendment lawyers, Floyd Abrams and Bruce Sanford, both of whom were skeptical about the charges.

Ombudsman Intervention

Remember the NYT dustup between columnists Paul Krugman and Andrew Ross Sorkin? Now ombudsman Clark Hoyt has taken sides:

"Krugman and Sorkin told me that they talked Thursday. Sorkin said the conversation was 'very cordial.' Krugman called it 'not much fun.' They agreed that they disagree on the definition of nationalization.

"I think the right thing to do is to simply acknowledge that, in trying to quickly summarize Krugman's nuanced position, Sorkin over-simplified and got it wrong. Krugman did not call for the nationalization of the entire banking system."

2012 Watch

Lou Dobbs says he's considering running for president. Just thought you should know.

A Modest Man

The WP's Gene Weingarten may have won his second Pulitzer this week, but, he says:

"Journalists who have closely followed the Pulitzers (read: all journalists) understand that on some level, it is a bit of a crapshoot. There's a lot of winnowing by committee, and committee work can be imperfect. The majority of winners are deserving, but some works -- objectively measured against others that did not even become finalists -- seem comparatively weak. In short, deep down we all know that in this process, luck matters. So when you DO win, there is lurking suspicion that maybe you did not deserve it; this suspicion is only compounded by the central irony of the situation -- that to others, a Pulitzer is taken as an immutable validation of your talent. As a result, in the center of your being, you harbor the deep suspicion that you are an impostor, a poseur, a craven fraud, a person to be secretly loathed."

Tough Job

Ever wonder what NYT food critic Sam Sifton eats? Me neither. But after looking at his intake--crabmeat sautéed in butter with mushrooms, barbecued pork pie, fried rabbit livers, fried pork rinds, 10-inch hero with fried oysters, bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise--I'm amazed he's still walking around.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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