The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a 78-year-old mom became collateral damage in a messy fight between Sanders and Clinton supporters

A man walks into the Center for American Progress in Washington on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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The relationship between Bernie Sanders supporters and the Hillary Clinton camp was famously bitter during the 2016 presidential campaign, a sore point after Democrats’ bruising loss to President Trump.

This week, the public airing of a dispute between Sanders and a well-funded liberal think tank with deep ties to the Clintons seemed a sign that the enmity had failed to dissipate.

And that was before someone’s mother got dragged into it.

On Tuesday, the New York Times published a front-page story that looked at these long-standing beefs through the Center for American Progress — the think tank that Sanders had rebuked over the weekend — and the organization’s head, Neera Tanden, a close Clinton ally who frequently jousts online with partisans who lean further to the left.

“The bad blood started early,” the story began, recounting an allegation that Tanden had once punched — or pushed, as she told the Times — the man who now runs Sanders’s political campaign.

The Times’s story focused on critical details about the Center for American Progress, particularly about the sources from which it draws its $60 million annual budget: financiers, banks, Silicon Valley billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg, corporate titans such as the Walton family and foreign governments, including those with challenged human rights records, such as the United Arab Emirates.

But what has rankled many was the statements it included from Tanden’s 78-year-old mother, Maya, who apparently spoke freely with a Times reporter about her daughter.

Maya Tanden was quoted giving the kind of candid comments that are so hard to find in the world of politics, telling the Times, for example, that her daughter “can be very aggressive.” She complained about “Bernie brothers” — a disparaging shorthand used to refer to Sanders’s white, young and male supporters. She said her daughter was loyal to Clinton “because Hillary is the one who made her.” And she noted that her daughter was a killer fundraiser, inclined to show up “at rich people’s places because she needs funds from them.”

The quotes helped make the story a colorful one to read. But Tanden released a statement from her mother later in the day, in which the woman said she hadn’t understood the nature of the conversation she had with a New York Times reporter.

“I didn’t understand my words would be used in the story and once I understood they could be, I called her back to clarify that,” the statement said. “Only then did she tell me my words were ‘on the record,’ a term I’ve never heard before.”

The statement also said that Maya Tanden thought the piece was going to be “a nice story about Neera.”

She added:

“I feel very misled, and it is shameful the New York Times would use my words to hurt my daughter.”

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The statement was joined by a chorus of criticism from people who felt as though the mother had been dragged improperly into a messy political fight.

“The NYT story on Neera Tanden should never have brought her mom into it,” Brian Fallon, a former Clinton staffer, tweeted. “And whether you agree with Neera’s views or not, her aggressiveness is one of her biggest strengths and would be lionized if she were a man.”

“What the @nytimes did here is beyond shameful,” USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers wrote. “It was such a blatant hit piece and they took advantage of @neeratanden’s mom. There actually *is* a way to cover intraparty disagreements w out demonizing a female leader.”

Kelly McBride, a vice president at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida, said she wondered how the Times had justified calling Neera Tanden’s mother.

“It almost is a little sexist. I wonder if you would call some man’s mother and ask him what her son was up to,” she said in a phone interview. “The stuff about asking for money and the Hillary/Bernie stuff, I just don’t know that she’s an expert on that.”

The exact terms of the interview between the Times and Tanden’s mother are of course not clear. In general, ethical journalism requires that sources be made aware before an interview that their quotes are going to be used in a story, unless they specify their remarks are “off the record.” Some said they thought that Maya Tanden’s age and lack of media experience indicated that she probably should have been briefed with more care.

Still, there were others who felt her inclusion was the sign of strong reporting.

“Key principle of profile-writing: Whenever possible, talk to mom,” Timothy Noah, an editor at Politico, tweeted. “Mothers possess that perfect combination of knowing the subject quite well and being ace blabbermouths. This profile illustrates that truth quite nicely.”

No matter where people stood on the issue, the piece and the intense reaction it generated seemed to herald the return of the fraught dynamic that plagued the 2016 election for liberals: references to scandalous statements made in hacked emails, bitter criticism about the Democratic establishment’s alignment with moneyed interests and questions about the news media’s role in impartially relaying a heated debate playing out on social media.

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“Our story focuses on ideological divisions in the Democratic Party and the Center for American Progress, a think tank/political organization with a $60 million combined budget,” Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times spokeswoman, said in a statement. “It includes accurate, on-the-record comments by Maya Tanden, Neera Tanden’s mother. Maya Tanden is knowledgeable about Democratic politics and her daughter’s career, and has been active in local Democratic politics.”

Rhoades Ha said that the story broke new ground beyond the interview with Tanden’s mom: in reporting on the amount of money the Center for American Progress had accepted from the UAE and the discussion it caused at the think tank and on the center’s invite to Prince Khalid bin Salman, then the Saudi ambassador to the United States, to appear on a panel after the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, for example.

Tanden declined to comment through spokeswoman Daniella Gibbs Léger. Léger said that Tanden’s mother also declined to comment further.

The video that initially set off Sanders was made by ThinkProgress, a media group tied to the Center for American Progress. The video implied that Sanders was backing off his criticism of millionaires after the disclosure that he had earned more than a million dollars in 2017, largely from book sales. It seemed to mimic a political attack on Sanders; even Tanden rebuked it as “overly harsh” and an impediment to constructive political debate.

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