This week is showing some symmetry, starting with an array of weak Republican campaign requests of the media and ending with a string of weak attacks on media from Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. Thanks to his rise in the polls, Carson sits at the center of a CNN investigative report by Scott Glover and Maeve Reston (with assistance from six contributors) focusing on a consequential discrepancy in his life story.
Titled “A tale of two Carsons,” the story describes an extensive effort to confirm various tales of anger and criminal outbursts by Carson when he was a youngster. Those tales come from Carson himself through his 1990 autobiography “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” and other Carson statements. They include an attempted hammer attack on his own mother, a blow to a classmate’s head that left a three-inch cut, and an attempt to kill a boy with a knife that broke upon hitting the boy’s belt buckle.
Despite interviewing nine classmates, friends and neighbors of Carson’s, the CNN team failed to find any corroborating evidence of his early rage. “I don’t know nothing about that,” Gerald Ware, a classmate of Carson’s from Detroit, told CNN in reference to the violent stories.
Could it be that Carson was always a mild-mannered, serious and thoughtful soul?
CNN reporters find themselves in a bizarre upside-down version of presidential campaign accountability journalism. Generally the goal in these biographical look-backs is to debunk candidates’ glossy revisions of their pasts. Here, CNN appears to be clearing Carson of his self-professed misdeeds.
So it boils down to a question of credibility, with which Carson displayed great discomfort in an interview this morning with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. The candidate deserves some credit for doing the interview, but the credit stops there. Over the course of several sharp exchanges with the host, Carson laid out his failure to understand the role of the media in presidential contests. Here’s a partial transcript, starting where Carson attacks the Glover-Reston-plus-six-contributors effort. Bolding and footnotes are inserted to ease annotation:
CARSON: This is a bunch of lies (1). This is what it is, a bunch of lies, attempting, you know, to say I’m lying about my history. I think it’s pathetic and basically what the media does is they try to get you distracted with all of this stuff so that you don’t talk about the things that are important (2). Because we have so many important things. You know, I’m not proud of the fact that I had these rage episodes. But I am proud of the fact that I was able to get over them.
CAMEROTA: Look, of course.
CARSON: My message has been that you can escape from that kind of anger.
CAMEROTA: Yes. People are resonating with that message.
CARSON: Some of the victims were members of my family. I understand that. I will not let them be victimized again by the media (3). If you choose to believe I’m incapable of these acts, I guess that’s kind of a compliment to me.
CAMEROTA: People are — believe that it’s fascinating to hear about your story of transformation, how you went from an angry young man to the soft-spoken doctor, renowned surgeon we see today. But what’s interesting is that our reporter did go to your campaign to ask, can we talk to these people? And your campaign wasn’t willing to make them available (4). This is the seminal story of your youth, of how you — Why can’t we talk to them?
CARSON: Why would they want to victimize these people by exposing them to you?
CAMEROTA: How is it victimizing them by saying tell us more about this story, we’re interested?
CARSON: The story is well-documented. If you choose not to believe it, if it doesn’t fit the narrative that you want, that’s fine. Let’s let the American people decide.
CAMEROTA: But Dr. Carson, your story has changed, for instance. First you say that Bob was your close friend who you almost killed. And then yesterday you said, actually his name wasn’t Bob. I changed the names. That’s fine. People do that all the time, Dr. Carson, in their memoirs.
CARSON: I changed names throughout all the books, even of patients because — unless I have specific permission from them to use their names, that’s an inappropriate thing to do.
CAMEROTA: Of course. People change the names in their memoirs all the time but they note that. They note that at the beginning if they say the fictitious names will be used. But nevertheless, then you changed it to say he was not actually a close friend, he was a family member.
CARSON: He was a family member.
CARSON: And I really don’t want to expose him further. I talked to him. He would prefer to stay out of the media. And I think — I want to respect that. What I really want to do is help people, American people, although they seem to understand it a lot already, that one of the tactics that is used by you guys in the media, particularly when someone is doing very well, is let’s find a way to get them distracted and get all the people distracted so that we can get away from the real issues. I’m simply not going to allow that to occur (5).
(1) Just what are the lies? That “nine friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson told CNN they have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described”?
(2) Carson is wrong: Biographical vetting is perhaps the most righteous form of campaign reporting that any media outlet can perform. This investigative report by CNN is a welcome counterpoint to the extensive discussion of polls and campaign optics that manages to gobble up so much of its televised work.
(3) This scary equivalence between being assaulted and being interviewed reflects a paranoia about media. If Carson spent some time with investigative campaign profiles, he’d see that outlets like CNN quite commonly protect their sources through anonymity or other measures.
(4) Here’s a charitable understatement. When CNN’s reporters asked Carson business manager Armstrong Williams for assistance in documenting Carson’s youthful anger, they got this e-mail response: “Why would anyone cooperate with your obvious witch hunt? No comment and moving on…… Happy Halloween!!!!!” That’s contempt.
(5) Dr. Carson, you have no power to prevent news outlets from investigating your autobiography. Proof of that truth spilled from Politico just before noon today in a story titled, “Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point scholarship.” In “Gifted Hands,” Carson wrote that as a 17-year-old he had met with Gen. William Westmoreland in 1969, an event that led to a “full scholarship” to the military academy (the service academies don’t charge tuition). Unlike CNN, Politico chose to focus on an easily debunked part of the Carson story.
*Updated to add news of the Politico story.