Well, this is a new one.
We’re accustomed to the media probing a politician’s past, reporting on some skeletons in the closet, then bracing for the almost inevitable response that the press accounts are erroneous, biased or completely fabricated.
But in the case of Ben Carson vs. CNN, we have a media outlet saying, “Maybe he really wasn’t such a bad guy” and a presidential candidate saying, “Oh yes I was!”
In this alternate universe, Carson — at or near the top of many Republican primary polls — is defending (if you can even call it that) his assertion that he used to be the kind of dirtbag who tried to stab a high school friend, attacked his own mother with a hammer and committed various other violent acts. A CNN report, based on interviews with nine people who knew Carson in his youth, raises questions about whether he was actually a juvenile delinquent.
“All of the people interviewed expressed surprise about the incidents Carson has described,” the cable network reported. “No one challenged the stories directly. Some of those interviewed expressed skepticism, but noted that they could not know what had happened behind closed doors.”
And now CNN's digging has been somewhat vindicated by a now-proven hole in Carson's personally penned biography. Politico reported Friday that he wasn’t actually admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as he appears to have claimed.
From there, the question is whether other details of his personal narrative unravel.
Prior to the big revelation, Carson defiantly defended himself. The famously even-keel Carson issued a fiery (by his standard) rebuttal on CNN’s airwaves Friday morning, calling the report “a bunch of lies.” His argument basically broke down into four key points:
- CNN tried to prove a negative (that certain events didn’t happen), which is a fundamentally flawed endeavor. “Tell me, what makes you think that you’re going to find those specific people?” he asked. “Tell me how your methodology works, because I don’t understand it.”
- It’s unfair to question Carson’s accounts because the events are “well documented.” “If you choose not to believe it, if it doesn’t fit the narrative that you want, that’s fine,” he said.
- CNN’s report is not relevant to the campaign and is merely a sideshow. “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,” Carson said.
- Media scrutiny of President Obama during his campaigns was much gentler, suggesting a liberal bias. “The vetting that you all did with President Obama doesn’t even come close — doesn’t even come close to what you guys are trying to do in my case.”
Let’s take these one by one:
Proving a negative is, indeed, a difficult task. This is why some people believe in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. It’s also why, in our judicial system, the burden falls on prosecutors to prove that a defendant did commit a crime, not the other way around.
But it is certainly reasonable for reporters to look for evidence corroborating a presidential candidate’s personal history. If, instead, they find a lack of evidence, they should say so — provided the effort is thorough and made in good faith. CNN reported that it “was unable to independently confirm any of the incidents.” That doesn’t mean they didn’t happen; it just means the people CNN interviewed didn’t know anything about them.
This brings us to Carson’s second point, which simply isn’t true. His violent episodes are not “well-documented.” He has described them in his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” and on the campaign trail. But he hasn’t actually documented them in any tangible way. In fact, he rebuffed CNN’s request to speak with other involved parties who could back up his version of events.
Carson explained in his TV appearance Friday that his victims wish to maintain their privacy, which is understandable. But he is, in fact, asking voters to take him at his word.
Does any of this matter to the campaign? Come on. Of course it does.
What Carson did or didn’t do as a teenager might not be as important as his tax plan or foreign policy chops. But background stories like CNN’s and Politico's are really attempts to find out — on voters’ behalf — whether candidates are honest and trustworthy.
As for the media’s treatment of Obama, the Pew Research Center did conclude that in 2008, the then-senator received slightly more positive coverage than negative in the home stretch, while “unfavorable stories about [Republican nominee John] McCain outweighed favorable ones by a factor of more than three to one.”
But, as CNN's Alisyn Camerota pointed out in her interview with Carson, Obama's "Dreams From My Father" got a close examination, too, with the president acknowledging during the 2012 race that the "New York girlfriend" described in the book was actually a composite character. (Obama had disclosed in the book's preface that "some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known" but did not specify which ones.)
In any case, only a few weeks into Carson’s status as a GOP front-runner, it seems a little early to say that the media’s vetting of Obama “doesn’t even come close” to what Carson is going through.
This post has been updated.