Whatever happens to the presidential candidacy of former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the news conference he held in South Florida this weekend will live on. It was as if the sleepy-eyed motivational speaker known to millions of people had been swapped out for a ringer – a flame-breathing, uncompromising scourge of media bias.
"There is a desperation on behalf of some to try to find a way to tarnish me," he said. "My prediction is that all of you guys trying to pile on is going to help me. When I go out to these book signings and meet these thousands of people, they say, 'Don't let the media get you down.'"
Pushed and pushed, Carson channeled the conservative id. Why, he asked, was he being subjected to the kind of scrutiny the current president never was?
"I do not remember this level of scrutiny for one President Barack Obama when he was running," Carson said. "In fact, I remember just the opposite. I remember people saying, oh, we won't really talk about that relationship. Frank Marshall Davis? We don't want to talk about that. Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers? He didn't really know him. All the things that Jeremiah Wright was saying. Goes to Occidental College, doesn't do all that well, somehow ends up at Columbia University. Oh, I don't know. His records are sealed. Why are you guys not interested in whether his records are sealed?"
On Twitter, liberal critics of Carson thought they saw a man in full meltdown, like Lonesome Rhodes after the public caught him on a live mike. The Carson campaign saw something else: dollar signs. According to Carson spokesman Doug Watts, the campaign raised $3.5 million during its toughest week of coverage. Tellingly, a full $500,000 of that came from telemarketing on Friday, the day of the news conference, when CNN, Politico and Wall Street Journal all carried stories about claims made by Carson relating to his life story.
Also, tellingly, the only Republican rival to join in the pile-on has been Donald Trump, who appears constitutionally incapable of doing otherwise. Jeb Bush, who has fallen far beyond Carson in poll numbers, told Fox News that he trusts him. To say otherwise would be to anger the conservative base, which had been waiting for a rant such as Carson's.
The fury of party activists shouldn't overwhelm investigative journalism. Like Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti, I thought Politico’s Kyle Cheney had the grist of a good story, deeply reported, muddied by the Web site's initial headline. It was not news that Carson had never applied to West Point. Yet during the weekend, conservative readers wrote in to ask me how a reporter could be so unfair to Carson. A sample:
The statement may be correct in a very technical way, but most people who hear that a student gets a full ride with all tuition, room and board paid for would call that a scholarship.
Your readers will recall the lack of serious scrutiny by the Post of President Obama's claims in his book and his extreme equivocation on multiple contradictory statements made relative to his relationship with Jeremiah Wright. Why should readers be urged to consider the President's statements in their "context" but the same accommodation not be extended to Dr. Carson?
I do think it rich to see the press suddenly so interested in the academic records of potential presidential candidates. Especially subtle recollected details of events 35+ years ago. I'm sure I've never misremembered anything in my past. After all, as another candidate so eloquently put it, "What difference does it make?"
The last two e-mails were representative, because, on the right, it is accepted as truth that the media failed to vet Obama and smoothed his path to the White House. It doesn't matter that ABC News broke the Jeremiah Wright story or that Politico broke the Bill Ayers story. Because those stories were not piled on Obama — or because he was able to break free of them — they are proof that the media went easy and allowed him to become president.
This take on the press is basically immutable. In 2012, Breitbart News published a series on a young Obama titled “The Vetting,” predicated on the idea that "the complicit mainstream media had refused to examine President Obama’s ideological past." When the stories failed to blow up the president's reelection, a process called "BenSmithing" was blamed, named for the editor of Buzzfeed. BenSmithing, according to the New York Times, meant "writing an article that supposedly tackles a Democratic Party scandal, but is actually intended to dismiss the issue." Why was Smith a fitting namesake? Well, before Buzzfeed, he was the Politico reporter who first wrote about Obama's political debts to Ayers. The assumption that the media vets Democrats only as a way to clear them runs as deep as the assumption that it vets Republicans to destroy them.
Carson, more than almost any Republican politician, is suited to make this argument. He is not really comparable to Herman Cain, a popular but minor tea party figure who become a primary phenom and blamed bias for the scrutiny that ended his campaign. Carson is an icon whose memoir has passed through the hands of home-schoolers and even public school students for decades.
More people have read "Gifted Hands" than perhaps will ever read "Dreams from My Father,"Obama's memoir. Obama was known to Democratic voters roughly 2½ years before he started running for president. Carson and his biography have been known since the late 1980s. Cover a Carson mega-rally, and you'll find people who know a young person who benefited from a Carson-endowed scholarship, or were even operated on by the man himself.
The reporters now vetting Carson may know this, but it hasn't stopped them from falling into a trap. In Florida, after Carson asked why reporters had demanded his records but not those of Obama, one reporter could be heard quizzically asking why Obama's biography would ever be questioned. He had never tried to hide his mediocre early school tales.
"He wrote them in the book," the reporter said.
That was exactly Carson's point. One candidate's book was a shield; another candidate's, a Republican one, had suddenly become an oppo file. If that's his defense, millions of conservatives are ready to endorse it.