This past weekend was a milestone in the history of conservative relations with the mainstream media. A reporter told a story — and it was accepted, on the right, as God's honest truth. In an age when audiences cheer Donald Trump's insults of the media, it verged on inspirational.
All James Asher had to do was tell a story that reflected poorly on Hillary Clinton.
The gist, in case you missed it: Trump walked back five years of "birther" conspiracy talk by insisting that "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther movement." With a frankness that surprised media critics, reporters pointed out that Trump was lying. Not "dissembling," not "stretching the truth" — on the front page of newspapers, Trump was accurately pinned with a lie. Rumors that President Obama was not born in the United States predated the Clinton campaign, and the most famous incident of a Clinton supporter pushing the rumor was the high-profile firing of a volunteer in Iowa.
But on Friday afternoon, a number of conservatives on Twitter pointed to the account of James Asher, a former McClatchy editor now working at the nonprofit Injustice Watch. Since March, Asher had said that Sidney Blumenthal, a notorious Clinton ally who briefly became an unpaid adviser to the 2008 Clinton campaign, once told him to pursue the rumor that Obama was born in Kenya. Asher's new tweets on the subject were retweeted thousands of times; Jake Tapper, the CNN anchor who is unusually responsive to social media, pursued the story and asked Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Clinton's running mate, about it.
The McClatchy story based on Asher's tweet clarified that Blumenthal did not "start" the story — "at the time of Mr. Blumenthal’s conversation with me," Asher said, "there had been a few news articles published in various outlets reporting on rumors about Obama’s birthplace." Second, it provided very little to rebut Blumenthal's denial of the story, to my colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee and others. Asher said he'd met with Blumenthal and sent a reporter to Kenya on his tip. As supported, he noted that he still had one of Blumenthal's business cards.
In the intellectual hothouse that is "weekend Twitter," I pointed out these details and summoned angry tweets about how I was covering up for Clinton. Their arguments were made best Monday in a column by the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto.
Blumenthal denied it, and some journalists took his side against Asher. “Imagine a reporter claiming Steve Bannon once told him that Hillary killed Vince Foster,” tweeted the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who finished the thought: “Do you ask the reporter for more proof? Or do you run with it?” Later, he added: “Journalism, er, isn’t about taking someone’s word. If your mother says ‘I love you,’ you verify it.”
Which is exactly what Asher says he did. Blumenthal told him Obama was born in Kenya; Asher sent a reporter there to check out the claim, which turned out to be baseless. But in Weigel’s analogy, Asher is the putatively loving mother. Weigel is setting up a standard he cannot possibly mean to apply in general: When a reporter reports that a source told him something, do not believe him without further verification.
But that's not the standard, and I didn't "side with" anyone here. The sequence of events was that a reporter made a claim, and his source denied that claim. That happens — and when it does, the story is not over. At that point, it's up to the reporter to back up his story, often a fun experience that embarrasses a source as he tries to wriggle out of trouble. I've been placed in this position several times, asked by campaigns or PolitiFact to produce my notes or tape from a conversation. This, again, was what Asher produced:
Forget for a second that we're also taking his word on the business card. (He doesn't show it to us.) Asher did not provide any of the supporting evidence you might expect if a story gets challenged. As an author at the conservative Buckley Club wrote, Asher might have silenced the skeptics with:
- detailed notes of his meeting with Blumenthal.
- multiple, unbiased reporters confirming that he met with Blumenthal in 2008 and that the subject of the meeting was birtherism.
- evidence that he sent an investigator to Kenya to pursue these claims.
- the investigator who traveled to Kenya confirming the investigation, the reason for the investigation and the source.
My colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee got no response from Asher when asking about Blumenthal's denial. Neither have I (though I asked only Monday). Meanwhile, a number of reporters have pointed out the strangest part of the story — Blumenthal, who was notorious for sending flurries of email "tips" during the 2008 campaign, appeared to have sent nobody a "birther" tip. The only story of him doing so came, eight years later, from James Asher.
In the Atlantic magazine, James Fallows has written about his own tips from Blumenthal, and found that while he pushed enough to ruin his chances of a job in Clinton's State Department, he never pushed the "birther" story. I checked with Peter Dreier, who broke a damaging story about Blumenthal in 2008, exposing how many anti-Obama emails he had been sending.
"I received all the emails that Sid sent to his list during the 2008 election campaign," Dreier told me." I got them secondhand from someone who got them directly from Sid. As I wrote in my Huff Post article back then, Sid circulated articles from a wide variety of sources — including extreme right-wing sources — to attack Obama. But he didn’t once include any articles or rumors suggesting that Obama was not born in the U.S. The other day I reviewed the emails to double-check, and I stand by that statement."
Blumenthal's unhelpful surrogate work for Clinton has been exposed many times since, most infamously in emails revealed during the various Freedom of Information Act requests of Clinton's State Department. But in eight years, the only suggestion that Blumenthal pushed the "birther" story came this weekend. After Asher's tweets went up, the former pro-Clinton blogger Larry Johnson published his own take, insisting that "Sidney was the conduit who fed damaging material to me" and that "in writing or through a verbal briefing," Blumenthal had passed on allegations about Obama's citizenship.
But like Asher, Johnson could point to no contemporary proof — something that would come in handy, as Johnson's credibility largely ended after he spent weeks in 2008 promising that the release of "the whitey tape" would destroy Obama. (You don't want to know.)
In theory, Blumenthal could be hiding from the truth. And it's not impossible (though it is not likely) that every journalist who knows Blumenthal — even those who have written damaging stories about him — would be covering for him now. The problem is that Asher has not given sleuths anything else to go on. He has not tweeted since the McClatchy article ran and since skeptical journalists noted that he had often tweeted criticism of Clinton.
Still, plenty of reporters do that. The problem with this story is that it's a he-said/he-said; barring more evidence from Asher, there's no way to prove it. The meta-problem is that many readers did not ask for proof, or even need it. It made sense, to them, that the sketchy Clinton operative would have behaved like this. It made sense that the media -- the many, many reporters who know Blumenthal -- would cover up what they knew for years.
What mattered for many conservatives, starting with the Trump campaign's surrogates on Sunday's talk shows, was that the claim was made, and that it could be used as a smoke bomb when the discussion of Trump's long-held birther theories got too hot.
Editor's note: This article has been corrected. James Asher works for Injustice Watch, not the Injustice Project. A reference to what Asher "claimed" about the Blumenthal meeting has been changed to a reference to what he "said" about it. A reference to McClatchy's article, which originally referred to "suspicions" it raised, has been changed to reflect what it did and did not say.