Politico chief political correspondent Tim Alberta packed a lot into his sizzling Nov. 24 feature, “The Inside Story of Michigan’s Fake Voter Fraud Scandal.” There’s a tight narration of the Trump campaign’s destructive effort to undo the Michigan vote, strong writing about the central characters in this drama and bluntness about the bad faith behind all the maneuvers. “All of this was a lie,” writes Alberta in reference to President Trump’s allegations of voter fraud in Detroit. “Republicans here — from Ronna Romney McDaniel to Laura Cox to federal and local lawmakers — knew it was a lie. But they didn’t lift a finger in protest as the president disparaged Michigan and subverted America’s democratic norms. Why?”

One thing was missing from the presentation, however: A comment from McDaniel and the Republican National Committee, which she chairs. The problem wasn’t that McDaniel declined to provide one; it was that Alberta didn’t seek one. (Michael Ambrosini, executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, tells this blog that Alberta “never” sought comment from his organization, either.) Following publication of the story, RNC Communications Director Michael Ahrens emailed Alberta with this question: “Is there a lot more editorial leeway granted with magazine pieces that allows you to write at length about someone and not reach out to them at all before publishing? Haven’t run into this before with Politico, or many other mainstream outlets to be honest, but wanted to check.”

Late on the night of publication, Alberta punched out this response:

Thanks for reaching out.
To answer your question: Our editorial standards are fairly uniform across mediums/verticals. 99.9% of the time, I will request comment from a principal or organization I’m writing about. However, there are extremely rare instances when the person/entity has proven so dishonest and so untrustworthy that I feel no obligation to provide them a platform from which to deceive the public. Sadly, that is the case with Chairwoman McDaniel and her staff at the RNC.
If you’d like to pass along comment from her in response to the piece, I’d be happy to review it.
Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving,
Tim

Well!

Credit Alberta for consistency — both his story and his email attack McDaniel and her organization for dishonesty. Alberta is a native Michigander and former National Review correspondent specializing in insider GOP reporting. His well-reviewed 2019 book — “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump” — relied on more than 300 sources. His account of recent events in Michigan rests on more than two dozen “Michigan insiders.”

Central to the story is McDaniel, a native Michigander and niece of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) who took over the RNC in early 2017. That was her cue, writes Alberta, to work as “an archetype of the Trump-era GOP sycophant. There was no lie too outlandish to parrot, no behavior too unbecoming to justify, no abuse of power too flagrant to enable.” Pushing the Trump campaign’s risible campaign against the Michigan certification was McDaniel’s way of showing her willingness to fight for the president, writes Alberta. She hopes to keep her job in a January vote on the RNC chair.

In all, Alberta’s story mentions McDaniel 18 times.

Apparently stunned by Alberta’s “99.9” formulation, the RNC’s Ahrens engaged in a bit of email statecraft, sending a note to a collection of Politico reporters to apprise them of Politico’s “new editorial standards with regards to the RNC, the chair, and all of our staff. My understanding is that these would now apply to your coverage, as well.”

Politico Editor in Chief Matt Kaminski replied to Ahrens:

Michael,
Tim’s magazine story is based on deep reporting on both sides of the aisle in Michigan the past few weeks and draws on years of reporting on the GOP and of course Michigan too. His relationship with Ronna McDaniel goes back most of the past decade. Tim’s credibility on this piece and in general is beyond question.
I won't get into our editorial processes with you or anyone else except to say that we stand by every word of the piece. Let’s also dispense with this nonsense about our “changing standards.” I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you know the answer.
If you or McDaniel wish to reply to the piece or submit an oped on this or another topic, we’d be happy to consider it.
Matt

The Trump reign has exposed the worthlessness of some journalistic conventions: allowing the president to free-associate on live television; laying out both sides of an issue when one is based on falsehoods; refusing to call a lie precisely what it is.

Let’s not discard the convention of seeking comment from the people we write about, however. It’s essential to fair and thorough journalism. Matthew Pressman, assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University and author of “On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News,” says the comment-collecting rule dates back to the drive for objectivity and professionalism in the early 20th century and probably got a “boost” from the Fairness Doctrine of 1949. Although that doctrine applied only to broadcast outlets until its revocation in 1987, it “really cemented the principle that responsible journalism meant presenting all sides and giving people an opportunity to respond,” notes Pressman via email.

In a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog, Ahrens wrote, “Whether you agree with who you are covering or not, the basic standards of journalism should still apply. I have never heard of a news organization taking the position that they are ‘beyond question’ and therefore do not need to reach out to the people they cover. Not that it should matter, but Chairwoman McDaniel has no relationship with this reporter either, much less one that spans a decade.” Politico says that Alberta interviewed McDaniel “multiple times” before she became RNC chair.

And so what would the RNC have said if Alberta had given it a chance to comment? “Had he reached out, we would have attempted to clarify some of the factual inaccuracies that made it into his piece and provided a comment,” said Ahrens in an email. Asked about those inaccuracies, Ahrens took issue with the story’s portrayal of McDaniel’s efforts to pressure a member of the board of state canvassers and the circumstances surrounding her ascent to the party chairmanship. “And she also would have welcomed the opportunity to clarify and expand on specific concerns that she had with the canvassing process in the state,” notes Ahrens.

Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring sent along this statement:

The Inside Story of Michigan’s Fake Voter Fraud Scandal is a deeply sourced article that not only makes clear the position of the national GOP, but reflects the views of a number Republicans close to the RNC whom Tim spoke with in reporting out the story. The Republican National Committee was offered an opportunity to reply to the story or to submit an op/ed from Chairwoman McDaniel on this or any other topic, which was met by crickets. The email exchange leaked by the RNC speaks for itself, but POLITICO stands by the story and encourages people to read it for themselves and form their own opinion.
At this time last year, Tim was preparing to co-moderate a DNC presidential debate, to the consternation of some Democratic operatives. It’s worth pointing out that even in this incredibly polarizing time, the one thing that RNC and DNC operatives seem to agree on is that Tim Alberta is a relentless journalist tirelessly in search of the facts, not one who will settle for warmed over talking points or other bullshit—in this instance from an entity whose positions were already made crystal clear in the piece itself.

That’s some bravado. In their private conversations, reporters often grouse about editors who “don’t have their back.” Politico’s top editors can’t be accused of that.

At what cost, though? The Politico statement preserves Alberta’s dismissal of comment-requesting. It also indulges in the fallacy that if both sides criticize you, you must be doing something right. And if Alberta is a relentless journalist, why can’t he send out another email or two?

As to Alberta’s claim that extreme dishonesty justifies a carve-out from the comment convention — why? If you are accusing people of lying, the duty to seek feedback is more urgent, not less. And besides: What’s the point of journalism if not to press the scoundrels?

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