Jane Mayer’s Poor Journalism

With so much discussion right now of the 99 percent vs. 1 percent, The New Yorker has a timely profile by Jane Mayer of Art Pope, businessman, philanthropist, and political funder in the state of North Carolina.  The title and subtitle indicate the gist: “State for Sale: A conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds.”  As with her earlier portrait of the Koch brothers, Mayer presents Pope as a rich ideologue using foundations, think tanks, and political contributions to put Republicans in office and eliminate liberal policies—successfully enough that one of Mayer’s interviewees, a Democrat who was the target of GOP ads, declares, “for an individual to have so much power is frightening.  The government of North Carolina is for sale.”

Demonstrating Pope’s tactics and ascent, along with the personality behind them, is the purpose of Mayer’s article, and it runs for 13 pages in the magazine.  The topic calls for a detailed investigation into campaign funding and recent political history in North Carolina, not to mention the specific workings of Pope-supported organizations, but Mayer’s approach entails a different method.  Here is one specimen of it.

After quoting one Mac McCorkle, a “former Democratic campaign consultant . . . now a visiting lecturer at Duke,” attributing to Pope a “puerile Ayn Randism,” Mayer observes that in her conversations with him Pope often mentions “the great political philosophers.”   Indeed, he even claims to admire John Rawls, probably the most important liberal political philosopher of the second half of the 20th Century.  But, Mayer notes, Pope makes a distinction:

Pope also described himself a big admirer of John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice,” which argues for equality of opportunity, but he had one major caveat: he doesn’t like Rawls’s belief in ‘redistributive justice,’ which allows for the transfer of wealth to the worst-off members of society.

Pope’s position may be wrong or partial or ill-informed, but it’s certainly a reasonable one.  How does Mayer address it?  Here is the next sentence:

Joseph Levine, who teaches political philosophy at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, and who studies with Rawls at Harvard, says, “John Rawls would be rolling in his grave if he knew what Art Pope said.”

That’s all.  Mayer says nothing more about Rawls or about the validity of a distinction between equality of opportunity and redistributive justice.  All we get is a huff from a UMass philosophy faculty member, as if Pope’s beliefs don’t even deserve refutation.  They are beneath any consideration at all.  A simple, head-shaking, “Rawls-in-his-grave” remark suffices.  Note the social set-up, too, the wealthy Carolina bumpkin paired with the Massachusetts professor/Harvard graduate student.  Obviously, Mayer phoned Levine after talking with Pope and passed along his statements, and one assumes that Levine offered several comments, some of them substantive, but Mayer chose this one, and this one alone.

The episode illustrates the rhetoric of “State for Sale.”  Mention something Pope said or did, offer a few sentences of superficial background, then find someone to say something rotten about it.  “Rotten” is no exaggeration.  Here are other statements made about Pope in the article:

“What he’s doing is buying elections.” (Democratic state senator)

“Deep down, he’s an ideologue, a zealot.” (McCorkle)

“It’s a plantation mentality.  He preys on the poorest of the poor, and uses it to advance the agenda of the richest of the rich.” (state Democratic party chair)

“Pope created a climate of fear.” (director of the left-wing Institute for Southern Studies)

“The Pope machine is narrow-minded and mean-spirited and poisoned the university.” (Chapel Hill classics professor)

“You practically need a flow chart to keep track of this guy.” (a member of NC Policy Watch)

Mayer quotes extensively from Richard Morgan, a Republican legislator with whom Pope had a falling out years before.  Morgan states that Pope one day marched into his office and “rapped a list down” on his desk showing “every candidate and group he and his family had given money to.”  Morgan tells Mayer that this was “his effort to say, ‘You owe me this.’”  In a parenthesis following that statement , Mayer cites an email from Pope disputing Morgan’s version, noting that Morgan had actually requested the list and that if Morgan maintains that Pope leveled a “pay-or-play” challenge to him, “that is defamatory.”  Does Mayer follow this incident up with any effort to find a third party to confirm or deny.  No, she proceeds to quote further from Morgan’s memoir and insert another parenthetical denial from Pope.

Tactics such as these make Mayer’s piece a tendentious, poorly-researched, and weakly argued bit of journalism.  Topics are raised with conclusions already set, evidence is invoked only to support one side, and Pope’s positions never get a complete hearing.  Near the end of the article, Mayer notes that Pope supported Republican candidates for the Wake County school board, which then overturned a busing program in the county.  Mayer notes that The Washington Post had called the program “One of the nation’s most celebrated integration efforts.”  She cites Reverend William Barber of the NAACP stating that “the first thing the school board did was start putting black children back into their so-called neighborhoods.  The concept first came out of the lips of George Wallace.”  Mayer gives Pope the chance to respond to this charge, but the only words we get are, “No one that I know of wants to re-segregate Wake County schools!”  What we never hear of is the most important element of the case: why the school board wants to end the busing program.  Is it money?  Are parents angry about it?  How did the local press weigh in?  Without them, all we have is the racism allegation.

Those questions are necessary to responsible reportage, but Mayer has no interest in pursuing them.  Her mind is already made up, her values so firm and partisan that Pope never gets a fair shake.  What should be a conclusion is instead a premise—Pope is a sinister, wealthy puppet master destroying representative democracy in North Carolina.  Mayer’s ideology places every word and deed of Pope in cynical or dastardly light, converting ordinary (if powerful) political activity into an evil design against the ideals of the land.  This isn’t a good essay and it isn’t good journalism, and the only lesson to take from it depends upon how seriously anybody heeds it.

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