AP Replies to TPMmuckraker Criticisms on Reid Story

Wednesday evening I received a lengthy reply from the Associated Press responding to my criticisms of John Solomon’s initial piece on Harry Reid – I called Solomon, who passed me off to AP’s corporate media relations. The reply, unsurprisingly, is a mix of flat-out falsehoods and off-point rebuttals. But it’s important that we reply, so I’ve posted it with my point-by-point response below.

First, let me just say that I would have gotten to this Wednesday night if Solomon hadn’t followed up with a still more misleading story. That kept me pretty occupied until yesterday afternoon. So you won’t find the issues from Solomon’s follow-up addressed below. The reply deals strictly with Solomon’s initial piece.

OK. But before I get into the nitty-gritty, let’s not lose sight of the big picture.

We went after Solomon’s piece for a simple reason. At a time when Congressional corruption is arguably worse than it has ever been, leading to a spreading net of criminal investigations, Solomon used the most powerful organ in the land to attack Harry Reid for what is at very most a minor ethical transgression. Solomon did not allege a quid pro quo. He did not even allege that Reid violated ethics rules. What he argued was that Reid should have avoided accepting the seats in order to “avoid the appearance he was being influenced by gifts.” And remember the supposed influence here was from a governmental body with interest – but no demonstrated financial interest – in pending legislation.

You don’t have to look far in Congress to find examples of Members who could have exhibited more exemplary behavior. As the conservative-leaning Las Vegas Review Journal wrote in an editorial, “on a scandal scale of 1 to 10, these free fight nights rate about a 2.” To puff that story up into an 8 is just bad journalism.

Solomon excluded key exculpatory details that weakened his case. As is clear from the AP’s response below, it wasn’t that he’d failed to gather these details – it was that he decided readers didn’t need to be bothered with them.

And I should mention that in his follow-up piece, the distortions got much worse.So let’s get down into it. The AP’s response, sent from Linda Wagner, the AP’s Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs, begins:

Several online postings by TPM Muckraker and Mediamatters regarding Associated Press stories about U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) are misleading, inaccurate and false, as indicated in the points below, which are supported by the text of the actual AP stories, indented and boldfaced below. Note that the AP provides numerous cycles of the same story to its members and customers, adding material as the story develops and the reporter gathers additional information.

Now let’s go point by point (you can see Mediamatters’ response here). I’ll start with the more egregious examples and work my way down.

Contrary to TPM Muckraker assertions, Senator Reid did not vote against the legislation the Nevada commission supported. Senators Reid and McCain sponsored legislation the commission wanted to change. AP clearly reported this, as follows:

o At the time, McCain and Reid were pushing legislation to create a federal boxing commission.

I never said that Reid voted against the legislation. What I did say was that Reid voted against the commission’s interest by voting for the legislation. As I wrote, the bill passed the Senate unanimously. How, then, could I possibly assert that Reid voted against it?

TPM Muckraker stated mistakenly that AP failed to report that there is an absolute exemption allowing lawmakers to take gifts from federal, state and local officials. AP, in fact, accurately reported that there is a general exemption for such gifts but that the Congressional ethics manual clearly warns members of Congress against accepting such normally permitted gifts if they are connected to efforts to influence their position on legislation. The commission that gave Senator Reid the tickets said on the record it was trying to influence Reid and McCain by bringing them to the fights. As reported by AP:

o Senate ethics rules generally allow lawmakers to accept gifts from federal, state or local governments, but specifically warn against taking such gifts — particularly on multiple occasions — when they might be connected to efforts to influence official actions. Senators and Senate staff should be wary of accepting any gift where it appears that the gift is motivated by a desire to reward, influence or elicit favorable official action,” the Senate ethics manual states. It cites the 1990s example of an Oregon lawmaker who took gifts for personal use from a South Carolina state university and its president while that school was trying to influence his official actions. Repeatedly taking gifts which the Gifts Rule otherwise permits to be accepted may, nonetheless, reflect discredit upon the institution, and should be avoided,” the manual says.

Scan all of my posts on this and you will never find me saying that the AP failed to report that there was an “absolute exemption.”

To be generous to Solomon, I will assume that he is talking about my initial post, where I pointed out that “there is an exception for gifts from governmental agencies (like the Nevada Athletic Commission) in the Senate ethics rules.”

Going on from there, I was very explicit in saying that the AP hadn’t failed to report anything. As I wrote, after giving a rundown : “Now, Solomon puts all these facts in his piece. So he’s not covering up a key piece of information like he did last time. He seems to realize that he doesn’t have any real story. So Solomon argues that Reid, out of an abundance of caution, should have paid for the tickets to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

I continued: “To justify this stance, the piece launches into a nuanced dissection of the ethics rules that I will not resurrect here. The upshot is that Reid is guilty of not interpreting the ethics rules in the most restrictive manner possible.”

Here’s what I meant by that.

There is an exemption for accepting gifts from governmental agencies. Only, Members shouldn’t use this exemption as a license to take bribes – that’s the clear intent of the Senate’s rules. The example here of the Oregon lawmaker, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-OR), is of a man who accepted personal gifts from the University of South Carolina in apparent exchange for earmarks. Hatfield threw some appropriations the university’s way. And over a period of years, he got all sorts of random trinkets from the University’s president: “a compact disc player, a $ 725 Boehm Carolina wren, a $ 535 Steuben glass eagle, a $ 3,875 Steuben glass cross, a $ 3,336 framed Audubon wild turkey print and three round trips to the university in connection with academic events”, as well as a $15,000 scholarship for his son (Washington Post, 8/13/92). Any reasonable person would construe those as intended bribes.

Apparently, Solomon thinks Reid’s and Hatfield’s situations are comparable.

For my part, I stand by my characterization of Solomon’s reading of the ethics rules as “the most restrictive manner possible.”

Contrary to assertions by these sites, the first cycle of the story in question, and that afternoon’s cycle, reported that the Nevada commission was opposed to legislation that would create a federal boxing commission. The relevant paragraph from the afternoon story follows:

o Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission when Reid took the free tickets, said one of his desires was to convince Reid and McCain that there was no need for the federal government to usurp the state commission’s authority. At the time, McCain and Reid were pushing legislation to create a federal boxing commission. “I am a states rights activist and I didn’t want any federal bill that would take away our state rights to regulate fights,” Ratner said, adding that he hoped McCain and Reid, at the very least, would be persuaded to model any federal commission after Nevada’s body.

Read my post, and it’s clear I was referring to the edit of Solomon’s 2nd paragraph, which was, in fact, edited to exclude mention of the commission’s opposition to the legislation.

AP also clearly quoted Reid as saying he did not change his vote as a result of the gifts, as follows:

o Reid said he never would change his position because of donations, free tickets or a request from a former-staffer-turned-lobbyist. “People who deal with me and have over the years know that I am an advocate for what I believe in. I always try to do it fair, never take advantage of people on purpose,” he said.

You don’t have to be a journalist to understand why this is entirely inadequate.

The issue here is that there is zero evidence that Reid was influenced in any way by the commission.

Solomon apparently thinks that a denial from the article’s target is enough to convey this information. No need to follow up with a sentence like “There is no evidence that Reid changed his position as a result of the tickets.”

Next up is the AP on the distinction between credentials and tickets. You can see my posts on this here and here. The gist was that Reid received a credential, not a ticket to the fight in question, and that it would have been illegal for Reid to have reimbursed the commission for them. Solomon nowhere mentioned this fact in his reporting, although from the following response, it’s apparent he was well aware of it.

The credentials came directly from the Nevada Athletic Commission and were seats controlled by the commission, according to current executive director Keith Kizer and former director Marc Ratner. Kizer specifically stated to AP that the credential was the equivalent of a ticket. “In Sen. Reid’s case, the credential was Sen. Reid’s ticket to the fight. He didn’t need to buy one to get in.” On the value of the tickets, both Ratner and Arum said the seats that Reid and McCain used for the Oscar De La Hoya fight were worth about $1,400 to $1,500 each. That’s why McCain insisted on paying that amount. The commission arranged for McCain’s check to be sent to Arum, who cashed it and donated the money to charity. A gift under Senate ethics rule is defined as “anything of monetary value.” Ringside seats have clear monetary value. As noted above, members of Congress are advised not to take any gift from any source if it could appear connected to influencing official acts, such as Reid’s boxing legislation. Ethics experts told AP that, if the commission wouldn’t accept reimbursement, Reid still had several options to comply with his ethical requirements. He could have simply bought a ticket at the box office. He could have reimbursed the promoter like McCain did. Or he could have donated an equal amount to charity, like lawmakers sometimes do when they get forbidden honoraria for speeches.

Let’s go point by point.

First, just zoom out to the larger question: do you think that Solomon owed it to his readers to acknowledge that Reid did not, in fact, receive a ticket, but a nonreimbursable credential? Instead, he flatly described it as a “ticket.”

A credential cannot be sold. It therefore has no market value. Yes, it arguably has monetary value – these were sweet ringside seats, after all. But for the AP to argue that they have “clear monetary value” is tendentious.

Second, do you think it’s a detail worth mentioning that McCain paid an arbitrary amount for the credentials? And that the money was donated to charity because it could not be accepted?

Solomon (I’m assuming from the content here that Solomon wrote this) has so thoroughly convinced himself of the irrelevance of this detail that he writes in his response that Reid “could have reimbursed the promoter like McCain did.” McCain did not reimburse the promoter – the promoter didn’t lay out any expense. McCain donated the roughly equivalent value of a ringside seat to charity.

Third, apparently Solomon took time to consult ethics experts about Reid’s “options” with regard to the credentials. So he took the time to report out this question. But none of this made it into any version of his piece.

Fourth and finally, Solomon compares Reid’s acceptance of nonreimbursable credentials with a lawmaker’s “forbidden honoraria for speeches.” It’s amazing that he can even make this comparison. On the one hand, you have credentials with no face value, on the other hand, you have a cash payment which it is clearly against ethics rules to accept.