Anatomy of a journalistic smear job

The Nation casts aspersions on John Tyner without a shred of evidence

Published November 24, 2010 12:25PM (EST)

In this photo released by Rebekah Butler on Monday Nov.15,2010 showing John Tyner a software engineer who posted an Internet blog item saying he had been ejected after being threatened with a fine and lawsuit for refusing a groin check after turning down a full-body scan at San Diego International Airport. Across the country, passengers have to choose scans by full-body image detectors or probing pat-downs. Top federal security officials said that the procedures were safe and necessary sacrifices to ward off terror attacks. (AP Photo/Rebekah Butler)  NO SALES (AP)
In this photo released by Rebekah Butler on Monday Nov.15,2010 showing John Tyner a software engineer who posted an Internet blog item saying he had been ejected after being threatened with a fine and lawsuit for refusing a groin check after turning down a full-body scan at San Diego International Airport. Across the country, passengers have to choose scans by full-body image detectors or probing pat-downs. Top federal security officials said that the procedures were safe and necessary sacrifices to ward off terror attacks. (AP Photo/Rebekah Butler) NO SALES (AP)

(updated below - Update II - Update III [response from authors])

One long-standing -- and justifiable -- progressive grievance is that whenever ordinary Americans allow their personal plight to enter the public sphere in a way that advances a liberal political goal, they are gratuitously probed and personally smeared by the Right.  The most illustrative example is the Frost family, who allowed their 12-year-old son Graeme to deliver a moving radio address explaining the benefits he received from the CHIP program when he was in a serious car accident, only to be promptly stalked and smeared by Michelle Malkin, among others.  Today, The Nation -- a magazine which generally offers very good journalism -- subjects John Tyner to similar treatment, with such a shoddy, fact-free, and reckless hit piece (by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine) that I'm genuinely surprised its editors published it.  Beyond the inherent benefit of correcting the record, this particular article is suffused with all sorts of toxic though common premises that make it worth examining in detail.

The article is headlined "TSAstroturf: The Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians Behind the TSA Scandal," and is devoted to the claim that those objecting to the new TSA procedures -- such as Tyner -- are not what they claim to be.  Rather, they are Koch-controlled plants deliberately provoking and manufacturing a scandal -- because, after all, what real American in their right mind would do anything other than meekly submit with gratitude and appreciation to these procedures?  Let's just look at the paragraphs written to "justify" this accusation.  Here's the article's first paragraph:

Does anyone else sense something strange is going on with the apparently spontaneous revolt against the TSA?  This past week, the media turned an “ordinary guy,” 31-year-old Californian John Tyner who blogs under the pseudonym “Johnny Edge,” into a national hero after he posted a cell phone video of himself defending his liberty against the evil government oppressors in charge of airport security.

So the article begins with a claim about what the authors "sense" to be true -- "something strange" going on -- followed by innuendo, achieved through the slothful use of scare quotes,  that Tyner is something other than an "ordinary guy."  One will search the article in total futility for a shred of evidence that supports this accusatory, smearing opening paragraph.  It continues:

While this issue is certainly important -- and offensive -- to Americans, we are nonetheless skeptical about how and why this story turned into a national movement.  In fact, this whole campaign feels a bit like déjà-vu: As the first reporters to expose the Tea Party as an Astroturf PR campaign funded by FreedomWorks and Koch-related front groups back in February, 2009, we see many of the same elements driving the current “rebellion” against the TSA: Koch-related libertarians, Washington lobbyists and PR operatives posing as “ordinary citizens,” and suspicious fake-grassroots outrage relentlessly promoted in the same old right-wing echo chamber. 

They follow up their evidence-free innuendo in the opening paragraph with even stronger accusatory claims in the second:  Tyner, they strongly imply without directly accusing him, is a "Koch-related libertarian" (whatever that means) and a "Washington lobbyist and PR operative posing as [an] 'ordinary citizen'," and his outrage over what was done to him is "fake."  The implicit accusations and innuendo are piling up while the evidence remains non-existent.  It continues (emphasis in original):

So far, all we know about “ordinary guy” John Tyner III, the freedom fighter who took on the TSA agents, is that, according to a friendly hometown profile in the San Diego Union-Tribune, "he leans strongly libertarian and doesn’t believe in voting.  TSA security policy, he asserts ‘isn't Republican and it isn’t Democratic'." [emphasis added]

Tyner attended private Christian schools in Southern California and lives in Oceanside, a Republican stronghold next to Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base on the West Coast.  

These two paragraphs -- the heart of the case against Tyner -- are insidious.  By their own admission, this is "all [they] know" about Tyner:  he has failed to swear his loyalty to one of the two major political parties, a grievous sin worthy of deep suspicion.  He refuses -- correctly -- to view TSA extremism as the by-product of either party.  Worse, he doesn't believe in voting -- a fringe and radical position in which he's joined by merely half of the entire American citizenry (65% in midterm years), 130 million voting-age Americans who -- surveying the choices -- also apparently see no reason to bother voting.  What kind of strange person would fail to find great inspiration from one of America's two Great Political Parties or refuse to see the world exclusively through a Democrat v. GOP prism?  More suspiciously still, he went to "private Christian schools" as a child and resides in a community that has a lot of Republicans in it; why, his neighborhood is even near a Marine base!  This is clearly no "ordinary guy."  

As for his standing accused by The Nation of suspicion on the grounds of his avowed libertarianism, consider what he wrote several weeks before the TSA incident.  In a post responding to this question -- "When’s the last time you were seriously inconvenienced or injured by something that big government did?" -- Tyner wrote:

Gay rights [infringements], TSA body scanners, highway checkpoints, the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps, extra-judicial assassinations, indefinite detentions, inflation, etc. Don't tell me that (some of) these don't affect me.  When one person's rights are trampled, everybody's are, and that's just at the federal level.

What a right-wing monster!  If only Democratic Party leaders -- who support most of the serious rights infringements he condemns -- were this monstrous.  Or consider what he wrote about the statements of Juan Williams and Bill O'Reilly which conflated Muslims with Terrorists:

These two statements properly deserve all of the outrage, in my opinion.  Millions of Muslims do not accept violence and enable jihad.  The U.S. government, itself, says that there are probably less than 100 Al-Qaeda members fighting in Afghanistan. It admits that many are probably hiding in Pakistan, but even being generous would probably place the total number under 1,000. Muslims make up almost a quarter of the world's population.  If they all really supported violence and jihad, even if merely millions of them supported it, they would have destroyed the U.S., whose military only numbers about 1.4 million, quite decisively a long time ago.  In fact, most (the percentage of "radical" Muslims is almost infinitesimal, but still prevents one from saying "all") Muslims are peaceful, preach peace, and abhor the violence perpetrated in their religion's name.

With a Koch-related mind like that, the next thing you know, Tyner will be calling for endless war in the Muslim world, escalated civilian-slaughtering drone strikes, a covert war in Yemen, war crimes trials for child soldiers, and due-process-free life imprisonment and presidential assassinations.  Then maybe he'll decide he can become a Good Democrat and will be able to remove the cloud of suspicion that, in the eyes of these Nation writers, hangs over him.

So far, there is zero evidence -- or even a pretense of evidence -- to justify The Nation's accusations.  Other than including a quote from Tyner in which he categorically states that "he doesn't belong to any libertarian organizations and did not have any contact with anyone mentioned in this article" before the incident -- claims which The Nation does not and cannot dispute -- here are the only other two paragraphs that even mention Tyner:

At least one local TSA administrator wondered if Tyner hadn’t come to the airport prepared to create a scandal. Tyner switched on his recording device before even entering the checkpoint -- and recorded himself as he refused to go through the body scanner. Most importantly, Tyner recorded himself saying "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested!" -- which quickly morphed on blogs into the more media-savvy tagline, "Don’t touch my junk!"

According to the Union-Tribune, when asked if the TSA was set up by Tyner, the local administrator coyly replied, "I don’t know that it was an actual set up -- but we are concerned that this passenger did have his recording (on) prior to entering the checkpoint so there is some concern that it was an intentional behavior on his part."

So The Nation quotes an anonymous TSA official who "wonders" -- without a shred of evidence -- if Tyner provoked the incident.  That's both ludicrous and totally irrelevant.   He posted the entire audio online, which demonstrates that he was unfailingly polite throughout; it was TSA officials acting imperiously, threateningly, and thuggishly -- not Tyner.  And how could Tyner have possibly provoked TSA agents to include him in what it insists is its random selection process for passengers who receive the new screening procedures?  Moreover, even if he did prepare his videocamera before entering the checkpoint area and provoke his selection, so what?  He has the absolute right to do so, and given his obvious concern with government rights infringements, that's a completely sensible and civic-minded step to take.

What's really going on here is clear.  These are Tyner's actual crimes in the eyes of these Nation writers, at least judging by the accusations they make:  (1) he's not a good, loyal Democrat; (2) he did something that politically harmed Barack Obama; and, most and worst of all (3) he failed to submit meekly and quietly to Government orders like any Good, Patriotic "ordinary American" would and should do.  That is what has created their "sense" that he's something other than an "ordinary guy" -- a "fake."

The article highlights three other individuals who object to the TSA procedures (out of the dozens -- at least -- who have complained) who also have (cue the ominous overtones) libertarian ties.  That's not surprising.  In order to do what Tyner did -- firmly assert one's rights against government agents and then vocally and publicly complain about rights infringements -- one has to take one's liberty seriously.  After all, to do something like that is to risk being threatened by the Federal Government and smeared by journalists loyal to those in power.  It's hardly surprising that many of the people willing to take that kind of a risky stand have incorporated the concept of individual liberty into their political identity.  The Nation may want to ask someone what the "L" in the "ACLU" stands for.  

And therein lies the most odious premise in this smear piece:  anyone who doesn't quietly,  meekly and immediately submit to Government orders and invasions -- or anyone who stands up to government power and challenges it -- is inherently suspect.  Just as the establishment-worshiping, political-power-defending Ruth Marcus taught us today in The Washington Post, objecting to what the Government is doing here is just immature and ungrateful; mature, psychologically healthy people shut up and submit.  That's how you prove that you're a normal, responsible, upstanding good citizen:  by not making waves, doing what you're told, declaring yourself a loyal Republican or Democrat and then cheering for your team, and -- most of all -- accepting in the name of Fear that you must suffer indignities, humiliations and always-increasing loss of liberties at the hands of unchallengeable functionaries of the state.  I don't really care what political label John Tyner applies to himself:  we need far more of his civil resistance in our citizenry and far less of the mindless obedient drone behavior which these Nation writers seem to venerate.

I spoke with Tyner several days ago and he was very worried that his public stance would jeopardize exactly the ordinariness which The Nation claims is fake:  his job, his family, his reputation, and the cost from government recriminations.  This highly irresponsible, evidence-free Nation attack demonstrates how valid those concerns were.  It may be that several vocal opponents of the new TSA process are Koch-funded -- that wouldn't surprise me -- but that has absolutely nothing to do with Tyner, and The Nation, for which I have high regard, owes him an apology and retraction for the innuendo it smeared on him without a shred of evidence.  It's difficult enough for ordinary citizens to take a principled stand like this against the Government; knowing that they're going to be subjected to this sort of baseless hit job makes it less likely that other citizens will be willing to do so. 


UPDATE:  The ACLU by itself has received over 900 complaints this month alone about the new TSA procedures, many of which are chronicled here.  The ACLU's Laura Murphy today said that "[t]he new 'enhanced' security methods are far more intrusive than other methods but have not been shown to be any more effective.  Nobody should be forced to choose between 'naked scans' and intrusive groping by strangers to keep our airplanes safe."  It strikes me as unlikely that all -- or most -- of the 900 people turning to that group are astroturf "fakes" being funded by right-wing billionaires.  Quite the contrary:  as BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow wrote today, "I remember when being anti-authoritarian, pro-dignity and pro-freedom were values of the progressive left. Some of us still embrace them."


UPDATE II:  The Nation's Jeremy Scahill wrote today:  "The article my magazine, The Nation, published about John Tyner is a shameful smear."  As I said, I hold The Nation in quite high regard, and the fact that they publish journalists as truly intrepid and independent as Scahill is a major reason why.  

Speaking of which, Scahill just returned from his latest un-embedded trip to Afghanistan and was on The Rachel Maddow Show last night -- guest-hosted by The Nation's Chris Hayes --  talking about the war there.  It's well worth watching.


UPDATE III:  The co-authors of the Nation article, Mark Ames and Yasha Levine, have responded to my criticisms.  They begin by acknowledging what they call "one potentially valid criticism -- our treatment of John Tyner."  In particular:  "our article was less than clear about Tyner’s lack of Astroturf affiliations, and we regret in particular including extraneous details from the Union-Tribune article about Tyner’s past . . . because it distracted readers like Greenwald from the article's main findings."  They nonetheless say that "in focusing entirely on our characterization of Tyner, Greenwald ignores the larger thrust of our argument" for which "Greenwald, for reasons unclear, studiously avoids rebutting any of our evidence."

Fair enough, I suppose, but I find that framing bizarre.  What they call their "treatment of Tyner" was not merely some ancillary sideshow mentioned in passing; it was a prominently featured aspect of the article.  Six of the first seven paragraphs were about nothing other than John Tyner, and the one that wasn't -- buried in the middle of the Tyner attack -- contained multiple serious accusations that any rational reader would have assumed applied to him. 

You can't begin an accusatory article by baselessly maligning an individual in paragraph after paragraph and then -- when someone objects --  respond by pointing to how great some of your other points are.  John Tyner is a real person who was unfairly smeared by The Nation (and it is a smear -- a serious one -- to publicly accuse a person of deceitfully presenting themselves to the public as something they are not, all while impugning their veracity and character).  That was the focus of my criticism, not the points that came after.  That there may be some factually accurate things they said about some other people or some good points they ultimately got around to making is totally irrelevant; it doesn't mitigate in the slightest their journalistically reckless claims about Tyner.  My objection to their "treatment of John Tyner" -- which they begrudgingly acknowledge as a "potentially valid criticism":  "potentially" -- was the sole focus of my criticism (as I wrote:  "It may be that several vocal opponents of the new TSA process are Koch-funded -- that wouldn't surprise me -- but that has absolutely nothing to do with Tyner").

Nor was this reaction mine alone.  It seems to be a consensus even among liberal, Nation-friendly journalists that the attack on Tyner was not merely misguided, but odious, as all such journalists who commented (at least that I know of) condemned it, often in terms at least as harsh as the ones I used.  In addition to their own Nation colleague Jeremy Scahill (who denounced it as a "shameful smear"), Mother Jones' News Editor Daniel Schulman wrote:  "This Nation story is journalistic malpractice of the worst kind"; The American Prospect's Scott Lemieux, on his blog, called it "Liberal McCarthyism" and an "embarrassment"; and the usually rhetorically restrained Ezra Klein condemned it as a "hit piece" which I had "rightfully hammered."  I point that out not as a means of proving I'm right -- it's obviously possible we're all wrong -- but simply to underscore that my distaste for what they did was not some unique, over-the-top, idiosyncratic reaction.  At some point, if enough people favorably inclined to your political views -- including colleagues at your own magazine -- perceive what you did in the same way, that's compelling evidence that that's a fair reading of your article, whether you intended it or not.

Speaking of intent, Ames and Levine devote the rest of their response to claims they believe I made about their motives.  I don't know Ames and Levine, wasn't familiar with their previous work, and thus don't know, wasn't interested in, and wasn't making claims about what was secretly in their heads when they wrote this.  As I made clear, my criticisms of their article were based on what they wrote and on the logical inferences of their smear of Tyner (I wrote:  "These are Tyner's actual crimes in the eyes of these Nation writers, at least judging by the accusations they make" and "therein lies the most odious premise in this smear piece").  What Ames previously did in Russia, the tribulations Levine and his grandfather suffered in the past, or what they would have said to me had I called them are all totally irrelevant.  As I have told the multiple establishment journalists over the years who raised the same "you-didn't-call-me-first" complaint:  with media criticism, what a journalist claims after the fact about what they published doesn't really matter; what maters is the piece they published to the world.  That stands on its own.  And that's what I assessed and critiqued.

What they wrote about Tyner -- and the logically necessary premises of what they wrote -- were clear.  By their own admission, "all [they] knew" about him -- beyond some obviously irrelevant biographical details which they now regret including -- was that (1) he is a confessed libertarian and (2) he documented and vocally objected to the TSA procedures.  That's it.  And based on that -- and that alone -- they decided to depict him as a Koch-funded covert operative who was deceiving the public into believing he was an "ordinary guy."  

That's why I argued -- and still believe -- that the logical premise of their attack is that "anyone who doesn't quietly, meekly and immediately submit to Government orders and invasions . . . is inherently suspect" and that Tyner's crime was not being a Good, Loyal Democrat.   Because that's all these writers knew about him when they decided to attack him.  Or, as Scott Lemieux put it, Ames and Levine sought "to preemptively discredit any critic whether or not there’s any actual direct connection and without engagement on the merits."  That's the logically natural conclusion from their article.  What was secretly in their heads when they wrote it is neither relevant nor interesting to me, and I wasn't commenting on that (that said, it's quite odd for Ames to so vehemently object to the notion that he was maliciously smearing Tyner -- whom he emphasized with bold-faced print was an admitted libertarian -- given that the very same Ames just a few weeks ago wrote this:  "Anytime anyone says anything libertarian, spit on them. Libertarians are by definition enemies of the state . . . . Like Communists before them, they are actively subverting the Constitution and the American Dream").

Contrary to Ames and Levine's suggestion, I have no problem at all with commentators -- such as Kevin Drum -- expressing skepticism about the motives of right-wing critics of TSA procedures.  Indeed, just yesterday, I myself noted the gross hypocrisy of many of these newfound right-wing privacy advocates, and argued that the real goal of many conservative TSA critics -- privatization of airport security -- was at odds with the civil libertarian flag they're manipulatively waving.  Nor do I have any objection to investigating the trail of political money from the Koch brothers or anyone else (though I don't really see the ultimate point in the context of the TSA story:  are we supposed to cheer for or meekly submit to civil liberties infringements if the Omnipotent Koch brothers also dislike them?).  

What I do object to is baselessly smearing someone's character and then thinking that it's justified because they have different political views (he's a libertarian!) or allegiances (he doesn't believe in voting!).  Everything beyond that is irrelevant to the point I made:  what John Tyner did was brave and important and -- even for those who disagree -- his character and veracity shouldn't be impugned without evidence, the way it was in the Nation piece.  That should not even be a controversial proposition.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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