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The Times Doubles Down (Cont.)

On August 14, the New York Times ran a front-page smear of Congressman Darrell Issa. Issa has made life difficult for the Obama administration in his capacity as Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, so the Times and its reporter Eric Lichtblau wanted to weigh in on behalf of their party. The gist of Lichtblau’s hit piece was that Issa, who made a good deal of money in business before running for Congress, has misused his office to enrich himself.

That is an explosive charge; unfortunately, Lichtblau had no evidence whatsoever to support it. We wrote here, here, here and here about the Times article’s numerous inaccuracies. Congressman Issa’s office itemized thirteen errors in the piece, which together completely invalidate it. Lichtblau had just three principal examples to support his attack; all three were false, and two have already been retracted.

So that leaves just one major issue, and one smaller one, to evaluate. Lichtblau claimed that Issa’s relationship with Toyota caused him to go easy on that company in a House committee hearing:

But perhaps his clearest statement on the issue came last year amid Toyota’s recalls of millions of automobiles with dangerous acceleration problems. Then, Mr. Issa brushed aside suggestions that his electronics company’s role as a major supplier of alarms to Toyota made him go easy on the automaker as he led an investigation into the recalls.

“If anything,” the congressman said, “Toyota probably got a harder time by having an automobile supplier sitting up there on the dais saying ‘Hold it, I’m not letting you off the hook now.’” …

While Mr. Issa sold off his controlling interest in DEI soon after he was elected, he remains a board member with a half-million shares in the firm held by his family trust. His management firm also receives $2 million a year for leasing DEI its Vista plant.

This is a classic New York Times drive-by smear. Lichtblau tells his readers that Toyota automobiles had “dangerous acceleration problems.” Really? That wasn’t the conclusion reached by the Department of Transportation, which found that no defect in Toyota’s cars caused the alleged problem. In fact, “unintended acceleration” occurs when the driver, usually elderly, steps on the gas instead of the brake. The claim that cars that accelerate under those circumstances are defective is a creation of plaintiffs’ lawyers who have, to put it mildly, a financial interest at stake. To the extent that Issa did not contribute to the unintended acceleration fraud, he is to be commended.

Beyond that, Lichtblau’s reference to DEI as “[Issa's] electronics company” is deceptive since, as Lichtblau later acknowledges, Issa sold his shares in DEI a long time ago–after he was elected to Congress in 2000. Issa’s charitable foundation now owns less than 2% of DEI, and DEI’s relationship with Toyota accounts for a tiny fraction of its business. Rather than chasing after such attenuated but altogether above-board business relationships, perhaps the Times could look into how such politicians as Tom Daschle, Harry Reid and John Dingell became wealthy while ostensibly living on modest government salaries.

The Toyota story is the only one of the major pillars of Lichtblau’s article that the paper has not yet admitted was false. Let’s conclude on a lighter note with the opening paragraph of Lichtblau’s smear:

Here on the third floor of a gleaming office building overlooking a golf course in the rugged foothills north of San Diego, Darrell Issa, the entrepreneur, oversees the hub of a growing financial empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lichtblau just made up the part about the golf course. Apparently he thought it lent the right plutocratic tone to his article. But in fact, there is no golf course in sight from Issa’s office. Issa’s staff hilariously released this video to demonstrate the fact:

The funniest aspect of the Times’s stonewalling on Lichtblau’s smear–notwithstanding its three corrections so far–is that it stands by the line about the golf course. In his letter to Congressman Issa in response to Issa’s request for a retraction, Times Assistant Managing Editor Dean Baquet wrote:

• The golf course view

It does appear that parts of the building, one of the tallest in the area, does in fact look out on the Shadowridge Country Club golf course less than a quarter-mile to the southwest. The realty agency itself has advertised the “direct views to golf driving range.” (http://bit.ly/qibQq8)

While we appreciate the partial video tour of your office views, the piece never addressed one way or the other whether your congressional office has a view of the golf course. The language of the lead paragraph (“Here on the third floor of a gleaming office building overlooking a golf course in the rugged foothills north of San Diego, the entrepreneur…) clearly is referring to the building, not your congressional office. In fact, the congressional office is not even introduced until the next paragraph.

I can’t find any reference to a driving range at the realty firm’s web site. This is what the environs of the building look like on Google Maps:

There is a golf course around a quarter of a mile south of Issa’s building. That’s probably about as far away as you can get from a golf course in San Diego, and the building, which appears to be around four stories high, doesn’t “overlook” it in any normal sense. That a senior editor of the New York Times would try to cling to a shred of credibility by debating this point–we didn’t say your office overlooks the golf course, we said the building does!–tells you all you need to know about that newspaper’s sad decline.

One of our readers has been corresponding with the Times’s Public Editor about Lichtblau’s smear. (That’s a good thing, as neither the Public Editor nor Eric Lichtblau has responded to my emails to them.) An assistant to the Public Editor, Art Brisbane, explained that he supports the editors’ decision not to retract the Issa hit piece:

Our office has conducted a review of the article and the following is the response we sent to Congressman Issa’s office after The Times conducted its own review:

**
Our office supports the decision of The Times not to retract Mr. Lichtblau’s article on Congressman Issa. The Times has a very high standard for removing content from its archive, a policy our office supports, and Congressman Issa’s concerns do not rise to the level that we believe would warrant removal. The public editor advocated in June for creating an enhanced digital archive of all articles that appear in The New York Times. Removing content would go against the tenet of that argument.

The Times has offered corrections on what our office believes are the two most substantial correction requests that were presented by Congressman Issa’s office. While we disagree with The Times’s decision not to offer a correction on the phrasing of the lead sentence, we find that to be minor and inconsequential compared to the concerns that are being corrected. We support The Times’s decision not to offer corrections on the other issues raised by Congressman Issa’s office.

This is, of course, a straw man. No one asked the paper to delete the Lichtblau article from its archives and send it down the memory hole. Rather, a retraction means that the paper admits that the article was unfounded and apologizes for printing it. It would stay up on the Times’s web site with the retraction attached as a warning to future political activists who pose as journalists.

What is funny about the Public Editor’s email is that he parts company with the paper’s editors on the issue of the golf course. That prompted this exchange with our reader:

Dear Mr. Burgess,

Thank you very much for your response to my letter. If I may impose upon you to ask one quick followup question I would be much obliged. Am I correct in understanding that while you have personal misgivings, Mr. Lichtblau and the New York Times stand by their assertion as reported that Congressman Issa’s office building overlooks a golf course?

Thank you again for your time,
P___ R_____

To which Burgess replied:

Mr. R_____, thanks for writing back. It is our understanding that The Times will not be offering a correction on the golf course issue. Our office disagrees with The Times on this. — best, Joseph Burgess

Joseph Burgess
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

So there you have it! Eric Lichtblau’s smear ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

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