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Lessons In How to Smear Conservatives

I wrote ten days ago about a press conference given by Ann Ravel, then the Chairman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, now President Obama’s appointee to the Federal Elections Commission. Ravel announced the imposition of a record fine on a nonprofit group that channeled money into California to support conservative positions on two ballot propositions. Altogether, $15 million in contributions were involved. As introduced by Ms. Ravel, the story was mostly about the Koch brothers:

Tony Russo and AJS decided instead to send the money to the Koch network with no strings attached, hoping that because that network has tentacles all over the country, some of the money would eventually find its way back to California campaigns, where the money was originally intended to go. And so it did. But because there was never any explicit earmarking of the funds for California campaigns—either by the original donors, or by the organization that transferred the money to the Kochs—the law as it stands does not require disclosure of the donors.

Aha! No disclosure is required, but the money obviously came from the Kochs, right? Wrong. The Kochs contributed nothing to any group with reference to the California ballot propositions, and in fact disagreed with the position taken by the group that incurred the fine on one of the two propositions. Despite the fact that there was zero evidence that Koch had anything to do with the transactions at issue in the California FPPC proceeding, or more broadly with the ballot propositions, Democratic Party newspapers uniformly treated the story as being mostly or entirely about the Koch brothers.

New York Times: “Group Linked to Kochs Admits to Campaign Finance Violations”

CBS Television, Los Angeles: “California Issues $15M Campaign Reporting Fine To Koch Brothers-Connected Groups”

MSNBC: “Koch-tied group caught funneling dark money”

Nonprofit Quarterly: “California Whacks Two Koch Nonprofits with $1M Campaign Finance Fine”

Salon (This one is especially egregious): “One guy stood up to the Koch brothers and won!”

Raw Story: “Koch brothers’ Arizona allies fined $1 million over hiding California campaign funding”

All of this is bizarre, considering that the Kochs had nothing–zero, nada, zippo–to do with the contributions, or even the issues, in question. But the Democrats have a hymnbook, and they all sing from the same page.

Fast forward to today: Ann Ravel was interviewed, and the reporter, understandably, asked her about the Koch brothers being behind the contributions that led to the California fine:

ANCHOR: How do we know from which individuals this money came from?

ANN RAVEL: Because during the investigation, certain documents were turned over relating to those initial contributions and they were poorly redacted, a lot of people in the press and others have been able to determine who some of those donors were.

ANCHOR: and you believe the Koch brothers, Eli Brode, a billionaire in los angeles, those were some of the names who were responsible for the money?

That certainly would be his assumption if he relied on, say, the New York Times. But it turns out that Ravel knew all along that the Kochs had nothing to do with it:

ANN RAVEL: It was not the Koch brothers, it was Eli Brode, and the Fishers and other major donors, some of whom are Democratic, some of whom are on the Republican side, but those were people that were identified by looking at that document. The Koch brothers have never been implicated themselves as being donors.

ANCHOR: The Koch brothers are in the oil industry who have in the past contributed to Republican causes.

So if Ms. Ravel knew all along that the Kochs had nothing to do with her investigation, why did she keep talking about them and their “network” in her press conference? Because that’s the Democrats’ theme, obviously, regardless of the facts. I’m sure Ms. Ravel will be exactly the sort of FEC commissioner that Obama is looking for.

Item number two: the Left’s favorite whipping boy–after the Koch brothers, anyway–is Citizens United. Most people don’t read court decisions and have to rely on news stories to understand them. Unfortunately, with respect to any politically controversial issue, the Democratic Party press can’t be relied on for accurate, let alone fair, accounts of court decisions. Take Friday’s Slate piece by Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick. It is worth noting that Bazelon and Lithwick aren’t just Slate flakes; Bazelon writes for the Washington Post and the New York Times magazine, among other publications; Lithwick covers the Supreme Court for the New York Times. Both–surprisingly, given the quality of their news coverage–attended law school.

This is what they wrote in Slate:

It’s been a day of body blows for reproductive rights. …

On Friday morning, it was the turn of another extremely conservative woman chosen for the bench by Bush, Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Brown handed down a similarly dramatic decision holding that the provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires companies to provide health care coverage that includes contraception “trammels” the religious freedom of an Ohio-based food service company, Freshway Foods, through its two owners, who claimed that the mandate violated its Catholic faith. This is a company we are talking about, not its owners. But following headlong in the wake of the Supreme Court’s wrongheaded finding in Citizens United that corporations are people, too, Brown found that the mandate violates the company’s strongly held religious convictions. To make the company provide a health care plan—from an outside insurer—that offers contraceptive coverage is a “compel[led] affirmation of a repugnant belief,” Brown wrote. The argument that a for-profit secular company has a religious conscience—separate and apart from the religious beliefs of its owners—is a notion that vaults the concept of personhood from the silly (“corporations are people, my friend”) to the sublime (also they pray).

It’s hard to overstate how radical these two decisions are.

Did Bazelon and Lithwick actually read the opinion they denounce? I doubt it. Judge Brown explicitly rejected the position that Citizens United confers a right of free exercise of religion on Freshway Foods:

[W]e must be mindful that Citizens United represents the culmination of decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence recognizing that all corporations speak. See Conestoga Wood, 724 F.3d at 384. When it comes to the free exercise of religion, however, the Court has only indicated that people and churches worship.

Bazelon and Lithwick characterize the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision this way: “This is a company we are talking about, not its owners.” They couldn’t be more wrong. Judge Brown rejected standing on the part of the company, but found it on behalf of its owners:

If the companies have no claim to enforce—and as nonreligious corporations, they cannot engage in religious exercise—we are left with the obvious conclusion: the right belongs to the Gilardis, existing independently of any right of the Freshway companies.

So what Bazelon and Lithwick wrote is the exact opposite of what the court actually held. Judge Brown’s opinion is balanced, persuasive, and in my opinion rather brilliant. Brown is so much smarter than Bazelon and Lithwick that the fact that they tried to critique her reasoning is embarrassing. That would be true if they actually read Brown’s opinion, which as far as I can tell they didn’t. The best excuse I can think of for their Slate piece is that they were drunk when they wrote it. But the real moral is that if you smear a conservative, you don’t need to have any idea what you are talking about.

After they were savaged by Ed Whelan, Bazelon and Lithwick appended a lame “Correction” to their attack on Judge Brown’s opinion–a correction that implied their article was really right, even though it was off by 180 degrees in describing what the court ruled. Whatever: if you are a liberal, the script is foreordained. The facts are entirely optional.

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