Sideswiped by the New Yorker

On March 11 we received an email from New Yorker staff writer Benjamin Wallace-Walls. With the subject line “Reporter’s query / The New Yorker / Ilhan Omar,” here is the text of his message:

Hello,

The message is for Scott Johnson. Scott, this is Ben Wallace-Wells – I’m a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine, and I’m working on a small piece about Ilhan Omar. I’m wondering if you might have a few minutes to talk by phone in the next day or two about the reporting you did into her marriage history — I’m just trying to understand the issue. Do you have a few minutes?

Many thanks, in advance.

-Ben

Benjamin Wallace-Wells
Staff Writer
The New Yorker

I responded within an hour:

Ben, my personal email is [omitted]. My cell number is [omitted]. It’s right on our site. I laid out how I got into the story for exactly this purpose in the 2016 City Journal column “The curious case of Ilhan Omar.” I wrote about it carefully there just after I had gotten into it and don’t think I have anything to add.

I have mostly said what I have to say for public consumption, but I am willing to talk on background. I am most comfortable communicating by email. If you want to talk however, I am available most of the time at your convenience.

Wallace-Wells followed up with a message sent to the personal email address I had provided him:

Hi Scott,

Great, & thanks. Let me dig into that writing a bit over the next day or so, and I’ll give you a call if I’m still struggling to understand. Sound good? Many thanks –

Ben

I did not hear from Wallace-Wells thereafter. Receiving the New Yorker’s regular email update of new stories posted yesterday, I saw that the New Yorker’s site had just published the “small piece” by Walace-Wells about Omar online. It is a profile headlined “Ilhan Omar’s embattled first months in office.”

According to Omar, she is suffering from PTSD dating back to her childhood in Somalia. That’s a new one on me. As always, any expression of gratitude to the United States for taking her and her family in is in short supply (i.e., absent).

Wallace-Wells snagged an interview with Omar. He concludes his profile with this quote from it: “I don’t have a way of making myself less threatening as a black person, as a black woman, as a Muslim person. And so it is just living with the reality that there are people who will see you as a threat. And figuring out how do you not allow that to deter the work that you have to get done.”

Omar is adept at deploying imputations of bigotry and allegations of victimization to her advantage. That is the culture to which she has assimilated as an American. She has found it highly useful in her meteoric rise to Congress at the age of 37.

That’s not quite the way Wallace-Wells puts it. Wallace-Wells observes “how adept she [is] at channelling a majestic swath of history, as well as the zero-sum way that she attacked the status quo, in which silenced voices are amplified while others are swept aside.”

Reviewing Omar’s rise in Minnesota politics, Wallace-Wells gets around to me with a skillful drive-by mugging in one paragraph:

Omar managed to embody the velocity of the change to come, both to those who liked it and those who didn’t. She was a magnet for conspiracy theories and hate. During her state-legislative run, a prominent conservative blogger, Scott Johnson, alleged that she had committed immigration fraud by marrying her brother. In replying, Omar revealed a complicated marital history: she had three children with one man, whom she never legally married, and divorced him “in our faith tradition.” She then married another man before reconciling with the father of her children. The controversy consumed her campaign, which cut off access to the documentary crew for two weeks.

I emailed Wallace-Wells:

Ben: In the paragraph [quoted above], you seem to be saying I was peddling a false story of conspiracy driven by hate. Can you tell me what ground you have to write that? Did you ask Omar about it in your interview with her?

I take it the vaunted New Yorker fact-checking machine isn’t cranked up for online pieces, or is it?

Scott Johnson

I don’t know what Wallace-Wells read of mine before writing his profile, but I cited my City Journal column “The curious case of Ilhan Omar.” It is devoid of hate and conspiracy theories. I offer a first-person narrative account in a detached tone consistent with the title of the column (much as I do here!). The straightforward implications of Wallace-Wells’s paragraph naming me are false and defamatory.

I have not heard back from Wallace-Wells. If I do, I will separately post his response.

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