On Monday, July 31 The Commercial Appeal ran a Page-One story focusing on conflicts in the 9th District congressional race that, in the judgment of many observers, was so filled with contextual distortions that it very nearly resembled a work of fiction.
Candidates Steve Cohen and Ed Stanton, it said, had a “disagreement” over whether or not pro-Stanton push-polls asked if voters preferred Christians or Jews. Julian Bolton’s wildly anti-Semitic claim that a Jew is unacceptable at the 9th District’s representative was described simply as “Bolton’s assertion.”
The story’s author Halimah Abdullah wrote that Cohen had a “quarrel” with financial frontrunner Nikki Tinker, and that Tinker had subsequently become the “target of attacks.” Who was attacking Tinker and how? That somewhat important piece of information was left entirely to the readers’ imagination.
“Nobody [in the Tinker campaign] said we were under attack,” Tinker spokesperson Josh Phillips says. When asked if he felt that the campaign was, or had been under attack Phillips added, “That’s not what we’re focusing on, and there’s been no discussion of attacks.” So we’re left to wonder, where did the reporter get the information around which her thesis was formed?
Throughout Abdullah’s story Cohen was presented, not as the victim of Bolton’s negative, inarguably anti-Semitic TV ads, but rather as a lightning rod for controversy. On the other hand Tinkerthe only candidate not directly quoted in the storywas presented as an innocent victim caught up in a swirling political cesspool.
The article suggested that these alleged attacks on Tinker were the result of a successful fundraising drive that’s made the previously unknown candidate, a relatively new Memphian, the financial frontrunner. Notably, the story failed to mention that a glossy anti-Cohen mailing sent out by the powerful women’s organization Emily’s List was stamped with Tinker’s official campaign logo.
OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING, Steve Cohen has been the only 9th District candidate repeatedly singled out for attack by his opponents. Last Friday Cohen responded by holding a press conference to address these attacks, including the mailing from Emily’s List. Abdullah’s coverage of Cohen’s conference is misleading at best, and subtly laced with a dollop of good old-fashioned Jewish stereotyping. It implies calculation and suggests perversion.
“Cohen moved a chess piece forward during a Friday morning press conference at his home to discuss what he termed a distortion of his record on sex crimes[our italics] and other issues,” Abdullah writes.
The interesting thing about this is that Cohen wasn’t pushing anything forward. After weeks of enduring racially divisive attack ads that misrepresented his record on everything from education and prayer to the use of medical marijuana, he apparently just decided enough was enough.
It’s particularly interesting that Abdullah’s story had room enough to work in some of the Tinker campaign’s talking points -- including the often repeated story about how the candidate was raised by a single mom. And yet the conversation never returned to Cohen’s supposed “record on sex crimes.” Readers were left to wonder about both the accusation and Cohen’s actual position on this dark, dirty-sounding matter.
The Flyer’s senior political analyst Jackson Baker specifically asked the Tinker campaign last week if they wanted to put distance between themselves and the anti-Cohen propaganda bearing their candidate’s name and face. They declined the offer.
Speaking on Tinker’s behalf, Phillips continues in that vein this week: “From the beginning Nikki has said she would run her own, issues-based campaign…And we’re not going to comment on what other groups do.” Clearly, the Tinker camp doesn’t put much stock in that old, true-cutting saw: Silence is a vote of complicity.
Does it bother Tinker’s Campaign that the hit piece on Cohen bore Tinker’s image and campaign logo? According to Phillips, it’s not against the law, so no.
In addition to misrepresenting the dynamic existing between the Cohen and Tinker campaigns, Abdullah allowed to stand unchallenged (and without any substantive proof at all from the two candidates) both Stanton’s push-poll denial and Bolton’s claim that Cohen only wanted to go to D.C. to get more money for Israel.
THE APPARENT DISTORTIONS in Abdullah’s story raised a number of eyebrows among several Cohen supporters. Those eyebrows shot up even higher when it was discovered that both the writer, Abdullah, and the candidate, Tinker, attended the University of Alabama and were both members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
That revelation alone is circumstantial, of course. So, for that matter, is Tinker’s August, 2005 announcement that, as an outsider candidate, she was counting on the aid of her friends, colleagues, and (yes), her sorority sisters.
From The Hill, a newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress (and the one that first propagated the concept that the then unknown quantity, with no Memphis roots or known network of supporters, was the congressional-race “frontrunner”):
“Tinker has spent her time sizing up support within Memphis’s business community, churches and plaintiff’s bar. Like most other first-time candidates, she is reaching out to her sorority sisters and friends.”
Abdullah hasn’t responded to interview requests, but Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck acknowledges that Tinker and Abdullah are, in fact, members of the same sorority.
“Our reporter, Halimah Abdullah, isn't a classmate or friend of Nikki Tinker,” Peck says. “They joined the same sorority, but didn't know each other at the University of Alabama and in fact, graduated five-to-six years apart.”
That five-to-six-year time frame, however, could be more than a little misleading. According to an accreditation study pertaining to the University of Alabama, Abdullah came to UAB in 1994 by way of a minority journalism workshop.
Meanwhile, Tinker, after her 1994 graduation, remained at Alabama for law school, and, as we have seen, began “reaching out to her sorority sisters” for networking purposes once she began her congressional campaign.
Coincidence? Maybe. It would be difficult to describe the errors in Abdullah’s stories as outright lies. They conform more to what late-night satirist Stephen Colbert has dubbed “truthiness,” whereby semantics and contextual distortions converge to create a warped interpretation of actual events.
When truthiness and conflicts of interest (real or apparent) appear together within the pages of a major metro newspaper, you don’t have to be in Houston to see that there’s a problem.