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No Cheap Shots?


Last Friday, in her post-election coverage, Commercial Appeal reporter Halimah Abdullah reported that state senator Steve Cohen had earlier "held a press conference at his home to discuss what he termed a distortion of his record on sex crimes and other issues."

This marked the second time in a week Abdullah had alluded to Cohen's defending his "record on sex crimes," without bothering to explain the actual charges or to report the senator's position on this dark-sounding topic. Abdullah didn't say whether or not she was talking about Cohen's personal, criminal, or legislative record -- leaving much to the reader's imagination.

Cohen had held a press conference on Friday, July 28th, to address what he termed "a distortion" of his legislative record by Emily's List, the pro-choice, women's organization that endorsed and supported Nikki Tinker. Cohen touched on a number of issues, like the lottery and education (his principal focus), but Abdullah wrote that he defended his "record on sex crimes."

At no time during the press conference did Cohen or anyone else say anything about his "record on sex crimes."

The "sex crime" reference that was in the Emily's List mailer supporting Tinker was presumably referring to a vote Cohen made -- following a Senate debate on business-hours curfews -- against singling out one type of legal business (including sex paraphernalia shops) for curfews. Right or wrong, it was a civil-liberties position and consistent with the senator's record.

But the daily paper's coverage twice conflated what amounts to a zoning issue with sex crimes. The second mention of "sex crimes" even occurred after editor Chris Peck was alerted to the problem.

In an August 6th editorial, Peck wrote: "When a reporter does manage to push a tough question or topic toward a candidate, more than a few politicians of both parties resort to attacking the journalist for his or her bias, ethnicity, or political bent." He concluded his column by saying, "Journalists are as tired as many other voters of the superficial and deadening aspects of politics these days. ...We need your help, as voters and citizens, to change the way it works."

Although Peck didn't name names, it's fair to assume he may have been referencing the Flyer's criticism of Abdullah. Until Peck's column ran, however, Abdullah's gender (female) and ethnicity (African American/Muslim) had not been part of the issue.

Since racial-identity politics and flagrant anti-Semitism were publicly evident in the 9th District race, I asked Peck if he felt his reporter's race, faith, or ethnicity affected her ability to comment fairly on a white Jewish candidate.

"No cheap shots," Peck cautioned in an e-mail response. Indeed, no cheap shots. That would be wrong, as former president Richard Nixon once famously said.

But can there be a cheaper shot than linking a politician's name to something as vile sounding as "sex crimes"? Or minimizing (as Abdullah did) the anti-Semitic attacks aimed at Cohen by Julian Bolton and by pollsters allegedly acting on behalf of candidate Ed Stanton throughout the campaign?

In her reporting, Abdullah presented Cohen as a disputatious lightning rod for controversy. Whether or not he responded to opponents' attacks (Cohen mostly didn't), he was treated as a party to "quarrels" in much the way a hit-and-run accident might be described as an "argument" between a motorist and a pedestrian. Meanwhile, overtly racist and anti-Semitic comments from Bolton went unchallenged.

On Thursday, August 4th, Abdullah wrote, "In recent weeks, the quest for the Hill became a tense battleground filled with accusations of race and religion-baiting, record distortion, and mudslinging." The word "accusations," of course, implies deniability.

On Monday, July 31st, the CA ran a front-page story by Abdullah focusing on ongoing conflicts in the 9th District race. Cohen and Stanton, it said, had a "disagreement" over whether or not pro-Stanton push-polls asked if voters preferred Christians or Jews. Bolton's claim that Cohen would try to "raise money to send to Israel" was described simply as "Bolton's assertion."

Although the facts would suggest it was Cohen who was under siege, Abdullah found another victim. She wrote that Cohen had a "quarrel" with financial frontrunner Tinker, and that Tinker had subsequently become the "target of attacks."

Who exactly was attacking Tinker and how were they attacking? The reporter never said.

"Nobody [in the Tinker campaign] said we were under attack," Tinker spokesperson Josh Phillips told the Flyer. When asked if he felt that the campaign was or had been under attack, Phillips said, "That's not what we're focusing on, and there's been no discussion of attacks."

Tinker was the only candidate not directly quoted in the July 31st story.

Using comments by Rhodes College professor Mark Pohlmann, Abdullah wrote that the attacks on Tinker stemmed from the candidate's $500,000 fund-raising drive. Notably, the story failed to mention that the glossy anti-Cohen mailer sent out by Emily's List featured Tinker's photo and her official campaign logo.

"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 wrote.

But 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 decided enough was enough.

Prior to the election, the Flyer's senior political analyst Jackson Baker specifically asked a spokesperson for the Tinker campaign if they wanted to put distance between themselves and the anti-Cohen propaganda bearing their candidate's name and face. They declined to do so.

Phillips held to that position with me.

"From the beginning, Nikki has said she would run her own, issues-based campaign," he said, adding, "We're not going to comment on what other groups do." Did 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.

Abdullah's July 31st story raised even more eyebrows among Cohen supporters when it was discovered that both Abdullah and Tinker attended the University of Alabama and were 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 she was counting on the aid of her friends, colleagues, and sorority sisters. And there's this from The Hill, a newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress: "Tinker has spent her time sizing up support within Memphis' 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. Peck acknowledged 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 said. "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."

According to the University of Alabama, Abdullah came to UA in 1994 by way of a minority journalism workshop. Tinker, after her 1994 graduation, remained at Alabama for law school until 1998.

So is all this coincidence? The CA says so. Were cheap shots taken? Maybe. Maybe not. Was there off-the-mark reporting? Most definitely.

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