Life Cycle of an Attack Story

It sprouts. The Washington Post unearths a 1986 Texas State Bar registration card on which Senator Elizabeth Warren listed her race as “American Indian.” It’s the “first document to surface showing Warren making the claim in her own handwriting”; it is also entirely consistent with what Warren has been saying for months – that she used to identify that way but never gained any professional advantage from it. The Post accordingly relegates the discovery to paragraph 7 of a story about Warren’s apology to the Cherokee Nation for a practice that, she now understands, was offensive to many Native Americans.

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It grows. Other media companies, however, make a bigger deal of the registration card. Some are simply chasing eyeballs; that would be, for example, CNN, which runs a stand-alone story about the Texas document and gives a Republican Party spokesman space to accuse Warren of “a politically opportunistic apology that doesn’t go nearly far enough.” And some are delighted to have any fresh pretext for disparaging a conspicuously popular progressive; that would be, for example, Fox News, which reports that Warren is “once again in the hotseat,” and the Boston Herald (owned by a rapacious hedge fund), which characterizes the Post story as a “stunning setback” for Warren.

It morphs. The media coverage becomes news in its own right – proof, according to the Associated Press, of Warren’s continued struggle “to move past [her] Native American heritage flap.” The AP story points to another statement of regret issued by Warren in response to the disclosure: “For the second time in two weeks, the Massachusetts Democrat apologized Wednesday for claiming Native American identity on multiple occasions early in her career.” (Warren could, of course, have declined comment; that would have stirred a comparable burst of bad press about her failure to answer “fresh questions” on the subject.)

It propagates: Now everybody wants a piece of the story, and we get a round of articles about Warren facing “new fallout” (ABC), headlines about the “Smear That Just Won’t Die” (CBS Boston), and speculation about “whether the ancestry issue will haunt Warren throughout the primary” (Politico). Meanwhile Facebook and Twitter light up with posts from pundits ready to pronounce Warren’s presidential candidacy doomed before it has been formally announced.

What should we make of all this? Herewith a few preliminary questions and answers offered for consideration by anyone in a mood to consider them:

Q: When is a scandal getting overworked?

A: When the continued life of the story becomes the story. (Note to free press: please find something better to do with your freedom than to wonder how long somebody will be “haunted” by something.)

Q: Who’s calling the shots? In October, when Warren announced her DNA test, she drew harsh criticism from Native American groups and leaders. But now the attacks are coming almost exclusively from corporate hacks and Republican hatchet-people. That should be another signal for the mainstream media to move on.

Q: Where’s the beef? What’s really bothering these folks?

A: I’m going to go out on a limb here: just possibly they are less troubled by any concern for the feelings of indigenous peoples than by the pain that some of Warren’s policy proposals would inflict on her critics and their benefactors. The proposals I have in mind include an annual tax of 2 percent on household net worth over $50 million and 3 percent on household net worth over $1 billion; a major increase in the IRS budget and the frequency of audits performed on the ultra-wealthy; a crackdown on the use of offshore tax havens; a multi-year lobbying ban for all federal employees; a prohibition on lobbyist donations to candidates for Congress; a mechanism for German-style worker representation on corporate boards; and a variety of other measures to combat routinized corruption and counter the game-rigging economic and political power of bankers, CEOs and the super-wealthy. Just possibly, I would further theorize, Warren’s critics are also troubled by her proven ability to get things done (things like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), and to give compelling voice to ideas that the corporate-funded Right has long been able to dismiss as creeping Bolshevism.

If that’s the stuff that Warren’s attackers are truly worried about, I say, that’s probably the dimension of her candidacy that the rest of us should focus on, too.


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