A regular complaint, one that has reached a new pitch in this post-election period, is that hardened partisan camps have even less contact with each other than before. We’ve recently learned that Facebook’s mysterious algorithm is designed to feed us “news” of the sort we’ve shown we prefer to consume, keeping us entrenched where we stand. Never mind that some of the most popular globs of it are patently fake.
Liberal partisans are quick to roll Power Line, the 14–year-old blog that’s become a staple of conservative opinion-shapers, into the same dissolute pool as those trumpeting the pope’s endorsement of, well, Donald Trump and Trump’s victory in the popular vote. Started in the Twin Cities by two attorneys, John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson, Power Line still sees its founders collaborate, multiple times daily, with Paul Mirengoff, a retired attorney living in Washington D.C., and Steven Hayward, a Ph.D.-holder in American Studies currently attached to U-C Berkeley. And while you can draw a pretty direct line from supermarket tabloids to some conservative sites, Power Line is much more a descendant of the William F. Buckley school of partisan perspective and rhetoric.
The site’s crowning moment was its role in the unmasking of a fake documents that all but completely undermined CBS’s 2004 election-eve report on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service. Shortly after the report’s airing, Power Line and other prominent bloggers were arguing that the documents were fake, based on an analysis of the typewriter fonts in use. The speed of this assertion, supposedly based on a television viewing, continues to be viewed with suspicion by liberal partisans, for whom the underlying veracity of CBS’ report — that Bush received favored treatment to get in the Guard during the Vietnam-era and then went AWOL — remains accepted history.
Nevertheless, the blowback created by Power Line and the other blogs proved effective in ending Dan Rather’s career, dramatically damaging CBS News’ reputation and adding to the familiar conservative view that the so-called “mainstream” media is riddled with “liberal bias.” (Here is what for many, on the other side of the spectrum, is the essential piece of reporting on the matter, a story by Joe Hagan for Texas Monthly. Johnson laid out his case in a piece for The Weekly Standard.)
Johnson and Hinderaker, who earlier this year took over as president of the Center of the American Experiment, are frequent critics of our local media, the Star Tribune in particular. A war of words and invective between Power Line and former Strib columnist Nick Coleman ended only when the paper essentially removed itself from the boisterous business of opinionated partisan metro columnists and Coleman, after an ugly siege of internal politics, took a buyout and departed.
Of the two local Power Line writers, Hinderaker is more of a shall we say, acquired taste, for anyone less than fully committed to the modern conservative agenda. Johnson, on the other hand, while determinedly conservative in every imaginable way, proceeds with the instincts of a good student/attorney researching his arguments and shoring up weak spots in his logic. (Not that he isn’t up for a good, nasty public feud, as was on display in his wrangles with Coleman.)
Among other targets, he has brought this academic/legalistic/journalistic approach to a long-running series of attacks on Rep. Keith Ellison; the radicalized elements of the local Somali community (abetted, he says, by the Strib’s liberal bias); the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR); and, most recently, the first Somali-American woman to be elected in the United States: state Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Johnson’s arguments, while eye-rolling to siloed liberals, have at minimum the benefit of being based on more than just a passing semblance of factual data and presented in a manner several degrees of adulthood warmer than the usual caps-locking, semi-literate name-callers.
A polite and fastidious man by all appearances, Johnson, 65, was initially reluctant to sit for an interview. Post-election, he agreed, mentioning he felt the need for “a reality check.” We met at his suburban St. Paul home and talked in his basement office, stocked with hundreds of books sent him by publishers eager for a Power Line imprimatur, and overseen by a photo of Johnson and his wife (they have three grown daughters) and … Dick and Lynne Cheney.
MinnPost: One of your persistent themes is the built-in bias of the traditional media. Why do you think that is? How do you explain how it happens and how it persists?
Scott Johnson: I think the reporters and editors who go into the work are partisans of the left. And I have to say that with the impending ascent of Keith Ellison you can point out the complete futility of my work over the past 10 years. But on this point, I started writing Power Line with John Hinderaker in May of 2002. At that point we had been writing columns and magazine articles for ten years for the hard copy newspapers and magazines. And this was on top of a law practice, which was time-consuming to begin with.
But the thing that provoked me into doing it was seeing things with my own eyes and ears in the newspaper that were contrary with what I knew to be the case. And the thing that comes to mind, for example, was the Star Tribune’s advocacy through its reporters and analysts of the state of Minnesota’s welfare state. That and downplaying its role as a magnet for immigrants from other states to Minneapolis.
I would get and read the reports that the Star Tribune was purportedly reporting on and see that if you got past the executive summary it contradicted what was in the newspaper. So one of the first long things I wrote was a comparison of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s welfare systems, on the point of attraction to immigrants.
And I have to say the guy who provoked me into spending a year of my life doing that, researching it and writing about it, at the end of the day said I had done a good job.
MP: This was a Star Tribune reporter?
SJ: I can’t remember his name. But he went on to be a spokesman for Amy Klobuchar. He just made the jump from reporter/columnist to the office of a prominent Democrat. But he was really a gentleman. He went out of his way to say I had done a good job.
[The writer in question was Dave Hage, who at the time was writing for the Star Tribune’s opinion pages, not the news section. Hage, now an editor of the paper’s science team, says, “I like Scott personally, and I respect his intellect. But I was not persuaded by his argument.”]
MP: Well, without getting too deep into the woods on the study you’re talking about, why do you think the Star Tribune and their reporting took one direction while yours took another?
SJ: Well, I hate to say this, and I don’t direct this comment to anyone in particular. But having dealt with reporters over the years on subjects they’re writing about or subjects I’ve been writing about I think it’s a combination of laziness and politics. That’s my perception. You don’t have to go very far to out-work a reporter on his beat, and if you do you’ll do better if you have an open mind. I think I have an open mind, and treat the subjects fairly.
MP: Well, one of the perils of the trade is the general assignment reporter who is given orders to produce a story by the end of the day. They’re not specialists. But you’re talking about true beat reporters you believe are or should be well-versed in the subject matter, right?
SJ: Well, on that subject the answer is yes. I’m also thinking of the reporter who was assigned to the Keith Ellison beat in 2006. I remember talking with her at the time and experiencing great frustration with the limits of her reportage on Ellison.
MP: This is the Farrakhan business? The parking tickets?
SJ: Everything. I was working on Ellison’s checkered past as he worked his way up in Minneapolis after law school from the time he first ran for office in 1998 and was speaking on behalf of Sarah Jane Olson/Kathleen Soliah in 2000 at a National Lawyers Guild fundraiser. I thought the reportage obscured more than it revealed. And in fact many prominent Democrats came to me with information because they were frustrated with the limits of the Star Tribune’s coverage of Ellison. Prominent Democrats who did not want Ellison to be the face of the Democratic Party.
MP: The phrase “many prominent Democrats” is one of those vague umbrella-like descriptors we’ve heard a lot of this past election. But on the point of Katharine Kersten, who I’ve met and is clearly intelligent, why do you think someone like that doesn’t go into journalism, as a reporter, or doesn’t succeed if they do? It’s a question for her. But have you talked to her about the frustrations she had dealing with the mainstream and the Star Tribune? I mean, it’s an open call. Supposedly if you’ve got the talent you can get hired at a place like that.
SJ: I’m available.
MP: Have you asked to be employed? On the editorial board or as some kind of regular contributor?
MP: Would you want to be?
SJ: Sure. I was a huge fan of Kathy when she was the metro columnist for the Star Tribune. But my impression is that she was treated like a foreign body that needed to be expelled.
MinnPost: My thoughts on her don’t matter much. I’m here to talk to you. But she always struck me as an odd response to a perceived problem. The paper knew it needed a conservative voice, and they could see where this under-served demographic was, in the exurbs and out-state, where they needed additional readership. But Kersten was this wonky think-tanker, who wasn’t exactly using the vernacular of our huntin’, snow-mobilin’ pals in the Sixth District and elsewhere. What she was doing though was infuriating liberals, daily. Which I thought was a good thing. If you actually want a robust discussion, with lots of comments and interaction, there she was, along with Nick Coleman. But the paper really didn’t want either one of them. Too much “robust,” if you know what I mean.
SJ: The thing about Kathy is that she was breaking news stories that were otherwise ignored by the Star Tribune. I just admired her work greatly. I think they really lost something important when they let her and Nick go.
MinnPost: “and Nick?”
SJ: Nick I really have the utmost contempt for; I have nothing good to say about him. He devoted an entire column to trying to get me fired from my job at TCF. I thought it was a low, dishonest, very nasty piece of work.
MP: I’m well aware of the conflict there. But back to the point about Kersten or someone like her, someone who applies to the paper with clear conservative sensibilities. Do you really think they are weeded out, on that basis, by the people making the hiring decisions?
SJ: I really can’t say. I don’t know.
MP: Of course, I am asking for conjecture. But what else do you think would account for so few of the kind of people you’re talking about, people who would moderate the bias you see, from being employed at major daily newspapers?
SJ: It seems like an interest in the media is an adjunct of people who are interested in liberal politics. Why that is I can’t say. Perhaps they’re pursuing the cause by other means. Reporters and editors at the papers tend to be liberal. I think a conservative record makes it harder for a person to be hired. But I don’t know. I haven’t had that experience. I pursued this as an avocation on the side of an active law practice for the past twenty years. I retired from practicing two years ago and I’m doing this full-time now. I was doing it with John for fun. But I always thought there was an opportunity there because of the lack of opportunity for folks like us on the inside at papers like the Star Tribune.
MinnPost: Well, that’s interesting. Because, at least in terms of the opinion page, the [Star Tribune] people I’ve talked to over the years routinely complain about the difficulty in getting reliable conservative voices into the paper, and that they want them. But are you saying that in terms of reporting, you think the people making hires look at some applicant’s work and rule them out if they detect a trend of conservative thinking?
SJ: As I say, I just don’t know. But I think the people who go into it tend to be liberal.
MP: OK. But do you think the media model is breaking down? Do you think there are venues now opening up for conservative reporters? We’ve had FoxNews now for a generation. We’ve had Drudge. We now have Breitbart as the most famous or most notorious of the new breed. Are these indications that what you might describe as legitimate conservative-based reporting is becoming widely available to the general public?
SJ: Not being in the profession myself, it’s awfully hard for me to have an intelligent comment about that. But I have a daughter who is a professional journalist and her work is not opinion-based, but she specializes in reporting on Republicans, the Republican Party and the conservative movement. And I would say the quality of her work has opened doors for her. [She just finished a two-year term as Washington editor for The National Review, says Johnson, and was recruited away to work for Politico.] So to a limited extent I think what you’re saying is true. I think The New York Times has the fort secured pretty tightly.
MP: In terms of what?
SJ: Of having reportage that is pretty reliably liberal, by reporters who are certifiably liberal. As you can tell from the copy.
MP: Really? “Certifiably”? How would you characterize that word if you were in court?
SJ: How would you characterize it?
MP: Probably as “hyperbole.”
SJ: [Laughs] Well then let’s just say I’m the certifier.
MP: Who do you read that you trust?
SJ: I read The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
MP: So do you trust The New York Times?
SJ: I look at the reporters. I don’t trust the New York Times. But they have standards. They run corrections. The only problem with the corrections is that they imply everything else they got right. But they do hold themselves to reporting facts they hold out to a standard of truthfulness. That is not necessarily the case around the web.
MP: They are the foremost news organization in the country, do you agree?
SJ: Yes, and they set the table for the rest of the media, just as the Star Tribune does in Minnesota, and roughly from the same political perspective as the Star Tribune, which I also read. And I check your column out every morning. I think they’re all important news sources.
MP: Well, I’ll point out to my handlers that you mention the Times and me in the same breath. But you mention the Wall Street Journal, a Rupert Murdoch property. Do you think they have a conservative undertone in their reporting?
SJ: No. And I think the reporters are not any more conservative than the reporters at the New York Times. But they have some great reporters. Like Jay Solomon on the Iran beat. The Times has great reporters on their foreign beats, like Dexter Filkins. He’s now at The New Yorker. And John Burns from London. He’s a great reporter.
MP: Shifting gears a bit, there’s been a lot of conversation over the past couple weeks about the torrent of so-called “fake news” being passed around via Facebook and other social media platforms. Have you followed this?
SJ: I’ve heard the term, I have not caught up with the story.
MP: Well, the classic case was a bunch of teenagers in Macedonia who gamed Facebook’s ad system by concocting ridiculously inaccurate stories, like the pope endorsing Donald Trump, which were shared hundreds of thousands of times in the last weeks of the campaign. A couple people in local journalism I spoke with about it consider the rise of fake news one of if not the most critical problem facing journalism today. It’s potent because it plays to confirmation bias. Do you have any thoughts about that?
SJ: It seems to me that the challenges to mainstream journalism are financial. But I just haven’t caught up with that story. I shouldn’t say anything.
[Hours later, Johnson e-mailed to add, “The only fake news I’m personally familiar with is in the New York Times.”]
MP: Well, I know you’re up to speed on Keith Ellison and his possible rise to head of the Democratic National Committee. You’ve been his bete noir for years. But here’s my point. There are all sorts of people in public life who have messy pasts. Maybe more than not. Do you think his youthful indiscretions, if we can call them that, with Louis Farrakhan and such, deserves a permanent cloud of indictment hanging over him? You’ve been unrelenting.
SJ: When you use the term bete noir, what do you mean?
MP: Well, I think if I asked Ellison about the people he sees as avowed adversaries, even enemies, he’d probably mention you at some point.
SJ: The only time I’ve seen a reference to me from him is when he called something I’d written “bigoted,” a column in the Star Tribune on his memoir, “My Country Tis of Thee.” It ran and he promptly sent out a fundraising letter so he could “fight the bigotry” that my column represented. Although he didn’t challenge any of the facts my column set forth.
You say I’ve been “unrelenting” but I’ve continued writing about him to make the facts widely known so that people who might care would know what they are. I think there’s limited dissemination of the facts about him. And in his case also suppression of the facts, as well as his denial of the facts. My work makes me feel I’ve served a purpose in trying to get the word out, as unsuccessful as I may have been.
I think he’s done really bad things. In the primary in September of 2006, he sent a letter that was extremely misleading to the Jewish Community Relations Council regarding his past association and activities on behalf of the Nation of Islam.
MP: Such things have often been described as a “youthful indiscretion.”
SJ: He described his activities as “limited in time” and “limited in nature” and lied about them. One can easily view the documents. I put them on Power Line! Activities that in my view include the promotion of bigotry, anti-semitism and racism on behalf of a bigoted, anti-semitic and racist organization for a period of time from his graduation from law school through the year 2000. If he had ever accounted for, explained or apologized for those activities, or acknowledged them, your question would really be more difficult than it is. But until then I’ll do everything I can to get the word out about him.
MP: So do you believe he is anti-Semitic?
SJ: I think the things he said and did were anti-Semitic.
MP: Is there a difference?
SJ: I can’t look into his heart. I don’t know if he’s renounced it, or changed his views. So judging him by his past words and deeds the answer is ‘yes.’ But I’d like to know what you think? Do you think I’ve been too hard on him?
MP: Well, my basic attitude is that culture works best with a balance of cogent thinking. As long as zealous opponents like you are making a fact-based case, people like Ellison and other politicians, who are not defenseless, can argue back at it. More to the point, his supporters, which today includes many in the local Jewish community, are not defenseless. It’s the hysterical name-calling that serves no purpose. On the other hand, has this stuff you’re continuing to object to stopped since he’s become a full adult? And is it or was it really more egregious than other people in public office?
SJ: My perception of him is that he’s been very calculating about making a name for himself …
MP: There’s a lot of that in politics.
SJ: … and changing his line when it suits his purposes. In my view, it’s important to hold him to account for the things he’s said and done along the way.
MP: You’ve been a persistent adversary of Keith Ellison’s. You’ve written often and critically about [the Council on American-Islamic Relations], about radicalized local Somalis and Ilhan Omar. You run the risk of being accused by people who are not your supporters of promoting racism. What do you say to that? Is it a concern to you that such a focus on Muslims paints you into such a position?
SJ: One of the reasons I wanted to meet with you is to get some sense of how other people see me. Because I have no idea. I respond to people who ask me questions, and I speak when I’m asked to speak. I’m not a bigot. I hold no grudge against anyone for their religious beliefs. If somebody attributes bigotry to me, I’d ask them to show me anything I’ve written that would warrant that inference. In the case of Omar, I’ve asked questions based on other people’s reporting. I’ve asked her questions myself. They were questions of fact, not of religious …
SJ: As for Ellison, I’ve written about him because of my own concerns about bigotry and anti-Semitism and racism. Because Keith Ellison has been a foremost local proponent of that, through his activities with the Nation of Islam. So I absolutely deny that anything I’ve written or the tenor of anything I’ve written is bigoted.
MP: On the topic of anti-Semitism, do you have any concerns about Steve Bannon [the CEO of Breitbart News who was recently named to be Donald Trump’s senior White House strategist] who comes with a lot of anti-Semitic baggage?
SJ: I don’t see that. I haven’t seen it. I got to know Andrew Breitbart on a trip to Israel in the summer of 2007. I spent a week with Andrew. I loved Andrew. I think the imputations of anti-Semitism, I just haven’t seen it. I think it’s a handy weapon to change the subject when someone like Keith Ellison is emerging on the scene.
MP:Do you interact much with the Democratic side of the local Jewish community? People like Sam Kaplan?
SJ: We’ve crossed paths.
MP: Have you ever got together with him? Ever argued things out?
SJ: I only know Sam from a distance. I have slight acquaintance with him. I respect him. He’s friends with cousins of mine. But I really don’t know him well, nor have I ever sat down to argue with him. I don’t think I’d get anywhere with him or him with me.
MP: Might be interesting.
SJ: :Well, I’m game.
MP: Well, maybe MinnPost can set something up. A fundraiser.
SJ: I just want a level playing field.