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What the Ilhan Omar story says about the media and political reporting in 2016

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
It’s worth noting that the primary news element in the Ilhan Omar story wasn’t who she married — or didn’t marry, or even when — but rather the question of gaming the immigration system.

Here’s the thing about a valid question: It’s valid no matter where it comes from. And with the startling proliferation of voices offering something like news — even if not news in the strict, traditional sense — valid questions are thrown out by wildly disparate characters and gain traction in the media landscape. Public figures — like Ilhan Omar, recent victor in the DFL primary for a seat in the state Legislature — ignore them (or react poorly to them) at their peril.

Wednesday evening, Omar finally made a full effort to respond to questions, raised late last week by Scott Johnson, one of the members of the conservative, locally ­based and nationally popular Power Line blog. Johnson’s issues had to do with Omar’s murky marriage history, whether she was married to two men at the same time and, most seriously, whether she had entered into a sham marriage with her brother to give him American residency, i.e. immigration fraud. Because of the size and partisan intensity of Power Line’s readership the story — a story Johnson said was tipped to him by someone following a Somali website called Somali Spot — ignited and took off . (Johnson’s posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; say what you will, the guy gets points for doggedness.) 

Needless to say, Omar and her supporters were indignant. But instead of simply providing information to clarify matters, their first response was to characterize the postings as an example of conservative racism and hope that community outrage alone over a guy with a record of challenging/impugning the credibility of Muslim officeholders would bury the matter. 

They couldn’t have been more wrong. As one local reporter who followed the story closely recalls, his phone began lighting up within minutes of Johnson’s first post last Friday. “Do I like having to follow something put up by Power Line? No,” said the reporter. “But I don’t like having to follow stuff first put out by [my competitors] either. But that’s the game today. You can’t ignore it. You have to deal with it.” (The reporter asked not to be identified in order to speak more freely. Another reporter on the story, J. Patrick Coolican of the Star Tribune, declined to comment in any way.)

What followed for Omar was a five-­day brush fire — aggravated by a roundelay of media spokespeople and the decision to hire an attorney, Ben Goldfarb, to add more indignation than facts to the questions Johnson raised. You want reporters to suspect you have something to hide? Hire a lawyer to not explain your marital status.

As of Thursday morning — after Omar’s Wednesday evening explanation, in which she said, “Insinuations that Ahmed Nur Said Elmi is my brother are absurd and offensive” — the episode, which might have been put away in 30 minutes last Friday, may have finally lost its news appeal (though Johnson remains skeptical of the identity of the man she married in 2009, Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, who has since moved back to Britain.)

In the context of how the media operates in 2016 there are several interesting angles to this incident. 

•  As much as journalists toss around the cliché of getting all “granular” with their reporting, it is virtually impossible to vet every candidate for public office down to the level of their marriage applications and licenses. It’s hard enough to come up with tax records on presidential candidates. So such enterprise, if it is done at all, is left to people with a specific focus, a focus that can often be described as obsessional. But the “whys” don’t matter. The validity of the questions does. 

•  While an unabashed partisan, with a long­-established reputation as Keith Ellison’s bete noir, Scott Johnson is not your average right­wing dingbat. All the Power Line contributors have legal backgrounds, which gives their posts both clarity and a kind of prosecutorial impact. Eyes may roll at the assertions they make. But the copy is clean, comparatively intelligible and presented with, shall we say, vigorous certainty. In fact, among the site’s players Johnson may be regarded as the more “hinged,” generally applying acceptable enough journalistic standards to his posts. (So far as I know, he’s never been awed by the “genius” of George W. Bush.)

Point being, he laid out his questions regarding Omar’s marriage history in a legitimate manner, being careful not to assert more than could be proved. The overlaying fact that he has a history of adversarial commentary toward Ellison and the “protected status” of the local Somali community doesn’t disqualify everything he says from journalistic consideration. And it didn’t, if only because he has an audience at least as large as the average daily political reporter.

In an e­mail exchange, Johnson said: “I tried to check out the story on my own and then ask the Omar campaign about it. I wanted to be corrected by Ilhan Omar or her campaign officials if I had it wrong. I wouldn’t have posted anything if they responded with the relevant information showing I was wrong. I would be more interested in your comment on this question than my own opinion as an outsider. My guess is that reporters look at our work with a gimlet eye when they look at it at all, but I feel like the Star Tribune has to be shamed into covering a story like this. That’s what I was trying to do after I received the nonresponse response to my questions from criminal defense attorney Jean Brandl. I thought that was a story all by itself.”

•  While mainstream reporters and editors are loath to concede the point, certainly on the record, stories like this one run counter to the popular narrative of a young minority woman, an immigrant, achieving history­-making success. That narrative is feel­-good, and a significant portion of the news­-consuming public wants to savor and enjoy the moment. Moreover, media outlets and reporters who dare counter that narrative with uncomfortable questions risk opprobrium from an element of the public on every bit as much of a hair trigger for offense as the better known and more regularly reviled right-wing trolls.

Said the aforementioned reporter, “If there was resistance to this story, either because it originated with a conservative site or it countered the popular narrative of this young Somali woman, it is, I think, entirely on the reporter level. My editors were strictly, ‘What do we know and how do we know it?’ ” That’s where they were. But the thing is, most reporters aren’t looking for trouble. They much prefer not to get into something that generates hostility toward them. But reporting is often about telling something people don’t want you to know.” 

He adds, “At this point, in the world of social media reporters have gotten used to grumpy old white guys calling them names on Twitter or in comments. But liberal criticism, what you could call liberal jackboots, have a different effect. It may be because most reporters are liberal, I think that’s generally true, but because of that, criticism from liberals strikes closer to home, they take it more personally, and would rather avoid it.”

For his part, Johnson denies the story was “shopped” around, and that he picked it up as he said in his posts from “a reader” of Somali Spot. (And if you’re a fan of vile anonymous trolling, the site competes with the Star Tribune’s comments on its worst days.)

As a high­-profile critic of the Star Tribune, Johnson says, “I believe that Star Tribune reporters ignore or downplay or explain away some local stories of interest out of understandable sensitivity to and sympathy for minority communities or support for the stories' protagonists. I would cite my experience writing about Keith Ellison’s "secret history” (not really) as a local leader of the Nation of Islam on Power Line in 2006 and subsequently. I have written about my Ellison experience in two articles for the Weekly Standard and then in a Star Tribune column last year (“Keith Ellison remembers to forget”). I think that is a good example that comes out of my experience.” 

Finally, it’s worth noting that the primary news element in the Omar story wasn’t who she married — or didn’t marry, or even when — but rather the question of gaming the immigration system. Somali common law marriages, live­-in partners, the “ups and downs” of domestic life  — while juicy personal gossip, they are just that, personal turmoil that is commonly ignored in political reporting. The immigration question was the nut of the matter. And, to no one’s surprise, it is not one that Johnson will be letting go of anytime soon.

He says, “Her statement [Wednesday night] is silent on that as well, except for saying he’s not her brother. I have had a Somali source inside the community. I have received a number of messages from him. … [Local reporters] were led to believe by the campaign this week that Ahmed number 1 was neither the love of her life nor her legal husband. When I say her statement doesn’t answer all the relevant questions, this is what I mean. I just don’t think one can reasonably conclude that her statement is the last word under the circumstances.”

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Comments (19)

The reaction

The first reaction to this story from the Omar camp suggested to me that they were about to engage in a complete Hillary. Vague, unresponsive, blaming the whole world with the sole exception of those actually at fault. I was relieved beyond measure, when just a couple of days in, someone stepped in who actually knew what he was doing. Real answers were provided, and they came in a language that was recognizably English. An initial media response which had the potential to blow the matter up out of all proportion was, to use a term I heard recently, short circuited.

Could it be that what we heard in grade school, that honesty is a pretty good policy, might actually be a pretty good policy after all? Did we learn here that confronted with let's just say, an embarrassing set of facts, that really the best thing to do is be upfront about it, and trust the voters to reach a fair decision, one informed by the fact that many of us, and maybe a couple of legislators as well, have not led completely untangled domestic lives?

Lately, I have become bored by the frequent use of the term 'historic". But maybe the use of the term here, in reference to the decision of a politician to actually be candid about some not exactly flattering personal details, even after some initial hesitation is about as historic as anything we have heard or seen recently.

Honest

She came up with a somewhat plausible story, just not too sure it's an honest one. Don't think this story is over yet.

Judge not that you not be judged

Know anyone who has had children outside of marriage? Know anyone who made a poor choice in marriage partner? Know anyone who couldn't get along with someone, broke it off and got back together? Know anyone who ever got a marriage certificate and didn't use it? Know anyone who has ever has been young and foolish (or old enough, but still foolish)? If not, you must live in a different universe. And if so, it could have happened in your own family or - gasp - to you?

Fact is that life is messy and this messiness affects all of us. When I night be tempted to come down hard on someone I don't know or personally identify with, I try to temper it with a little humility. Would I be so critical of a loved who did the same thing? Or do I automatically think the worst. A bigot hates other people. A hypocritical bigot attacks other people for things they would forgive in a friend.

The reader is responding to the episode by calling for honesty, but did Power Line choose to report this story with a strong set of substantiated facts and without an undisclosed agenda? Of course not. Do many conservatives forgive Powerline's dishonesty because they want to believe the story and gave the opportunity find fault with someone they consider an enemy?. Draw your own conclusion.

No bias here

When I was in 9th grade, a classmate asked me to participate in a short speech we were required to give in English class, by standing next to him as he talked. This classmate was very unpopular and I was very embarrassed to think that some of my friends might laugh at me for helping him out. So as he gave his speech, I rolled my eyes and made faces because I wanted to make sure that everyone in the class knew that I didn't really like this guy. Subsequently, our teacher gave me a very bad grade with a note in big red writing, chewing me out for acting the way I had.
Brian Lambert's reporting here reminded me of that event that had happened decades ago. The snide remarks and asides spread throughout the article, making sure that none of his fellows would actually think that he (gasp) could agree with a conservative, are as immature and pitiful as my eye rolls were in that 9th grade speech. Grow up, Brian.

Powerline

The problem with Powerline isn't that they are conservative, but that they are terrible excuses for journalists. They stumbled upon something here, but tripped over their own racism reporting it. Brian was more than fair.

re: Powerline

Powerline is an opinion blog; they are not, nor have they ever portrayed themselves as journalists. Big, big difference that you need to understand. Tragically, the "professional journalist" who wrote this article exposes over and over his dismay at a conservative blog asking questions that a real journalist should have already asked/investigated, and reveals his strong, left wing political affiliation. He is no different than the conservative bloggers he derides except for falsely portraying himself as being an impartial journalist. Your comment regarding "racism" is absurd on its' face.

Try again

Lambert is saying that despite the ethical shortcomings and general sleaze of Powerline, what they found here should be taken seriously.

Just go back and read their nonsense about Obama's birth certificate. These guys are as racist as they come. But again, even with their racism, if they find something - like they did here - the press should pick it up.

No journalism here...

I completely agree with you that the media should be asking these questions and investigating as journalists used to do. So why did it take a political blog to start asking these serious questions? Why is Brian Lambert not investigating and asking these questions if he agrees further investigation is warranted? After all, he's a journalist, right? The follow up on this issue by the media has consisted of the sound of chirping crickets.

Last - your allegation of "racism" cheapens and diminishes your otherwise logical and thoughtful points. Stop screaming racism everytime you see a disagreement between people of different colors - it really is ridiculous and demeaning.

Nope

I am very selective in calling out racism. I reserve it for sources like Powerline. It's not about disagreement - it's about overt racism.

Reassuring

Must be comforting to dismiss those with differing viewpoints as racist (presumably against "the Muslim race").

So True.

Agreed, Jane. It's why politics is in such a mess. People can't address the other side without insulting them first.

Hmmm…

I was about to write that the initial reponse from the Omar camp was very Trump-like, but if Mr. Foster likes "complete Hillary" better, I'll go along with it. She, too, has acquired a reputation for answers that don't really answer the question. The point is that the Omar response to legitimate questions about the immigration issues involved was very much a non-response – the sort of obfuscation that far too many political figures resort to when someone asks uncomfortable questions. Among my favorite definitions of journalism is one from George Orwell: "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations."

That line seems relevant here.

I read it with some frequency, but I'm no fan of Power Line or Scott Johnson. That said, however, Brian has made the essential point: it's not where the question comes from that counts. What counts is the question itself, and the response to the question. That response has been less than forthright. I'm inclined to agree that we've not heard the last of this matter, and also agree with Johnson, though it pains me to do so, that not all the relevant questions about immigration have been answered. Yet.

Power line

I thought the one thing that was out of line from Power Line was their suggestion, apparently without any foundation whatever, was suggestion that Ms. Omar had married a relative. I see no basis for that innuendo, and it would be a serious charge if true. Without any basis in fact, they should not have made it. Other than that, their reporting seems to have been true as far as it goes.

Ms. Omar isn't completely off the hook here. She did claim publicly and repeatedly that she was married to someone to whom she is not married. She should have known better. And it is perfectly proper, despite the suggestions of her first batch of spokes people, for the voters of 60B to take that into account if they choose. If she came knocking at my door I would feel free to tell her in no uncertain terms that kind of conduct isn't acceptable. But this one incident alone certainly wouldn't stop me from voting for her.

Basis

The basis was that he referred to her kids as his nieces and nephews on social media. I think the original Somali blog from which Powerline got the scoop made the allegation directly.

Cultural competency

I am a court-certified Spanish language interpreter. According to a Somali interpreter colleague, there is no word in Somali for step-parent or step-children. In said situation, people commonly refer to each other as uncle, aunt, niece or nephew.

I agree that Scott Johnson has displayed "doggedness" but he has not shown a modicum of cultural competency.

Can we stop talking about non-issues and instead get back to discussing actual policies?

Legitimate Concerns

If Omar thinks hiring a Bulldog attorney is going to make an issue involving alleged immigration fraud go away, then it is time to guess again. The timeline of events in this case seem to indicate an understanding of the law and a willingness to subvert it. The issue of whether he is her brother or not can be solved quickly through DNA testing.

Legitimate?

If there is a credible allegation that she has claimed her brother is her husband, bring it forward, along with the reasons it is credible. Until then, it is nothing more than an accusation, stemming from an unknown source.

The source doesn't matter?

I don't buy the categorical dismissal of the source of this rumor bundle as irrelevant to the main issue. Of course it matters who planted this rumor, why that source waited until after the primary to bring it up (the Somali community has known of this marital situation, guys!), and why there is the absurd exaggeration about the 2009 marriage being to a brother and designed to frustrate immigration rules.

These are accusations with a purpose, and we have every right--as do reporters, for Pete's sake--to ask Qui bono? (for whose benefit). Asking that question of who benefits is part of ascertaining the truth, and of ascertaining what part of that truth has any relevance to the election.

The only person who benefits is the Somali male who is running as Omar's Republican opponent in the main election where the DFLer will win unless somehow she can be disqualified. Or besmirched so badly that she can't get the votes she normally would get. So this is the post-primary attempt to destroy her, to get rid of her as a DFL candidate.

Then you question the source. You do your own checking, too. But the real political story, boys, is in the source or sources. Why isn't anybody digging into that? Too hard. Requires some skills besides bloviation.

"Of course it matters who

"Of course it matters who planted this rumor, why that source waited until after the primary to bring it up (the Somali community has known of this marital situation, guys!), and why there is the absurd exaggeration about the 2009 marriage being to a brother and designed to frustrate immigration rules."

If it matters to you, it matters. Apparently, someone did a records check here. Not very nice, maybe, but not completely outside the bounds of political propriety. I don't have any proof of this, but I suspect certainly that the disclosure was time to be maximally embarrassing to Ms. Omar and the DFL party. Again not nice, but not totally unfair.

"Qui bono?"

The Republicans of course. They have the same right to try to win elections as we do.

"The only person who benefits is the Somali male who is running as Omar's Republican opponent in the main election where the DFLer will win unless somehow she can be disqualified."

That remains to be seen. This story is mildly embarrassing to the DFL as a whole, and in a close election as this is expected, not something we need, but at the moment, isn't that big a deal.

" But the real political story, boys, is in the source or sources. Why isn't anybody digging into that?"

A definitive answer to that is something we aren't likely to get. But do we need to know more than we know to draw the relevant conclusion? The information was published by a conservative seeking to damage the electoral chances of the DFL party. This isn't the first time Republicans have tried to win an election, and probably won't be the last time either. Maybe the better way for us to respond instead of griping about the GOP, is to choose better candidates.