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

Public figures like Ilhan Omar ignore valid questions — even if they come from unexpected sources — at their peril.

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.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

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.)

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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.” 

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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.”