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Why Do We Care About This Ben Carson Story Anyway?

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 6/11/2015 Sam Stein
BEN CARSON BOOK SIGNING AT BARNES NOBLE © mpi10/MediaPunch/MediaPunch/IPx BEN CARSON BOOK SIGNING AT BARNES NOBLE

On Friday afternoon, the national press corps went into a collective furor over news that Dr. Ben Carson, a leading GOP presidential candidate, had misrepresented a part of his biography.

In his book and later on the campaign trail, Carson had claimed he received a scholarship offer to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. On Friday, Politico reported  the academy could find no records of such an offer ever being made. Carson’s campaign subsequently confirmed that Carson’s recollection, which he’s repeated many times, was incorrect -- although the campaign also said the difference between Carson’s statements and the real story was largely semantic.

Is this a big deal? How much should we really care?

On one hand, it was an anecdote that took place in the late '60s and it does not say much, if anything, about his plans for the presidency. On the other hand, voters currently view Carson as the most trustworthy candidate in the Republican primary. His biography has not just served as the basis for his political campaign. It has also been inspirational reading for young kids.

My colleague Jonathan Cohn had some opinions on the matter, and I did too. So we took our conversation to Slack. Here's how it went:

samsteinhp

All right. So you aren’t blown away by this Politico piece on Ben Carson, which says he wasn’t, as he wrote in his book, offered a scholarship to West Point. Is it because the specifics are wrong (he has said elsewhere he got an informal offer to attend and turned it down) or because you think the whole thing is stupid?

jonathan.cohn 

I don't have a problem with the story per se. Carson claimed he got a full scholarship; records show he didn't. That’s newsworthy and good reporting by Politico's Kyle Cheney. But I don't like the breathless packaging. (The headline says "fabrication," which is a strong, accusatory word.) And I really don't like the reaction I’m seeing. It seems way out of proportion to the alleged wrongdoing here. This is still a developing story, obviously. Carson’s character is the core of his appeal, so that makes his biography a worthwhile subject of discussion. For now, though, I can’t get too worked up about what Carson did or didn’t say about West Point.

samsteinhp

So, I basically agree with most of this. But I can also see the other side of this. A person who fabricates or embellishes their own life story — whether to sell books or win political office — has a loose attachment to the truth and a suspect character. Doesn’t that say something about how they’d act as an elected official?

jonathan.cohn 

Well, let's take a step back and examine this embellishment. How much did he really embellish? Here's what the campaign says now: Carson was a top ROTC student in Detroit. His superiors invited him to meet Gen. William Westmoreland and introduced him to West Point officials, who then told him he stood a good chance of getting into West Point. If Carson had gone to West Point, he wouldn't have to pay tuition. If that explanation is correct, that's really not so different from what Carson has been saying. The gist of the story -- that Carson was an accomplished young man, involved in ROTC, and that he could have attended West Point -- would still be true. At worst, he exaggerated.

samsteinhp  

OK, put it another way. Is a candidate's personal memoir -- his or her life before getting into politics -- irrelevant to their campaign?

jonathan.cohn  

No. But I think we also need to be realistic about the limits of human memory. You've done narrative journalism. So have I. And one thing you quickly realize when you report these kinds of stories is that personal recollection is almost never perfect. Sometimes people are trying to deceive. Sometimes they simply don’t remember that well. Sometimes their version of the truth is, at best, partial. That's why, when you report, you try so hard to seek out multiple sources -- and find confirmation of facts and anecdotes. That doesn’t happen with memoirs, particularly in a case like this, where you have a ghostwriter. Maybe in this case Carson exaggerated or boasted when he first told the story, or maybe the ghostwriter embellished or wasn't able to fact-check. Whatever. This was forty-something years ago, right? After all this time, Carson probably doesn't even remember the meeting. Whatever ended up on that page has probably shaped his recollections.

samsteinhp

I agree. There is a big difference between deviations in stories and outright fabrications. Which is why I think the Carson thing isn’t ultimately a huge deal, but the Clinton sniper story, for example, really resonated.

Then again, here we are and she’s likely gonna win the nomination.

jonathan.cohn  

Yes, the public tends to forgive these things -- after a while. Then again, I don't recall getting overly upset about the sniper controversy, either. But now we’re getting to a longstanding beef I have with media coverage of campaigns. Personal biographical details get incredibly close scrutiny and policy details do not. The West Point story is splashed across the top of Politico right now and, on MSNBC, hosts are asking whether he can survive this episode. Meanwhile, during the CNBC debate, he denied that his tax scheme would blow a huge hole in the deficit and the media is like ... whatever. Personally, I'd prefer more focus on substance and policy and less on personality and character.

samsteinhp

Yes. This tweet in particular is something that made me shake my head.

So, why do you think we focus more on West Point and pyramids and not tax policy?

Is it as simple as: Tax policy is boring?

Because that’s my theory.

jonathan.cohn  

I don't think tax policy is boring! I think it's exciting -- almost as exciting as health care policy!

OK, I’m pretty unusual in that regard. Boredom is certainly one reason that the media gravitates toward these controversies. Another is that reporters feel comfortable adjudicating whether a candidate has told the truth about his biography, but not whether a candidate is telling the truth about public policy.

samsteinhp  

Is that because it’s easy to debate the truth but harder to understand tax policy ins and outs?

Like, for example, we can all make judgements on Marco Rubio’s personal financial history. But we will get into complex, unsatisfying arguments when we argue if his tax plan benefits the poor or the rich more.

jonathan.cohn

Absolutely. And while you frequently hear pundits accuse politicians of "lying" about policy, usually those politicians aren't so much lying as citing facts selectively -- or misinterpreting evidence. If you're a reporter, that's not easy to understand, let alone convey in a way average readers understand. But at the end of the day, what Carson would do to the tax code or Medicare probably has a much bigger effect on people's lives than whether he's prone to exaggerating details of things he did four decades ago. Media coverage ought to reflect that.

samsteinhp  

So, to close the loop, do you think the story about Marco’s personal finances has merit?

jonathan.cohn  

I'll start with the same caveat I gave about Carson: It's a developing story worth pursuing. If there's evidence of ethical wrongdoing, for example, that'd be important. But for now? Given what we know? I'm underwhelmed. I care very little about what Rubio does with his checkbook; I care quite a lot about what he'd do to the federal treasury, and I don’t think one has much to do with the other.

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