Just five years ago, Barack Obama worked in Springfield, Illinois, chairing the State Senate’s Health and Human services committee. Now, of course, he stands at the threshold of the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.
Meanwhile in Chicago, Tony Rezko, a Chicago real estate baron, is the target of a complicated federal corruption trial involving extortion charges surrounding a state hospitals board. As we all know, Rezko was a one-time patron and supporter of Obama, among many other politicians. With that fact, his state-level political corruption trial has been elevated to national prominence.
It would be crazy to think that the press wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—cover any mention of Obama’s name in such a high profile trial. Other candidates would deserve no less.
But journalists need to be careful about cherrypicking and playing up Obama’s name from the barest mention in a trial document or transcript. When the evidence is ambiguous or not relevant to any suggestion of collusion between Obama and Rezko, or when there’s no hint of wrongdoing on Obama’s part, the press needs to frame the revelations soberly, carefully, and accurately.
That’s not what happened earlier this week, when a 2003 email vaguely mentioning Barack Obama was entered into the trial record.
The New York Times and The Associated Press, writing for a national audience, played loose with the exact wording of the email and amped up Obama’s role. The local Chicago Tribune stuck to the hard facts, and downplayed the sensationalist national angle.
The email in question is extremely vague. It was sent on June 23, 2003 to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s lawyer by one Matt Pickering, an associate of lobbyist David Wilhelm. It recommended four names for the governor to name to the state hospitals board. It also mentioned that Wilhelm’s firm had “worked closely” with eight people, including Obama, in an attempt to reform and reauthorize the board. The connection between the eight people who collaborated on the reform and the four names recommended for the board is unclear, and possibly non-existent.
The board’s composition is key in the case, as it’s alleged that Rezko later took control of the board via proxies and shook down contractors seeking business with the body. The defense produced the email—along with other documents from Blagojevich’s administration—to suggest that Rezko wasn’t the only person successfully making recommendations for the board.
So we have eight reform-collaborators, Obama among them, who may or may not have been consulted on board recommendations. They may or may not have made these four recommendations. And Obama, and/or the seven others, may or may not have made the recommendations at Rezko’s behest. Phew.
For what it’s worth, Rezko’s lawyers say the email doesn’t imply a link between Obama and the recommended names. The New York Times followed up with Wilhelm, who says his firm never consulted Obama about appointments to the board. (Although Wilhelm, once a Blagojevich advisor, and these days an Obama superdelegate and surrogate, certainly has a dog or two in the fight.)
As you can see, this gets confusing quickly. But that didn’t stop The Associated Press from simply headlining their article “Obama consulted on board appointees, Rezko trial told.” They led with this graf:
Sen. Barack Obama was among eight state officials and others consulted about who should be appointed to a state board that later became involved in what prosecutors describe as a fraud scheme, according to a memo discussed Monday at Antoin “Tony” Rezko’s trial.
The Times took a similar, though less definitive tack, in its A-20 article “In Developer’s Trial, E-Mail Note Cites an Obama Link.” The Times admitted the email was “vaguely worded” but still wrote this:
Mr. Pickering said he and Mr. Wilhelm had “worked closely” over six months with several state legislators to extend the life of the health facilities board. He then listed Democratic and Republican leaders in the state House and Senate, including Mr. Obama.
Mr. Pickering’s message went on to suggest four candidates to serve on the board, stating that “our attached recommendations reflect that involvement” with the political leaders.
For contrast, look how a local played it. The Chicago Tribune, in a substantial write-up of all the day’s testimony, wrote:
In one e-mail, Pickering laid out a list of four people he and Wilhelm wanted Blagojevich to consider for appointment to the hospital planning board. Pickering also mentioned that the firm had worked closely with several top legislators, Obama included, in pushing legislation to overhaul the hospital board.
That’s the clearest gloss of the e-mail’s contents. Sure, not as definitive—or sensational—on any Obama role in the board recommendations, but again, it’s a careful and accurate summary.
But it’s worth taking a step back to ask why, exactly, Obama (or the seven other people mentioned in the email) consulting or not-consulting with Wilhelm is relevant in the national Rezko-Obama context. It would only matter if there’s evidence that Obama’s hypothetical nods to the board were made on Rezko’s behalf. But there isn’t.
Obama’s prominence means the national press is giving a hard look to any Rezko ties. And they should be. But making too much out of disclosures like these, in a quest to feed the great national appetite for Obama dirt, is a mistake. Yes, smoke can indicate fire. But this wasn’t even smoke.Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.