As the past 24 hours of Ben Carson coverage have reminded, swinging for the fences can often leave journalists whiffing on solid stories.
Carson is the newly crowned leader of many GOP primary polls, and Major League media scrutiny comes with such territory. CNN and Politico obliged readers with explorations of Carson’s biography these last two days. Both pieces included illuminating information that cast doubt on Carson’s much-admired personal narrative. But both also overpromised on what they exposed, nullifying what would have been useful comparisons of how Carson’s burnished retelling of his past measures up to an independently gleaned inquiry into it.
The more egregious example came Friday: “Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point scholarship,” a Politico headline blared. Carson, an ROTC standout during high school, has repeatedly referred to a scholarship offer he received to attend the military academy, so the headline suggested a damning admission from the front runner’s campaign. But the story’s lede used different terminology:
Ben Carson’s campaign on Friday admitted, in a response to an inquiry from POLITICO, that a central point in his inspirational personal story was fabricated: his application and acceptance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
A quote from a Carson spokesman, however, conveys not an admission of guilt but rather a simple explanation. Here lies the first disconnect between what Politico promised and what it delivered:
He was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC Supervisors. They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission.
And therein lies the second disconnect as well: Carson hasn’t claimed he applied to and was accepted by West Point. He’s claimed he was offered a scholarship.
The academy foots cadets’ bills, of course, making this impossible. While a tuition-free education could potentially be misconstrued as a “scholarship” by Carson—and a “scholarship” could be misconstrued as admission by observers—Carson never received such an offer. He had informal talks with recruiters about attending West Point. He mischaracterized this part of his story.
Yet Politico took too big a swing at what could have been a solid base hit. And just after 4 p.m., the story’s headline had been changed: “Exclusive: Carson claimed West Point ‘scholarship’ but never applied.” The lede was also recast to omit the claim that Carson admitted fabrication:
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Friday conceded that he never applied nor was granted admission to West Point and attempted to recast his previous claims of a full scholarship to the military academy — despite numerous public and written statements to the contrary over the last few decades.
A spokeswoman did not respond to CJR’s request for comment. But the outlet released a statement to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, saying “We stand by our story which is a powerful debunking of a key aspect of Ben Carson’s personal narrative.”
“Debunking” is an important word, a sweet spot for investigations into candidates’ personal histories. And the pressure to deliver such a takedown seems to have pushed CNN to similarly overpromise with its more than 3,000-word dive into Carson’s claims of first childhood violence, and then a religious epiphany.
At the core of his narrative of spiritual redemption are his acts of violence as an angry young man — stabbing, rock throwing, brick hurling and baseball bat beating — that preceded Carson’s sudden transformation into the composed figure who stands before voters today…
But nine friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson told CNN they have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described.
That person is unrecognizable to those whom CNN interviewed, who knew him during those formative years.
With such exposé billing, CNN set a high bar for substantiating the thrust of its story. The sources expressed surprise at Carson’s supposedly violent episodes. The problem: none explicitly contradicted them. What’s more, the news outlet was unable to find or speak with any of the individuals Carson allegedly assaulted. None of that necessarily proves Carson’s accounts—among them an attempted stabbing miraculously thwarted by a belt buckle—but the burden of proof is on CNN. Its report raised important questions, certainly, but it didn’t expose Carson in any convincing way.
CNN reporters Maeve Reston and Scott Glover didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. But they responded to criticism of their reporting on air yesterday:
With both CNN and Politico, the overly ambitious framing provided Carson yet another opportunity to cast himself as a victim of liberal media “witch hunts.” On Thursday night, he retreated to the safety of a Fox News interview with Megyn Kelly, who told her more than 2 million viewers, “How finding nine people to say they have no memory of your temper proves that it didn’t exist, I know not.”
“Let [the media] go ahead and play their silly games,” Carson said later in the segment. “We have much more important things to do.”David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.