Journalism Interrupted: The Nation Fail

The Nation has been a true and trusted friend of mine for years. I know the editors and many of the writers and have nothing but respect for their work. Most importantly, I have great respect for their consistent adherence to the highest journalistic standards.

Yesterday, however, The Nation ran a piece that is nothing short of character assassination, serving no newsworthy purpose, and rightfully criticized by others as a barely disguised political hit-piece.

The article, entitled "TSAstroturf: The Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians Behind the TSA Scandal" by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine essentially implies that the entire libertarian movement is nothing more than a front for the billionaire Koch brothers and their corporatist allies – and by extension that libertarian protesters and groping victims are all hired pawns representing these interests. But do Ames and Levine implicate the American Civil Liberties Union in this project as well? After all, the David and Charles Koch each donated $10 million to the ACLU, an organization which is also opposing the TSA’s nude scanners and full body frisks.

This article offers nothing in the way of proof for its allegations, but provides plenty of speculation and bizarre claims of guilt-by-association, beginning with the very first paragraph:

Does anyone else sense something strange is going on with the apparently spontaneous revolt against the TSA? This past week, the media turned an "ordinary guy," 31-year-old Californian John Tyner, who blogs under the pseudonym "Johnny Edge," into a national hero after he posted a cell phone video of himself defending his liberty against the evil government oppressors in charge of airport security.

The writers fail to grasp something basic about society it seems. When people are outraged, they tend to be galvanized very quickly. Many people who respects individual rights, regardless of political leanings, oppose the TSA’s new and extremely invasive security policies.

Consider for a moment what the issue is. The government of "we the people" demanded that the "we" that it is supposed to represent give up our rights to our most sacrosanct property – our bodies – in order to have free passage across this supposed free nation.

In essence, my ability to travel in the United States of America is contingent on me allowing a government agent to either see me naked or feel me up. This outrages me. This outrages everyone I know. The level of invasiveness is the galvanizing factor. So no, I don’t find it "strange" that there was a "spontaneous revolt against the TSA." I would find it strange if there was instead the sound of crickets in response to such clear and obscene acts of government overreach.

Ames and Levine are suspicious, but suspicions alone do not make for good journalism. Moreover, unfounded and unsupported suspicions – like those on display in this piece – do not even make for a good op-ed.

They continue:

While this issue is certainly important – and offensive – to Americans, we are nonetheless skeptical about how and why this story turned into a national movement. In fact, this whole campaign feels a bit like déjà-vu: As the first reporters to expose the Tea Party as an Astroturf PR campaign funded by FreedomWorks and Koch-related front groups back in February, 2009, we see many of the same elements driving the current "rebellion" against the TSA: Koch-related libertarians, Washington lobbyists and PR operatives posing as "ordinary citizens," and suspicious fake-grassroots outrage relentlessly promoted in the same old right-wing echo chamber.

Perhaps Ames and Levine took a dinner discussion they were having and simply assumed that it would make for good journalism. Not so. They ask and answer their own question and yet continue to express skepticism.  They note that "the [TSA] issue" is "offensive to Americans" and then ask "how and why this story turned into a national movement" all in the same sentence.

Moreover, the implication that the genuine outrage of the populace over the TSA touch-and-feel scandal is somehow a mirage fabricated by special interests, devalues the real concern that people have about having their rights violated.

In any case, I am certain members of the Tea Party movement are indeed outraged over what the TSA is doing, but so are members of every political and ideological leaning. Liberals are outraged, but the national outrage and outcry is not a liberal creation. Conservatives are also outraged, but neither could they claim ownership of this national response.  The common denominator here is individual rights, which as I noted earlier, most Americans feel strongly about. I am outraged, but hardly a member of the Tea Party movement.

All of that aside, how is this in any way journalism? It is suspicion first and speculation after, based on a straw-man of political origins and presented as solid news reporting. Yet The Nation published this? Why?

Then comes the character assassination:

So far, all we know about "ordinary guy" John Tyner III, the freedom fighter who took on the TSA agents, is that, according to a friendly hometown profile in the San Diego Union-Tribune, "he leans strongly libertarianand doesn’t believe in voting. TSA security policy, he asserts ‘isn’t Republican and it isn’t Democratic.’ " [Emphasis added.]

Tyner attended private Christian schools in Southern California and lives in Oceanside, a Republican stronghold next to Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base on the West Coast.

So Tyner leans strongly libertarian – and the point is? Tyner does not believe in voting – and the point is? Then they go on to dig into his past, where he went to school (Gulp, Christian schools!) and note that he happens to live in a Republican stronghold. So? What is the point? What does this prove?

I lived in South Florida for many years, a state that bleeds red to the core and even had a Bush as governor. Does that make me a Bush loyalist or a Republican? Does my geography marry me to an ideology or a political movement?  Florida happens to have several military installations as well. Does that somehow implicate me in something? What is the actual point here other than guilt-by geography?

What is Tyner’s crime other than he is openly a libertarian (they still don’t tell us if he is a member of any party)? This is a philosophy which values individual rights. Would it not make sense for him to be outraged by the TSA invasion of our bodies? Do his philosophical leanings somehow lessen his right to be outraged?

The bad journalism continues:

At least one local TSA administrator wondered if Tyner hadn’t come to the airport prepared to create a scandal.

At least one? Is that two, three, how many? What is the name of this "one" TSA agent? The anonymous TSA agent aside, their observation is telling in that it states the obvious. "Wondered"? The whole purpose of a protest or a show of civil disobedience is to create a scandal, is it not? So again, what is the point of this assertion and where are the specifics?

Ames and Levine then go on – at length – to describe another "libertarian" who also protested the TSA, which turned out to be a hoax apparently. Yet they fail to tie Tyner to this other person. The only connection – if one can call it that – is that Tyner and the other protester happen to be (and we don’t even know this to be true) similar in their philosophical and/or political leanings. Again, guilt-by philosophical association and maybe not even. The point is? What is the point?

They spend an inordinate amount of time describing the travels of this other "libertarian" and her connections to – yikes! – yet other libertarians, without offering anything other than speculation, conjecture, and the implication that the libertarian movement is somehow involved in these dealings – whatever these dealings are. In any case, let me re-state the obvious again: one would expect that a person who values individual rights would indeed be outraged by what the TSA is doing.

Ames and Levine conflate all libertarians with lobbyists and corporate interests, yet prove nothing that implicates anyone in the libertarian movement of being involved in any sort of dirty trickery on behalf of the powerful.

They attack a protester for his philosophical views (which actually are in line with his actions) and reduce him to a geographically contaminated paid shill. They assert, but fail to prove any substantive connection of anyone to anything. Most importantly, they seem to be defending the TSA from what they call "national hysteria."

Yes, I am part of that hysteria. What do my credentials have to be in order for my outrage to count as valid?

Finally, let me add something about the response that Ames and Levine published in answer to Glenn Greenwald’s criticsim.

In general, the response offers nothing in support of their original allegations and attempts to re-write an article already written. If the original article needs to be explained with a second article, then clearly the original article is lacking.

My issue with their response is primarily with Ames’ need to bring Levine’s  Soviet background into his defense from a valid criticism of their sloppy attack on those who would oppose the TSA:

My co-author, Yasha Levine – whose grandfather survived Stalin’s GULAGs – fled the Soviet Union to America to escape anti-Semitism. So we believe that even Greenwald can understand what a gigantic bummer, for lack of a better word, it’s been for us to come back to America, and to find ourselves attacked and frankly slandered for being alleged government oppressors.

Defending the TSA in this case does in fact put Ames and Levine on the wrong side of an issue that defies party affiliations and is essentially a core principle of any free society. If they don’t want to be seen as defenders of the TSA, then perhaps they should stop defending the TSA.

But what is most distasteful is that a criticism of the bad journalism on display in their original piece has somehow been made into an attack on a grandson of a Jewish Soviet refugee. Seriously? What does Levine’s heritage have to do with a valid criticism of an article he wrote? Nothing. Relying on the victim card only further illustrates the lack of ethics on display here. The Nation owes Tyner an apology at the very least.

Author: Larisa Alexandrovna Horton

Larisa Alexandrovna Horton is an award-winning investigative reporter, formerly with and the Huffington Post.