Politico's Ben Carson Misfire: Where Was The Cynical Copy Editor?

  • by: Alan Duke

When a political reporter writes a story calling out a presidential frontrunner as a liar, a cynical copy editor is essential for preventing the kind of embarrassment that has befallen Politico's Kyle D. Cheney and his story accusing Ben Carson of "fabricating" his biography.

Cheney's original headline read: "Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point scholarship." It was later changed to read: "Exclusive: Carson claimed West Point 'scholarship' but never applied." But the time between first publication and the revisions forced by a backlash from the right and left only strengthened Carson's stump speech about how voters shouldn't trust the media. It did little to cause Republicans to distrust Dr. Carson.

The question is: Where was Politico's cynical copy editor earlier? Every media organization needs a platoon of them to ask the writers pointed questions about why a headline or sentence was written the way it was. The writer might bristle at having to justify every word, but the process protects the journalist from his own exuberance.

While his story was significantly revised, Cheney is now under the microscope himself for past writings. He is defiant, tweeting a day later that what Carson is saying about his West Point offer "is false" and "Everything else is semantic."

Dictionary.com's first definition of semantics is "the study of meaning." Good journalism requires proper semantics.

Having a copy editor review a story's semantics will make it a lot easier on the reporter when the candidate accuses him of misleading writing. A day late is not good enough.

For a case study on how to expose a presidential frontrunner's misrepresentation of his past, read what this Lead Stories' editor in chief -- then a CNN reporter -- wrote about Newt Gingrich's attempt to re-write his divorce history four years ago.

The story headlined "Newly recovered court files cast doubt on Gingrich version of first divorce" was published barely a week before the 2012 Iowa caucuses when Gingrich -- like Carson -- was riding high in the polls.

"Newt Gingrich claims that it was his first wife, not Gingrich himself, who wanted their divorce in 1980, but court documents obtained by CNN appear to show otherwise. The Republican presidential candidate, now in his third marriage, has been peppered with attacks and questions about his divorce from Jackie Gingrich for the past three decades. Questions about his past -- and what that past tells voters about his personal behavior -- have re-emerged as he has returned to the political scene 13 years after he resigned as speaker of the House. A new defense that has arisen as Gingrich entered the presidential race this year is the insistence that she, not he, wanted the divorce."

Gingrich's first reaction was to cancel a planned interview with CNN in Iowa, but he reconsidered that strategy and sat down two days later with Wolf Blitzer. The former house speaker refused to discuss details of the divorce, instead referring Blitzer to a column written by his daughter, who was a child at the time of the divorce, that said the divorce was her mom's idea.

As for the court documents, Gingrich replied "there are a lot of things that are said in divorces that turn out not to be true, and lawyers write lots of things in the middle of fights."

Gingrich could not question the CNN story's documentation or semantics. And for that, this reporter can thank a cynical copy editor. Unfortunately, cynical copy editors don't seem to be a priority in many newsrooms in 2015.

  Alan Duke

Editor-in-Chief Alan Duke co-founded Lead Stories after ending a 26-year career with CNN, where he mainly covered entertainment, current affairs and politics. Duke closely covered domestic terrorism cases for CNN, including the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the UNABOMBER and search for Southeast bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. CNN moved Duke to Los Angeles in 2009 to cover the entertainment beat. Duke also co-hosted a daily podcast with former HLN host Nancy Grace, "Crime Stories with Nancy Grace" and hosted the podcast series "Stan Lee's World: His Real Life Battle with Heroes & Villains." You'll also see Duke in many news documentaries, including on the Reelz channel, CNN and HLN.

Read more about or contact Alan Duke

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