Warren pregnancy smear reveals a poisoned media world
A news report can be narrowly factual, and still plenty unfair.
And so it was with a "revelation" regarding one element of Elizabeth Warren's personal history, oft-told on the campaign trail: That her 1971 pregnancy caused the 22-year-old to be "shown the door" as a public-school teacher in New Jersey, an unwanted career change that put her on the path to law school and public life. Warren, a Massachusetts senator, is a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The conservative Washington Free Beacon's new top editor, Eliana Johnson, late of Politico and the National Review, kicked off the contretemps with a report Monday that dug up the minutes from the Riverdale, New Jersey, school board showing that Warren had been offered another term and that her eventual resignation was accepted with regret.
The headline: "County Records Contradict Warren's Claim She Was Fired Over Pregnancy."
Shockingly, nowhere on these documents is it stamped: "The all-male board fired this young woman because she was pregnant and because of its deep-seated misogyny." (And, more seriously, nowhere in the story is it indicated that the renewal offer likely came before school district honchos knew Warren was pregnant.)
Conservatives and pro-Trumpers gobbled it up and spit back out an amped-up version, one less tethered to facts. The poisoned version quickly spread into the larger mediasphere.
"Another Elizabeth Warren Lie About Elizabeth Warren?" tweeted Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who — credit where due — does have proven expertise on the subject of lying.
The right-wing Federalist agreed "lie" was the right word with its headline: "Records Show Elizabeth Warren Lied About Being Fired For Being 'Visibly Pregnant'."
An embedded video kept it even simpler: "Warren Lied."
Before you knew it, Fox News, in its wisdom, had jumped in. The chyron: "Warren Facing New Credibility Questions."
Fox anchor Dana Perino assembled some pundits to consider it — among them Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, who framed it as a troubling "character issue" for Warren. This gave Fox a chance to revisit Warren's earlier blunder over claiming significant Native American ancestry.
Of course, it's one of the jobs of the press to scrutinize presidential candidates, to "scrub" them, in the journalistic lingo. Elizabeth Warren is no different, liberal darling though she is. As the Free Beacon's Johnson told Vox, "foundational myths" spun on the campaign trail deserve skepticism: "It seems to me that these sorts of claims, whether it's Democrats or Republicans making them, warrant scrutiny."
Fair enough. And Warren's campaign seemed to have made a tactical mistake by not responding immediately, though they were given the opportunity by the Free Beacon, according to its story.
It wasn't until the next day that some much-needed perspective began to emerge, thanks to a CBS News report. It included crucial context that would have been ever-so-helpful in the initial piece, like this interview with a retired Riverdale teacher, Trudy Randall: "The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant. Now, if you didn't tell anybody you were pregnant, and they didn't know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer. But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant."
It also included an interview with Warren about why the board originally renewed her contract and even gave her a provisional pass on some other training she needed to continue as a speech pathologist: "I was pregnant, but nobody knew it," Warren said. "And then a couple of months later when I was six months pregnant and it was pretty obvious, the principal called me in, wished me luck, and said he was going to hire someone else for the job."
The CBS piece takes on another aspect of the Free Beacon's story — that Warren in 2007 explained her departure from teaching without mentioning being fired. She told CBS that going into elective politics caused her to become more open about that aspect of her past — to air the workplace discrimination that was rampant then and has never fully disappeared.
It all seems to track: There is no big controversy here. No apparent lie and no "character issue" that should unduly concern the voting public.
If there is a scandal it's how, in the bad-faith media world, narrowly presented facts without sufficient context can do unfair harm.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post's media columnist.