There are people in this world who get genuine pleasure in wasting their precious brain power on conspiracy theories, and what I want to say before we go any further is that I am not one of them. I don’t believe 9/11 was an inside job. I don’t believe the Sandy Hook shootings were invented by the government in a failed attempt to pass gun control legislation. I don’t believe the moon landing took place on a Hollywood sound stage. I am not, as far as I know, a raving lunatic.
I’ve lived long enough to believe in Hanlan’s razor, which says, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” In fact, I believe that conspiracy theories often alter and delude the minds of believers—when a person is overly anxious to believe something, he’ll skip several steps along the way and leave his critical thinking skills behind. It’s a dangerous path to travel, and it gives me a little black pit of anxiety in my stomach. I don’t want to see shadows in the corner, because I’m afraid this will say more about me—and my mental state—than about the world. I like my hats made of soft fabric, not tin foil.
Recently, you may have heard Bernie Sanders supporters—of which I am one—complain about the overwhelming bias of the corporate media, by which we mean traditionally “liberal” outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post and even the cable news networks that aren’t Fox News. You may have rolled your eyes at these complaints, and I understand that. That’s exactly how I’d react, under normal circumstances. I don’t want conspiracies to be true, and past experience with other conspiracies has taught me that when something is too wild to believe, it’s probably bullshit.
But after months of following the Democratic primary race, I’ve found it impossible to avoid a basic conclusion: The corporate media is in the bag for Hillary Clinton, lock, stock, and barrel. And while their unrelenting advocacy may not reach the level of nefarious conspiracy, it is transparently corrupt. And if the nation’s center-left wants to understand why progressives seem to have staged a sudden revolt from the Democratic party, and are threatening to abandon Hillary Clinton in the general election, they have to understand this feeling of betrayal.
Right or wrong, progressives have come to believe that they’re on the wrong side of a rigged system.
When I discovered that I believed this minor conspiracy theory, and believed it firmly, I started to worry. So I set myself a challenge: Can you write this out, and explain yourself, in a way that doesn’t make it sound like you deserve to be in a strait jacket, bouncing against rubber walls and shrieking about alien radio waves?
Lucky for me, this weekend provided the perfect subject. Jonathan Capehart is a writer for the Washington Post, and last Thursday, he wrote an opinion piece called “Stop sending around this photo of ‘Bernie Sanders.” I want to warn you now that this is a very minor example—a small, stupid example, in fact. I don’t think it will have any tangible effect on the primary race. Yet despite its relative insignificance, it serves as a perfect microcosm for the pattern that has emerged over and over and over again in this election cycle: A dishonest narrative propagated by a supposedly neutral journalist, with perfect timing, in an attempt to smear Bernie Sanders. This one hits all the right beats, including that epiphanic moment when we discover the journalist’s ties to Hillary Clinton, and the purpose of the hit pieces strikes with a terrible clarity.
Some writers and pundits manage to pull off the high-wire act with a subtle genius. Jonathan Capehart, on the other hand, is a blundering klutz with the delicacy of an ornery bear pawing at a Rubik’s Cube. Which makes his recent saga the ideal illustration of a broader phenomenon—he wasn’t clever enough to disguise his intentions, and he left us all the clues we need to expose the lie.
Let’s start at the beginning. Here is a photo of Bernie Sanders at a sit-in for the Committee on Racial Equality during his University of Chicago days:
Last November, Time Magazine ran an article where certain classmates of Sanders argued that the photo actually showed a student named Bruce Rappaport who looked like Sanders. It wasn’t the biggest deal—the Sanders campaign had used the photo in promotional materials, but nobody disputed the fact that Sanders had been at the event, or that he was intricately involved in the school’s civil rights movement. It looked a lot like him, and there was no suggestion that anyone in his campaign had acted with deliberate dishonesty. After all, the photo archive at the University of Chicago listed the person as Bernie Sanders.
Rappaport himself had died in 2006, so he couldn’t confirm or deny his presence. At some point in January, based on the Time article, it appears that the U. Chicago archive quietly changed the name on the photo to “Bruce Rappaport,” but it’s important to note that no definitive conclusion was ever reached. The story fizzled out from there.
Enter Jonathan Capehart, and Thursday’s story. He notes that the campaign makes use of the photo in a biographical video, and then he drops his big bombshell:
But that’s not Bernie Sanders in the photo. It is Bruce Rappaport.
Hmmm…if you’re like me, your first thought was, “oh, Capehart must have new evidence.” After all, he’s a respected journalist working at a respected outlet, so if he were going to make such a categorical statement, he must have more proof than we’ve seen to date. The story continues:
Classmates of the two men started raising concerns about the discrepancy last year. According to Time, four University of Chicago alumni told the magazine in November that they believed the man to be Rappaport, also a student activist, who died in 2006. At the time of the story, the photo was still captioned as Bernie Sanders in the University of Chicago’s photo archive. But the picture’s caption has since been changed.
As far as evidence goes, this is all Capehart has—a changed caption. He contacts an archivist who calls it a case of “misattribution,” but provides no further details. He contacts Tad Devine, the Sanders campaign strategist, who said there’s no 100 percent certainty, but that they were going by the U. of Chicago caption. Finally, Capehart hits his stirring conclusion:
Sanders’s involvement in the civil rights movement and his commitment to equal justice are not in question. Another old picture that appears in campaign literature and video of student-activist Sanders with the university president is not in question. That most definitely is him. What’s at issue is Sanders’s misleading use of a photograph to burnish already solid credentials. For a candidate who garnered 92 percent of New Hampshire Democratic voters who said the most important trait for a candidate was that he or she be “honest,” the least his campaign could do is remove that photo from its Tumblr feed and stop physically placing him where he existed only in spirit.
Okay. Let’s take a breath and see what’s happening here. First off, Capehart breaks new journalistic ground by using the word “misleading” in relation to the photograph. Second, he swings hard with an implication of dishonesty, and adds that the campaign should “stop physically placing him where he existed only in spirit.” But the truth is, Sanders was at the event, and everyone knows it. He existed in more than just spirit (whatever that means), regardless of who that particular photo showed.
As I said, this started out as a fairly minor story. More than anything, it left me puzzled. Why would Capehart write it now, when the question of the photo had reached its inconclusive end months ago? Why would he declare with total certainty that the photo showed Bruce Rappaport, when that wasn’t clear at all? Why would he engage in a blatant attack on Sanders, going so far as to call his honesty into question, without any new evidence? Why hadn’t he at least done any new reporting? What was the point, if not to smear a candidate and lead the public by their noses to a false conclusion?
We’ll get to the reasons, I promise, because Capehart did have a clear agenda. First, we need to examine the unbelievable fallout. Capehart appeared on MSNBC that night with Chris Matthews, doubling down on his claims and assuming a semi-outraged, semi-sneering tone that he hadn’t used in the article.
“This picture right here that they’re sending around, trying to say that he’s been in the trenches, fighting for us, fighting for civil rights?” Capehart said. “That’s not Bernie Sanders. That’s Bruce Rappaport, a fellow student activist at the University of Chicago.”
The photo, it turns out, was shot by a famous Civil Rights movement photographer named Danny Lyon. Lyon saw the original Time story, and in late January published a blog post affirming the fact that the activist in question was Bernie Sanders. He told the same thing to Phaidon in early February. Capehart either ignored these posts, or never bothered to perform a simple Google search to look for them—that would be too much like honest journalism.
After he published his article, there was an immediate backlash from Sanders supporters, and Capehart seemed to understand that he might have made a mistake. Which set him in motion, leading to tweets like this one on Saturday:
The first time I saw this tweet, I laughed out loud. Capehart's tone is rich—after being attacked by Sanders supporters on Twitter, he wants to take the high ground and get a pat on the back for “doing his job” and “reporting” and “getting the facts” and “thinking before writing” when those are the exact things he didn't do for his original story! What amazed me about this tweet was that he appeared not to sense any irony in his indignant position.
Meanwhile, Danny Lyon had unearthed more photos from that sit-in, including these:
The student there is clearly Bernie Sanders—even Capehart can't find a way to dispute this—and he's wearing what looks to be the same exact outfit as the person standing in the other photo. Following this revelation, a few things happened very quickly:
Time ran a follow-up piece featuring an interview with Lyon, who confirmed that his contact sheets confirmed that the new photos had been taken immediately after the controversial photo. “Did these guy switch sweaters or something?” Lyon asked. “It's Bernie. They're in a sequence. There are three closeups… If the close-ups are Bernie Sanders, then the guy sitting in previous frame is Bernie Sanders. [If that is Bernie Sanders] then the guy standing up facing away from the camera is Bernie Sanders.”
2. Having seen the new photos, the University of Chicago changed the photo caption to once again identify the speaker as Bernie Sanders.
3. Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager, told CNN that the campaign was now 100 percent confident that the picture in question was of Sanders.
Based on the influx of evidence, the only conclusion for any reasonable person to draw was that the original photo showed Bernie Sanders. All eyes turned to Capehart.
Capehart began teasing his new story on Saturday:
This is the point where, as a Sanders supporter, I started to get angry. Why wasn’t Capehart just admitting that he’d gotten it wrong? Why had he adopted this new melodramatic language? Didn’t he understand that his attempt to cover his own tracks was blatantly obvious, and that no matter how much bullshit he tried to heap on his original mistake, it would only make him look worse?
Apparently not. He dug, and dug, and dug, shoveling himself deeper into a hole of his own making, and finally, on Saturday, his follow-up emerged with the infuriating title “Bernie Sanders and the Clash of Memory.” Because, sure, a difference in memory is the real issue here, not the rash dishonesty of a journalist with an agenda who had failed to do basic research before printing a smear piece.
The lede graph, it turns out, was exactly what he’d teased in his tweets:
This is a story where memory and historical certitude clash. Where the doubt of a campaign strategist slams up against a university archive. Where the word of a proud photographer conflicts with the pride of an ex-wife and friends. Where the civil rights activism of Bernie Sanders and Bruce Rappaport collide.
I have to give Capehart some credit: This is a ballsy attempt at obfuscation. For a guy who was embarrassingly derelict in his duties to spin this into some crazy “fog of history” piece, rather than accept responsibility for a screw-up of epic proportions, takes some chutzpah. It’s deeply unethical, of course, but not without a dash of devil-may-care bravado.
We really don’t need to go over the whole article, because it’s basically a litany of excuses, half-truths, and irrelevant complications. Capehart prints Lyon’s comments, in which he calls the original story “outrageous” and presents the same indisputable evidence that his original photo showed Bernie Sanders, not Bruce Rappaport. Following that section, Capehart gives the stage to Randy Ross, Rappaport’s ex-wife, who insists that Lyon is wrong because…well, because she was married to him for five years, and feels it in her gut. A couple former classmates, Capehart tells us, also believe it was Rappaport, but don’t know for sure. None of the naysayers have anything approaching proof, but they get about three times the space afforded to Lyon.
Reading it now, for the umpteenth time, I’m still shaking my head. It’s simultaneously one of the most outrageously brazen pieces I’ve ever read, and also one of the most cowardly. Capehart went on to flood his Twitter feeds with quotes from Ross and others, and finally implied that he was somehow exonerated by the fact that everyone he interviewed in the story was a Sanders supporter.
He spun so hard, and so fast, that he’s probably earned himself a campaign job for the next election cycle, provided there’s a candidate who has completely dispensed with honesty. And competence.
We know Capehart screwed up, and we know he’s allergic to accountability, but there’s sitll one thing we don’t know: Why?
Let’s look at the evidence. First, this happened in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ big win in the New Hampshire primary. The story ran on the day of a presidential debate where Hillary Clinton would repeatedly invoke Barack Obama in an attempt to shore up the black vote that is meant to serve as her “firewall” in states like South Carolina. One of the big obstacles to that firewall is Bernie Sanders’ record as a civil rights activist, so an obvious tactic for a Clinton supporter would be to diminish that record.
And what better way to undercut that period of his life than to show that Sanders’ campaign is using false evidence to bolster his record? Using a fake photo to trump his activism, and using it intentionally, would be a genuinely despicable move by Sanders, and we all know that in the current media climate, leveling an accusation is almost as good as proving it. Considering the timing and the subject matter, it’s hard to imagine this was anything but a calculated hit.
The next step is to tie Capehart to Clinton—to produce the ugly epiphany I mentioned in Part One.
As it turns out, this was easy. Capehart’s live-in partner is Nick Schmit, who was the travel compliance director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, worked with the Clinton Foundation before that, and had a job in her state department. (Shockingly, his LinkedIn profile appears to have been recently set to private or deleted.)
That’s bad enough, but forget Schmit for a second. Let’s look at the first and last paragraphs of an obituary for a man named Howard Paster:
WASHINGTON, DC—Howard Paster, who was a key advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, helped revive Hill & Knowlton as a global public relations force during the 1990s, and went on to lead all of WPP’s public relations holdings, has died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Paster, who was 66, had encephalitis caused by a brain tumor…
In 2002, he was named executive vice president of the WPP Group, responsible for the firm’s public relations holdings, which include Burson-Marsteller, Cohn & Wolfe and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide as well as H&K….In 2008, he served as chief operating officer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In a statement, the Clintons said: “We will remember Howard for his passion and candor, and his dedication to public service.”
And next, we turn to Capehart’s Wikipedia page:
In December 2004, Capehart joined the global public relations company Hill & Knowlton as a Senior Vice President and senior counselor of public affairs. He joined the staff of the Washington Post as a journalist and editorial board member in 2007.
If your jaw isn’t on the floor, it should be.
Now, there’s a limit to far how I’m willing to take this conspiracy theory. Is Jonathan Capehart part of a far-reaching, insidious plot to undermine Bernie Sanders? Probably not. But do I believe that his connections to Clinton, through Schmit and Hilles & Knowlton, utterly compromise him as a “neutral” commentator on this primary campaign? Do I believe that he had a specific anti-Sanders agenda when he wrote the article, and that he completely failed every test of ethics and accountability? Should we be deeply disturbed by his ties to Clinton, and suspect that he published this story purposefully to undermine Sanders with black voters?
And as any Sanders supporter will tell you, what’s truly disturbing is that this stuff keeps happening. Here are just a few examples:
1. Chris Matthews, the Hardball host who helped spread Capehart’s story and takes every chance he can get to attack Sanders on air—to the point that Esquire called a recent interview with Clinton “ahistorical and out of bounds”—is married to Kathleen Matthews, who is currently running for the House of Representatives in Maryland. She worked closely with the Clinton Foundation in her previous role, and has out-raised her opponents in the primary campaign thanks to out-of-state donors who are some of the biggest supporters of…Hillary Clinton. On air, Chris Matthews has never mentioned a conflict of interest.
2. The DNC, which blatantly rigged the debate schedule to favor Clinton (before adding more debates the minute she looked to be in trouble) and has recently rolled back a ban on federal lobbying in order to pump more cash into Clinton’s campaign, is led by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who was Clinton’s campaign co-chair in 2008.
3. After the irredeemable mess at the Iowa Caucuses, the state party chair, Dr. Andrea McGuire, has resisted both a review of the vote and a release of popular vote totals, despite calls to do so by many, including the Des Moines Register. McGuire was a co-chairwoman of Clinton’s Iowa campaign in 2008. Here’s a picture of her current license plate:
4. Even, yes, Planned Parenthood, who Sanders was criticized for calling part of the Democratic establishment. The fact is, the organization has never endorsed a candidate in the primary before this year, and it looks even stranger considering Sanders’ 100 percent career pro-choice voting record. Until you consider the deep personal and financial ties—among many other things, Lily Adams, daughter of PP CEO Cecile Richards, was hired as Clinton’s press secretary.
The list goes on, and on, and on, and I haven’t even gotten into the endless editorials from places like the Post and Times attacking Sanders. In both the political and media realm, the fact is that corporate entanglements have polluted the process and the discourse. Any progressive that still trusts the establishment is no better than a sucker.
Your instinct may be to defend this as politics as usual, but here’s the problem: It’s making the country’s progressive left feel as though the system is built to keep them down. Starting with Bill Clinton’s candidacy, establishment Democrats have embraced a philosophy of triangulation that has moved the party to the political center, resulting in anti-progressive legislation like welfare reform, financial deregulation, and disastrous free trade pacts. The two-party system has isolated the American political left, who seemingly had no choice but to vote for Democratic candidates who aligned with them on social issues, but not economic ones.
But for the first time in decades, a candidate with a legitimate progressive worldview has gained enough support to be a viable choice for the party nomination. And the establishment is fighting tooth and nail against him. The centrist neo-liberals haven’t seen a threat like this since their ideological shift in the ‘90s, and it’s highlighting a great divide. Progressives like myself have begun to see that the conspiracy is real—the rules favor the elites, and when they don’t…well, no problem. The rules get changed.
Sanders has an iron grip on the hearts and minds country’s youth, and without those voters, Clinton will have a difficult time in a general election. An increasing number have publicly avowed to abstain on principle if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, and many more will do so out of apathy toward Clinton—turns out, fatalism and premature capitulation aren’t very attractive. As the center-lefties begin to see this play out, they react with dismay and anger. Why would anyone do anything that might help put a Republican in office?
They’re all missing the point. When you hear Sanders supporters insist that they won’t vote for her when the time comes, don’t make the mistake of thinking these people are naive, or spiteful, or ignorant of the consequences. It’s a simple case of feeling disenfranchised, and refusing to participate in a corrupt system that screws you with one hand and expects your support with the other. It’s too insulting—too utterly demeaning—to play along.
Let’s go back to Capehart. What’s hardest to bear, from our perspective, is that there’s no indication he’ll face any consequences. Imagine for a moment that instead of attacking Sanders, Capehart had slandered Hillary Clinton. Imagine his tactics were similarly dishonest, and the so-called “evidence” he used was debunked a day later. We all know how that would play out—the full power of the establishment would come down on his head like a ton of bricks, and the only way he’d avoid being fired was if he managed to resign first.
But he didn’t attack Clinton. He attacked Sanders, and Sanders supporters don’t have any real power. They’re the people in the comment section, and on Twitter, and on the blogs—outraged, but essentially voiceless. So Capehart will emerge from this without a scratch. Of course he will. He didn’t screw anybody with actual influence, and holding him accountable isn’t even a consideration. That’s how this game works, dummy. And the message to progressives, from the Washington Post and the broader political and media establishment, is crystal clear:
You don’t fucking matter.