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Jonathan Chait’s Gaslighting: When Making Your Case Is Too Difficult

New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait is known for cherry picking thoughtful arguments when he struggles to respond to them. But now he’s getting worse.


Last Friday, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report that got the media extremely excited. I wrote all about the media excitement — as well as why such uncritical acceptance of the report was misguided in my piece “20 Ways Media Completely Misread Congress’ Weak-Sauce Benghazi Report.”

To write my 6,000-word deep-dive, I did what apparently few (verrrrry few) other reporters in the country did. I read the report before commenting on it.

Now, I didn’t expect my article to be received as uncritically as reporters accepted the initial report. But I was looking forward to how people would respond. I showed how absolutely silly the media’s response to the story was and how there was too much groupthink and not enough skepticism. Reporters should be skeptical and they should apply that skepticism with some standard or consistency. You may agree or disagree with the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision to not press charges in the Mike Brown shooting, but you wouldn’t want a media that responded to the lack of indictment with a “absolutely nothing to see here, move along” type approach. You wouldn’t want them to say “Well, these are the people in authority so there’s absolutely no room for criticism.” At the other end, you would want them to recognize that the Grand Jury had access to a lot of information that the media didn’t and that, perhaps, at least some deference is due.

My first editor told me the old journalism adage, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Another variation on this cliche is “get a second source.” In general, this is a good idea and it’s been sad for me to see how many journalists pick and choose when to be skeptical in too partisan a fashion. They were frequently fairly good at being skeptical of the previous administration but then they, by and large, lost those investigative skills once President Obama was elected.

I didn’t single out New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait for criticism in my report because I didn’t see him put forth any uncritical acceptance of a report he clearly hadn’t read. I did mention The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, National Journal’s Ron Fournier, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, the Huffington Post, Politico Magazine senior writer Michael Grunwald, BuzzFeed News national editor Adam Serwer and the the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo. I noted the similar headlines from CNN, Slate, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Talking Points Memo.

I pointed out that Brian Stelter of CNN and Mediaite’s “media criticism” prior to my piece was focused on how FOX News covered the report. And if you’re looking for other examples of the groupthink, you could have found them with Brian Beutler, ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser, New York Daily News’ Josh Greenman, Vox’s Matt Yglesias (natch), the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, Politico’s Ben White, Grist’s David Roberts, and many others.

To my knowledge, none of them have defended their initial responses that — given the speed with which they tweeted them and the lack of substantiating evidence they provided — were made without benefit of reading the report. To my knowledge, none of them have read the report in an after-the-fact effort to defend their approach.

While my piece received a tremendous amount of attention, unfortunately none of my critics responded substantively to what I wrote. I got a lot of this type response from armchair critics, but nothing actually addressing what I wrote.

I wish that the journalists who had pushed the initial narrative had tried to defend themselves, or even just acknowledged that they weren’t about to read the report before opining. Silence seemed their preferred option.

So on the one hand, I would like to commend Jonathan Chait for at least acknowledging the existence of my lengthy analysis of the report. I would hope that the other men who declined to respond had good reasons for the way they handled their interaction with the report and thoughtful criticism of same.

But that’s where my nice words about Chait end. His response to my report was not to thoughtfully engage with it but instead to do the journalistic equivalent of gaslighting me. Gaslighting is a form of abuse where someone presents false information with the intent of making the victim seem or feel crazy. And that’s a bit too close to what Chait did with me. Now, I’m not a faithful reader of Chait’s but those in the know assure me that engagement with anyone’s actual argument is not a Chait specialty. Ross Douthat wrote the eviscerating piece on this matter a few months ago, “Jonathan Chait and Cherry-Picking.” And yet Chait still has faithful readers. I myself was disappointed to see New York Times writer Mark Oppenheimer send out Chait’s thoughtless attack on my piece but not my exhaustive take on the matter.

This is how Chait responds to my 20 points about what the media got wrong by apparently not reading a single word of the report:

Mollie Z. Hemmingway of the Federalist argues that the committee simply failed to uncover the conspiracy:

The most accurate portion of this is the misspelling of my name. The word “conspiracy” does, in fact, appear in my article. All but one time it’s a headline from a mainstream news sort messing up the actual report’s contents. The one time I used it, I used it to make fun of the idea that concerns about not enough security were a “conspiracy” theory.

As a devoted fan of the X-Files, I love a good conspiracy theory but 100% of my problems with the White House and Benghazi are of the more boring variety. Those concerns range from incompetence to my big one: I’ll admit I’m mad as hell about the way President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top officials made false and cowardly statements about our country’s First Amendment rights. That’s not a “conspiracy” theory. That’s just a natural American disdain for the things they said — that no one can deny because they’re on video.

Rather than engage with a single point I make, Chait says:

So, yes, obviously the two year-long investigation overseen by Republicans abjectly failed to expose the administration’s Benghazi scandal.

Apparently the report wasn’t the only thing Chait failed to read. He completely failed to comprehend my piece.

Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic used by people with weak arguments. Or, in the case of Chait, no argument. I am open to criticism. Claiming I’m a crazy conspiracy theorist is not an argument.

There’s not much that can be done about people who engage in such tactics but it’s worth calling out when one sees it.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.