On Tuesday, the New York Times published a letter to the editor from Martin Tolchin, identifying him as “a former member of The Times’s Washington bureau and a founder of Politico.” The letter took issue with a Times editorial that said the media should stop digging into sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden from former employee Tara Reade. Instead, the Times argued, some papers of Biden’s should be investigated by “an unbiased, apolitical panel, put together by the DNC.” The editorial said calling for this friendly look was akin to its demand that Brett Kavanaugh face a thorough FBI investigation into unsubstantiated sexual assault claims.
The editorial was beyond parody. Tolchin wrote that he “totally disagree(d)” with the editorial, which was a good start. But it turned out he disagreed with this editorial not because it was a laughable attempt to exonerate Biden without investigation, but because it was too harsh on Biden!
“I don’t want an investigation. I want a coronation of Joe Biden,” he wrote, adding, “I don’t want justice, whatever that may be. I want a win, the removal of Donald Trump from office, and Mr. Biden is our best chance.” Because an investigation into Biden might reveal “damaging information concerning his relationship with Tara Reade or something else,” liberals can’t “risk the possibility” of hurting Biden’s chances.
It was a fascinating response from a fascinating person. Because Tolchin spent 40 years at the Times before helping launch both The Hill and Politico, many keen observers highlighted the note. See, for example, “Politico Founder: ‘I Want A Coronation’ Of Joe Biden, Not An Investigation Of Rape Allegations.”
And that’s when things got weird.
Certainly it was embarrassing for Politico that Tolchin was saying the quiet part as loudly as he did. Obviously the entire media approach to the Tara Reade allegations has been to downplay them and do everything in their power to help Biden get past the problems caused by them. But the media are never supposed to acknowledge what they’re doing. When I called out CNN for writing 705 stories about Christine Blasey Ford and literally zero about Reade, the response was to get a few pieces up that acknowledged her existence.
Everyone who has not lost their short-term memory knows that all media were all-hands-on-deck to destroy Brett Kavanaugh’s life and reputation. And everyone knows that the media had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even pretend to cover the more substantiated Reade allegations. Unlike Blasey Ford, after all, Reade has evidence she met Biden. And unlike Blasey Ford, Reade has evidence that she told people about the alleged assault at the time she claimed it happened. That’s not to say that Biden should be denied due process, but that the media has no argument for downplaying the Reade allegations after hyping the Blasey Ford claim.
What might have been expected would be for Politico to come out with a strong statement in defense of journalism over partisan activism. What might have been expected would be for all real journalists to condemn Torchin’s statement, even if just to pretend they disagree with it.
What Politico did instead was attack people who noticed the letter to the editor. Really.
It’s an utterly bizarre claim. For one thing, Dayspring should be addressing the Times, which explicitly characterized Tolchin as “a founder of Politico,” not people who read the Times. Here’s what the Times published:
For another, Tolchin has been described as a founder of Politico for years on the jackets of his books, quite recently in the Washington Post, and on the pixelated pages of Politico itself.
When Tolchin’s wife died in 2016, the Washington Post claimed he was a founder of Politico:
The part of that news story about her death that said Tolchin was a founder of Politico was clipped in Politico’s flagship daily newsletter, which still appears on the website.
On the day Politico went live, Tolchin was listed on the masthead as “senior publisher and editor” of Politico. On Politico’s own website it lists Tolchin as “helping launch Politico.” Barely two months ago, Politico referred to him as a member of its “founding editorial team.” While working for Politico, current New York Times reporter Ken Vogel identified Tolchin as having “started what became Politico.” The Knight Case Studies Initiative at Columbia Journalism School gives the details of Tolchin’s founding role. That includes that “Tolchin convinced Allbritton to try to recruit [co-founder Jim] VandeHei himself.”
Popular D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose hosted an event for Tolchin in February of this year that described him as having “founded two publications,” one of which was Politico. The Woodrow Wilson Center describes Tolchin as “founding … the must-read political daily Politico.”
It’s also on Tolchin’s books. Here his publisher describes him as “co-founder of Politico.”
Confused? Well, apparently the response from Politico muckety mucks to Tolchin’s letter was to split hairs about whether he “launched” Politico or “founded” it. And then to get mad not at the dozens of people who made and printed the claim but only at those who cited it. Politico concedes he launched it but they say technically he didn’t found it, despite these many mentions over the years. It’s a fine distinction, though you would be forgiven for having some confusion about the real-world distinction between people “launching” businesses and “founding” them. Or why it would matter in relation to the letter to the editor.
To be clear, when it comes to launching businesses, the term “founder” carries with it a certain weight and cachet. It can open doors for new businesses that might not be available for someone who happened to be on of the first hires. But clearly conservatives did not invent the idea of Martin Tolchin being the “founder” of Politico. They got that idea explicitly from the New York Times and Washington Post and found support for it in the pages of Politico itself. Tolchin himself has been claiming this for years, and not without reason. All evidence points to Tolchin being a founder of Politico. That might explain why Politico approvingly quoted a Washington Post article that referred to him as a founder. And there is no evidence in the publications or institutions that named him as a founder that anyone ever had a problem with it until his remarks on Biden embarrassed the publication.
Dayspring handles public relations for Politico and was doing his job. That their
founder launcher made them look bad was a public relations problem and he had to clean it up. He’s doing his best.
Less defensible is the tantrum thrown by Tim Alberta, formerly of National Review and now writing puff pieces on Democratic politicians.
Despite his history at Politico of writing pieces such as this, the Democratic National Committee tried to remove him from moderating a debate because his previous work for National Review was disqualifying. NBC reported that the DNC and their copartisans at PBS and Politico itself were all upset at Alberta being a moderator. It is unclear what, if anything, they could have taken issue with from his writings there. Certainly not his election eve prediction that Clinton would win in a landslide against the Bad Orange Man he later wrote a book-length critique of. (Here’s the Federalist podcast in which he discussed his book “American Carnage.”)
In any case, Alberta melted down at people who accurately quoted the New York Times.
Full disclosure, Alberta was nothing but respectful toward me and my journalism when I served on a 3-judge panel that gave him a large grant for his book project. Admittedly, he pitched that project a bit differently than it turned out, but these things happen.
It is interesting to note how deferential Alberta was to the liberals who impugned his journalistic chops and attempted to derail his big shot in the limelight compared to how hostile he was to non-leftist publications that repeated what countless other publications including his own had said over the years.
In any case, after being roundly criticized for attacking people for reading the New York Times, he then claimed that he wasn’t actually angry at the people he had smeared but was actually angry at the New York Times and his publication’s
founder launcher. He just forgot to mention it.
But what’s really interesting about this entire situation is that liberal journalists have not denounced, much less strenuously, what their long-time colleague Tolchin said in his letter to the editor.
The substance of the letter is what real journalists should be focused on, not having temper tantrums or hair-splitting about what the meaning of is really is.