A reporter's error, or yet another lie from Paul Ryan?
13 September 2012
A few days ago, I came across an online article by the Tampa Bay Times called Ryan, Romney and the art of the humble brag.
It was written by Politico columnist Roger Simon, and at first, it wasn't bad. I agreed with it -- until I came across a lie:
In his most recent race in 2010, he [Ryan] ran against an unemployed guy named John Heckenlively, whose campaign motto was -- I kid you not -- "I'm looking for a job."
When a journalist assures readers "I kid you not," I think we all expect the next portion of his statement to be something more than a fabrication. I was in Wisconsin in 2010, and happened upon John Heckenlively at Fighting Bob Fest in Baraboo. I hadn't seen him since the eighties, when we were both college students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Yet I recognized the older John, shaking hands and campaigning, as an aging version of my old acquaintance. His campaign slogan was a play on his unusual last name, something like "Give 'em Heck." He also told me that he was a teacher.
John had a Facebook page analyzing Ryan's voting record over the past few years, which he has continued to maintain even after the 2010 campaign. Today it's found on RyanWatch.com.
While John wasn't a close friend of mine in college, we were both Democrats and sometimes found ourselves working on the same issues. He wasn't in any of my classes, and we rarely saw each other outside of events at the university or student political activities. John was a political science major and eventually obtained a Masters degree. He seemed like a nice guy, a good student, and a well-informed political wonk.
One really good thing about having known John in the past is that most of the time, he'll answer my e-mails.
After reading the Tampa Bay Times article, I wanted to be sure that my memory was correct. I sent John an e-mail asking about the alleged slogan, "I'm looking for a job."
John replied "I would not say I used it as a slogan. The campaign slogan was 'Give Congress Heck' (also the name of my campaign committee) and we also used 'Stop Ryan' as a slogan."
He did try to guess how Simon drew that conclusion, mentioning an appearance on a radio show geared toward unemployed people in Wisconsin, and that he was unemployed at the time. However, he isn't sure that he ever said "I'm looking for a job," and his only guesswork was that it may have been a passing statement in a CD that he distributed to the press.
Next, it was time to get the paper's side of the story. I contacted the editors of the Tampa Bay Times via their e-mail address published online, and asked if anyone knew where the author had obtained the information on John Heckenlively. I explained that it was incorrect. A good paper fact-checks its material before going to press, right? I sent my inquiry last Sunday, and have received no reply to date.
I also contacted the author, Roger Simon, through an online form that the Politico website claimed would reach him. Again, no response. It's possible that Simon doesn't remember his source, and didn't include that information in his notes.
Next, a check with Google. Specifically, I wanted to know if the information was found in an erroneous article that had been popular enough to overwhelm Google's search results. It wasn't.
The combination of the word "heckenlively" with the phrase "give congress heck" returned 546 results this morning, including Heckenlively's old campaign site, GiveCongressHeck.com, and several mainstream press articles including Congress candidate Heckenlively sets $100 cap on campaign contributions, "Give Congress Heck" - Teeth Talk with John Heckenlively (the guy running against Paul Ryan), and Two try to block 1st District incumbent.
The Google search "i'm looking for a job" combined with the word "heckenlively" only returned four search results, including the Times' article and its Politico equivalent, one blog site, and one mainstream newspaper article Democrat John Heckenlively challenges Rep. Paul Ryan, which states "Heckenlively is unemployed and is currently secretary of the 1st Congressional District Democratic Party. He has been Racine County Democratic Party chairman and secretary in the past. 'I'm looking for a job,' Heckenlively said. More specifically he added, 'I'm looking for Paul Ryan's job.'" While that article did mention "I'm looking for a job," it doesn't claim that the phrase was a slogan, and it puts the statement in the context of Heckenlively asking voters to give him Paul Ryan's job specifically.
Google results jump to 751 if you "show omitted" (although 751 drops to 61 if you try to page through them), showing all of the blog sites that copied the Times and Politico article verbatim -- which Google initially omits, recognizing that they're duplicate copy/paste jobs. None appear to be mainstream media outlets, and certainly the wrong campaign slogan would never pass a mainstream paper's fact-checking staff.
While it's possible that Simon took the one article from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and spun it into Heckenlively's "official" campaign slogan, it's unlikely that he ever saw the Journal's article or heard the radio show that may have mentioned the "looking for a job" phrase. They were local press outlets in Wisconsin, and many more mainstream news articles had the correct campaign slogan for John Heckenlively, "Give Congress Heck."
And so the question remains, was this sloppy journalism, or a deliberate attempt to disparage one of Ryan's former political opponents?
If Simon couldn't find Heckenlively's official slogan, or his paper didn't have time to fact-check everything before a deadline clearly related to the Republican convention in Tampa, then he should have noted the source, e.g. "According to Joe Jones with Ryan's campaign, Heckenlively's slogan was..."
In the early nineties, I lived in the Tampa Bay area, when the Tampa Bay Times was the St. Petersburg Times. It was a decent paper, famous for buying Russian satellite pictures that disproved Bush Sr.'s lie about Iraqi soldiers massing on the Kuwaiti border. A decline in journalistic standards at that paper would be quite a tragedy.
The other possibility is that Simon was fed bad information meant to belittle a former political opponent of Paul Ryan. If so, who gave him that information? With several of Paul Ryan's lies and misrepresentations noted in the press recently (See 1, 2, 3) , deliberate disparagement would be consistent with Ryan's pattern of disinformation.
Who'd know if a campaign slogan was misrepresented, and who'd ever find the source if the lie was told behind closed doors, over the phone to a reporter writing for a Florida paper? Would anyone question such an obscure fact, or even remember the 2010 campaign in Wisconsin?
Was that source Ryan's campaign staff? Romney's staff? Ryan himself? Was this yet another one of Paul Ryan's lies?
It's also possible that the lie was actually guesswork, meant to conceal a hole in somebody's memory. If the source had been someone from the Ryan camp who didn't remember the 2010 campaign well enough to cite Heckenlively's old campaign slogan, that person may have mentioned the only thing that he did remember -- something from an old newspaper article, perhaps the first article that Ryan saw after he learned that he was being challenged in the 2010 race. I doubt that Ryan paid much attention to his campaign after reading that article. As Simon said, Ryan hasn't had to fight a hard political battle yet, certainly not anything resembling a close presidential race.
Hopefully Mr. Simon will release his source to the public. A false campaign slogan was mentioned as a fact in passing with the assurance "I kid you not," obscure and never meant to become an issue. But it is a very real issue if the silly campaign slogan was a lie told by somebody in the Romney/Ryan campaign or even Ryan himself. The public should be informed about additional dishonesty of Romney's vice presidential pick. If Ryan is capable of continual dishonesty for no apparent reason other than to glorify himself, then voters should be aware of that character flaw before they cast their ballots in November.
If the misrepresentation was Simon's error, then a prominent printed apology to "an unemployed guy named John Heckenlively" is appropriate. Heckenlively was always bright and hard-working, and could easily become a congressman or an aide on the hill someday. Ryan winning a gerrymandered Republican district doesn't make the other guy a joke. Rather, it makes Ryan the weakest campaigner in the presidential race of 2012.
Ryan already has a documented record of lying to the public and showing no shame for doing so, even after being exposed and challenged by the press. That trait may have developed because his statements were never scrutinized by the press during his earlier Congressional races.
Let's hope that the Tampa Bay Times and Mr. Simon will show some scrutiny this time, and share their source with the public. After so much dishonesty, we could all use some truth.
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