Mother’s Day is almost a month from now, yet already a bitter dispute has erupted over The New York Times’ decision to interview the mother of a profile subject for a front-page story that featured a liberal Washington think tank.
It’s one of those quarrels that probably could only have occurred among media, political and policy elites in the Beltway bubble of Washington, D.C., who have suddenly decided to impersonate scorpions in a bottle.
Fighting words such as “disgusting” and “pathetic,” along with allegations of sexism against the newspaper, have been part of a fusillade of invective launched by former Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama aide Neera Tanden, the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, and an army of sympathizers who clearly hated Tuesday’s report, which focused on the think tank head’s mutual antipathy with the Bernie Sanders campaign.
“Good summary,” Tanden tweeted over a post from Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks: “WTF, @ nytimes- Would you run an article about a *male* political leader’s relationship with a rival political campaign that relied mainly on quotes from...his mom? And would it be newsworthy for a male leader to be viewed as ‘aggressive’?”
The double-bylined authors, Elizabeth Williamson and Kenneth P. Vogel, have also been feeling the heat after Williamson obtained a number of salty and revealing comments about Tanden from her 78-year-old mother, Maya, who offered up such insights as:
•Her daughter “can be very aggressive.”
•”She’s not going to let anyone rule over her, and she has loyalty to Hillary because Hillary is the one who made her.”
•“Those Bernie brothers are attacking her all the time, but she lets them have it, too…She says Sanders got a pass” in 2016, “but he’s not getting a pass this time.”
The Times story led with a 2008 anecdote in which then-Clinton aide Tanden, angry over ThinkProgress interviewer Faiz Shaikir’s confrontational question to candidate Clinton about her support for the Iraq war, allegedly punched Shaikir, who today is Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager.
“I didn’t slug him, I pushed him,” Tanden was quoted in the Times story headlined “The Rematch: Bernie Sanders vs. a Clinton Loyalist.”
The dispute over the Times story became so toxic that after former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul took to Twitter to criticize the Times’ use of Maya Tanden’s quotes about her daughter, Vogel blocked him—which opened a whole new line of attack.
“A@ nytimesreporter,@ kenvogel, has blocked me on @ twitter. 1st time ever,” McFaul complained on the social media platform. “I have interacted with Mr. Vogel in the past, trying to help his reporting. Can someone from @ nytimes please justify this behavior? I find it unethical.”
A Times spokesperson declined to weigh in on Vogel’s blocking of McFaul, who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
Vogel—who in the wee hours Wednesday, after McFaul’s complaint and much chatter on Twitter, reversed himself and unblocked the former ambassador—didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Tanden likewise was unavailable, her spokesperson said.
McFaul—who is banned from traveling to Russia as an adversary of Vladimir Putin—told The Daily Beast: “When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t blocked…I thought it was odd that for one of the two people [Tanden and Shaikir] being featured in the story, her mother would become a source. It would be like calling my mother in Montana and asking her about my dispute with Putin. Why is that relevant? She’s not an expert on Russia. I don’t know Neera Tanden’s mother, but it doesn’t seem like she’s an expert commentator on the particular story they’re talking about.”
McFaul added that he took issue with the Times story, and not Vogel personally, in the spirit of constructive criticism: “In my profession, and in our academic culture, we criticize people’s work, we have peer review, to make it better, and I don’t quite understand why journalists should be treated differently.”
Vogel—who had tweeted out the story with the provocative remark “THANKS, MOM,” also blocked other critics, including Fordham Law School Professor Jed Shugerman, who tweeted: “Remember when the @ nytimes closed down its ombudsman office & invited readers to serve that role on social media? Today I called @ kenvogel's tweets on @ neeratanden's mom "gratuitous," "prurient," & "unbecoming." That was it. So guess how he responded? He blocked me.”
Several hours after the story was published, Neera Tanden’s mother, released a statement implying that the Times reporter had somehow tricked her into talking.
“For the first time in my life, a reporter contacted me out of nowhere and said she wanted to talk to me for what I thought was a nice story about Neera,” Maya Tanden’s statement said. “I didn’t understand my words would be used in the story and once I understood they could be, I called her back to clarify that. Only then did she tell me my words were ‘on the record,’ a term I’ve never heard before. I feel very misled, and it is shameful the New York Times would use my words to hurt my daughter.”
The Times responded: "Our story focuses on ideological divisions in the Democratic party and the Center for American Progress, a think tank/political organization with a $60 million combined budget. The story provides an in-depth look at the center’s president, Neera Tanden. It includes accurate, on-the-record comments by Maya Tanden, Neera Tanden's mother. Maya Tanden is knowledgeable about Democratic politics and her daughter's career, and has been active in local Democratic politics."
Neera Tanden was not impressed: For the record,” she tweeted late Tuesday night, her mother “was active in her home town of Bedford’s Democratic committee decades ago. This is a pathetic rationalization. Truly pathetic.”
Yet there are those who remain unconvinced that ethical journalism forbids a reporter from reaching out to a profile subject’s mother.
“Of course it’s permissible,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “As with any other source, you’re trying to talk to people who can give you a picture of the person you’re profiling. I have no idea why they would have called the mother, but presumably they had a good reason for doing so. How they handled it once they talked to her, I have no idea. But, heck, I got profiled by my hometown newspaper once, and the first person they called was my dad.”
As for the boiling rage over the Times article, Dalglish cited the wisdom of her three-year-old niece Caisley, a fan of the sayings of Fred Rogers: “When you’re so angry and you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”