Can a Single Reporter Knock Off a Presidential Candidate?

08.11.2007 | MEDIA

Earlier this summer, the Washington Post ran a profile of Joseph Torrenueva, a Beverly Hills Democrat better known these days as John Edwards' barber. The article, which led the paper's "style" section, has achieved minor infamy for the author's solemn assertion, "It is some kind of commentary on the state of American politics that [John Edwards'] hair seems to have attracted as much attention as, say, his position on healthcare."

Has it now? The truth is nobody knew anything about Joe Torrenueva before the Post article appeared. Miniscandals about politicians' haircuts are more like Chia pets than human heads of hair. They don't grow on their own. They require reporters to pursue and water them with investigations into the practices and prices of high-end barbers; only then is national attention focused on who and what presidential candidates pay for their monthly snips. The Torrenueva profile didn't offer "some kind of commentary" on the state of American politics so much as it offered insight into the peculiar priorities of its author, Post money and politics reporter John Solomon.

If Solomon were some deadbeat alt-weekly columnist with a grudge against Edwards, the haircut story would make for mere humor. But the Post has reach far beyond its own pages -- it's one of a handful of media outlets that can establish diehard narratives about politicians that can dog them for decades. The Post in Solomon’s hands is a weapon that can almost single-handedly force Edwards or another candidate off their campaign focus. In the case of Edwards, that means a total distraction from trying to start a national discussion on poverty issues.

No one who has followed Solomon's controversial reporting career was surprised to see his byline on the Torrenueva profile. When he jumped from the Associated Press to the Post at the end of 2006, Solomon took his well-known obsessions with him. Among these are the personal finances of prominent Democrats and, apparently, their boyish bangs.

The only thing that likely surprised Solomon watchers about the Torrenueva profile was its placement in the "style" section. This may have even surprised Solomon himself, as the article appears written with more prime Post real estate in mind. How else to explain Solomon's newsy tone, as if the words of Joe Torrenueva, stylist to the stars, could unleash another season's worth of Hairgate exposes leading all the way up to and through the door of the Edwards' campaign bus?

"Torrenueva's account of his long relationship with Edwards -- the first he's given -- probably guarantees ... the whole issue [won't] go away," he writes. Or so John Solomon can hope!

If Solomon expected placement of the Torrenueva article in the news section, it's understandable. After all, one of his very first stories for the Post set a precedent for landing his petty and misfiring Edwards hit-jobs on A1. Back in January, fresh to the job, Solomon penned an article with Lois Romano that announced the sale of Edwards' Georgetown home for $5.2 million -- or $1.4 million more than he paid for it in 2002. Although practically dripping with innuendo that Edwards had been involved in a sleazy land deal with known criminals and then lied about it, the article noticeably failed to contain any dirt. The article basically reported that Edwards had bought a house in D.C.'s booming real estate market, fixed it up and sold it three years later for a profit. The banality of these facts did not stop Post editors from placing the article above the fold, alongside the latest news from Iraq.

A couple of weeks after Solomon reported on the unremarkable sale of Edwards' Georgetown mansion, Post ombudswoman Deborah Howell conceded that the story was controversial in the paper's own newsroom for being "accurate [but] misleading ... 'gotcha' without the 'gotcha.'"

Howell wasn't the last Post employee to publicly side with readers concerned with the sound of their new hire's axe grinding against the expensively coifed skull of John Edwards. When a Post online chat participant described Solomon's July 5 profile as a one-sided "waste of time and newsprint," Post political reporter Anne E. Kornblut replied, "I hear you."

Solomon's record of glancing hit-jobs on John Edwards stretches back to 2003. While at the Associated Press' Washington bureau, he investigated the sale of Edwards' last home with similar results. "When I saw a [2003] 'style' section blurb that the Edwardses had sold another home, I simply set out to learn who the buyer was," Solomon would later recall. It turned out that the house had been purchased through a company by a lobbyist representing the Saudi Kingdom. The nut of Solomon's story, which went nowhere, was that Edwards was aware of the name of the buyer in this legal sale, but did not tell Solomon when he first called and asked.

Despite the Sounds of Halloween soundtrack that the Post's new "star reporter" put behind both of his haunted house stories, both resulted in the sounds of laughter and chirping crickets. Solomon claims to merely be holding Edwards to Washington’s standards of transparency in financial dealings. But in a current presidential field filled with such unseemly fortunes as Rudy Giuliani's, it is curious that a money and politics reporter would be gunning after Edwards, whose supposed "crimes" appear more newsworthy only when held up to his populist rhetoric and, it should be said, policy prescriptions.

Take two Solomon stories from April and May of this year. The stories highlight the consulting work Edwards did in 2005 and 2006 for Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based firm with a $30 billion hedge fund basket, all of them incorporated in the Cayman Islands, the famous tax shelter. As a presidential candidate, Edwards has decried offshore tax shelters, and Solomon's April 23 story (co-written by Alec MacGillis) "Hedge-Fund Ties Help Edwards Campaign; Firms Increase Political Gifts" was justified in highlighting the discrepancy between Edwards' statements on tax shelters and his lobbying efforts on behalf of Fortress, which included a May 2006 meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But even as the piece noted that Edwards was hardly alone in his ties to the hedge fund industry -- Rudy Giuliani raised nearly as much as Edwards for his campaign from hedge fund Elliott Associates -- the article pointedly returned to the object of Solomon's obsession, Edwards, and ended by implying that Edwards was not, and perhaps could not be, an honest advocate for the poor as he claimed. To drive the point home, Solomon again mentioned the $400 haircuts. Four months later, he would track down Joe Torrenueva and get the whole story, increasing the chances that, in his words, "the whole issue [won't] go away."

Solomon followed up the hedge fund story a couple of weeks later, on May 11, with another hit-job employing a more subtle weapon: The revelation that Fortress expanded its subprime lending business -- selling high-risk mortgages to people with bad credit -- while Edwards was a paid consultant. Since subprime lending has been linked to predatory lending practices and increased home foreclosures among for Americans living at the poverty level, Solomon and MacGillis again called into question Edwards' commitment to improving the lives of the poor.

"Fortress's growing role in the subprime lending market provides a second contrast between the firm's business practices and the positions Edwards has taken as the presidential candidate who has made poverty a major campaign theme," they wrote.

Later that week, on May 16, Solomon defended his story by asking whether "a candidate who says he opposes offshore tax havens and subprime lending should have worked for a firm that engaged in both practices." But as Media Matters quickly pointed out, Edwards' campaign website refers to subprime loans as "a valuable alternative for families with poor credit." He never opposed them.

But Solomon didn't earn his rep as a Dem-chaser who strikes out a lot going after Edwards. That honor falls to Harry Reid.

In 2006, his last year at the AP, Solomon made a name for himself on liberal blogs and media watching sites with sustained and poorly researched attacks on Harry Reid, who survived the assault to become Senate majority leader in November.

In a Feb. 9, 2006, article co-written with Sharon Theimer, Solomon charged Reid with links to Jack Abramoff centered around two pieces of pending legislation: a vote concerning the approval of a Michigan casino, which Reid had long opposed; and a bill that would raise the minimum wage in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, which Reid had long favored. The article focused on meetings between representatives from Abramoff's office and Reid but omitted two crucial facts: On the casino vote, Reid's position had long predated the meetings with Abramoff's staffers, and on the minimum wage bill, Reid in fact voted against Abramoff’s position. In the latter case, Solomon’s journalism turns a darker shade of yellow because Reid was a co-sponsor of the minimum wage bill.

When Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo contacted the Abramoff aide in question, Ronald Platt, about whether Reid had taken any action against the minimum wage bill following their meeting, he replied, "I'm sure he didn't." Platt, whom Solomon never contacted for comment, also stated that Solomon "distort[ed] the context of my 'contacts,' with Sen. Reid's staff ... The allegations and implications in Mr. Solomon's story are false."

But Solomon saw blood in the water and wanted a kill. A few months later, he was back nipping at Reid's heels with two stories accusing the senator of ethics violations in accepting "tickets" to boxing matches from the Nevada Athletic Commission, with legislation pending regarding the future of the body. As Media Matters pointed out at the time,

Solomon failed to report the outcome of [the NAC's] efforts -- information seemingly relevant to a determination of whether Reid was improperly influenced by the NAC. In fact, more than six months after [the fight], Reid allowed the [law opposed by the NAC] to pass the Senate by unanimous consent on May 9, 2005.
What's more, Reid, along with John McCain, had not received tickets, but had merely been credentialed. In any case, a Senate ethics committee cleared Reid of any misdoing that December.

But Solomon just kept coming. In October 2006, he published a detailed three-part series that in retrospect looks a lot like a more convoluted version of his January Post nonstory about John Edwards' Georgetown home.

For these and other sins of omission and shading in his attacks on prominent Democrats, Solomon has been eaten alive by liberal news sites over the last couple of years, with Media Matters and Talking Points Memo leading the way. When asked about the attention he's received from the sites, Solomon claims to have welcomed it.

"Many readers might be surprised by this, but I welcome the bloggers and their free exchange of ideas," he said in a chat with readers. "Journalists shouldn't fear this."

But one suspects all of the attention by Marshall and others has gotten to Solomon. Notice the not-so-sly distinction he cuts between "bloggers" and "journalists," as if citizen journalists like Marshall, who helped knock the stilts out from under Solomon's Reid stories, aren't journalists.

"In Harry Reid's case," Solomon continued, "the AP extensively reviewed all of the bloggers' allegations and determined, independently of me, that my stories were accurate, fair and balanced."

If Solomon can keep getting away with his brand of "fair and balanced" journalism, John Edwards and the rest of the presidential candidates are in for some trouble as the primary race heats up this fall.

This article originally appeared on Alternet.

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