Friday, September 09, 2005

TIME leads a lynch mob: Knotting the noose on Michael Brown's neck

It's no secret whom the MSM wants to lynch for the crisis in New Orleans: the head of FEMA Michael Brown. Looping the rope around his neck is TIME magazine in an article titled, How Reliable Is Brown's Resume? The article insinuates that Brown padded his resume.

But there is no evidence that either the TIME article's two authors or their six co-reporters ever troubled themselves to get a copy of the beleaguered Mr Brown's resume to read in the first place. What we have here is a sloppy piece of third-rate reporting, poorly researched, and shoveled out to meet a deadline; it shows a reckless disregard for truth and a reckless disregard for the reputation of the public figure in question. Let's take a look at the article.

Now, an investigation by TIME has found discrepancies in his online legal profile and official bio, including a description of Brown released by the White House at the time of his nomination in 2001 to the job as deputy chief of FEMA.

Here, as so frequently when an editor is doing bad work, the headline gives a false or misleading statement of the story content. The headline refers specifically to Brown's resume; but the article refers to a White House description, then an official bio and an online legal profile. None of these are the same as a resume.

This is not a small quibble. As a college teacher, I submit to my college every year an updated copy of my resume. My college has failed two years in a row to convert that resume into an accurate statement of qualifications either for its on-line profile or for our college catalogs. My attempts to correct my college's errors have either been ignored by the relevant department or then transcribed with even more errors. I am quite certain I am not the only human being on planet earth to have experienced this kind of problem.

TIME magazine's claim--assuming it can be proved--that there are errors in Brown's on-line profile, official bio, and in the White House statements about him proves nothing about whether Brown padded his resume. That can only be proved by printing Brown's resume itself--which TIME's investigation apparently could not be bothered to locate. That Brown's resume might not be the same as a White House description of it is the kind of thing that smart, tough, critical reporters might have considered. But critical thinking skills seem to be in short supply for some reporters at TIME.

This simple point destroys the entire article. Unless TIME can show that Brown personally has circulated false statements about himself, the whole article collapses. Otherwise, all TIME can claim is that some on-line reports about Brown have mistakes in them--a claim that is simply not newsworthy.

Before joining FEMA, his only previous stint in emergency management, according to his bio posted on FEMA's website, was "serving as an assistant city manager with emergency services oversight." The White House press release from 2001 stated that Brown worked for the city of Edmond, Okla., from 1975 to 1978 "overseeing the emergency services division." In fact, according to Claudia Deakins, head of public relations for the city of Edmond, Brown was an "assistant to the city manager" from 1977 to 1980, not a manager himself, and had no authority over other employees.

Sorry: this proves nothing. 1) We still have no resume here, only a posting from on-line. 2) The White House/official bio statements merely mention "oversight/overseeing". That's not necessarily the same as having "authority over other employees"--congressional oversight committees, to take the most obvious examples, do not have authority over the agencies they oversee. The White House/official bio statements are not thereby shown to state anything false--only something that reporters looking to lynch a man can easily misread. 3) Similarly, the problems of 1975-1978 vs. 1977-1980 give no evidence of resume padding--only of some kind of mistake or error at some point in some on-line documents. 4) Similarly again with assistant city manager vs. assistant to the city manager. TIME provides no evidence that Brown is responsible for these discrepancies.

Under the heading of "Professional Associations and Memberships" on FindLaw, Brown states that from 1983 to the present he has been director of the Oklahoma Christian Home, a nursing home in Edmond. But an administrator with the Home told TIME that Brown is "not a person that anyone here is familiar with." She says there was a board of directors until a couple of years ago, but she couldn't find anyone who recalled him being on it. According to FEMA's Andrews, Brown said "he's never claimed to be the director of the home. He was on the board of directors, or governors of the nursing home." However, a veteran employee at the center since 1981 says Brown "was never director here, was never on the board of directors, was never executive director. He was never here in any capacity. I never heard his name mentioned here."

Where is Ben Bradlee when you need him? What kind of sorry excuse for reporting is this? 1) TIME never documents that Brown states anything--only that his on-line profile at FindLaw does. But that is only part of the problem. 2) Being on the board of directors is not an opinion dependent on the vague memories of unnamed sources--it's either a fact or it isn't. And somewhere there is documentation that either confirms his being on the board of directors or refutes it. But TIME's team of truth-seeking reporters couldn't be troubled to locate this documentation. Instead, they relied on the unverified memories of unnamed sources. Pathetic. If you have the evidence to prove your point, then produce your evidence and hang your man. If you don't have the evidence, then don't make the assertion. If you're too lazy to locate the evidence, then don't go to print.

Under the "honors and awards" section of his profile at — which is information on the legal website provided by lawyers or their offices—he lists "Outstanding Political Science Professor, Central State University". However, Brown "wasn't a professor here, he was only a student here," says Charles Johnson, News Bureau Director in the University Relations office at the University of Central Oklahoma (formerly named Central State University). "He may have been an adjunct instructor," says Johnson, but that title is very different from that of "professor." Carl Reherman, a former political science professor at the University through the '70s and '80s, says that Brown "was not on the faculty." As for the honor of "Outstanding Political Science Professor," Johnson says, "I spoke with the department chair yesterday and he's not aware of it." Johnson could not confirm that Brown made the Dean's list or was an "Outstanding Political Science Senior," as is stated on his online profile.

Speaking for Brown, Andrews says that Brown has never claimed to be a political science professor, in spite of what his profile in FindLaw indicates. "He was named the outstanding political science senior at Central State, and was an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City School of Law."

Here the TIME reporters begin to show something of a guilty conscience. They refer to FindLaw info as provided by lawyers or their offices (my emphasis). It would be very interesting to see how many attorneys have checked what their law firms have provided to FindLaw and what the error rate is. I'd hate to be held accountable by TIME for what my college publishes about me. Speaking for Brown, Andrews says that Brown has never claimed to be a political science professor, in spite of what his profile in FindLaw indicates. So: according to Brown's spokesman, there are errors in the FindLaw profile. That looks like the end of the story.

Brown's lack of experience in emergency management isn't the only apparent bit of padding on his resume, which raises questions about how rigorously the White House vetted him before putting him in charge of FEMA.

Ahem: apparent bit of padding? Apparent? You've either got the goods on this guy or you don't. The weasel words about "apparent" are the kind of things written by reporters who know somewhere in their hearts that they can't prove their case.

Ahem number two: apparent bit of padding of the resume? But the resume is exactly what this bold team of would-be Woodward and Bernsteins have never provided. They have recklessly identified on-line profiles and White House fact sheets with Brown's own resume. They have identified possible errors in these sources. And with no documentation so far, they have proceeded to smear Mr Brown. As journalism--well, it's not up to the standard of any self-respecting blog.

But our intrepid aces are not yet done:

Brown's lack of experience in emergency management isn't the only apparent bit of padding on his resume, which raises questions about how rigorously the White House vetted him before putting him in charge of FEMA.

The real questions here are about how vigorously TIME bothers to edit its stories before rushing them on-line. But TIME here gratuitously omits the most important part of Brown's on-line bio and the part that explains exactly how Brown got his job:

Previously, Mr. Brown served as FEMA's Deputy Director and the agency's General Counsel. Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Mr. Brown served on the President's Consequence Management Principal's Committee, which acted as the White House's policy coordination group for the federal domestic response to the attacks. Later, the President asked him to head the Consequence Management Working Group to identify and resolve key issues regarding the federal response plan. In August 2002, President Bush appointed him to the Transition Planning Office for the new Department of Homeland Security, serving as the transition leader for the EP&R Division.

In other words, Brown got his job by doing what his superiors regarded rightly or wrongly as excellent work--not by providing for his superiors a padded resume. Notably, TIME doesn't try to claime that this part of his bio is "padded". And TIME omits this too:

Under Secretary Brown has led Homeland Security’s response to more than 164 presidentially declared disasters and emergencies, including the 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster and the California wildfires in 2003. In 2004, Mr. Brown led FEMA’s thousands of dedicated disaster workers during the most active hurricane season in over 100 years, as FEMA delivered aid more quickly and more efficiently than ever before.

Now I don't want to be misunderstood. 1) I have no opinion here on what kind of a job Brown did managing New Orleans--if he really is the reason for failure, then hang him high. 2) Nor am I stating that Brown has never padded his resume--only that TIME hasn't proved that Brown has done anything of the kind. My point is simply 3) TIME rushed into print with accusations of resume padding against Brown without bothering to do even the most elementary kind of fact-checking: such as getting a copy of his resume and getting written documentation of the board of directors in question.

It is possible that later evidence will show that some of the charges against Brown are correct. But no subsequent evidence can change the fact that TIME recklessly rushed into print grave charges against the honor of a public official with little or no serious attempt to discover the truth.


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