Commentary

Why, why, why?

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Commentary

Alaska Senate candidate Joe Millers’s “brown-shirted security detail (that) put a Jewish reporter in handcuffs at (a) public event” is gone now, but for a time last week it lived in the pages of The Daily Beast.com and in the mind of Alaska Dispatch News columnist Charles Wohlforth.

This is what he concocted for the Beast on Wednesday:

“(Sen. Lisa) Murkowski wasn’t conservative enough for Republican primary voters in 2010 and was defeated by Joe Miller, whose brown-shirted security detail put a Jewish reporter in handcuffs at (sic) public event.”

This was Wohlforth’s recollection of what happened at Central Middle School where FBI undercover operative Bill Fulton put the cuffs on Alaska Dispatch News editor and then co-owner Tony Hopfinger after a Miller rally six years ago.

Little of what Wohlforth wrote is true. Hopfinger is not Jewish, and Miller’s security detail was not wearing brown shirts. But, of course, Wohlforth’s statement was not meant as a description of what the detail was wearing. It was meant as a not so thinly veiled reference to the “Sturm Abteilung” of Nazi Germany – Adolf Hitler’s murderous brownshirts.

Seventy-eight years ago this month, the Brownshirts led Kristllnacht (Crystal Night), a  nightmarish, government-organized assault on the Jews of Germany that began the most murderous persecution of  a religious group in human history. Across Germany, 7,500 Jewish businesses were ransacked starting the night of Nov. 9; 200 synagogues were destroyed; a number of Jews were beaten to death; and 30,000 people were taken to the concentration camps where the Nazis would eventually murder 6 million of the 9 million Jews though to be living in Europe in the 1930s.

Given this history, why a generally decent guy like Wohlforth would reference the brown shirts and a Jewish reporter in relation to Miller – no matter how much Wohlfoth might dislike the man – is baffling.

As Hopfinger himself observed, “why try to play the anti-Semitic card when Miller, in fact, has never said anything bad about the religion or its people?”

Several whys

But that is not the only why. There are others.

Why trivialize the Holocaust in this way? Why not, in these days of powerful search engines, probe the interwebs for some sign of something, some hint at least, that Miller had anti-Semitic leanings, even seemingly benign ones, before making an accusation of this sort? Why not, just to cover your ass, check your own memory of events?

Memory is sadly fallible, and yet it is mind-boggling how few journalists these days think to pull up the history of the past before referencing it in the here and now.

Wohlforth made his attempt to suggest a Miller association with Nazism in a story headlined “Why Hillary Clinton Could Actually Win Alaska Over Donald Trump.”  Wohlforth wrote a similar story once before. It appeared in the New Republic in 2008 when incumbent resident Barak Obama was running for election and was titled “Can Democrats Claim the Alaska Frontier.”

Wohlforth was a cheerleader for Obama then. He is a cheerleader for Clinton now. That’s fine. More power to him. He is a card-carrying liberal and proud of it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

What is wrong is crappy and suggestive reporting.

Hopfinger is Catholic

To start with, Hopfinger is not Jewish. He is Catholic. Hopfinger called Wohlforth on this over the weekend. Wohlforth, to his credit, apologized for his mistake and corrected it. He said he thought he’d heard somewhere once that Hopfinger was Jewish.

(It is interesting how despite corrections these things live on in the clouds. A Google search just now brought up this: “5 days ago – Charles Wohlforth … and was defeated by Joe Miller, whose brownshirted security detail put a Jewish reporter in handcuffs at (sic) public event.

At a time when journalists have a world of information at their fingertips, Wohlforth’s “I thought I heard it somewhere” defense is indicative of how too much journalism still works.

But Hopfinger’s religion and ethnicity can be overlooked as a small mistake. It is different with Miller, a man who served his country honorably as a tank commander in a bloody war in the Middle East in 1990.

There is no indication anywhere, nor has there ever been, that Miller is an anti-Semite. The evidence would, in fact, indicate the opposite. Miller’s Southeast Alaska campaign advisor in 2010 was Alan Stein from the small community of Point Baker. Stein is very Jewish.

In an email, he called the suggestion of a brown shirt attack on a Jewish reporter “bat shit” and then later sent this:

“I worked with (Holocaust) survivors in Israel in the ’60s. They would be horrified to think the Holocaust was being diminished by trivial comparisons like the one Wohlforth gave. I wonder if he isn’t a closet anti-Semite himself.”

Let us hope not, but why in God’s name would anyone write something like Wohlforth wrote? I read Wohlforth’s story and admit to being offended for the same reason as Stein albeit on a less personal level.

I am not Jewish. At least not that I know of. The Medred lineage is unclear. My mother, before her death, tracked the family back to Austria where the trail ended.  It appears likely the Medreds arrived there from farther east.

I’d guess the name was once Medved which is the word for “bear” in Russian and a number of Slavic languages. There is no way to know if the ancestors were fleeing west or simply looking for a better life elsewhere.

It was one thing I never dug into. I just didn’t have much interest. Maybe I should blame my father.

Biggest offense

He wasn’t much for looking back. He was of that American generation that thought it more important to look forward to what could be instead of dwelling on all the bad that had been. And there’s plenty of bad in American history. The country has its sins. We all do.

The greatest one these days might be that we’ve lost that vision my father and those of his generation had of a better place.

“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King said in 1963. It was a dream, in King’s words, of a country where “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together….”

King’s “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” seems so far away in the politics of the moment.

Today we work in opposition, struggle against each other, argue over whether any of us should pray, and try to highlight our sense of freedom by imposing our views on our fellow citizens.

And the media, sadly, is too often the leader in this desecration of the social fabric. The media is too often an advocate for the worst kind of divisiveness. To quote a journalist friend who gave up journalism:

“(Wohlforth’s) use of ‘brown-shirted’ and ‘Jewish’ deploys the grotesquely overused Nazi metaphor and gives a 100 percent wrong impression about what really happened. I mean WTF? How does pestering a thin-skinned candidate with questions and then getting temporarily detained warrant a Holocaust comparison?”

How indeed? Is it not enough to say  simply that Hopfinger was handcuffed by security forces working for Miller?  Does a  columnist really have to go all Lyin’ Brian Williams and embellish the story to make it quote-unquote “bigger and better.”

It’s pretty well-known I’m not a Miller fan. He appears to have a few character flaws. Don’t we all. But none of those flaws should stop journalists from treating him fairly, and the minimum in fairness – the absolute, indisputable, rock-bottom minimum in fairness – is factual accuracy.

This rule applies as much to columnists as to reporters or editors.

Wohlforth owes Miller an apology along with Hopfinger. Wohlforth owes readers, a few of whom still given greater credence to newspaper reporters than people mumbling in the local bar, an apology. He owes those Republicans he suggested voted for a Nazi-affiliated candidate an apology. And he probably owes the alleged “brown-shirted security detail” an apology.

Let’s see, there was Fulton and Fulton and a couple almost nameless soldiers he hired from a local military base. They were politically disinterested and doing only what Fulton told them. They are definitely owed an apology.

And Fulton? Well, here’s how the Huffington Post described the supposed brownshirt detail commander after an interview in 2013:

“…He’s fiscally conservative, but socially liberal. He said he thinks that ‘anybody should be allowed to marry anybody they want’ and that abortion is an issue between a woman and her doctor. Global warming, he said, is real. He voted for President Barack Obama — both times.

“But he’s still bitter about the drubbing he took from the media after he handcuffed a member of the fourth estate — an arrest he still defends. ‘The left-wing completely attacked me, including Huffington Post, you bastards,’ Fulton said. ‘I was working for you, you sons of bitches, and nobody knew it.'”

That last line is a little troubling. One could read it as the FBI-backed Fulton suggesting he was trying to sabotage Miller’s campaign. But personally, having interviewed Fulton, I don’t believe much of what he says about anything. I publicly called him a lying sack of shit in an Alaska Dispatch column three years ago, and I haven’t found any reason to change that view since.

The reference to that label is made here solely to make it clear I have nothing against blunt description if it is accurate, and in Fulton’s case it is sadly so. Fulton was an undercover operative for the FBI. They are professional liars. They have to be in order to infiltrate and survive.

But Fulton took the lying a step farther when he decided to go work for Miller without telling the candidate about his day job. And then he took a giant leap when he handcuffed Hopfinger and suggested that Hopfinger, in pursuing Miller to ask him some questions, had run into and knocked down (and in that way assaulted) a mystery man who was never found.

Actually, when I read that last line back, it kind of sounded exactly like a Nazi brown-shirt tactic. Accuse someone else of attacking so you can attack them and claim justification. Maybe Fulton isn’t owed an apology, but the rest are.

The partial explanation

Let us accept, too, Wohlforth’s claim that heard somewhere once that Hopfinger was Jewish. It still doesn’t explain the rest of the reference to brownshirts or the portrait of Miller that Wohlforth tried to paint by association. One can only speculate where that came from.

Is this how Wohlforth actually thinks of Miller and/or those who support him? Such thinking would be in line with Clinton’s reference to the Donald Trump “deplorables.”   And I doubt those feelings are Clinton’s alone.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump, every bit as much a member of the country’s ruling elite as Clinton, also thinks a good bunch of us deplorables. Maybe the issue in Wohlforth’s case is this simple:

The Ivy League-educated columnist sees Miller, a boy from Kansas who has appealed to Tea Party-leaning Alaskans, as among the deplorable, and thus it is OK to tag him with the worst of allegations even if they are false.

Or maybe Wohlforth’s boss, Alice Rogoff Rubenstein, a card-carrying member of the country’s ruling elite, put Wohlforth up to this in an effort to irritate Hopfinger, a man who long ago grew tired of being referred to as Alaska’s hand-cuffed reporter.

Rogoff has  been locked in a nasty lawsuit with Hopfinger for months. When she bought the Anchorage Daily News, she bought out his interest in AlaskaDispatch.com, the feisty internet start-up that put in her position to do the Daily-News deal, and now she’s refusing to pay Hopfinger the money she promised.

She admits she wrote out an agreement with him on a cocktail napkin and signed it, but she now says that’s not enforceable. Her handling of the agreement is something of a testimony to the state of the news media today.

You can’t believe much of what is written.

It makes me sad for journalism, a profession I could once happily defend despite its many flaws. It makes me sad for Wohlforth, a former colleague at the old Anchorage Daily News who I always thought better than this. And it makes me sad for Rogoff, a woman who said she bought a struggling Daily News because she wanted to make Alaska journalism better.

The latter sadly hasn’t happened. Instead it has gone all Scooby-Doo. And now we’ve got reporters in whose minds exist phantom Republican brown shirts who go around handcuffing Jewish reporters who don’t exist.

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