New Republic senior editor Ryan Lizza finds it difficult to accept any evidence that contradicts his George Allen narrative. The Virginia Senator is an unrepentant racist hick who beats up his siblings, except when he’s faking it (which he must be since California boys are not naturally racist the way Alabama boys are). It is a troubled story tortured to fit the evidence, defying the simplest explanations in favor of the most sinister ones.
Take Allen’s old fascination with the Confederate battle flag: to most folks who know he is the son of a traveling father, the appropriation of the flag could very well signify the kid’s reaching for an identity. Here’s something that will define me against these Southern California kids! Nope. To Lizza, in his profile of Allen, the deep racism that liberals see inherent in the flag is what attracted Allen to it.
So now Lizza has a new twist. One of the sources on which he heavily relied to show Allen as an obnoxious, sometimes violent youth was his sister’s memoir, Fifth Quarter. It has the tone of a bitter sibling, and the timing of the book’s release (smack dab in the middle of Allen’s 2000 Senate campaign) would suggest less than innocent motives. Now Jennifer Allen Richard is recanting, to some extent. She told Ron Fournier of the Associated Press that the book is “a novelization of the past.” More recently, she told Salon that the book is a “dramatization” and that she doesn’t stand by the memories included in it.
It sounds like the Allen family has patched some things up. And it also sounds like a source has been called into question. Normally, at this point, journalists who had relied on such a source would reconsider it, and humbly note that while Jennifer Allen wrote this in the past, she has now recanted. Readers should be able to decide the merits of that one easily enough.
But when the facts shift away from Ryan Lizza’s George Allen narrative, he reacts like someone who has a dog in this fight. Lizza takes Jennifer’s correction as a Soviet-style recantation: she can’t be believed, and the old accounts must have been God’s honest truth:
With her book threatening to badly damage her brother’s presidential ambition’s, [Jennifer Allen] Richard is now recanting details of her score-settling account of growing up with George.
In that sentence Lizza strongly implies that Richard is only changing her tune to save her brother’s presidential hopes. He offers nothing but his own suspicions and prejudices to substantiate such a claim. And then Lizza reaches for an old trick he tried this spring: if evidence has been discredited, flood the readers with more of it, hoping sheer inundation will accomplish what better research, reporting, or argumentation could not:
Because Fifth Quarter will remain an important work for future Allen profilers, I’ve re-read the book and plucked out the most significant details about the senator. I’m presenting them all here as a permanent online resource for readers and other reporters on the Allen beat. The New Republic invites Jennifer, or her brother George, or anyone else, to dive into the comments section and help us all figure out which anecdotes are accurate and which are merely “dramatizations.”
How responsible, thorough, and professional. The source herself has just disowned her previous statements. The most sophomoric and snarky move at this point would be to list them all and congratulate oneself on the public service rendered.
The only reference point I have for such an article is a stunt I pulled at my college paper — in my sophomore year. Providence College had suffered a rash of crime on and around the campus that year. As April rolled around, I saw Providence putting on its best face: fresh paint, newly planted flowers, and the like. I steamed that the pseudo-fraternity that gave campus tours would only tell the good (but true) side of the story while omitting crucial information. So I wrote that since the school would present the good news, I would present the rest. And without any context or explanation, I listed the gruesome and troubling headlines from the year. I entitled it, sarcastically, “Welcome to PC.”
Which brings us to Lizza’s cute headline for his story, “A helpful guide to reporters writing about George Allen.” What a guy. But that cover is a thin one. Lizza won’t weigh evidence that contradicts his opinion of Allen. And he expects reporters to follow in his hit-man steps. Lizza has only shown reporters what not to do if they would like to maintain any semblance of objectivity or self-respect.