By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Joe Battenfeld

False rumors about Wu’s mental health recall attacks on Michael Dukakis in 1988

Then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1987. Photo (cc) City of Boston Archives.

Today’s Boston Globe story about the right-wing whispering campaign suggesting that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has suffered from serious panic attacks while in office (there is no evidence) calls to mind the rumors about Michael Dukakis’ mental health that circulated during his 1988 presidential campaign.

Dukakis’ Republican opponent, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, helmed one of the dirtiest campaigns in the modern era. Everyone remembers the racist Willie Horton ad, but there were also rumors — grounded in nothing — that Dukakis suffered from depression.

As recalled in this retrospective by Dylan Scott in Stat News, President Ronald Reagan got in on the act, pushing into the mainstream a conspiracy theory that emanated from LaRouchie right:

In early August, in those pre-Twitter days, Reagan made the gossip front-page news. The president said at a White House press conference, in response to a question about Dukakis, that he didn’t want to “pick on an invalid.”

Reagan quickly apologized, but the story was off and running. The New York Times and Washington Post wrote editorials denouncing the attacks. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald published lengthy stories about the rumors and their source.

Dukakis’ 17-point polling lead over Bush collapsed, and, of course, Bush went on to win that November. As Dukakis said, “you don’t drop eight points in a week for nothing.”

The claim may have resonated because there was just enough there for the conspiracists to dig into. Dukakis’ wife, Kitty Dukakis, had long suffered from depression, and, as the Stat piece noted, biographies of Dukakis said that “he had been unhappy after his brother died in 1973 and, again in 1978, after he lost his reelection for governor.” Nothing unusual about that, of course.

So, too, with Wu. Her mother has struggled with mental illness. And in January the Globe published a story that included this line: “A decade ago, when Wu first mentioned to someone outside her close circle that she was considering a run for office, she had a panic attack; she had to walk across the room and crouch down to calm herself.” In other words, years ago and hardly unusual behavior — and also a long way from landing in the hospital, as the current rumors claim.

The false rumors about Wu have almost but not quite broken into the mainstream, according to the Globe’s Emma Platoff. Greg Hill of WEEI Radio (93.7 FM) mentioned them sympathetically, perhaps unaware that there was nothing to them. Platoff also cites a column in late January by the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld, who wrote: “Unfortunately for the Harvard-educated Wu, there isn’t an Ivy League seminar or class to learn how to grapple with these anxiety-inducing problems.” But having read Battenfeld’s column in its entirety, I don’t agree that he was making any reference to the rumors.

One unanswerable question about all this is whether a major media outlet like the Globe should amplify the rumors. Platoff addresses that:

There are those who believe this Globe story will worsen the problem. Experts say it can be a mistake to mention this kind of misinformation in a reputable newspaper; that even debunking a rumor grants it oxygen. But as this false claim spreads through the city’s power centers, it has already leaked into public discourse. And the mayor, who has been open about her mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, was glad to correct the record, saying it was important to call out both mental health stigma and misinformation.

She also quotes Wu herself, who says it’s better to address the rumors head-on than to let them fester. “I want to be transparent about the presence of these tactics, even today, because we need to acknowledge it to be able to change it,” Wu told Platoff. “It does feel connected to larger trends in politics and international politics: If you just repeat something that’s false enough times, at least you can sow a little doubt in the broader public’s mind. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.”

I don’t know whether putting it out there is a good idea or not. As Wu herself acknowledges, it’s already partly out there, so perhaps it’s better to address it head-on. Still, people are going to believe what they want to believe. We are long past the time when facts made any difference. We weren’t even there in 1988.

Reviewing the White House-Herald dust-up

The seriousness with which you take the dust-up between the Boston Herald and the White House over a page-one Mitt Romney op-ed piece depends in part on whether you think the Herald was actually restricted from covering President Obama’s fundraising trip to Boston on Wednesday.

Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld, for instance, takes a shot at a “few self-described media critics” who thought White House spokesman Matt Lehrich’s inflammatory email to the Herald was a worse offense than “apparently restricting access to punish perceived unfriendly media outlets.” I know Battenfeld is referring to me, because we kicked it back and forth on Twitter a bit. (And rather than “self-described,” Joe, why don’t you say “as described by Fox News”?)

Yet according to the initial story, by the Herald’s Hillary Chabot, Lehrich’s email made it clear that the Herald had not been restricted — that is, the Boston Globe’s Donovan Slack had already been given the pool slot, and the Herald would be considered for pool duty in the future. Seen in that light, Lehrich’s thuggish complaints about the Herald were entirely gratuitous, and in fact really were a worse offense than what the White House did to the Herald. Because the White House, as best as we can tell, did not do anything to the Herald.

At Mediaite, Tommy Christopher quotes White House deputy secretary Josh Earnest:

Our policy is clearly articulated in the on the record comment that the Herald received on tuesday: in this particular instance, the Boston Globe had arranged with the White House Correspondents Association, independent of the White House press office, to be part of the traveling press pool. As such, there was no need for an additional local pooler in Boston. As we have in the past — including the multiple occasions on which the Herald has supplied local pool reporters — we will continue to consider the Herald for local pool duty during future visits.

Also, you should note that Herald reporters were granted access by the White House: to witness the arrival of Air Force One in Boston, to attend the President’s remarks at his first event and to review the written accounts of the small group of traveling reporters who covered the president’s second event on behalf of the entire White House press corps.

Christopher adds:

… Lehrich’s original response made clear that the Romney op-ed had nothing to do with the decision to go with the Boston Globe for the press pool, a decision that wasn’t even made by the White House. As Earnest points out (and I concur, from experience), it is not customary to increase the size of the pool contingent to accommodate a special request. Perceived fairness had nothing to do with this.

Why bring it up, then? This press office has never been shy about letting reporters know when they think we’ve been unfair, and this appears to be a somewhat heavy-handed example of that.

But if this isn’t quite as big a deal as the Herald’s massive, self-congratulatory coverage would have you believe, it’s also an exaggeration to dismiss this as much ado about nothing. The Phoenix’s David Bernstein, a former colleague whose views I respect, nevertheless veers a bit too far in that direction, writing that “as far as I can tell, she [Chabot] and the Herald have not been denied anything by anybody — which did not prevent them from splaying their victimization on the front page.”

Bernstein does refer to Lehrich’s email as “ham-handed,” but I think it’s quite a bit worse than that. It’s pretty disturbing that a newspaper would apply to let one of its staffers be a pool reporter and, in return, receive an email from a flack whining and complaining about Romney’s op-ed, and strongly suggesting that there might be repercussions. It creates the impression that the White House rewards its friends and punishes its enemies, even if there’s nothing on the record to suggest that’s what really happened. And it doesn’t help that Lehrich, who ought to be fired, calls Obama political consultant David Axelrod “Uncle Dave.”

Yes, of course the Herald went overboard. That’s more or less its mission statement when stuff like this happens. But I’m glad the paper brought Lehrich’s miserable email to light — and that it became a national story.

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