Yesterday afternoon I spent about about 15 minutes on the phone with a journalist named Brian Goldsmith. He was reporting for TheAtlantic.com, and he wanted my comment on the fact that California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown was getting advice from Republican political consultant Don Sipple.
In 1997 I wrote a story about Don Sipple for Mother Jones called “The True Character of a Spin Doctor?”
(My book American Son contains more on how this story came about.)
Sipple was a political consultant who’d worked for Bob Dole, California governor Pete Wilson and both George Bushes. He had often created ads that played on women’s fear of violence to promote his candidates as tough on crime.
My piece reported previously undisclosed allegations that had arisen during a custody trial involving Sipple and his first ex-wife (of two) . Both of Sipple’s ex-wives testified in court that he had beaten them. Repeatedly.
Here, for example, is a summation of testimony from Sipple’s first wife, Regina.
Regina testified that appellant beat her numerous times during the last two years of her four-year marriage. For instance, once when she came home late from work, as soon as the friend she drove home with left, appellant grabbed her by the back of the neck and ground her face into the carpet. Another time, appellant hit her for no reason when she woke up in the morning; and on another occasion, he knocked her down, then kicked her. Once, he grabbed her by the hair, yanked her head back and slapped her. On a vacation to Lake Tahoe with their young son Evan, appellant became angry because Evan’s diaper wasdirty. He then beat Regina. Throughout their marriage, appellant was suspicious and jealous without reason. When she danced with Missouri Governor Christopher “Kit” Bond at one of the governor’s mansion parties, appellant became jealous and hit her afterward. Regina was so fearful of appellant’s violence and temper that she finally fled the house without his knowledge, leaving a note behind.
After the article was published, no other news organization wanted to touch the story; allegations of wife-beating and a top GOP consultant were simply too hot to touch, the subject made people deeply uncomfortable, and Sipple was furiously working media backchannels. He hired other GOP consultants to discredit me—lots of off-the-record innuendos—and told everyone who would listen that he was going to sue me, and if they wrote anything about this story, he was going to sue them too.
But when a GOP candidate for Congress let Sipple go due to criticism from his Democratic opponent, news organizations around the country finally picked up on the story. The result was national publicity and a $12.6 million libel suit from Sipple, which he lost—a case that has become an important legal and First Amendment precedent.
So The Atlantic’s Brian Goldsmith wanted to ask me if I thought it was odd that Jerry Brown, a Democrat running against a woman, would make a man accused of wife-beating part of his inner circle.
I answered that I found it hard to explain.
To the best of my knowledge, Sipple has never spoken about the allegations other than simply claiming that they’re not true. I told Goldsmith that, while it wasn’t my place to say that a man should be banned from public life because of past actions, it did seem important that those actions be credibly addressed. Certainly I couldn’t understand why a progressive politician like Jerry Brown wouldn’t care about allegations of wife-beating delivered under oath. in court, from two women.
I checked TheAtlantic.com today, and Goldsmith’s piece was posted. To my surprise, though, there’s absolutely no mention of spousal abuse.
Goldsmith’s piece begins:
Why is Don Sipple, one of the Republican Party’s most controversial political consultants, working for Democratic candidate Jerry Brown?
But why exactly is Sipple controversial? Goldsmith writes that it’s because he created notorious anti-immigration ads for Pete Wilson, and that’s true. Those ads were controversial.
But if you Google “Don Sipple,” you’ll find overwhelmingly that he’s controversial because two women claimed he beat them.
I emailed Goldsmith to ask why he’d omitted any discussion of Sipple and spousal abuse, and he said he couldn’t talk about the Atlantic’s editorial process. Understandable—he’s a writer there and presumably wants to continue to be.
Instead, he referred me to his editor, Marc Ambinder, a former TV reporter and now political editor of The Atlantic. Ambinder had tweeted about the piece: “Why is Don Sipple working for Jerry Brown? Brian Goldsmith finds out.”
I emailed Ambinder saying that I planned to write a post on this topic and could he tell me why any discussion of wife-beating had been omitted from Goldsmith’s piece.
He wrote back [emphasis added]:
As you know, having had people “take some time” to speak with you during the course of your reporting career, material collected in the newsgathering process is excised in the editing and/or writing process. In this case, I made the decision, and I don’t feel obligated to explain why. Brian’s post speaks for itself.
That is not my philosophy. As an editor, I’m always happy to explain why I’ve made a decision—because if I don’t feel comfortable explaining it, then I probably made it for a reason I’m not proud of.
But I didn’t want to assume anything, so I emailed Ambinder again.
I understand that you don’t feel obligated to explain your editorial decision, but what’s the downside? Shouldn’t media be as transparent as the institutions it covers should be?
To which Ambinder responded:
That’s a false analogy. The White House doesn’t let us in on strategy meetings. Corporations don’t open board meetings. And editors tend not to describe interactions with individual writers about short blog posts unless there is something significant about the interaction. In this case, there is not.
Well—there is to me. (And of course the question—”What’s the downside?”—goes unanswered.)
The reason spousal abuse persists is because it makes people so uncomfortable that they don’t want to admit its existence, which is why the media resisted the story in the first place. As a result, violence against women is covered up, hushed up, prolonged. Because of this silence, women suffer and sometimes die.
That’s one disappointing thing. Another is Ambinder’s argument that the White House and big business aren’t transparent, so why should the media be?
An argument that, to my mind, pretty much encapsulates everything that people hate about the press, and the Washington press in particular. It’s arrogant, out of touch, and insecure.
So why did Ambinder delete any reference to Sipple and wife-beating from Brian Goldsmith’s article when Goldsmith clearly wanted to include it?
* Ambinder doesn’t think spousal abuse is important.
* Ambinder doesn’t think the issue is “controversial,” as the article described Sipple.
* The issue makes Ambinder uncomfortable.
* Ambinder thinks that The Atlantic shouldn’t print material about people’s personal lives, no matter how important the issue.
* Or another possibility: When I interviewed Sipple for my original Mother Jones article, he offered me a quid-pro-quo: If I stopped writing the article, he would leak information to me about his current employer, presidential candidate Bob Dole, throughout the duration of the campaign. (Obviously, I declined.)
I wonder if Sipple, who would surely have been contacted by The Atlantic for comment, made a similar offer to Ambinder?
Marc, you can clear this up pretty quickly.
Full disclosure: I used to work at 02138 magazine (got sued there, too), which was owned by David Bradley, who owns The Atlantic. I have great respect for David (no relation, BTW) and The Atlantic, and I know quite a few people who work there (not Ambinder), all of whom are very talented.
But this is not The Atlantic’s finest moment.
In the meantime, I’ll be contacting Jerry Brown’s campaign to see if they’ve addressed the issue of wife-beating with Don Sipple. I’ll let you know how that goes.