Rand Paul

Rand Paul's Office Accuses Reason of 'editorial malpractice' and 'plagiarism-lite'

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On November 12, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave his first major public address since being criticized for plagiarism in his speeches and writings. With a wink to his critics, it was heavily footnoted. On November 13, Reason's Matthew Feeney wrote a blog post titled "Rand Paul's Latest Speech Did Contain Footnotes, But That Doesn't Mean it Was Accurate," linking to and excerpting from a critical piece by The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin. On November 14, Paul staffer Doug Stafford sent the following reply, which we now print in full. My response is below it:

RESPONSE TO REASON

DOUG STAFFORD

NOVEMBER 14, 2013

I am disappointed in Reason.com for acting as a platform from an unreasonable and unreliable source.  First, Sen. Rand Paul was criticized for not using enough footnotes and attribution for political speeches and Op-Eds.  Now, he is being criticized for using too many footnotes and these footnotes are under unprecedented scrutiny.[1]

I was disappointed that Reason jumped on the "haters and hacks" bandwagon by arguing that the Citadel speech had a few errors in the 33 footnotes.  I have always held Reason to a high standard and I am disappointed that author Matthew Fenney (sic) failed to properly research and support his claims.  Instead, Reason effectively borrowed an argument from The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin arguing that Sen. Paul made "at least four factual errors" in his references to Egypt.  Had he done proper due diligence and ten minutes of research, Feeney, might not have copied pasted the ideas of the Daily Beast into an inaccurate blog post. 

Let's examine each alleged "error" one by one.

1.   On November 12, 2013 in a foreign policy speech delivered to The Citadel, Sen. Paul stated: "In Egypt recently, we saw a military coup that this Administration tells us is not a military coup."  This was an accurate statement.  The Washington Post reported on July 8 of this year that "Carney was not ready to label Morsi's Ouster a military coup."  Reasonable people can disagree on certain facts, but it is clear to the unbiased reader that Sen. Paul's assertion is true.  Rogin argued that because the State Department refused to by actually deem the coup in Egypt a "coup" pursuant to the law, that somehow my footnote was incurred.  As opposed to researching Rogin's errors, Reason simply regurgitated Rogin's inaccurate report. This is editorial malpractice.

2.  Rogin makes a nuanced point that "following the military takeover of the Egyptian government, the Administration quietly halted all shipments of heavy weapons to Egypt, mostly adhering to a law requiring a cutoff of military aid to any country that has experienced a coup."  So, the Administration acted consistent with the spirit, not the letter, of the law with regard to cutting off aid to countries that experienced a military takeover of the government.  Reasonable people can disagree with some arguments but this point is unreasonable and nitpicking.

3. Rogin quotes another sentence in the Citadel speech to support his unreasonable attack.  "In a highly unstable situation, our government continued to send F-16s, Abrams tanks and American-made tear gas."  Rogin argues that "following the military takeover of the Egyptian government, the Administration quietly halted all shipments of heavy weapons to Egypt, mostly adhering to a law requiring a cutoff of military aid to any country that has experienced a coup, while maintaining a position of ambiguity over whether a coup had taken place."  Rogin might have taken a moment to look at his own article from August 19, 2013 where he wrote, "The U.S. government has decided privately to act as if the military takeover of Egypt was a coup, temporarily suspending most forms of military aid, despite deciding not to announce publicly a coup determination one way or the other, according to a leading U.S. Senator."  That Senator, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was contradicted by Administration officials. Later in the article, Rogin quoted State Department Spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, as saying that no final policy decision had been made on any of the Egypt aid.  Rogin also quoted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as saying that no final decisions had been made.  Furthermore, the coup happened on July 3, 2013 well before the information was leaked to Rogin onAugust 19.  Were "F-16s, Abrams tanks and American-made tear gas" delivered or obligated to Egypt in that month time period between the actual coup and the unconfirmed leak of the ceasing of this military aid?  Again, reasonable people can disagree, but for Rogin to declare that the statement by Senator Paul is "inaccurate" is again, a false, biased assessment and its regurgitation is editorial malpractice on the part of Reason.

4. Finally, Rogin contests the argument that American-made tear gas was used against the Egyptian people during the coup. He states, "In addition, the ABC News report Paul cites in his footnotes for this information is from 2011 and only mentions that U.S. made tear gas was used in the Egyptian revolution that occurred two years ago, well before Morsi's election or his overthrow."  So, there is a footnote documenting that American-made tear gas was used against the Egyptian people in 2011, yet it is not reasonable to deduce that it was also used in 2013.  Until Rogin can prove that it was not used, I think Sen. Paul's interpretation is reasonable.

Rogin titled his piece "For Rand Paul, Footnotes Do Not Equal Accuracy."  This headline is false and a poorly substantiated assertion by The Daily Beast.  For Reason to cut and paste those same arguments, with little—if any—independent verification of the assertions is plagiarism-lite. 

The Rogin piece was re-published in many publications, yet I have always held Reason to a higher standard. I am disappointed in this piece and hope that this esteemed publication will do better diligence when using other unreliable sources to attack a heavily footnoted and well-researched speech.


[1] Me, November 14, 2013, at my desk.

My response:

Most of Doug Stafford's beef is with The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin, who can answer for himself. For Reason, there are four basic charges here, two of which are not particularly serious: No, we have not "jumped on the 'haters and hacks' bandwagon," as any visit to our archives will attest (side note: to conflate thoughtful engagement and criticism of a politician with reactionary dismissal is not becoming). And no, using the blockquote indentation function to quote from linked, attributed texts does not amount to even the "litest" of plagiarisms.

But was Feeney's blog post "inaccurate"? There aren't many outright claims in the thing; here is the basic contestable gist:

Josh Rogin points out that…the speech included factual errors relating to claims about the situations in Egypt and Syria as well the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi

On Egypt (see Stafford's #1), the main issue is the width of the gap between "this Administration tells us [it] is not a military coup," and "The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination." (The latter is an anonymous Obama administration official in a July 25 Reuters report that was widely duplicated elsewhere.)

Stafford effectively says that there's no daylight between the two comments; that Rand Paul's "was an accurate statement," as is "clear to the unbiased reader." But there's a difference between saying "You're not ugly," and "I'd rather not say whether you're ugly or not" (for one thing, if the subject wasn't ugly, the speaker would probably want to scream it from the mountaintops). It's pretty clear that the administration thinks what happened in Egypt was a coup, but just doesn't want to deal with the legal ramifications of that official determination (since it would require blocking aid), and so instead is torturing the language. It's a minor rhetorical point in the scheme of things, but I'd say Paul got it wrong.

What about Syria? Feeney quotes Rogin quoting Paul:

"As we continue to aid and arm despotic regimes in Egypt, we are also now sending weapons to the rebels in Syria," Paul said. 

Are we sending weapons to Syrian rebels? Here's a Wall Street Journal headline from Sept. 2: "U.S. Still Hasn't Armed Syrian Rebels." Story begins like this:

In June, the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to help arm moderate fighters battling the Assad regime, a signal to Syrian rebels that the cavalry was coming. Three months later, they are still waiting.

The history of not-quite-arming the Syrian rebels is laid out in this Oct. 22 New York Times piece, which reported that President Obama told senators in September that (in the paper's paraphrase), "the first group of 50 Syrian rebels — trained by the C.I.A. in Jordan — would soon cross into Syria." So, as far as we know, the U.S. has sent weapons to Jordan to train a very small number of rebels who are now indeed in Syria. Paul's statement may have given off the wrong impression, but the claims were technically accurate.

The opposite is true of another Syria-related Paul sentence Rogin critiques and Feeney quotes. Paul said, "According to a recent poll from Pew Research, over 70 percent of Americans are against arming the Islamic rebels in Syria," which is broadly right but specifically wrong, since the poll mentioned not "Islamic rebels" but "anti-government groups," whose ranks include non-Islamics. I have no doubt that if Pew had the Paulite wording, that the results would be higher than 70 percent, but Pew didn't.

Finally, there is Benghazi, about which Paul said "When Hillary Clinton was asked for more security, she turned the Ambassador down," footnoting the claim with a May 8 article from The Hill, whose most direct treatment of the turning-the-ambassador-down charge is this passage:  

the [House Oversight committee] report may have overreached when it said it had evidence that Clinton had personally signed an April 2012 cable turning down then-Ambassador Gene Cretz's request for more security. All State Department cables from Washington bear the secretary's automatic signature, the State Department said.

I don't know enough about what Hillary Clinton did or did not personally do with respect to security in Benghazi to make anything like a definitive claim. But it seems clear The Hill footnote does not support Paul's characterization.

Stafford's final charge is of "editorial malpractice," which, like ophthalmological bias, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and up to readers to determine. Reason publishes a wide range of opinions within a broad libertarian framework, which means various writers will be on various sides of various issues and politicians. For what it's worth, I hold the opinion both that Rand Paul—whom I profiled for a recent Newsmax cover story—is being unfairly nitpicked for rhetorical sloppiness that pales in comparison to the practical mendacity of those wielding power (including in regards to every issue mentioned above), and that the best response for a truly presidential aspirant is to run a tighter ship, instead of retreating into defensiveness. Informed criticism makes public actors better, whether in politics or journalism.