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No, Ben Carson Is Not Being Subjected To ‘Unfair’ Scrutiny

With questions about central elements in his biography coming under scrutiny, including his claim of being offered a scholarship to West Point, claims regarding his time in High School and at Yale University that The Wall Street Journal has called into question, and questions about his time in Detroit that the conservative Detroit News and CNN has called into question. Ben Carson and his supporters have gone into defensive mode by going on the offense against the media. To listen to the candidate and his supporters, the issue isn’t with problems about Carson’s credulity about the events of his own life, but about media bias, including the claim that the media allegedly never “vetted” President Obama as a candidate the way that they are questioning Carson today. It’s a standard and predictable position for conservatives to take, of course, since “media bias” has been a central part of their view of the world for decades now, but as Chris Cillizza points out, the truth is that Ben Carson isn’t being unfairly targeted, he is being treated to same kind of scrutiny you’d expect for a candidate who was relatively unknown prior to this year and is now a frontrunner for his party’s Presidential nomination:

Carson’s message, boiled down to its simplest terms, is this: I am being unfairly targeted by a liberal media uncomfortable with the idea of a non-politician with deep religious conviction as the frontrunner for a major party’s presidential nomination.

To which I would say: He’s got it half right. Carson is being scrutinized because he is the frontrunner for a major party’s presidential nomination. The same way Donald Trump — and his finances — are. The same way Marco Rubio — and his finances — are. The same way Hillary Clinton — and her e-mails – are. The same way frontrunners for nomination — Democratic and Republican — are.

When you are in the handful of people running for the most powerful job in the country, the job of the press is to educate the public about who you are — based on the things you have done in your life. Carson, unlike Rubio or Clinton or Jeb Bush, doesn’t have a record of votes or positions taken in elected office that help paint a picture of what sort of president he might be.

So, how then can reporters try to understand and explain Carson to the public? By telling — and examining — his remarkable personal story, which sits at the center of his I-am-not-a-politician appeal. And, even if you l-o-v-e Carson, you have to admit that not everything exactly checks out about that background at the moment.


[T]he idea that the questions raised about inconsistencies in his personal story are somehow out of bounds or the result of some sort of “witch hunt” is equally ridiculous. And, simply because Carson says it doesn’t make it any more true.

It’s called vetting. It’s how the press helps the public learn everything they can about the people running for the presidency. If you want to run for the big job, you have to be ready for all that comes with it. This ain’t bean bag, after all.

Cillizza is, I would submit, largely correct.

What Ben Carson is going through now is no different from what other frontrunners have gone through in past Presidential campaigns, especially candidates with limited public records upon which people can make judgments about them as a candidate and a person. Before the advent of the digital age, we saw Joe Biden and Gary Hart subjected to media scrutiny regarding allegations of plagiarism in the case of Biden and extra-marital affairs in the case of Hart that forced both men from the race. In that same election, media reports about a prison furlough program first made public by one of Michael Dukakis’s Democratic opponents, a question from CNN anchor Bernard Shaw to Dukakis during a debate, and coverage about Dukakis riding around in a tank helped undermine his campaign. In 1984, Walter Mondale’s selection of the first woman in American history to be on a major-party Presidential ticket was overshadowed by reports about her husbands ties to organized crime in New York City. Mario Cuomo faced scrutiny on similar issues throughout his political career even before he was considered a potential Presidential candidate. In 1992 and long after he became President, Bill Clinton face press and legal scrutiny about his extramarital affairs, his and his wife’s business dealings, and was the focus of a host of bizarre conspiracy theories involving everything from drug running to the death of Vince Foster, many of which made their way into “mainstream” press coverage from time to time. Ultimately, of course, it was the relentless pursuit of many of those stories that led to the investigations that eventually led to President Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal in the Senate. In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush saw their biographies, their grades in college, reports about a DUI when they were young, and other seemingly irrelevant matters become public stories. In 2004, John Kerry faced scrutiny over his record in the Vietnam War and his anti-war activities after he returned home.  In 2012, meanwhile, we saw Mitt Romney attacked over some story about a family vacation and events while he was in Prep School and Rick Perry scrutinized over the name of a hunting lodge he bought that he didn’t even select. To take things even further back, perhaps the first example of a candidate for office undergoing media scrutiny in the what was quickly becoming the modern era of national media was Richard Nixon, who ended up buying time on national television to address allegations that he had been the recipient of “slush fund” money prior to being selected as Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice-Presidential running make. If one goes back further into history, one can find countless examples of candidates being subject to scrutiny and scurrilous rumors going all the way back to the Election of 1800, an election so brutal to both candidates that it could have been memorialized in modern-day attack ads.

A central part of the response from Carson and his supporter, and from many conservatives who don’t necessarily support Carson but have still rallied around him in the past several days, of course, has been the idea that the press is treating him differently than it treated President Obama when he was a candidate for President. The problem with this argument is that it has absolutely no connection to reality, as anyone with a memory that goes back to 2007 and 2008 or, at least, access to the Internet, should be able easily realize. From the time that he became a Presidential candidate, Barack Obama was under intense media scrutiny not only because his candidacy seemed to undermine the conventional wisdom at the time that Hillary Clinton was the inevitable 2008 Democratic nominee, but also because he was a relatively unknown quantity in American politics. Many of the claims in his book Dreams Of My Father became the subject of investigations in “mainstream” media outlets, for example, and when Fox News Channel, which is as much a part of the “mainstream” media as CNN or MSNBC, wasn’t focusing its attention on Barack Obama. The scrutiny on Obama extended well beyond Fox, though. As the race between Obama and Clinton entered the trench warfare phase in March and April of 2008, Obama found himself having to answer questions about his connections to Jeremiah Wright, the Pastor of the church he attended in Chicago, as well as reports about his remarks he had made to supporters in California about voters in Pennsylvania clinging to “guns and religion.” Many of these questions, including the discredited stories about the President having been born somewhere other than Hawaii and the claim that he was a “secret Muslim,” followed Obama into the White House, and even the 2012 campaign found itself focusing on seemingly irrelevant questions about Obama’s biography and ridiculous demands to see the President’s college transcript that seemed more rooted in trying to prove the birther nonsense by other means than anything else. As even that cursory retelling shows, the assertion that President Obama was not scrutinized by the media is, quite simply, utterly absurd and largely an argument that people on the right make because they are still apparently unwilling to accept that, notwithstanding all the allegedly “bad” things that were in the President’s past he still managed to win two Presidential elections. The better way of looking at that, of course, is that the American people looked at these claims and, in the end, rejected them when it came time to vote for President. When you hear someone arguing that the President wasn’t properly “vetted,” then, it really means that they’re upset that voters didn’t agree with the assertion that all of this information in the President’s past was reason to reject his bid for the White House.

Finally, and not to belabor the point, it’s worth noting that Hillary Clinton has faced significant scrutiny throughout her political career, including in this campaign, The stories about her use of a private email server and the connections between her tenure as Secretary of State and donations to the Clinton Foundation first appeared in The New York Times, and they received widespread coverage from every major media outlet. The coverage was so intense that Clinton’s poll numbers began slipping throughout the summer and speculation began to grow about whether Vice-President Biden might enter the race in part to “save” the Democratic Party. If the media really were as biased as Carson claims, then why were these stories covered in the intense manner that they were?

Taken in the light of all of this history, it is obvious that Carson’s claim that he is being subject to unfair scrutiny is quite simply nonsense. This is a man who presently stands at or near the top of the polls nationally, and in Iowa and New Hampshire, meaning that he at least potentially has a shot at being the nominee of his party. Since he has never held or run for public office before, he’s also someone who is relatively unknown to many Americans who has relied largely on his biography to make the case that he should be taken seriously as a candidate. Given that, asking questions about the factual basis for that biography, or about the outrageous things he has said about public policy issues, his seeming ignorance on policy issues, his odd relationship with the truth, a view of history that seems to have no basis in reality, and his position on issues like Cosmology and Evolution is not only inevitable but entirely appropriate.

Ben Carson is purporting to run for President of the United States. As such, all of this is fair game for reporters to investigate and voters to consider in deciding whether or not they should support him. In the end, it’s possible that many voters will decide that much of this isn’t relevant to them and continue supporting Carson. Some voters may even become more attracted to Carson because of the media scrutiny. That’s their right. To suggest as Carson and others do, however, that the questions should not even be asked, or do do as Carson did last week in a press conference and demand reporters justify the questions they asked him, is entirely inappropriate. Reporters aren’t perfect, of course, and their personal biases do sometimes influence what they cover and how they cover it, but that doesn’t mean that a candidate like Carson should not be forced to answer questions. The media is doing its job, and Carson’s complaining is little more than whining.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Somebody call the waaahmbulance.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    the job of the press is to educate the public about who you are

    No. The job of the press is to use stories about the candidates to sell papers. Let’s not pretend the press are high minded guardians of democracy.

    We should be aware that the focus on Carson’s biographical narrative being partially fabricated obscures the real issue – his tenuous relationship with reality in all matters.

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  3. Hal_10000 says:

    Carson’s reaction to this scrutiny is a good argument that he shouldn’t be President.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. Obama was obviously never really vetted, because if he was, he wouldn’t have been elected President. And, if Clinton were properly vetted, she would have been indicted. I mean, this is just obvious.

    What we have here is a partisan witch hunt, almost certainly racially motivated because Carson has gone off the Democrat plantation. This isn’t vetting, this is character assassination.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hal_10000: The same could be said for almost every other GOP candidate for President. (I’m thinking Kasich, Christie, and Graham are the exceptions)

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  6. Ron Beasley says:

    I suspect we had already reached peak Carson before last week. He was never going to get more than the equally delusional 20% of the Republican base. The recent revelations may cost him some of that support but probably not much.

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  7. Scott says:

    I was planning to throw in my two cents to this post but you managed to cover just about everything I was thinking.. Good comprehensive job!

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    Let’s not forget we’re still in the GOP primary. The claim that the press is out to get him will play well with the GOP base. As it did for Palin. And hopefully he will stay at the top, actively campaigning, for some time, all the while making the Republican party look like revealing that the Republican Party has gone off into the ozone.

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  9. J-Dub says:

    Ok, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he did indeed try to kill his mother and one other family member. That somehow makes him more qualified to be president?

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  10. C. Clavin says:

    the issue isn’t with problems about Carson’s credulity

    He’s a Republican…credulity doesn’t even enter into the picture. Lack of credulity is seen as a net plus. You cannot have a great deal of credulity and still claim the $12T in debt your tax plan is going to rack up will be taken care of by steady 4% GDP growth over the next 10 years.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin: I think Doug meant to say “credibility” when he said

    Carson’s credulity about the events of his own life

    But given Carson’s tenuous grip on reality and the tendency of conservatives to believe their own BS, “credulity” works.

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  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ron Beasley: I would guess that the Fox Business Network is going to go after him in this week’s debate. The last thing the business community wants is a delusional nut job representing the Republican Party,

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Ron Beasley: True that. Note that the big attack on Carson came from the WSJ.

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  14. Davebo says:

    @Ron Beasley: @gVOR08:

    But those attacks just increase the level of support he gets from that 27%.

    In a primary where the “establishment” is on trial it’s starting to look like either Trump or Carson will prevail.

    I’m hoping for Trump but I’ll settle for either.

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  15. Tillman says:

    It is totally unfair. Dude’s on a book tour, not running for president. You don’t get this kind of national media scrutiny on a book tour, do you?

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  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    The last thing the business community wants is a delusional nut job representing the Republican Party,

    I can hardly wait for the endorsement of either Hillary or Bernie. Heads will explode!

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  17. charon says:

    He actually has become subjected to abnormally intensive scrutiny lately, this being the reasonable response to discoveries that:

    A) His autobiographical books appear to be unusually filled with wild fabrications, more than the usual embellishments such books often contain.

    B) Provocative statements of outlandish beliefs, such as the grain storing pyramids.

    C) Factually untrue statements that he doubles down on.

    People are obviously clicking on or reading Ben Carson stories (e. g., the unusual decor of his house) so of course the press is incentivised to go after more of them.

    It looks to me like there is currently a media storm engulfing the man.

    (I suppose I’m a bad person what with the schadenfreude, considering how deficient in empathy this narcissistic fellow clearly is.)

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  18. Robert in SF says:

    @Gustopher: Is this an example of Poe’s Law? I cannot tell if you are serious or just dryly sarcastic. Wow!

    I read it as, “Since the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, then obviously the process wasn’t executed correctly…otherwise, my preferred conclusion would have to be actual conclusion! It’s the only conclusion that you can come to that’s *real*”

    But I can’t tell if you are satirzing those who actually think this way, or you actually think this way.

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  19. Jenos Idanian says:

    I don’t have the formal training in rhetoric, so I don’t know the proper term for when you focus exclusively on the most easily-debunked allegations and exclude the more problematic ones, and then pretend that all the attacks have been refuted?

    Doug does a great job on throwing out all the crazy ones, but he’s studiously silent on more serious ones. My personal favorite is how he lied about his mother’s health insurance and slandered Cigna to promote ObamaCare (#6 on this list).

    But no, Carson is getting perfectly fair treatment. This should be the standard for all candidates. Carson would be getting unfair treatment if the media gave him the tongue bath they give Obama and Hillary, but sadly he lacks the critical (D) after his name.

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  20. C. Clavin says:

    @Jenos Idanian:
    In Jenos’s world two decades of investigations into the Clinton’s amounts to a tongue bath.
    Of course thats because he believes the pyramids are for grain storage.

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  21. Kylopod says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    The last thing the business community wants is a delusional nut job representing the Republican Party

    I agree. What they want is a slick con artist who can package the GOP’s regressive, corporate agenda as moderate, fiscally sound policy aimed at protecting the middle class, so that it can fool the types of media folks who depict Paul Ryan as a wonk and Jeb Bush as a “populist.”

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  22. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin: Also it was the supposedly liberal NYT that jumped all over the ‘FBI criminal investigation of Hillary over email’ story then had to reluctantly walk it back step by step.

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  23. WR says:

    @C. Clavin: We don’t know that Jenos has now decided he has to believe that the pyramids were built by Joseph for grain storage in solid rock. He could still be with the scientists who, according to Carson, believe they were built by aliens.

    Meanwhile, I believe he’s off to Columbia, MO to explain to a bunch of African American football players that there is no racism at Mizzou and that all young black men shot by cops deserve what they get.

    Oh, wait, that would be standing up for what he claims to believe. Never mind.

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  24. michael reynolds says:

    Jenos is defending Carson so he can deny he’s a racist when he spends the rest of his time defending the shooting of unarmed black people.

    Kind of the same reason some GOP voters are “supporting” this ridiculous man Carson.

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  25. Moosebreath says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    “Carson would be getting unfair treatment if the media gave him the tongue bath they give Obama and Hillary, but sadly he lacks the critical (D) after his name.”

    So, you want the debate questioners to ask as their first question to him “Will you say anything to get elected?”, as they did to Hillary in the last month. Is that the sort of tongue bath you are looking for?

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  26. C. Clavin says:

    Full disclosure…my given name is Joseph.
    Yeah…I built those f’ers. Of course it was to store grain…what else would you do with a colossal structure full of little tiny rooms?
    And always remember; every loaf of bread is the tragic story of grains that could have become beer, but didn’t…
    Just sayin’

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  27. gVOR08 says:

    Ben Carson is, bluntly, a Looney Toon. See WIKI on W. Cleon Skausen. This is Glenn Becks’s go to guy. WIKI quotes Peter Wehner, NYT,

    Carson has “endorsed the work of W. Cleon Skousen, a conspiracy-minded author and supporter of the John Birch Society.” “Mr. Carson views Mr. Skousen’s work, especially The Naked Communist, as an interpretive key to America today.”

    Carson talks constantly about “political correctness”, which does not mean to him what it means in a dictionary. See Kevin Drum.

    He believes that political correctness today is the equivalent of brownshirt terrorism in 1933, and he believes that this is what brought Hitler to power in Germany.”

    To Carson it means that he can’t talk openly about what he really believes because the press will somehow oppress him. Of course, like Glenn Beck, what would really happen is most people would laugh at him and see him for the fringe character he is. Laughing at him is just the same as smashing printing presses, burning buildings, and murdering people you know.

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  28. jukeboxgrad says:


    My personal favorite is how he lied about his mother’s health insurance

    Your claim is based on reporting by a New York Times reporter, so tell us again how this proves that “mainstream media” refuses to criticize Obama.

    I’m also waiting for you to link to an article which demonstrates how you know exactly what Obama’s mother told him.

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  29. M. Bouffant says:

    @J-Dub: In the evangelical world it does, because after these alleged incidents he suddenly found Gawd & was saved, reformed, & so forth.

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  30. grumpy realist says:

    @Jenos Idanian: Dude, did you sleep through ALL of the Clinton administration?

    You probably will also claim you never heard of the whole “birther” thing, nor that Donald Trump sent investigators to Hawaii to “investigate” Obama’s birth certificate.

    As a historian, you’re about as good with history as Orly Taitz is with law.

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  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jenos Idanian: Who said, “I heard him (ben carson) this morning say he’s been more scrutinized than anybody in the race, and it’s unfair, Is he kidding?”

    Chris Christie on CNN this morning.

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  32. Andre Kenji says:

    Ben Carson defended that Puerto Rico should become an US State. It´s over. You can compare anything to slavery or nazism, but defending Puerto Rico to have two US Senators and 5 US Representatives is going too far.

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  33. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Jenos Idanian: It’s called “attacking a straw man,” or, in more common vernacular, “what Jenos does.”

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  34. Tyrell says:

    What we have here is the so called “news” media asking questions about Carson’s inane statements to General Westmoreland (really ? When was the last time the General was in the news ?), fantasy sports gambling, and Rubio’s credit cards.
    Meanwhile, these issues are virtually ignored :
    The growing military buildup in China (who has been parking some of their boats in our territory)
    Russia – giving defensive weapons to Iran
    Iranian demonstrators hollaring “death to America”, burning the US flag and Obama in effigy !!
    Deteriorating overseas markets
    Monetary policy
    Recent close call of asteroid (on Halloween )
    White House warns that solar storm catastrophe is imminent

    No, we will continue to hear trivia and diversionary topics.

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  35. anjin-san says:

    Hey Jenos, don’t you think it’s well past time you make some sort of reference to me being a gun owner? You know you can’t help yourself…

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