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Michelle Malkin Bids For Self-parody Award

I try really hard not to dignify Michelle Malkin by responding to her rants. But I can't let this one pass. 

It seems that Malkin is angry over the recent treatment of Joe Wurzelbacher--a.k.a., "Joe the Plumber." As you may recall, John McCain invoked Wurzelbacher a few times during Wednesday's debate, using Joe's situation to suggest that Barack Obama would raise taxes on the middle class. Since that time, reporters and Democratic partisans have been digging into Joe's story, to see whether McCain's claims are right. And Malkin doesn't like it:

...a dirty, desperate war against Joe Wurzelbacher is on.

The left’s political plumbers are attacking the messenger, rummaging through his personal life and predictably wielding the race card once again. It’s standard operating procedure for the Obama thug machine. ...

Left-wing blogs immediately went to work, blaring headlines like “Not A Real $250k Plumber!” Next, they falsely accused Wurzelbacher of not being registered to vote—he’s registered in Lucas County, Ohio, and voted as a Republican in this year’s primary. ...

award-winning liberal blogger Joshua Marshall cast Wurzelbacher as some kind of rabid freak for calling Social Security a “joke”...

Press outlets probed his divorce records. The local plumbers union, which has endorsed Obama, claimed he didn’t do their required apprenticeship work and didn’t have a license to work outside his local township.

Hang him!

I happen to think it's perfectly fine to debate whether Wurzelbacher's story, as he and McCain have presented it, serves the anti-tax narrative McCain would have us all believe. As I wrote immediately after the debate, the vast majority of Americans would get a tax cut under Obama's plan. What's more, a small businessman would probably benefit from the health care reforms Obama has in mind. If Wurzelbacher was going to end up paying more taxes, it'd only be because he'd gotten very wealthy.  

I also think Josh Marshall's item, which you can see here, was perfectly appropriate. He was merely responding to comments Wurzelbacher made during a press conference, in an effort to point out Wurzelbacher's political worldview. That, certainly, is fair game.

Still, Malkin makes one valid point. Running with thinly-sourced or unconfirmed allegations about Wurzelbacher's personal life--his financial records, his license situation, his marriage--goes too far. Wurzelbacher doesn't seem particularly skittish about speaking his mind or getting attention for it. But there's no way he could be prepared for the kind of scrutiny that comes with being the political world's most famous talking point.

As a result, writers should allow Wurzelbacher a bit more privacy than they would the typical public figure. And when printing anything that touches on his personal life, even remotely, they should be sure to confirm it first. So far, it seems, writers haven't always done that.

One reason I feel strongly about this is that I've seen it all happen before. As you may recall, back in 2007, a young boy from Baltimore named Graeme Frost was tapped to give the Democrats' weekly radio address. Congress was in the middle of debating whether to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). Frost, who relied upon the program to cover ongoing medical treatments from a severe car accident, used his story to argue for the program's growth.

Within days, though, right-wing bloggers started digging into the Frost family story in order to prove he didn't really need S-CHIP. To make their point, they published "revelations" based on hearsay, hasty public records searches, or mere suspicion. The Frosts had new marble countertops in their kitchen! They had enrolled their kids in one of Baltimore's toniest private schools! They could have bought insurance if they wanted it! 

Few jumped into this fray with more zest than Malkin, who visited the Frost's commecial property in Baltimore. When she failed to find the father, Halsey Frost, there, she drove by the family house. She didn't call or knock on the door, claiming she wanted to respect the family's privacy.

The whole effort might have been a perfectly legitimate exercise in reporting if Malkin didn't breathelssly report glimpsing a newish SUV in the driveway and repeat the other allegations swirling on the Internet.  She also quoted an unsolicited letter from one of the Frost's neighbors. The letter-writer called the Frosts "good people" but "terribly misguided, pathetically leftist buffoons." The letter-writer later referred to Halsey as "an incredibly disorganized lovable goofball" who "just can’t seem to hold down a proper job or, when he’s tried, to run a proper company." (Malkin didn't indicate whether she confirmed the authenticity of the source.) All of this was designed to show that it was the Frosts' own life choices, not circumstance, that made them dependent on govenrment-subsidized insurance.

In the end, when actual reporters from real newspapers looked into the story, a rather different picture emerged. Although not destitute, the Frosts were hardly affluent. The kids attended private school on scholarship. The new SUV was a gift from friends, since the accident had left the kids too scared to ride in a car. As a small-business owner, Halsey couldn't find affordable insurance, particularly given the kids' pre-existing conditions and ongoing medical needs. In other words, without a program like S-CHIP, the kids probably couldn't get decent insurance.

Malkin's coveage drew some criticism, but she never backed down. Instead, she hit back this way:

A word for all the faux outraged leftists accusing conservative bloggers of waging a “smear campaign:” Asking questions and subjecting political anecdotes to scrutiny are what journalists should be doing.

When a family and Democrat political leaders drag a child down to Washington at 6 in the morning to read a script written by Senate Democrat staffers on a crusade to overturn a presidential veto, someone might have questions about the family’s claims. The newspapers don’t want to do their jobs. The vacuum is being filled.

If you don’t want questions, don’t foist these children onto the public stage.

Fight your battles like adults and stop hiding behind youngsters dragging around red wagons filled with your talking points.  

Note, by the way, the reference to Josh Marshall as an "award-winning" blogger. That echoes her past references to mainstream writers (including me) as "respectable." Apparently, this is supposed to be a form of mockery.

Could it be she's just a little insecure? 

--Jonathan Cohn