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Flashback: Patten vs. Franken

Newsmax's David Patten churned out numerous reports on the 2008 Minnesota Senate race -- but he was a cheerleader for Norm Coleman and falsely accused Al Franken of stealing the election.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 6/23/2010

The right-wing bias and misleading reporting of Newsmax managing editor David A. Patten is legion, but nowhere more so than his reporting on the contentious 2008 Minnesota Senate race between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.

As the close race went through numerous recounts, Patten took sides by becoming an advocate for Coleman and making false and misleading claims about Franken.

A Dec. 22, 2008, article by Patten, headlined "ACORN, Soros, Linked to Franken Vote Grab," failed to fulfill the promise of its headline. Rather, Patten attacked Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie as allegedly having "extensive ties to both the ACORN organization now under federal investigation for vote fraud, and to ultra-liberal kingmaker George Soros." And what were those "extensive ties"? "In 2006, ACORN endorsed Ritchie in his bid to become secretary of state, and Ritchie also received a campaign contribution that year from Soros." That's "extensive"?

Patten also alleged that Ritchie was a beneficiary of a Soros-funded project whose "express purpose is to seed state election bureaucracies nationwide with partisan activists ... who are strategically positioned to influence the outcome of close recounts like the one now underway in Minnesota." Patten added that the project "was founded after Democrats involved in George W. Bush’s narrow 2000 election victory blamed Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris for influencing the outcome."

As for evidence that Ritchie was spearheading a "Franken vote grab," Patten offered none. Instead, he quoted Matthew Vadum of the Capital Research Center -- who has a history of making dubious claims -- calling Ritchie "a hard-core liberal who was endorsed by ACORN and funded by ACORN" and who had "a permissive attitude toward the recount process." Patten also stated that "ruling after ruling by the Ritchie-led State Canvassing Board has gone against Coleman," but failed to note that Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty approved the canvassing board's composition, and that a lawyer for Coleman's campaign reportedly said that the "state should feel good about who's on the panel."

If this all sounds a little familiar, it's because eight years earlier, Newsmax was on the other side of a similar election controversy. Then, Newsmax was all about defending then-Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris during the 2000 presidential election recount, declaring her "the one and only hero to emerge from the election crisis" and asking its readers to email their support to her.

But a search of Newsmax's online archives found no reference to the one relevant piece of information about Harris that was the basis for much of the controversy surrounding her: she was the Florida co-chair for George W. Bush's campaign and had campaigned for him, and her certifying Bush as the winner in the face of controversies surrounding the voting process made him the president.

That would seem to have obvious relevance in an article on the alleged political affiliations of state election officials, but Patten failed to mention the precedent. Patten also offered no evidence that Ritchie was behaving any different than Harris, whose behavior Newsmax endorsed and defended.

(While Patten was writing this, people on the Newsmax mailing list received a fund-raising letter from the Republican National Lawyers Association baselessly asserting that Franken and "his liberal allies are working feverishingly to steal the Minnesota Senate election.")

A Dec. 31, 2008, article by Patten uncritically repeated a claim by Republican Sen. John Cornyn that Franken "is falsely declaring victory based on an artificial lead created on the back of the double counting of ballots," adding that "Minnesotans will not accept a recount in which some votes are counted twice, and I expect the Senate would have a problem seating a candidate who has not duly won an election." Patten made no attempt to explain the "double counting" issue -- perhaps because if he did, he would have to reveal that it's not an issue at all.

As Nate Silver at explained, the "double counting" issue was based around the fact that voters who cast ballots on election day that could not be read by the vote scanner were required to cast a duplicate ballot. But for the recount, the original ballots, not the duplicates, were counted. Coleman is claiming discrepancies between the original vote count and the recount as evidence that "double counting" was taking place. But as Silver pointed out:

Coleman's proposed remedy is that original ballots should be thrown out in any instances where they can't be paired with duplicates. If that remedy is adopted, then each of two things will happen: (#1) The state will prevent some ballots from being double-counted, and (#2) The state will also throw out some perfectly legal ballots. The process of identifying potential double-counted ballots is simply too imprecise to have the one thing without the other.

Can these two harms be weighed against one another? Suppose that if you rule on Coleman's behalf, you'll prevent 20 votes from being counted twice, but also throw out 20 legal votes. Most of us would probably not consider that to be a productive trade-off. But what if you could prevent 30 votes from being double-counted, in exchange for throwing out 10 legal ballots? Does the trade-off then become acceptable? Should you double-count 50 ballots if it prevents one voter from having his vote thrown out? Or, does the right of a voter to have his vote counted inherently trump that of the risk of counting some other voter's ballot twice?

By not explaining the duplicate ballot issue, Patten falsely suggested the issue has legitimacy when, in fact, it was just a tactic by Coleman and fellow Republicans to forestall Franken being declared the winner.

A Jan. 5, 2009, article by Patten was headlined, "Franken's Coup: Anatomy of a Vote Grab," but instead of offering the promised anatomical analysis, Patten uncritically repeated claims by Coleman's campaign and other conservatives about the race's recount and allowing no one to respond. Patten again claimed that Ritchie "has been criticized for ties to the ACORN voter-registration organization the federal government is investigating for alleged vote fraud, as well as to left-wing billionaire George Soros." But that criticism was coming only from Patten and his right-wing fellow travelers. Patten also hid the true identity of one person he quoted, "Kevin Hassett of"; in fact, Hassett is a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, not a Bloomberg employee. Bloomberg merely published the commentary from which Patten quoted.

Patten also made his pro-Coleman, anti-Franken bias all too clear by complaining that the Minnesota canvassing board "deposed Coleman as the apparent winner" and that Coleman has been victimized by "a nightmarish electoral chronology."

Distorting another race

As the recount controversy dragged on, so did Patten's biased reporting. A March 31 article on how New York Republicans are seeking "a wide-ranging injunction to prevent Minnesota-style snafus seen in the Al Franken-Norm Coleman race from disrupting the hard-fought 20th congressional district race in upstate New York" carried the headline: "NY GOP Moves To Block Franken-Style Vote Grab." At no point in the article did Patten support the headline's contention that questions about the Minnesota election and recount, in which the lead transferred from Coleman to Franken, equates to Franken "grabbing" votes from Coleman.

Another March 31 article on the special congressional election in New York attempted to explain away how Republican Jim Tedisco's 18-point lead over "Democratic upstart" Scott Murphy disappeared in a month's time: the economy, the popularity of President Obama and Kirsten Gillibrand (whose vacant seat Tedisco and Murphy were vying for after Gillibrand was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat), "the surrogate war" and "negative campaigning."

One factor that Patten didn't name: the National Republican Trust PAC. As the Washington Independent reported at the time, the PAC has spent more than $190,000 in ads on behalf of Tedisco that attacked Murphy, ads that had been criticized as being too negative, so much so that they were turning off voters. Politico later reported that the PAC spent $819,000 on the race.

Why didn't Patten mention the National Republican Trust PAC's role in the Tedisco-Murphy race? Perhaps because the PAC had a relationship with Newsmax columnist Dick Morris, or because its executive director, Scott Wheeler, also was writing columns for Newsmax at the time -- indeed, a few days earlier, a Wheeler column touting Tedisco failed to disclose his PAC's role in bankrolling hundreds of thousands of dollars in pro-Tedisco ads (or even identify his role in the PAC).

Or perhaps because the PAC was a Newsmax advertiser. In the two weeks before Patten's article, the PAC used Newsmax's mailing list to send out at least three emails supporting Tedisco and attacking Murphy (one of which was signed by Dick Morris).

After the polls closed, Patten's article was rewritten to reflect election results (without notifying readers that the article was altered, of course), and all references to the lead Tedisco blew were deleted, save for a reference in the final paragraph that the race "only a few weeks ago appeared to be a virtual lock for the GOP." No reference to the National Republican Trust PAC was added.

Further, Patten's claim that the election "seemed to produce one clear loser: President Barack Obama" seemed to come directly from PAC talking points; in an April 1 email from the PAC, Wheeler stated: "The media spin on this result has been amazing. But here’s the truth -- it’s a stunning blow to President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the Democrats."

Patten upset with Franken win -- and shoots down Vadum

After Franken was finally declared the victor in late June 2009, Patten still couldn't stop attacking him, if only half-heartedly. A July 6, 2009, article is headlined "Experts: Did ACORN Elect Al Franken?" but Patten ended up proving that the answer is no, despite again using Matthew Vadum for backup support. While Patten asserted that Vadum "stops just short of saying ACORN grabbed the election away from Coleman," it was clear that Vadum actually stopped a lot shorter than that when Patten wrote, "Vadum says he has no evidence ACORN manipulated the outcome in Minnesota, and Coleman's own attorneys have said the same thing."

Indeed, the only involvement in the Minnesota Senate race Vadum could offer is tangental -- "ACORN helped Minnesota's secretary of state, Mark Ritchie, get elected in 2006." But Patten shot Vadum down here too:

Vadum blames Coleman's repeated setbacks on "the permissive environment created by the secretary of state who is ACORN's man -- endorsed by them, and ACORN supporters gave money to him."

None of which indicates ACORN has done anything improper, let alone illegal, in Minnesota.

Later in his article, Patten moved to point out again that "None of which, it should be noted again, proves that ACORN did anything wrong in Minnesota."

This was accompanied by a separate article in which Patten fervently expressed hope that Franken would make a gaffe as senator that Republicans could exploit.

Patten asserted that "Franken is the only senator to joke about helping terrorists assassinate a U.S. president, to openly marvel that his cocaine habit hadn’t led to addiction, and the only salon [sic] who angrily drops F-bombs during campaign fundraisers." He went on to rehash "incidents that don't bode well on Franken's resume," such as his "mouthy satire" and "vitriol," adding, "To conform to Senate decorum, Franken will have to overcome his penchant for getting personal. Senators avoid the acrimonious personal attacks that Franken appears to relish."

Despite his earlier undercutting of Vadum, Patten trotted out Vadum once more to baselessly suggest voter fraud in the New Jersey governor's race. Patten quoted Vadum in a Nov. 2, 2009, article as saying, "There has been a reported surge in absentee balloting, which might be suspicious but isn't necessarily proof of anything." That's all the evidence Vadum had, and it was meaningless.

Patten kept on the purported-election-fraud beat -- and kept on perpetuating the false claim that Franken stole the election -- with a Jan. 18 article that asserted: "The specter of Minnesota's bitterly contested election contest between Al Franken and Norm Coleman now hangs over Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts, with Republicans and conservative pundits warning that anything less than a clear-cut victory for GOP challenger Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley risks a 'stolen election.'" Patten went on to quote NewsBusters' Noel Sheppard -- who has his own notable record of fabulism -- baselessly asserting that Democrats "obviously stole the Franken seat several months ago."

Of course, Sheppard is lying. As Media Matters detailed, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that "[n]o claim of fraud in the election or during the recount was made by either" Franken or Coleman. Further, numerous experts attested to the fact there there was, in the words of one expert, a "lack of crookedness in the election."

But when the only evidence of election fraud in Massachusetts election showed up on the Republican side, Patten started singing a different tune. In a Jan. 19 article, Patten noted that "Marc Elias, the controversial attorney whose legal maneuvers helped Democrat Al Franken go from being 700 votes behind to winning his election against incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, has joined with the Martha Coakley campaign to prepare for a major legal initiative to contest the integrity of the election if necessary." Thus, Patten again falsely suggests that Franken stole the election from Coleman.

Patten stated that "While claims of fraud are routine in tight elections, they usually do not materialize into serious legal contests" -- a statement curiously missing from his previous articles on the subject.

The only evidence of possible voter fraud Patten cited was on the Republican side, quoting from Coakley's campaign stating that "We've received several independent and disturbing reports of voters across the state being handed ballots that are already marked in favor of Scott Brown."

When Brown, the Republican, emerged as the decisive winner, any mention of election fraud was dropped by Patten, never again to appear on Newsmax's pages.

Apparently, election fraud committed by Republicans isn't worth reporting, as far as Patten and Newsmax are concerned.

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