Rubio, Carson and media double-standard?

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Media questioning Rubio, Carson about their pasts. In Carson's case, gauging truth of youthful violence. Is this fair?
  • He says Carson's claim that Obama given slide by media is not true, but overall coverage in past elections is favorable toward Dems

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Dogs bite men and reporters dig up muck on politicians. So it's no surprise that Marco Rubio and Ben Carson have both been the subject of intense press scrutiny into their pasts.

Timothy Stanley
They should be grateful -- it confirms that they are riding high in the polls. The only questions that really matter about this vetting process are a) Is it accurate? and b) Is it fair? Conservatives complain that their candidates get grilled much more than the Democrats do. They may well be right.
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How accurate are the charges against Rubio and Carson? Credit card statements released by Rubio's campaign reveal that he used a state GOP credit card to cover a few personal expenses when he was a leader in the Florida House, an accusation with echoes of the scandal that nearly derailed Richard Nixon's bid to be vice president in 1952. But it turns out that it was standard practice at the time, he spent less than his successors and he says that while mistakes were made, he did repay the money.
    His opponents will use this to hammer him in the future but, like the charge that he's been underattending the Senate, it's an attack that's easily dismissed. "Who hasn't had problems with a credit card?" is a line that might get a lot of sympathy from Americans.
    Carson, by contrast, is in more troubled waters. His problem is that he's being vetted for the very first time, which means that every skeleton in his closet is being revealed at once. Moreover, without a legislative or executive background to run on, all Carson has is his personal story. Anything that causes people to re-evaluate that story hurts him enormously.
    Last week, Politico questioned Carson's biographical claim that he had received an offer of a full scholarship to West Point. Team Carson countered that the conversation about the scholarship was informal and the candidate had privately declined.
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    Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal has challenged the claim in his memoir, "Gifted Hands," that he impressed a psychology professor at Yale with his honesty; and CNN tried and failed to find anyone who can corroborate his assertion that as a misguided youth he had violent episodes, one in which he tried to stab a friend. (The Carson campaign since produced a Parade magazine article from 1997 in which his mother alludes to the stabbing incident.)
    Again, Carson has answers to these questions, some of which hinge on the fact that biographies often change names, places and dates to protect sources or simply because the precise facts have been forgotten. In a superb summary of the whole mess, David A. Graham notes that "Carson told many of these stories in the context of his career as a motivational speaker, where embellishment for effect and inattention to specifics would be more acceptable than in a presidential race."
    Graham also points out that some conservatives are increasingly numb to attacks on their preferred candidates because they perceive bias in the reporting. This narrative is arguably protecting movement favorites from the negative effects of scandal. Carson has said: "I do not remember this level of scrutiny for one President Barack Obama when he was running." Bias is in the eye of the beholder but does this accusation of double-standards hold up?
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    No and yes. No because Obama in 2008 had to deal with a lot of scrutiny surrounding his birth certificate and the politics of his preacher Jeremiah Wright. It's absurd to say that the President wasn't vetted when he had to actually go on television and record a speech explaining what the Rev. Wright meant when he said, "God damn America." But while there's no doubt that Obama's biography did become a major issue, much of the media handled it in a subtly different manner to the treatment of Carson's past.
    Compare the degree of scrutiny of Obama's memoir, "Dreams of My Father," vs. "Gifted Hands." For instance, it was only three years into Obama's presidency that Obama's creation of a composite girlfriend in his memoir was properly discussed -- along with what these women had to reveal about his private self.
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    And it was around the same time that someone managed to stay awake long enough while reading this rather dull and vain memoir to notice that the author casually admitted having eaten a dog. That this story slipped out at the same time that Mitt Romney was being savaged for once transporting a pooch on the top of his car was identified by the Right as proof that Democrats get a gentler ride.
    Evidence for that assertion is found in research into the positive vs. negative coverage of partisan stories in the 2008 election cycle, and it's there in one more comparison between Obama and Carson. In covering Obama the media has largely, and rightly, been sensitive to issues of race and class. Obama's rise from poverty to academic to senator to president is a great testament to the American Way, and journalists have typically respected his achievements and even trumpeted them.
    In the case of Carson, however, some have been more inclined to sneer. When photographs were released from Carson's house showing mock-classical interiors and walls papered in citations and self-portraits, it wasn't hard to detect an air of snobbery in the framing of those images. Maybe Carson is a massive egotist. But he has just a much right to be as Barack Obama. If I were a black working-class kid who became a neurosurgeon and a presidential candidate, I'd probably put a few certificates on my wall, too.
    Rubio and Carson probably aren't perfect people. But at this stage in the race conservatives still have good cause to stand by them.