Those who have followed Louisiana politics for the past two decades know Kennedy as an entertaining quote machine about a range of subjects (some not always directly connected to the policy aspects of his job) that resonated well with the state’s public. In part because of that, he could have sent Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards back to Tangipahoa Parish courthouse politicking with ease in this fall’s elections.
But in his two years in Washington, the national media have picked up on his quotability and he receives attention out of proportion to his status as a very junior senator. Probably no freshman garners as much airtime on national networks as does he, with the possible exception of Missouri’s Republican Sen. Josh Hawley.
With that, however, come out the long knives from a media typically hypercritical about remarks made by conservatives like Kennedy but incurious when it comes to analyzing liberal policy-makers who make debatable statements. And Kennedy found himself in that position recently.
This past weekend, Kennedy on a television talk show addressed testimony given during the partisan circus-like “impeachment” hearings looking into Republican Pres. Donald Trump’s relations with the Ukraine. As part of that, Democrats have desperately tried to show some kind of “extortion” deal had gone down over Trump’s request to have the Ukraine uphold treaty obligations that included investigating credible evidence of corrupt activities in which Democrat former Vice Pres. Joe Biden – a potential challenger to Trump next year – may have participated, drawing an investigation last week. (All the while such partisans seem to forget that “extortion” is a legitimate use of presidential power to pursue U.S. interests and that Biden’s actions that Trump wants to investigate themselves were an attempt to “extort.”)
Part of that veered off to a question about interference in elections by foreign powers, and, more specifically, whether foreign states hacked into computer servers such as that maintained by former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton that contained classified information that on her part showed criminal behavior, even if not systematically intended. Specifically stated by former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill was her assertion that the intelligence community considered that systematic interference explicitly directed by a state came only from Russia, and that Russian efforts led to hacking of these computers.
Kennedy drew a question about that hacking, in which he replied that it involved Russia but “it could also be Ukraine. I’m not saying that I know one way or the other. I’m saying that Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion, but no rebuttal evidence was allowed to be offered.” This would seem to contradict the Hill testimony, but, as it turned out, Kennedy misunderstood the question to mean interference in general and stated so the next day in another national television interview, clarifying that he believed the official version that only Russia was behind the specific hackings.
This, however, did not get him off the hook from some in the national or state media. A Washington Post story about the Kennedy appearances goes to great lengths not to exonerate him. This is because while evidence unearthed nearly three years ago and supplemented since through well-sourced and researched media reports points to elements within the Ukrainian government allied with Democrats that tried to discredit the Trump candidacy, that effort did not have the degree of organization or official state imprimatur that Russian attempts to interfere did. Thus, the reporter Aaron Blake concludes, this means Kennedy was disingenuous because he attempts to equate the two, and throws a further jab in peddling the notion that Kennedy therefore makes “pro-Russia” comments.
Blake, who has a reputation for penning pieces slanted to the left, should and probably does know better. Kennedy simply stated that he thought the question involved election interference and, on that basis, asserted that both Russia and Ukraine engaged in that, which the facts bear out. Scalable equivalence has nothing to do with this, which demolishes his insinuation that Kennedy is buddy-buddy with the Kremlin.
It’s less certain that outright bias has anything to do with the story filed by the Baton Rouge Advocate’s Washington reporter Elizabeth Crisp. She followed Blake’s template in describing Kennedy’s winding story, but at the part where Kennedy invokes reports of Ukrainian interference, insists to readers “[t]hat also has been debunked.”
Which makes Crisp either ignorant or disingenuous. She explained this claim in that “Hill testified in an impeachment hearing last week that the theory of Ukraine's meddling is ‘a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves’ and warned lawmakers against perpetuating it.” But that’s not exactly addressing Kennedy’s statement nor is fluent with Hill’s testimony.
Hill emphasized in her deposition that she believed no official Ukrainian state policy authorized nor government agencies attempted to interfere, unlike with Russia. But at certain points she said she had no personal knowledge of other agents trying to interfere (with some names redacted), or could not answer that kind of question, or that to investigate allegations in the media – which factually have held up to this point – was akin to going down a “rabbit hole” because of her belief these were tied to Russian disinformation.
In short, she never testified about this information, because she said she didn’t know of it first hand. And she didn’t know of it first hand in part because she discounted it in the first place. This makes her testimony more opinion than fact (as Kennedy would echo in later comments in lamenting that Democrats controlled the witness list) but, regardless, her offhand dismissal of reports of Ukranian attempts to interfere through at least one Democrat operative doesn’t mean these are “debunked,” but that they have yet to be officially investigated (the Senate report of earlier this year didn’t investigate these, as it focused solely on Russia attempts). Indeed, her prejudice against these drove her declarations that “conspiracy theories” (a comment Crisp would echo) were a kind of distraction.
Crisp, unlike Blake, missed the distinction. She probably didn’t intend to do so that lead to her misleading “debunked” summary, because most reporters operate in a bubble largely defined by the Post and its ilk and they don’t typically comprehensively search for, much less gather on their own, information that casts doubt on the elite mainstream media’s interpretations. This is especially the case when a regional reporter new to the job tackles the news in the nation’s capital, lacking the institutional knowledge and wealth of contacts more experienced national reporters have cultivated.
Regardless, she gives a inappropriate interpretation of Kennedy’s actions that disserves the reader. That Kennedy has developed increasingly into a national political figure causes more scrutiny of his remarks and whets the media’s appetite to project a negative view of him when he makes some contrary to their worldview. The facts are these: Kennedy said one thing, then changed his story with a plausible explanation attached. That media attempts to spin a contrary narrative indicate on their part more some kind of bias than straight-up reporting.