Ayers/Obama Update: My final (?) exchange with the New York Times

As I have explained to Global Labor readers, the New York Times interviewed me for their recent story on the Ayers/Obama relationship. After the story ran I blogged on the inadequacy of the story and received an email from the reporter, Scott Shane. An exchange of emails followed and below is the most recent exchange.

There is a critical smaller point and a larger one made here. 

First, the Times reporting on the story of Obama became Chairman of the Annenberg Challenge is consistent with what I found out: that Ayers appointed Obama. This is indicated by the fact that Ayers met with Obama after Obama was vetted by two foundation presidents advising Ayers, Deborah Leff and Patricia Graham. While the Times quotes some unnamed sources as saying that Ayers was not involved neither Graham nor Leff are quoted to that effect in the story.

Shane has insisted that Graham told him that Ayers was not involved and now says, for the first time, that Leff also said that. However, neither of them were quoted to that effect in the original story. 

In any case, that is irrelevant because whatever Leff and Graham may think happened 14 years ago cannot trump what actually took place as documented in written letters by Ayers and Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, the national Annenberg representative, demonstrate: that Ayers had the legal authority to appoint board members not Graham or Leff and, thus, only with Ayers’ approval could Obama have become Chairman of the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

A larger point, of course, is that the Times seems to have used Shane to make sure that the story would come out the way that it did. My email to Shane below explains.

These are provided in reverse chronological order. I have decided gracefully to let Mr. Shane have the last word.

Email #5

[To: Steve Diamond
From: Scott Shane 

“I believe your editors and your publisher knew that you would come to the very conclusion that you did and that that was a purposeful political use of you and the New York Times.”

That’s funny. They must be able to tell the future.

The assignment was to research the Obama-Ayers relationship and write what I found. If I had discovered that Ayers and Obama met at Columbia, were buddies back in Obama’s organizing days, and secretly co-authored radical tracts calling for revol;ution, that’s what we would have written.

It’s called reporting.

Scott Shane

New York Times

Washington Bureau

Email #4


I suggest you review your “evidence” with another lawyer or legal scholar familiar with the issues and I think that individual will confirm my conclusion that the statements you reported from Leff and Graham are not lies but are in fact consistent with what happened, including the written evidence that you chose not to report. Again, only Bill Ayers had the authority to select Barack Obama and that power was not dependent on the role played by Leff and Graham who had no authority to act for the Chicago School Reform Collaborative other than the authority granted to them, as sub-agents of Ayers, by Ayers.

As I explained again in my last email I do not think they are lying or misremembering. Your continued suggestion that I ever contended they were lying borders on slander.

If you are still reporting this issue and have any questions let me know and I will try, once again, to answer them.

I will only conclude by pointing out, first, that you chose not to report the written evidence as is your responsibility so that the public could fully understand the important issues at stake.

Second, I think you personally should ask yourself why you were assigned to this story and why it turned out as it did. I believe your editors and your publisher knew that you would come to the very conclusion that you did and that that was a purposeful political use of you and the New York Times.

I am reminded of the lawyer played by Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men. You may recall, if you saw the film, that the Cruise character while very capable had a very undistinguished legal record that consisted largely of plea bargaining his cases to settlement. He was then assigned to a very controversial case that, if it reached an open trial, would be very embarrassing for the Navy. It became clear to Cruise that he, in fact, was assigned to the case so that it would be plea bargained and never see the light of day in open court.

It was at that moment of realization that Cruise became a real lawyer. He took on the case and fought it out in open court including a very moving confrontation with a senior Marine officer played by Jack Nicholson that laid bare how power had corrupted the most powerful in the military.

In light of the Times’ concern with how the current President led this nation into a senseless war with the complicity of its own reporters I would have thought you would have been particularly sensitive to once again being used by those in power. I fear now that we are once again seeing the media collapse in the face of a powerful and effective political figure. I only hope that the press finds its way if and when the next President of the United States tries to lead us into another senseless and destructive foreign adventure.

I wish you the best of luck with your work.

Steve Diamond

Email #3

On 10/6/08 1:06 PM, “Scott Shane”


This bloggin’ business must be nice. No need to talk to the principals, no editors, just publish your thoughts….

You write in your email:

“it is nonetheless clear to me that Ayers appointed Obama to the board and thus helped Obama’s career at a very significant point –“

Maybe this is a waste of my time, but let me try once again. My reporting turned up no evidence whatsoever to support your conclusion – not indirect evidence, not partial evidence, not evidence only ablogger can understand. No evidence. To be clear, since you keep looking for loopholes, both Leff and Graham said repeatedly on the record that Ayers had nothing to do with Obama joining the board and becoming its chairman. They explained exactly what happened. If Ayers did have a role, they are both lying, not misremembering – they said they remember what happened very clearly.

Again, even though you’re a lawyer, give them a call and, if you’re embarrassed to be acting like a reporter, say I suggested that you call. Get their account. See if it has any holes in it. Compare notes with Stanley Kurtz and whoever else believes this theory. Talk with Hallett (which I did) and Rolling (which I did) and other board members.

You’ll discover, I think, that your conclusion quoted above is wrong. Even if it’s too embarrassing to climb down publicly on your blog, at least you’ll know the facts, you can stop criticizing the NYT for reporting the facts, and you can move on to other topics.


Scott Shane

Email #2

From: Stephen Diamond
Sent: Sunday, October 05, 2008 10:03 PM
To: Scott Shane
Subject: Re: Hello


I think the problem here is that I think about this as a lawyer not as a journalist. Let me try to explain what I have been trying to get at:

Your interviews do not contradict what the Gregorian/Ayers letters say. They are consistent with it. I do not think Leff and Graham are lying and do not recall telling you they did. I do think that at least Graham may not understand what happened and that is why I wanted to know if you had discussed the letters with her. It is clear to me now that if she still said after you showed her the letters that Ayers was not involved she does not understand the operative legal principles controlling this situation.

Leff as a lawyer likely understands the principles of agency law that are operative here and thus has not stated anywhere that Ayers was not involved. You tell me privately Graham says Ayers was not involved but you reported in your story that Ayers met with Obama after Graham did, so that contradicts your private statement about Graham’s contention that Ayers was not involved.

That ex post Graham/Leff involvement by Ayers is important.

Ayers was the formal legal representative of the Collaborative and as such submitted the grant application to Gregorian on its behalf. Gregorian contacted him directly as the representative of the Collaborative and asked Ayers to commit to form a board that reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of Chicago. Ayers agreed in writing. As a result Gregorian agreed to submit the final proposal to Annenberg and the money was successfully secured for the Collaborative.

Then Ayers proceeded to carry out his commitment. As the letters indicate Ayers met with Simmons, Leff and Graham to discuss the board selection. Those three then, apparently, separately came up with Obama’s name (but see my blog today for my discussion of that as there are numerous ways that Ayers could still have made sure they considered Obama). After that Ayers met with Obama and then Ayers attended the first board meeting with Obama.

Ayers was the only individual (let’s leave Hallett out for simplicity) with legal authority to select board members. He relied on advice from Leff, Graham and Simmons but only he had the legal authority to approve board members. Thus, legally, Ayers approved the selection of Obama as a result of meeting with him prior to the board meeting (in fact, even if they had not met or first met at the board meeting Ayers’ silence would be deemed approval). Thus, Ayers was “involved” and in fact had to have been given his role as the legal agent of the Collaborative.

If Ayers objected to Obama, Obama could not have become a member of the CAC board because no one else had the legal authority to approve his selection. If Ayers had come out of that lunch with Obama and expressed an objection Leff, Simmons and Graham would have had to go back to the drawing board.

While I have speculated that Ayers and Obama knew each other before the CAC, it is nonetheless clear to me that Ayers appointed Obama to the board and thus helped Obama’s career at a very significant point – just in advance of his first political campaign which as we know was launched at Ayers’ house a few months after these events. That impact stands apart from whether they shared a pre-95 history.

Let me know if you have any questions about this or if any of your editors, lawyers or other reporters do. 🙂


Steve Diamond

Email #1

On 10/5/08 6:24 PM, “Scott Shane” … wrote:
Steve, The letters you sent me are the same as the ones in the Chicago archive — from your description I thought they might have something more. Since they don’t mention Obama, it’s hard to see how they prove that Ayers was responsible for his appointment, especially in the face of explanations by Leff and Graham to the contrary. I understand that it must be tough to let go of your theory, but I can’t simply ignore what they told me. Their explanations (and those of others both on the record and on background) were consistent and logical and did not change after I showed them the letters you cite.
I’d suggest that you give them a call (Leff is in DC now at a foundation, Graham is at Harvard). If you talk to them and still believe afterward that they’re both lying about this, I’ll be surprised. But perhaps it’s better to start with evidence and work toward a conclusion than the other way around?

Scott Shane