Obama/Ayers Update: White Wash by the Gray Lady? New York Times Ignores Evidence of Ayers’ Role in Annenberg Board Selection

UPDATED: October 4 based on additional communication from New York Times.


Once again, the New York Times misses the story, parroting the false claims of the Obama Campaign about the relationship between Bill Ayers and Barack Obama. Some months ago the Times reported without comment the Campaign’s lie that the first time Obama met Ayers was in late 1995 at a “meet and greet” held at Ayers’ home for Obama when Obama launched his campaign for the state senate. 
In a story to appear in tomorrow’s paper they, finally, implicitly acknowledge they had it wrong: that Ayers and Obama met many months earlier at least, when the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) was first formed. But once again they report, without any logical basis, that Ayers had nothing to do with the elevation of Obama to the CAC board.
In fact, an exchange of letters in late 1994, copies of which I obtained from Brown University and links to which are provided below, between Vartan Gregorian, then President of Brown and the individual responsible for assessing applications for grants from the national Annenberg Challenge, and Bill Ayers, the founder of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, demonstrates that Ayers played a direct role in “composing” the Challenge’s board of directors. 
Another exchange of letters between Gregorian and Adele Simmons, then President of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation and an advisor to Ayers, confirms the active personal role of Ayers in selecting board members.
I was interviewed at length by the New York Times for this story – in fact, this was the third Times reporter to interview me about the Ayers/Obama relationship – and I provided the Times with the letters I discuss here. They are not mentioned in the story at all. 
It may not have helped that the reporter, Scott Shane, specializes in the FBI and CIA and did not seem well equipped to understand the structure and dynamics of a non profit entity like the Annenberg Challenge, had no apparent understanding of educational policy issues or debates, had no prior experience as far as I could tell with Chicago politics or culture and expressed his own sense of “boredom” with the Annenberg Challenge records he reviewed.
Instead of relying on the contemporaneous written record that documents Ayers direct personal involvement in the formation of the CAC board, the New York Times relies on the recollection, fourteen years later of “several” unnamed sources who say Ayers was not involved in Obama’s recruitment to the board. 
The only two individuals quoted in the published story about the appointment process are Deborah Leff, who was at the time of the CAC founding the President of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, and Patricia Graham, a Harvard historian of education who was at that time president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation and would join the CAC board with Obama. 
Leff told the Times that she suggested Obama to Graham and Graham says she had lunch with Obama and asked him to serve on the CAC board as Chairman.  
Thus, Leff does not confirm that Ayers was not involved in the decision to appoint Ayers as do the unnamed sources. She only confirms that Ayers did not suggest Obama’s name to her and that Ayers was not present at one meeting where Obama was discussed as a possible board member.
Interestingly, I was contacted after this post first went up by Scott Shane of the New York Times who now says that Graham did tell the Times “explicitly that Ayers had nothing whatsoever to do with the choice of Obama.” 
Graham was, in fact, the first appointee to the CAC board and Ayers was involved in her selection as he told Gregorian in a letter to Gregorian dated December 1, 1994. If the Times is to be believed, Graham then unilaterally without the involvement of Ayers proceeded to recruit and nominate Obama.
Shane told me that there was not enough space to print Graham’s statement backing up this conclusion. Given that the question of Ayers’ involvement in the selection of Obama for the CAC board was at the heart of the story by Shane why didn’t the Times find it “fit to print” the one categorical public statement by someone involved regarding that issue? I do not have an answer for that one. 
Neither of the other two individuals described by the Times as being involved in the selection of Obama, Adele Simmons of the MacArthur Foundation and Leff, at least on the record, state that Ayers was not involved. There is no indication in the story whether the Times spoke to Gregorian, Ayers, Warren Chapman, Anne Hallett or Obama – all of whom were involved in the process as I set out below – about this critical question. Nor is there any indication that they asked those individuals to whom they did speak why their current recollection, 14 years later, appears to contradict the written contemporaneous record.
That record, of course, is consistent with the formal legal role and responsibility that Ayers and Gregorian would have had in insuring that the grant money received from Ambassador Annenberg was spent in a manner consistent with the Ayers grant application and the agreement between the national Annenberg Challenge and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
Thus, the nation’s leading paper of record is basing its published story on Ayers non-role in Obama’s selection on unnamed sources when one of the two named sources did not confirm that Ayers was not involved. And as I told the Times there is written evidence that, in fact, Ayers was involved in the selection of Board members, and, in fact, that he would have had to have been involved given his formal role in applying for and winning the grant from the national Annenberg Challenge.
To put this in a context that makes clear how the Times has wandered on to “silly street” imagine the following: 
  • a young entrepreneur comes up with a great idea for a new product but has no money to finance its development, marketing and production. 
  • He approaches a well known venture capital firm in Silicon Valley (where I have lived, practiced law and taught since 1995) and secures $50 million in funding. 
  • He then recruits a prominent engineering professor from a major university for his board of directors. 
  • And then without any discussion with the entrepreneur or the venture capital firm that professor proceeds on his or her own to recruit another board member and announces, unilaterally, to the VC firm and to the founding entrepreneur that this individual is to be the Chairman of the board and President of the new company. 
  • Oh, and by the way, this individual is a recent law school graduate who has no background in the company’s line of business, no financial resources of his own to bring to the table, and no contacts with others in the business of the company.
That is the story that the New York Times asks us to accept in the case of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
The Challenge Board was chaired by Barack Obama and Obama also served as President of the Challenge. The Obama campaign and Obama himself have attempted to minimize the candidate’s longstanding and close professional and political relationship with Ayers because of Ayers’ authoritarian politics and past record of terrorist activities.
The Obama Campaign’s Story
The Obama campaign recently issued a statement stating that Bill Ayers had “nothing to do with Obama’s recruitment to the Board.” (Emphasis added.) The campaign contends that the only people involved in the appointment of Obama were Deborah Leff, then president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, and Patricia Graham, President of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation. Graham is a noted education historian and professor at Harvard.
A close review of the contemporaneous written records of the CAC, however, make it clear that this claim lacks credibility. The Campaign’s conclusion appears to be based on a statement issued by Leff a few days ago, fourteen years after the letters discussed here were written, when she stated:
“While working with Adele Simmons and Patricia Graham to identify a highly qualified person to chair the education reform organization the Annenberg Challenge, I recommended Barack Obama to serve as Chair. After meeting with Obama to review his qualifications, Patricia Graham asked Obama to become a candidate for the position.”

Of course, this statement does not contradict the possibility that Ayers was also involved as the letters discussed here demonstrate. I am not aware of any statement from Leff stating clearly that Ayers had “nothing” to do with the Obama appointment.  That appears to be a leap made by the Campaign without any evidence.  
In fact, a 1994 letter from Leff to Vartan Gregorian indicates that she viewed Ayers as in charge of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Leff told Gregorian on August 3, 1994:
“The Joyce Foundation strongly supports the proposal for the Annenberg Challenge Grant submitted from Chicago. At its meeting just two weeks ago, our Board of Directors approved a grant of $80,000 to Professor William Ayers at the University of Illinois at Chicago to establish the Chicago School Reform Collaborative [the CSRC - the working group that Ayers organized to develop and submit the CAC grant proposal and that would become an arm of the CAC once established in 1995]….We believe that the….Collaborative represents an effort that is likely to produce the type of sustained, programmatic approach to changing schools that is critical to the principles of the Annenberg Challenge. We give it our fullest support.”
Thus, if the Obama campaign is to be believed it would appear that after the Joyce Foundation gave Ayers and the CSRC its unqualified support and backed it up with money, its President, Deborah Leff, recruited Obama to be the Chairman of the Board of the CAC without involving Ayers.  
Who is Deborah Leff?
It is not entirely clear how Leff would have a basis to have known Obama well enough to recommend him to Annenberg. He would, of course, join the board of Leff’s Joyce Foundation, too.  But that only happened in late November of 1994. Joyce herself had only moved to Chicago from Washington, D.C., to take up the Presidency of the Joyce Foundation in mid 1992, after Obama had moved there after graduating from Harvard Law School the previous year. 
Leff already had a longstanding and close tie to the MacArthur Foundation’s Simmons – from their days at Princeton together, where Simmons was a dean and Leff was an undergraduate and a member of the first class to include women there. 
Apparently Leff was so impressed by the recent law school graduate during the selection process for her Foundation’s board that she thought it appropriate to recommend him at the very same time to Patricia Graham as Chairman of the Board and President of the $160 million Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
Of course, it is conceivable that it was actually Ayers who recommended to Leff that Obama serve on her board. After all, Ayers and the Joyce Foundation had both been directly involved in supporting the Local School Councils governance structure in Chicago as far back as 1988, as had Obama and his Developing Communities Project. That was long before Leff arrived on the scene.
If Leff had not discussed the Obama appointment with Ayers in advance, it must have come as quite a shock to Ayers when he turned up at the first full board meeting of the CAC on March 15, 1995 and found Obama as its Chairman and President. 
Despite the suggestion by the Obama campaign that Leff and Graham set up a parallel process to recruit Obama to the board that did not include Ayers, the Joyce Foundation continued its strong financial support of Ayers including a grant in 1997 of more than $300,000.00 to support his Small Schools Workshop. 
The role of Warren Chapman 
It would have been very odd for yet another reason for Leff to have circumnavigated around Ayers in order to place Obama on the CAC board. The original working group convened by Ayers to prepare the CAC grant proposal in late 1993 was made up of Anne Hallett, Ayers and Warren Chapman. 
Chapman was, at that time, a program officer of the Joyce Foundation – in other words, he worked for Leff. Chapman was an intimate part of the process that led to the successful CAC grant. Was he, too, kept in the dark about the Obama appointment by his boss? If not, did he, in turn, keep the secret from Bill Ayers?
Chapman now works for the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where the CAC records are housed and where the CAC had its first offices and where Ayers is a faculty member. According to Stanley Kurtz of the National Review, Chapman was recently contacted by Ken Rolling, former CAC executive director, who alerted Chapman to the interest of journalist Sam Dillon of the New York Times in exploring the steps that led to Obama’s appointment to the CAC board, including the role played by Bill Ayers. 
Rolling told Chapman and Hallett in an email, obtained by Kurtz via a FOIA request to UIC, that the Obama campaign had referred Dillon to Rolling but that he had “avoided that question head on” when asked how Obama was “picked” for the Board. He told them he “believed Barack was Debbie Leff’s/Joyce nomination.” 
That suggestion (hint?) of Rolling to Chapman and Hallett, of course, is now the story being circulated by the Obama campaign as indicated in a written statement issued to Kurtz. But the “Ayers had nothing to do with it” story fails, in the tradition of Occam’s Razor, to explain all the known facts.
CAC Board Members Surprised at Obama Appointment
In fact, it was not Ayers who was surprised at the appointment of Obama but the other prominent figures in education on the board. The appointment by Obama struck one of the other board members, Stanley Ikenberry, the former President of the University of Illinois and a noted national education policy scholar, as “unusual” because of Obama’s lack of experience and that it was only over time that Obama earned the “respect” of the other appointees to the board.
Thus, a question has been raised whether Ayers engineered the appointment of Obama to the CAC board so that Ayers had a solid ally on the board to support what would turn out to be the controversial agenda of the CAC.
To remind Global Labor readers, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was conceived by Bill Ayers, former Weather Underground terrorist, who organized and led the working group (the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, or CSRC) that applied to the national Annenberg Challenge set up in 1993 by Walter Annenberg.  The Challenge set up its national headquarters at Brown University where Gregorian was President at the time.  Adele Simmons of the MacArthur Foundation served as an advisor to Ayers and the CSRC.
Ayers Role: The exchange of letters with Brown University’s Vartan Gregorian
On November 18, 1994, Brown University’s President Vartan Gregorian, now president of the New York City-based Carnegie Corporation, wrote to Bill Ayers and Anne Hallett about the “proposal you have submitted in response to the Annenberg Challenge.”  He called the proposal “ambitious,” “exciting,” “wise” and “appropriate.” He wanted Ayers and Hallett to respond to a few questions and then promised to submit the proposal for final approval to Ambassador Walter Annenberg. His comment on the board of directors was as follows:  ”This probably goes without saying, but I urge you as you compose the governing Board and the Collaborative, to engage people who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Chicago.” (Emphasis added.)
On November 18, 1994, President Gregorian wrote to Simmons a letter that was also copied to Bill Ayers.  Gregorian wrote that he had “a couple of questions about the management and accountability structures for the project.”  He told Simmons that because he thought the MacArthur Foundation might be a future contributor of funds to the CAC she would be interested in his concerns.  He wanted to “be sure that we have considered the issue of management carefully.” He concludes by noting that he “plans to transmit the Chicago proposal [from the Ayers and the CSRC] to Ambassador [Walter] Annenberg as soon as these remaining administrative details have been received.”
On November 29, 1994, Simmons replied to Gregorian and copied her letter to Bill Ayers.  She told Gregorian that 
“Bill Ayers, Debby Leff, Pat Graham, Anne Hallett, and I had breakfast on November 22, and reviewed the issues raised in your letter….We are constituting a governing board that will be diverse and bi-partisan and will include civic leaders who have a long-standing interest in the public schools as well as the people who are actually working in the schools. We expect this group to include no more that [sic] eight people, and we should be able to send you a list of several of the names by early next week. It is this group that will be accountable for the implementation of the project, for raising the matching funds, and for overseeing the evaluation.”
On December 1, 1994, Ayers and Anne Hallett (who co-chaired the CSRC with Ayers) wrote back to Gregorian:
“Thank you for your letter of November 18, 1994. We are continuing to build a broad base of consensus and support for the main thrust of the proposal….We have given careful thought to the issues raised in your letter. We are working with Adele Simmons, Deborah Leff, and Pat Graham on issues of management and governance to ensure that Chicago’s Annenberg Challenge initiative is successful. We offer the following responses:….Board of Directors. A five-to-seven person Board of Directors of highly respected Chicagoans is being assembled. Pat Graham, president of the Spencer Foundation, has agreed to serve and is willing to work with the Board. The duties of the Board will be to approve grants, to help raising matching funds, and to hire the executive director….The Board and the Collaborative will reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Chicago.”
Thus, it is clear from the contemporaneous written record of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, that Bill Ayers, who conceived and led the organization, submission and implementation of the CAC’s grant application, was viewed by Gregorian as responsible for composing the Board of Directors of the CAC and that, in fact, as evidenced by the Simmons letters indeed played a personal, active and direct role in the recruitment and formation of the CAC’s board of directors.
This is consistent with the fact that Ayers was the agent of the CSRC who applied for the grant. Ayers, thus, had formal responsibility for establishing the CAC as a result of receiving the grant from the national Annenberg Challenge via Vartan Gregorian.  There is no written evidence that I have found indicating that Gregorian ever wrote or communicated separately with Leff or Graham where he asked them to take over that responsibility from Ayers.
Copies of all of the letters cited here are linked below.
Letters
1) Gregorian to Ayers, November 18, 1994. Page one. Page two. Page three.
Gregorian to Simmons, November 18, 1994. Page one. Page two. Page three.
2) Simmons to Gregorian, November 29, 1994. Page one. Page two.
3) Ayers/Hallett to Gregorian, December 1, 1994. Page one. Page two. Page three.
4) Leff to Gregorian, August 3, 1994. Page one. Page two.

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