How Did Progressive Journalists Get Pigford So Wrong?

A New York Times investigation into black farmers' lawsuit and associated settlements vindicates conservative journalists' concerns.
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Dan Foster, a young staffer at National Review, published a 2010 story about a class-action lawsuit against the federal government that resulted in "the waste of billions of dollars" and "systemic fraud implicating top federal officials." He wrote that the scandal touched President Obama himself, that countless payouts were made to people falsely claiming racial discrimination, and that more fraud was likely in successor lawsuits filed on behalf of women and Hispanics.

Two days after the National Review story appeared online, Nancy Scola, a progressive journalist, commented on the same suit at The American Prospect. "This is one of those times that government works that Paul Waldman wisely counsels us to celebrate. So, a few words of praise for the real progress made by President Obama's negotiation of the Pigford agreement," she wrote, giving a brief history of Pigford vs. Glickman, a case originally triggered by outrageous racial discrimination against black farmers. Resolving the subsequent class-action lawsuit was, she concluded, "a demonstration of what's possible when a handful of politicians sets priorities and then diligently navigates the process to bring them into being."

The few who frequent both National Review and The American Prospect could be forgiven for their confusion. The insular worlds of conservative and progressive journalism encompass ideological hacks, but neither Foster nor Scola fit that description, as their regular readers know. How did two smart, honest journalists, riffing on the same news, reach such strikingly dissonant conclusions? Branching out beyond their work wasn't much help. The class-action lawsuits were too complicated for the uninitiated to quickly assess. Conservative and progressive journalists had wildly different takes. And the story was mostly ignored by news organizations without an explicitly ideological mission. Everyone seemed to agree that the USDA had a history of discriminating against black farmers and that compensating Timothy Pigford, the original plaintiff, was justified, as were payments to an unspecified number of other black farmers who actually faced discrimination when seeking federal farm loans.

It is probably also true that the ideal claims process would reluctantly permit some false claims to be paid, since a standard of proof that would stop all fraud would also deny some legitimate claims.

Did the people involved in Pigford and its successor lawsuits deserve credit for helping to compensate victims of discrimination? Or blame for squandering many millions of dollars on false claims? Did the Pigford settlements with black farmers establish a useful precedent that could be applied to Hispanic and female bias claims? Or was it a cautionary tale of real discrimination being exploited by pandering politicians and hucksters trying to enrich themselves? When Pigford faded from the headlines, conservatives and progressives were dug into their respective narratives, taking almost opposite lessons from the class action lawsuit.

And then, three years later -- late last month --The New York Times published a major story on the case and its legacy. It vindicated many of the conservative suspicions about the case. "The compensation effort sprang from a desire to redress what the government and a federal judge agreed was a painful legacy of bias against African-Americans by the Agriculture Department," Sharon LaFraniere wrote. "But an examination by The New York Times shows that it became a runaway train, driven by racial politics, pressure from influential members of Congress and law firms that stand to gain more than $130 million in fees. In the past five years, it has grown to encompass a second group of African-Americans as well as Hispanic, female and Native American farmers. In all, more than 90,000 people have filed claims. The total cost could top $4.4 billion."

The Times went on to report that:

  • Political appointees in the Obama Administration overruled career lawyers and agency officials at the Justice and Agriculture Departments, committing $1.33 billion to compensate "thousands of Hispanic and female farmers who had never claimed bias in court," even though the civil servants argued that there was no credible evidence of widespread discrimination.
  • The template for payouts Team Obama adopted was a magnet for fraud. 
  • "From the start, the claims process prompted allegations of widespread fraud and criticism that its very design encouraged people to lie," but "those concerns were played down as the compensation effort grew."
  • "... Even now people who say they were unfairly denied loans can collect up to $50,000 with little documentation."
  • In a 2010 settlement with Native Americans, Justice Department lawyers "argued that the $760 million agreement far outstripped the potential cost of a defeat in court. Agriculture officials said not that many farmers would file claims. That prediction proved prophetic. Only $300 million in claims were filed, leaving nearly $400 million in the control of plaintiffs' lawyers to be distributed among a handful of nonprofit organizations serving Native American farmers. Two and a half years later, the groups have yet to be chosen. It is unclear how many even exist."

  • An internal Agriculture Department memo from 2010 stated that the payouts to women and Hispanics would be "a way to neutralize the argument that the government favors black farmers over Hispanic, Native American or women farmers."
  • 15 Agriculture Department employees who reviewed or responded to claims "said the loose conditions for payment had opened the floodgates to fraud." 
  • Said Sandy Grammer, a former Agriculture Department program analyst who reviewed claims for three years: "Basically, it was a rip-off of the American taxpayers."
  • One Arkansas prosecutor rejected a test case against someone who admitted to lying on his claim form, saying that singling him out could raise the question of selective prosecution: "The defendant could go to the jury and say: 'Everybody else did this. Why am I standing here?'"
  • "In one ZIP code in Columbus, Ohio, nearly everyone in two adjoining apartment buildings had filed."

There's a lot more to the Times story, including a remarkable final scene. Suffice it to say that, upon examination, Pigford was not, in fact, "one of those times that government works." In hindsight, the progressive media's coverage of Pigford and its successor lawsuits is revealed to be deeply flawed. At various points, progressive writers pointed out real flaws in conservative coverage. In doing so, they remained oblivious to the fact that concern over massive fraud was warranted, and wasn't confined to rabble rouser Andrew Breitbart*.

The coverage at Media Matters is one cautionary tale. If you pick your least favorite writer and cover a complicated story almost entirely through the prism of what you think he got wrong, you're extremely unlikely to give your readers an accurate sense of what's happening in the real world.

Yet even the progressive writers whose work I find most careful, accurate and valuable got this story wrong in important ways. Adam Serwer took time to dig into Pigford and provided some useful correctives (and some critiques with which I disagree) to conservative coverage, but also wrote, in one particularly uncharitable post, "the pervasiveness of conservative anger over the Pigford settlement augurs a new low for conservative anti-anti-racism, in which remedying an exhaustively documented instance of racial discrimination is objectionable not because the claim itself is illegitimate but because it represents a transfer of income from whites to nonwhites."

In fact, the vast majority of conservatives were upset by the widespread fraud, the perception that cynical racial politics helped enable it, and the related fact that hucksters were exploiting a widespread desire to redress discrimination by stealing from all taxpayers, nonwhite ones very much included.   

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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