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.