Defending Mike Thompson
Somebody has to defend Rep. Mike Thompson, the Democrat representing California’s North Coast in the U.S. Congress, from the heavy-handed smear job in yesterday’s New York Times, and it might as well be me.
Actually, I’m sure lots of people will rise up to support the Congressman, but I just want to be among them. When I read the article, it really pissed me off–not least because it represents the kind of ignorant trial-by-media written by wannabe Woodsteins (or Bernwards) who understand nothing of the issues but just want to pull off an “investigative journalism” coup, supported by editors who should know better but allow this kind of stuff to get green lighted anyway.
Let’s get to the particulars. The Congressman owns a vineyard in Lake County. He sells grapes to wineries, including Bonterra. The Times reporter is Eric Lipton. Here are some of Lipton’s j’accuses!
Thompson helps his district “get money for pet projects like the Napa Valley Wine Train.” Whenever a reporter calls something a “pet project” you know he’s going for the jugular. One man’s “pet project” is another man’s peeve. We all know that lots and lots of folks in Napa Valley, including wealthy Democrats, did not want the Wine Train, so it’s misleading for Lipton to imply that Thompson helped his rich constituents in return for their donations.
“Mr. Thompson is in business with some of the same companies whose agendas he promotes.” Boo hoo. It is patently impossible for any member of Congress who has a job outside of politics to avoid doing business with others whose interests come before the Congress, since Congress regulates everything. If Lipton has specific, credible evidence that Thompson has conflicts of interest, let him present them.
“Mr. Thompson could also benefit from his own efforts on the industry’s behalf, including a push to increase the value of grapes grown near his vineyard by seeking a special designation from the Treasury Department.” Lipton is talking about a possible application for a new Big Valley AVA in Lake County that would include Thompson’s vineyard. “[T]he designation [would be] a marketing boon that helps increase the value of the grapes grown there” if approved, Lipton writes.
This charge has big holes in it. For one thing, I do not think that even if Big Valley becomes an appellation, the average price of Sauvignon Blanc grapes Thompson sells–$978 a ton–will go up. Do you? I mean, the price of Lake County Sauvignon Blanc has a built-in ceiling, and I can’t imagine it soaring just because another AVA nobody ever heard of suddenly pops up. There’s another fly in Lipton’s ointment. If every Congressman with a business venture recused himself from voting on anything and everything in the Congress that could remotely impact that venture one way or another, the Congress would have to shut down. (Maybe some people think that’s not a bad idea.) So it’s ludicrous to think that Thompson–who says his vineyard made only $18,000 in profit last year–would do something so stupidly unethical for so small an amount of money. His constituents, many of them in the wine industry, would be the first to see through it, not a New York Times reporter, and they would turn against Thompson.
Lipton quotes a Thompson political opponent: “Clearly, he [Thompson] has a personal interest in what he is advocating for.” Who’s the insinuation from? Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. Of course Wolf is against Thompson, who’s trying to end the three-tier monopoly WSWA supports. As if Wolf doesn’t have a personal interest? Duh. Lipton failed to make this clear.
Lipton writes: “Mr. Thompson, 60, is the biggest recipient in Congress of campaign contributions from the alcoholic beverage industry, totaling more than $1.2 million during his seven terms.” I’ll take his word for it. But so what? Why wouldn’t Thompson’s constituents contribute to his campaigns if they feel he’s doing a good job representing their interests? Barbara Boxer gets big bucks from the gay community, and Rick Perry hauls in buckets of cash from his fellow evangelicals. Nothing wrong with that. Is Lipton somehow implying that the wine industry’s interests are as nefarious as, for example, the interests of Big Oil, Big Coal and Wall Street?
Lipton implies that $40,000 in Brown-Forman campaign contributions to Thompson were because Brown-Forman long owned Bonterra, and Thompson “oppose[d] proposed increases in federal excise taxes on wine and liquor,” which Bonterra also opposed. Gee whiz, there’s a cabal of secret conspiracy. Imagine, a wine company and a politician from wine country being opposed to higher excise taxes on wine! Let’s get a House Judiciary Committee investigation started. No, wait! Not a good idea! Dan Lungren, the conservative Republican who’s on that committee, also is co-chair of the Congressional Wine Caucus, which Thompson started.
Lipton: “Mr. Thompson separately wrote to the federal Department of Agriculture last year on behalf of Lake County to try to get a federal grant to market the county’s wine grapes.” Another shocked, shocked moment! The DOA has grant money to help market wine grapes, and the Congressman from a grapegrowing district tries to get his county’s share of the funds. Quel scandale!
I could go on. As a reporter myself, I understand the temptation to write a blockbuster exposé that reveals the hypocrisy and greed of politicians. But don’t write an article based on such flimsy suppositions and innuendos. A proper investigative journalism article has to be based on solid, verifiable facts; it must pass the smell test. Lipton’s hatchet job doesn’t.