COLUMBUS — Introduced by a daughter she shares with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, Larke Recchie stares into the camera and condemns the attack ad that never was.
“I want to set the record straight,” she says. “Divorce can be difficult and ours was no different, but DeWine’s ad was inexcusable.”
Cut to a medium close-up of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, saying, “I’m Sherrod’s wife, Connie, and our family is united in condemning this attack ad.” The camera tracks out to reveal both women and Brown’s three daughters.
The 2006 ad never aired. Brown’s campaign prepared it in case Mike DeWine, Brown’s Republican opponent in the U.S. senate race, made an issue of Brown’s messy divorce, which he didn’t.
Today, Brown’s opponent in the 2012 Senate race, Josh Mandel, hasn’t made an issue of it, either. But the story of Brown’s “difficult” late-1980s divorce broke all over Ohio last month after two conservative websites published articles on allegations of violence Brown’s ex-wife made during the divorce.
After Breitbart.com and The Washington Free Beacon published their articles, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent around a link, the story was picked up by mainstream media outlets.
The Gannett newspapers in Ohio ran the story, as did the Akron Beacon Journal, and any number of blogs.
Yet most of the major papers in Ohio haven’t touched the story, though it’s unquestionably important — a story that could end the career of either candidate, depending on how it’s handled.
The divorce issue resurfaced last month in almost the same way it came up the first time, in 1992: a family matters bill moving through Congress provided plausible cover for bringing up a subject that many consider out of bounds: Brown’s own family life.
Back then, it was the Family and Medical Leave Act. This time, it’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
But much has changed in how this sort of story gets covered — which questions get asked, and which remain unanswered. By continuing to judge news the way they did pre-Internet, editors and reporters are ceding the field to other sources of information, some less than credible.
The Gannett newspapers tried to duck responsibility for participating in a potential smear campaign by making the lede a bit of finger-pointing:
“The political fight over the Violence Against Women Act has hit a new level of nasty, at least in Ohio,” began the May 7 story from the Gannett Washington Bureau. “The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a link on Monday to a story, written by a conservative website, reviving 26-year-old domestic violence allegations made against Sen. Sherrod Brown by his wife during a messy divorce.”
In other words, “We’re not the ones telling you about this nasty stuff, it’s the Republicans. There’s no such thing as an observer effect. Don’t Google it.”
Readers of all those papers got the same account of the vague accusations of violence Recchie made in divorce papers: “Brown’s ex-wife, Larke Recchie, has since characterized the allegations she made during the 1986 proceeding as ‘angry words’ made during an ‘unfriendly ordeal.’”
That’s as far into the muck as reporter Deirdre Shesgreen wanted to wade, but it’s just enough to get a curious reader to go poking around the Internet for the rest of the story.
The source of those phrases isn’t Recchie herself, but a 1992 news release issued by Brown’s office as a joint statement by the former couple, quoted in the Lorain County Chronicle-Telegram on Sept. 22, 1992:
“Divorce can often be an unfriendly ordeal and ours was no exception. There was a lot of hurt on both sides and it led only to angry words. But our love for our daughters has always transcended the success or failure of our marriage.”
The reporters on last month’s story also quoted Recchie off a news release, but the statement was so obviously canned (three references in four sentences to Brown’s opponent, Mandel) that the result had a bit of a credibility gap.
For the skeptical reader or Republican blogger, that left the one time in 1992 that Recchie spoke to the press for herself, to demand that Brown’s opponent stop running an ad based on the divorce records. Even then, she didn’t recant or cast doubt on her allegations of five years before, focusing instead on the invasion of her personal life.
“It’s exploitive advertising and I’m very offended by it,” she told the press back then. “Divorce is difficult to deal with and I don’t want this to hurt our children. I’m very offended by the ad.”
Brown’s opponent, Margaret Mueller, responded with a challenge — “If Larke Recchie issues a sworn statement that says the charges are untrue, then I’ll be delighted to pull the ads off the air” — but ultimately backed down.
As one would expect of someone who wants her privacy respected, Recchie did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
So to all appearances — press accounts, Google results — Recchie has never recanted the 25-year-old accusations. That led some not just to believe an awful history, but to opine publicly on the matter.
The legacy media’s reluctance to cover the issue isn’t due to decorum; it’s a judgment based on available facts that Brown didn’t do anything so terrible 25 years ago, and that even though Recchie hasn’t specifically recanted her divorce-era statements, she’s said her piece and supported Brown for years. The approach is a vestige of the time when the legacy media were the gatekeepers of public knowledge, and slander was best killed by suppression.
Ignoring a story is one of the few ways the media have to express their judgment. Modern standards of mainstream journalism allow little room for the reporter’s candid opinion. With that little room, the reporter can use a word like “nasty,” sending a signal she’d never use for an accusation she thought was true. But it’s hard for her to take the claim apart and look at its parts without lending them credence.
Any reporter who’s spent much time poring over the misery in family court records can tell you about the patterns there — the rush of recriminations in the early filings gradually thinning out to narrow issues that affect custody or support payments. The early accusations tend to fit one of two patterns: multiple, specific anecdotes of violence or general talk of one’s fears and emotions.
In her motion for a restraining order, Recchie spoke of her “fear for the safety … of myself and our children” due to Brown’s “physical violence and abusive nature.” Those are lawyer words — the violence wasn’t directed at anyone and the abuse wasn’t something Brown did but something in his “nature.”
The only evidence of violence cited in the record is some siding dinged by a punch of frustration.
Petitions for restraining orders should always be taken with a grain of salt, because the other side rarely gets a chance to respond before a judge grants the order.
In earlier filings, Recchie speaks of “emotional harassment,” attacks on her “peace of mind” and that of her children, and attempts to “physically and mentally intimidate” her.
Rule of thumb: If somebody punches you in the face, you don’t end up talking only about emotional harassment.
The worst of the allegations is that Brown “intimidated, pushed, shoved, and bullied” her, supported by a lone anecdote in which he “pushed me up against the wall with his arms in order to pass and entered the house.”
One sentence includes the word “struck,” but even that sentence — the rightful place for any sort of evidence or specifics — includes three separate references to emotional truths.
Brown’s comments to the press in 1992 leave open an interpretation of jostling.
“I never ever, ever, hurt her. I’ve been telling people that for years. I did not hurt my wife.”
The Chronicle-Telegram reported then: “In 1987, just months after the divorce, Columbus police received a complaint from her husband, Columbus attorney Joseph Recchie, that Brown had grabbed him and had begun strangling him. No charges were filed.”
On March 11, 2006, the Recchies held a $50-per-person fundraiser for Brown’s campaign at their
Granville home, invitations to which can still be found online.
The conclusions to be drawn from that are obvious, but drawing them isn’t the strong suit of either newspapers or bloggers.
The conservative websites that resurrected the story of Brown’s divorce met the basic standards — they had a news peg and a protected record and they went with it. The mainstream reporters with the experience to provide valuable context didn’t, for reasons long established.
In the 1992 race, Brown’s predecessor, Rep. Don Pease, weighed in on the controversy.
“In the last few days, Margaret Mueller brought Congressional campaigning in our district to a new low,” Pease said in a statement. “When Sherrod Brown wanted to discuss his support for family leave legislation, Mrs. Mueller and her lieutenants went way out of bounds with their negative attack and violated her own promise to be fair. I hope this is the last we’ll see of these tactics.”
Now, with the Internet, there’s nothing we’ll see the last of.