The topsy-turvy spectacle has been nothing short of bizarre: Ben Carson insisting he was an angry teenager who once tried to stab someone, while a media organization says he was a nice kid.
And yet that prompted the presidential candidate to denounce CNN for peddling “garbage” that he dismissed as a “smear.”
A day later, Carson accused Politico of an “outright lie” for reporting that he had falsely claimed in his autobiography to have been offered a full scholarship to West Point.
Carson seems deeply offended that journalists are digging into his past and challenging his veracity, though that’s standard procedure in presidential campaigns. At the same time, he’s scoring points against the unpopular media, which have overreached at times in digging into the doctor’s past.
These biographical details may matter more to Carson than to most candidates, since his inspiring life story—from an impoverished childhood with a single mother to world-class neurosurgeon—is the bedrock foundation of his campaign.
The irony is that Carson’s quiet dignity and low-key temperament are a major source of his appeal. But in denouncing the media in recent days, he looks downright angry.
What CNN set out to do by talking to old friends and neighbors was not a smear. The network never accused Carson of lying, but reported that nine people interviewed had said violent outbursts would seem utterly out of character for him.
But the clear implication was that Carson had perhaps been exaggerating the stabbing incident and another in which he said he almost hit his mother with a hammer. The network didn’t have the goods and probably should have held the piece for more reporting.
The story prompted Carson to acknowledge to Megyn Kelly that the person he tried to stab was not a friend, as he said in his autobiography, using a phony name, but a close relative. And then he had an epic on-air battle with CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota, insisting with some justification that the people the network interviewed would have no way of knowing about violent incidents in his past.
The next day came the screaming Politico headline that Carson had admitted fabricating a story about West Point. This was way overstated, which was underscored when the website greatly softened the headline.
Carson told Bill O’Reilly that he was not in fact offered a scholarship to West Point, but was told he’d have an “easy” time if he applied. And applying—all cadets attend free—is a complicated process that requires sponsorship by a member of Congress or secretary of the Army.
The Wall Street Journal joined the fray over the weekend, questioning, among other things, an anecdote in which Carson says when his fellow black high school students erupted in anger after the murder of Martin Luther King, “he protected a few white students from the attacks by hiding them.” But the paper could not prove it didn’t happen.
These distinctions and discrepancies undoubtedly seem miniscule to Carson’s fans, who have pushed him into a neck-and-neck competition with Donald Trump in national polls. The same goes for the flaps over what Carson has said about the Pyramids, Nazi Germany and other off-topic subjects.
A more experienced politician would be accustomed to the scrapes and scratches inflicted by media scrutiny. Of course, Ben Carson prides himself on not being a politician.
When I spoke with him at length last spring, Carson said he considered the media to be biased, but seemed rather Zen about it. Now he seems appalled, as he made clear at a contentious Florida news conference on Friday.
For most people, relitigating what happened 50 years ago, when Carson was a teenager, seems like overkill. And there was a telling moment yesterday on “Meet the Press”: Asked whether his mother (who Carson says he almost hit with a hammer) couldn’t come forward to clarify some of these incidents, the candidate said: “My mother has Alzheimer’s.” That put things in perspective.
But whether the scrutiny is reasonable or overzealous, Carson should recognize that this is the price of admission for the people who want to be president.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.