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'Ugly Tactics Make for Ugly People' | The Nation

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'Ugly Tactics Make for Ugly People'

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About the Author

Mark Crispin Miller
Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of culture and communications at New York University. His latest book is Fooled...
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

Also by the Author

The press that once went hoarse over Monica Lewinsky's dress is largely
silent over the Bush regime's vast abuses of power.

The Federal Communications Commission is presently conducting an inquiry--a "rulemaking"--to determine whether to relax, or even to eliminate, the remaining few regulations that limit how many me

New York City

Eric Alterman is right to chide those "liberals" who would use low tricks to smear the innocent, whatever politics the victim may endorse. The world would surely be a better place if all of us agreed that "ugly tactics make for ugly people." And so that issue of The Nation would have been a better magazine without that column by Alterman, who has himself deployed the very tactics he purports to loathe. His heated testimony on John Fund's behalf is nothing but a hatchet job on Morgan Pillsbury, whose case he has completely misreported ["Stop the Presses," June 2].

Alterman asserts that there's no truth in Pillsbury's account: that she's insane ("deeply disturbed"), and that those who claim to buy her story are mere lefty opportunists, "eager to use her" to advance the Cause. For these contentions he has offered not a wisp of evidence but simply ridicules the plaintiff's claims by treating them with lots of manly irony. "Naturally," he writes, "it was fun to imagine, after he got himself arrested last year, that Fund was really a monster who had walked out on a planned marriage with his girlfriend and then beat her up--the dastardly deeds of which he was publicly accused in 2001." Then there was "the rumor"--savored by Fund's "ill-wishers"--that the gentleman in question "had long ago had an affair with the woman's mother, and knocked up both of them."

The story is a lurid one, but that alone does not disprove it (or make it "fun to imagine"). Yet Alterman rejects it--because Fund is "likely not the kind of guy who pretends to want to marry women and then beats them up." The evidence? "I knew Fund a bit from our time together at MSNBC," and "he always struck me as a perfect gentleman." On the other hand, "Pillsbury and her mother...both struck me as 'a little bit nutty,' to borrow [David] Brock's nefarious phrase." The evidence? There isn't any. Alterman had never talked to Pillsbury when he first cast her as unstable (in a prior Nation column), and has to this day never met, talked to or corresponded with her mother. He did hear from the daughter after that first column appeared, when she e-mailed him to set the record straight and ask for a retraction. He apologized, persuaded her to drop the issue--and went on to repeat Fund's story in his book. (She then posted their exchange on her website, www.ruthlesspeople.com.) And now he has repeated it once more, and still without explaining why those women "struck" him as "a little bit nutty."

In this third version Alterman intensifies the slander with a crude pastiche of bits from certain "documents" conveyed to him by "a close friend" of the defendant. He quotes "a signed affidavit" in which Pillsbury denies it all and jeers at her claim that it was written with Fund looming over her, "fist at the ready," dictating every word. (I've seen a copy of that "affidavit," which was clearly penned under duress.) As if to bolster that "confession," Alterman then quotes "a letter to the Wall Street Journal" in which Pillsbury allegedly describes herself as tending toward delusion. The only evident delusion here, however, is that letter, which is either nonexistent or a forgery, because the Journal never published one. (Pillsbury did once write a personal letter to the Journal's Paul Gigot--to tell him Fund was beating her.) Alterman then offers up a dubious snippet of "a deposition" in which Pillsbury appears to cast herself as a demented liar. Since there's no context given, it's impossible to tell what she really meant--nor is that statement something we might check, since it pertains not to this case at all but to her mother's acrimonious divorce in California. That deposition isn't publicly available, as it was never certified or filed (because the parties settled out of court), and so it isn't such a useful "document."

Into this watery concoction Alterman portentously inserts the fact that Pillsbury "was born Carolyn Anne Barteaux," and yet "now goes by Morgan Francis Pillsbury." What Alterman implies here is some creepy kind of double life--split personality? secret agent for "the left"?--and yet Pillsbury's reason for that change of name is more mundane, and sadder. She dropped "Barteaux," she and her mother say, because that was the surname of her biological father--an abuser whom both women have been hiding from for years.

Thus Alterman has no basis for his curt dismissal of the plaintiff in this case. On the other hand, she has clear evidence--which I have seen--for her contentions, and it refutes the smears by Fund and Alterman (who also could have seen it if he'd wanted to). "When I contacted Pillsbury by e-mail to ask her about these documents, she insisted that the two had planned to marry." And so they had, unless the parties' many e-mails on the subject, and the public announcement of their plans, are all a brilliant forgery by Fund's invisible tormentor(s). "She professed not to know that the assault charges against Fund had been dropped, claiming the DA has not been clear with her and that the case was 'grossly mishandled.'" First of all, the battery charges against Fund have not been dropped in Jersey City, where the case is pending. As to the case here in Manhattan, Pillsbury has had trouble getting information from the DA's office--which does appear to have "mishandled" her complaint. Her bruises didn't look that bad, she claims they said to her. And now we learn that the DA's office didn't merely drop the charges but also promptly sealed the case--a move that argues an undue protectiveness toward Fund. And as for her other claims--her pregnancies by Fund, his prior involvement with her mother--Pillsbury also has persuasive evidence, while Fund and Alterman have none at all.

Now, it is true that Pillsbury was once in therapy. But even if she'd done time in a padded cell, she'd be a lot more credible than the defendant. Never mind asking "Who Framed John Fund?"--a question as preposterous as "Who promoted Peress?" or "Who lost China?" (Fund thinks he's been "framed" by Sidney Blumenthal, whom he regards as Pillsbury's Svengali.) It is more appropriate to ask, "Who is John Fund?" He started as a gofer for Bob Novak, and then went on to join the Journal team that drove Vince Foster to his death (which left Fund gleeful). In league with David Horowitz, Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge, Fund spent the 1990s tartly moralizing about Bill Clinton's private life and was the author of the tale that Blumenthal was an incorrigible wife-beater. ("Fund denies this," Alterman reports, downplaying the abundant evidence in Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars and other sources.) Having trashed the Democrats throughout the Clinton years, Fund continued agitating for Team Bush. He's now serving as a commentator on the Christian Broadcasting Network, singing the praises of this President and all his wars.

In short, John Fund is not, as Alterman asserts, a "right-wing journalist" but a dedicated far-right propagandist. We therefore ought to take his every utterance with a pound of salt--because such ardent partisans are apt to be maliciously projective, assailing others for the sins that they commit themselves (cf. Bill Bennett, Matt Drudge, Newt Gingrich, Andrew Sullivan et al.). Thus Fund, the batterer of women, smeared Blumenthal as a wife-batterer, and preached against the lustful Democrats even as his own sex life was easily as varied as Bill Clinton's (or Gary Condit's). To work his slanders, Fund required no evidence, and he deploys none now, as he accuses Morgan Pillsbury of victimizing him, insisting that she makes thing up, she deals in smears, she's "deeply disturbed" and so on. It's a self-serving tactic (or delusion) that the right routinely uses on its enemies, and that abusive men have often used to soil the reputations of those women whom they've raped, stalked, threatened, beaten black and blue.

It is therefore especially disheartening to see The Nation aiding Fund by letting Alterman indulge his fellow-feeling for the slanderer, so as to strike a pose of gentlemanly fairness. That column was a hit piece, pure and simple--and it has done some harm, as it was meant to do. It was immediately picked up by newsmax.com, the rightist website owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, and spammed throughout the cyberuniverse by Fund's supporters. The lie was cast as reconfirmed because it had been verified (ostensibly) not by another rightist operative but by a major liberal magazine. (Among the many hateful e-mails Pillsbury received as a result of Alterman's attack, there was a rather spooky one apparently from Fund himself: "got u gd" was all it said.) Although it's likely that Pillsbury will prevail in court, Alterman has made an ugly situation even uglier by echoing a lot of calumny and spreading bald disinformation, thereby reaffirming public lies. For running such a mean and sloppy piece of work The Nation owes its readers an apology.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER


ALTERMAN REPLIES

New York City

I am deeply disappointed to see Mark Crispin Miller sullying his good name with this attack on my character and my work. It is filled with angry assertions for which he has no evidence, and he deliberately twists my words and actions to the point where no fair-minded observer would recognize them. Responding to each accusation would be pointless. Absolutely everything in my column was verified in advance, and nothing in Miller's hysterical screed will change that unhappy fact. Let him call me all the names he likes. I took no pleasure in defending a journalist with whose views I so profoundly disagree and whose employer, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, has repeatedly attacked my work and my views. I had no ulterior motive in doing so, as John Fund is no friend of mine, and I genuinely feel sorry for Morgan Pillsbury--which explains the gentle tone of my e-mails responding to her repeated requests for my sympathy and advice. What's more, I fully expected the kind of vicious vilification to which I have been subjected since the column was published and of which Miller's letter is perhaps the most lurid example.

If Miller chooses to believe Fund's accuser, despite her being, by her own admission, a liar and a fantasist, unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and having retracted these same claims in documents signed by her own hand and in some cases also notarized, well, that's his privilege. But many of these documents are online at www.johnfund.com, and have been since before I wrote my column. Moreover, I announced this fact and pointed readers to them on my website (www.altercation.msnbc.com) months ago.

These include the one Miller calls "either nonexistent or a forgery"--titled, "Handwritten undated letter to the Wall Street Journal." (And by the way, this one claims exactly the opposite of the letter to which Miller refers. In it, Pillsbury admits to making up the accusations, rather than reiterating the claim that "Fund was beating her.") The one in which he claims it is "impossible to tell what Pillsbury really meant--nor is that statement something we might check" is titled, "Deposition Transcript dated February 22, 2001 in the case of Pillsbury-Foster v. Franklin, Civil Action No. 233136 (Cal. Super Ct.)."

Miller could easily have checked them himself had he wished before so recklessly casting himself as Pillsbury's rabid attack dog. Had he bothered, he would have found the following statements in Pillsbury's own words: (1) "I have made accusations to the Jersey City police that John Fund, whom I have known for three years, was physically abusive at times in the recent past. Those statements were not true. Mr. Fund has not been abusive to me contrary to what I said in reports to the Jersey City police." (2) "There were never any wedding plans between Fund and I." (3) "I, Morgan Pillsbury, have been struggling with emotional problems for some time. I have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy.... [I]n recent weeks, I have claimed that John was abusive to me. John was not abusive." (4) In a sworn deposition related to a case in which she admits to trying to bilk her stepfather out of $10,000 for imaginary heart surgery, Pillsbury explains that she suffers from a "borderline personality disorder. One of the symptoms of this condition is an inability to discriminate truth from fiction." In that same deposition, in response to the question, "What lies had you told in the past?" she answers, "Too many to name." Pillsbury also admits that by June 1998, she was having "severe emotional problems" and "was entirely non-functional." She further states that she has "told whoppers [lies] all her life."

We know what Pillsbury's excuses are, as cruel--but, owing to Miller's letter, necessary--as it may be to rehash them yet again. But what, for goodness' sake, are Miller's?

Nobody knows what happened between Fund and Pillsbury except the two of them. The only conclusion of which I am absolutely certain is that it would be morally and journalistically irresponsible for any of us to convict Fund of the crimes of which Pillsbury accuses him, given her subsequent retractions and previous history, based on the evidence now publicly available. One reason I decided to write the column--which as I noted, was attacked in an e-mail to The Nation's editor before I had even set a single word to paper--was to demonstrate that the left could be honest about itself and its own failings. Miller's wild ravings demonstrate just how unpopular an exercise that can be. I retract nothing.

ERIC ALTERMAN

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