Esquire’s Ryan Lizza published a lengthy story alleging that Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has a “politically explosive secret,” that he’s a hypocrite on immigration policy, and that when Lizza went to a small town in Iowa to blow open the conspiracy, he was met by odd townspeople who treated him poorly.
It turns out that Nunes doesn’t have a secret, that he’s not a hypocrite on immigration policy, and that the Iowans Lizza met were wary of him slowly driving around town while children were at play because they discovered Lizza had recently been fired from his job for sexual misconduct.
“Devin Nunes has a secret,” the article begins. So what is this politically explosive secret? It must be big, right? Well, no. The “secret” isn’t secret at all and it’s also entirely irrelevant. Nunes comes from a farming family in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He still has a lot of family in California who farms, including on the farm he grew up on. But — and you may want to sit down for this — Nunes’s father sold his farming operation in California a few years back and bought a farm in Iowa.
Yes, that’s the politically explosive secret. I’m serious. That’s the supposed secret.
Except It’s Not A Secret
Lizza admits that Nunes’s parents farmed in California until 2006 and that “Devin’s uncle Gerald still owns a dairy back in Tulare, [California].” In fact, the family farm referenced in various media outlets is still run by family members. Lizza may be unaware that Nunes’s parents spend time in both Iowa and California and own property in both locations, although why any of that is relevant to Nunes is unclear.
The Fresno Bee, which is well known for its anti-Nunes crusades, has reported on both the Nunes farm in Iowa and the Nunes farms in California. Just last August it noted that “Nunes Jr. sold his 5,000-acre ‘cropping and custom farming operation’ in Tulare County before moving to Iowa. Nunes’ uncle, Gerald, remains in charge of the Tulare County dairy operation previously ran by Nunes’ grandfather.” No one is alleging that Nunes claimed to be running his own farm, even if MSNBC mocks him as “a former dairy farmer.”
Lizza casually acknowledges that the “secret” has been written about locally, writing, “As far as I could tell, until late August, neither Nunes nor the local California press that covers him had ever publicly mentioned that his family dairy is no longer in Tulare.” Lizza’s theory is that no one mentioned it because it’s part of an elaborate conspiracy of silence and an explosive secret. The alternate theory is that no one mentioned it because few normal people care where congressmen’s parents live.
To buttress his claim of secrecy, Lizza digs up an August 2010 press release from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that announced Nunes would be at a town-hall event near the small town where his parents had purchased a farm. Yet “[t]here was no mention that the Nunes family actually lived up the road in Sibley, where they operated a dairy. Strange.” Well, sources close to the King staffer who wrote the release say he was not part of an elaborate global conspiracy of silence but that he simply pulled the biographical information off of Nunes’ district web site. What’s more, the conspiracy theory fails to note that Nunes’s family ties were mentioned at the event.
“When I introduced Devin, I made a point to say that his brother and his family are my constituents. I have been to visit their dairy farm. They have been to political events with me. As everyone in the area knows, there is no secret dairy farm,” King told The Federalist. Other locals confirm that the Nunes family is well known in the area and does not hide its name or affiliations.
Another data point for Lizza is that when an “obscure diary trade publication” profiled the Iowa Nunes farm, the family declined to talk about Devin. A family member involved with the profile confirms that they wanted to focus on the farm and not the political career of a family member who has no financial or other interest with the farm. They felt that way even before reporters started stalking them for their associations, it should be noted. For Lizza, however, this is proof of something suspicious.
After admitting that Devin Nunes has “no financial interest in his parents’ Iowa dairy operation,” Lizza says, without evidence, “he and his parents seemed to have concealed basic facts about the family’s move to Iowa. It was suspicious.” Even if the rather outlandish theories floated in the article were not riddled with errors, his only evidence of concealment is they don’t talk about it quite as much as Lizza wishes they would.
Alleged Hypocrisy That’s Not
Since it’s beyond creepy to be lurking around a congressmen’s young nieces and other family members, Lizza makes the case that he has a reason other than his well–established animus toward Nunes for doing so.
First he alleges that Nunes abandoned his independent streak and became a President Trump stooge, “spinning a baroque theory about surveillance of the Trump campaign after Trump’s tweet about Obama tapping Trump tower.” There are two problems with this. One is that following Trump’s tweet, Nunes immediately and publicly said there was no evidence of a wiretap in Trump Tower, even if there was legitimate concern about other surveillance. The second problem is that no one denies that there was surveillance of the Trump campaign, particularly after it was laid out in great detail in multiple articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. There were informants, FISA wiretaps, national security letters, and more. This isn’t a matter of debate any longer.
Then Lizza gets to the real reason for the stalking a member of Congress’ family in a small Iowa town: Nunes used to be a good guy on immigration but now he’s a bad guy. Under Trump’s hellscape of immigration restrictionism, “Nunes has been silent.”
Leaving aside Lizza’s caricature of Trump’s views as “zero-tolerance on immigration,” Lizza ignores that Nunes is not an immigration hardliner, never was one, is not one now, and has not hardened his position since Trump was elected. The Central Valley of California has a more nuanced view of immigration than most regions in the country, on account of a legacy of migrant labor and other immigration challenges and opportunities.
Lizza says Nunes has been silent on the issue since Trump was elected. But in June 2018, Nunes said he supports “comprehensive” immigration reform that “secures the border, meets our agriculture needs, and finds a humane solution for children who ended up in the United States throughout no fault of their own.”
In February 2018, Nunes said he supports the DREAM Act and wants to secure the border. In a February 2017 interview with Jake Tapper on CNN, he said he’d support a Trump immigration policy that “only goes after those people who are here illegally that have committed crimes.” While he said it’s important to kick out gang members and drug dealers, he supports not applying immigration law to younger foreign trespassers (DACA) and opposes mass round-ups.
“Naturally, the prospect of passing legislation that would create a guest-worker program for dairy workers who are undocumented—an idea overwhelmingly supported by the industry—is a fantasy in the current environment; Trump, King, and their allies describe such policies as ‘amnesty,’” writes Lizza. You’ll note that he doesn’t mention Nunes in his listing of people opposed, probably since Nunes is on record supporting a guest worker program for agriculture.
Lizza’s only evidence that Nunes is now an immigration hardliner is that his campaign web site posts articles opposing sanctuary cities and defending Immigration and Customs Enforcement from Democratic demands that it be abolished. By that standard, nearly everyone in the country is an immigration hardliner.
It should be noted that the immigration views are important because Lizza repeatedly suggests without evidence that the farm owned by Nunes family members other than Devin Nunes relies on illegal employees.
Lying About A Town
Lizza’s promotion of his piece emphasized how “weird” and “paranoid” the Iowans he encountered were. In his version of events, he was just an earnest reporter trying to find out the truth about immigration policy when weird townsfolk got in his way. Note the image accompanying the article featuring a sweating Lizza being followed by a woman in a car.
He says not only that he was followed around town but that he knows he was followed around town for nefarious reasons, citing two anonymous sources he claims exist. “There was no doubt about why I was being followed. According to two sources with firsthand knowledge, [the farm] did indeed rely, at least in part, on undocumented labor,” he writes.
In interviews with more than half a dozen residents of Sibley, Iowa, they told a far different story. Lizza arrived in town and began slowly driving around neighborhoods in a dark car with out of town license plates. One neighbor of the Nunes family told me he spotted the car slowly driving by a Nunes family residence. This is in a small town where children play freely, and neighbors keep an eye out for each other. He expressed his concern to the family.
Another resident told me that he encountered a Nunes family member crying because she’d discovered that the man who was surveilling her house had recently been fired for sexual misconduct. With three grammar-school aged daughters, she was concerned for their safety.
“I seen her parked on a street looking upset. She’s a friend of mine. My first thought was she was having car trouble. I pulled up to see if she was all right. She didn’t tell me much but just that she’d started following this reporter because he’d been driving in front of her house and she was concerned for the safety of her kids, because she’d discovered he had sexual misconduct allegations. She wanted to make sure he didn’t come back to her house.”
Lori Nunes confirms she was worried about her children and the man who had recently been fired from a job for sexual misconduct who kept driving by her house. “My number one concern was that there was this strange guy outside my house. I wanted to protect them.”
(See “Ryan Lizza Fired by The New Yorker Over Sexual Misconduct Allegation” in the New York Times.)
Lizza’s own reporting confirms his odd behavior. For instance, he parked his car outside of the tucked away home of Nunes’s father. He didn’t ring the door bell and introduce himself and ask to talk but, rather, sat in his car outside the home in the middle of nowhere until the father came outside to run an errand. Lizza’s writing suggested he was surprised that others found this behavior suspicious, writing, “I waved at him, and he abruptly stopped the truck in the street and walked over to my car.”
Rather than realize people might have reason to be suspicious of his public profile as a #MeToo perpetrator and his lurking around in a small town, Lizza is sure that Sibley, Iowa, is hiding a secret from him. “Other dairy farmers in the area helped me understand why the Nunes family might be so secretive about the farm: Midwestern dairies tend to run on undocumented labor,” he writes. Yes, the mother of three girls was definitely worried about that and not the pervy stuff. It is worth noting that activists and reporters have also recently targeted Nunes’s wife, grandmother, and uncle.
Lizza later admits he has no idea if the premise of his story is even remotely true. “Is it possible the Nuneses have nothing to be seriously concerned about? Of course, but I never got the chance to ask because Anthony Jr. and Representative Nunes did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.” In other words, readers will have to rely on Lizza’s weak credibility and a series of anonymous sources you have to trust he quoted accurately.
In conversations with other residents of the town, they say that Lizza lied or mischaracterized other interactions as well. A woman who recently experienced the tragic death of her son and who had shown hospitality to Lizza was used for “color” in the story. Many residents said they thought Lizza’s use of her story was “inhuman” or worse. Some were in tears while describing his use of the woman for his article.
The woman’s teenage son died just weeks ago from suicide and Lizza used the tragic death and his funeral to bookend his tale of visiting Sibley. Lizza claimed Brenda Hoyer, a coffee shop owner, kicked him out of her cafe because of his reporting work. She said that’s simply not true.
“I was kind to him the whole time. I did not ask him to leave,” Hoyer said. Hoyer is known for her kindness to others at a cafe she runs as a ministry.
Many residents expressed concern about Lizza’s gratuitous use of the Hoyer family’s pain, particularly given his inaccuracies. “I have been an emotional wreck all day and my heart is breaking for these people,” one woman said. “It was inhuman what he did to them and to read what he said about a poor grieving family.”
Journalists Discredit Themselves
Even without knowing some of the particulars, reasonable journalists should have raised questions about Lizza’s article, even if they’re politically opposed to Nunes. Instead, they praised the piece:
Or look at Washington Post News Media Reporter Paul Farhi’s tweets. After seeming to understand the importance of reporting over opinion, he praises a piece riddled with cartoonish opinions:
The article was premised on the idea that family members — family members! — of a journalist’s political opponent should be stalked and threatened. It framed publicly known information as a nefarious secret. It mischaracterized the views of the politician in question. And even if it obscured the reporter’s troubled sexual history, other journalists should have enough memory of the last year to wonder whether his high-profile #MeToo firing played a role in town residents’ concern.
Unless there is a very good reason, distant family members of politicians should be off limits for hit pieces. At a time when many Americans are concerned about the ethics of journalists, there is no need to give them ammunition for their concern. And the attaboys from fellow journalists only confirm people’s worst suspicions about journalists and their ability to enforce norms of decency and fairness.