Adventures with Journalists and Flacks

Lavington

While the primary purpose of this blog is to contribute to knowledge and awareness of East Africa, particularly Kenya, by readers here in the U.S. and elsewhere–my own learning, shared with whoever is interested enough to read–in setting up this blog and its resource links originally in late 2009, I also wanted to “make a record” as to certain issues relating to the 2007 election in Kenya that I was personally involved with and that had become subjects of discussion in the public media and on the IRI website.

Because of my “day job” I didn’t feel I could freely discuss and debate in the media, but I decided that a personal blog/webpage would provide some alternative.

Adventures in Journalism

In late January 2009 I found myself as an American living relatively quietly in a small town on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi featured in a front page story in the New York Times about the exit poll and related matters that I had supervised as the Resident Director for East Africa (Kenya and Somaliland programs) for the International Republican Institute.

In July 2008 following the release of the exit poll by University of California, San Diego researchers, which had been kept non-public during the months since the December 27, 2007 election, I was contacted at my office in Mississippi by a reporter from the Times and agreed to be interviewed.  I had sat in on the release of the poll at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington a week or so before but had not sought out or spoken with any reporters there.  I had been called beforehand by Shashank Bengali of the McClatchy papers whom I had met in Nairobi and who had covered the exit poll along with the rest of the Kenyan election situation during the time I was working for IRI.  He asked if I would provide a quote regarding the upcoming UCSD release of the poll, resulting in this in his story:

Ken Flottman, who served as the head of the International Republican Institute’s Kenya office until his term expired in May, said that the poll’s findings could serve as a catalyst for electoral reform.

“I hope that (Kenya’s) parliament will take note of the important research from the University of California in understanding how Kenyans actually voted and in addressing the problems with the conduct of the election,” Flottman said.

The institute, which also paid for exit polls in Kenya’s two previous national elections, in 2002 and 2005, has tried to distance itself from this poll. . . .

I also provided the Times when requested copies of my correspondence during the period to show contemporaneous record of my own thoughts and assessments during the critical pre- and post-election periods.

I imposed one condition on the Times in agreeing to be interviewed for the record:  that they wouldn’t identify by name the company that I worked for, because my colleagues had been exceptionally good to allow me to take a year’s “public service leave” to work in Kenya and they had nothing to do with what had happened and didn’t deserve to get dragged into a controversy.  This was agreed.  The Times asked me to reconsider later, but I said that I couldn’t and I was identified as “senior counsel for a major defense contractor”.

Since I had been quoted in numerous papers around the country in the McClatchy story regarding the release of the exit poll, and cited in a Slate story on January 2, 2008, it wasn’t any surprise that if the Times had picked up on the issue that I was one of the people they would ask to interview.  After my interchange with the Times reporter in July, IRI changed its position and released the poll itself in mid-August, the day before the UCSD team testified before the “Kreigler Commission” investigating the Kenyan election.  I didn’t hear from the Times and assumed they were no longer interested.  In November, they called me again, working on the story which they explained had just been delayed due to the press of U.S. election coverage.  Over Thanksgiving IRI’s press secretary left messages for me and called my wife. When we talked the press secretary was asking if it was true that I had told the Times that IRI had suppressed the exit poll for “political reasons”.  I told her that I had been contacted by the Times and been interviewed about the exit poll issues, but that I did not purport to know why IRI had refused to release it so I had not made such an allegation (my position has always been that the poll was valid, such that IRI’s statements that the poll was invalid as a reason for not releasing it were inappropriate; it has also always been quite clear to me that at least some people in the State Department did not want the poll released; it appeared to me that that objective seemed to have been injected into the discussions in IRI in Nairobi through the Ambassador and everything I have learned since is consistent with this; I have not in fact accused IRI of having its own separate “political” agenda regarding the exit poll or otherwise regarding the election–more broadly I never believed or concluded that IRI as an organization had a separate improper intent regarding the exit poll or the election itself.)    The Press Secretary said she would convey this back and that I might get a call from one of IRI’s senior executives to discuss, but they never called.

In the meantime, in December, the Nation, the U.S. opinion weekly, ran Karen Rothmyer’s story coinciding with the one year anniversary of the Kenyan election, raising questions on the U.S. government approach on the election which included some quotes from an interview which I gave Karen, at her request, over Skype. This story caused a stir in Kenya (not as much here in Mississippi) and IRI dispatched a team to Nairobi to lobby Raila for some post facto blessing resulting in additional coverage in the Standard (identifying me, of course, as the director who sat on the poll while people were dying in protest of the election).  I had gotten acquainted with Karen in Nairobi through the IRI polling program. Karen had approached me early on during the Kenyan campaign for access to USAID-funded polling data regarding political attitudes of Kenyan youth for a Knight Fellowship project and I had gotten permission from the IRI Washington office to provide this collaboration (I told them that Karen was a former Nation editor, and had also been a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.)

When the Times story finally ran on January 31, 2009, it was on the front page and focused more on the exit poll rather specifically.  IRI had refused to tell whatever its side of the story was to the Times through an interview (and many others did not speak on the record, leaving me front and center).  Instead, IRI fired what amounted to a counterattack against the Times, and me, in the Weekly Standard and the Human Events “redstate.com” blog.  I would guess that it is because they were essentially loaded and ready to fire before the Times piece finally ran that IRI attacked me for saying things that a careful reading of the actual Times story does not suggest I ever said.  In fact, this is what the story says:  “An examination by The New York Times found that the official explanation for withholding the poll–that it was technically flawed–had been disputed by at least four people involved in the institute’s Kenya operations . . . . None of those interviewed professed to know why the institute withheld the results . . . “

Yet the Weekly Standard and “redstate” writers made no apparent attempt whatsoever to contact me–or judging by the stories, any of the others actually involved in the Kenya polling.  The Weekly Standard writer was just back from leave with the McCain presidential campaign, where according to an interview he gave to the Columbia Journalism Review one of his major roles was to fight with the Times.  Bad blood between the McCain campaign and the Times and IRI and the Times based on other stories, other times, about other places, by other people, had nothing to do with me or with my work in Kenya, but rather with American politics and interests in “Washington”.  Everyone at IRI certainly recognized that it was awkward to have the IRI Chairman running for president and it inevitably made for a strange time in the organization, but it was too sensitive to talk about openly or address. (No one was ever willing to bring up the idea that McCain should step down, at least temporarily, while he campaigned–nor was there ever anything said that would explain why this obvious path to avoid controversy was not taken.)

IRI followed with similar and linked attacks on their website, which they have kept “up” for years now, along with their version of issues regarding a controversy in Haiti covered by the Times.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have simply released the exit poll myself to reporters in Nairobi in early 2008 in spite of the wishes of my superiors or initiated some action to be a “whistleblower” myself rather than waiting to answer questions when asked.  I did my best to address competing obligations.   I do think that at the end of the day I did keep the exit poll from “going away” by sticking to my convictions and in doing so helped preserve some part of the truth about what happened in the election.  In this blog, I have continued the process of sharing what I have been able to learn over time about what was hidden during the failed election with hopes of contributing to a better process now and in the future.

Counting--Election Day 2007 Nairobi, Kenya

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