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The context

What does an Ambassador do?

A report entitled Unqualified Ambassadors in the Duke Law Journal, the State Department’s 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, as well as 1980’s Foreign Service Act, specifically lays out ambassadorial qualifications.

An ambassador, they hold, is the “Chief Executive Officer of a multi-agency mission” and has “full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all U.S. Executive Branch employees in [country], regardless of their employment categories or location.”

An ambassador’s job is also to serve as America’s chief diplomat abroad. To build relationships with representatives of his or her host country, to recommend and implement American policy and to exert “as a principal duty the promotion of United States goods and services for export to [the host]  country.”

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What’s So Wrong With David Cohen and Amy Gutmann Being Ambassadors?

An Inquirer news story raises questions about the sunken state of our public conversation

What’s So Wrong With David Cohen and Amy Gutmann Being Ambassadors?

An Inquirer news story raises questions about the sunken state of our public conversation

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Philadelphia was home to the greatest third baseman in history. Mike Schmidt on a baseball diamond was a wonder to behold—he hit for power, he came through in the clutch, he was a Gold Glove defensive player. Yet, perhaps because he carried himself with the detached demeanor of someone who knows he’s kick-ass, our town booed him mercilessly. It prompted the ever-introspective Schmidt to utter one of the great lines of media criticism:

“Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day,” he said.

I was reminded of Schmidt’s pithy critique after reading a recent Inquirer front page story headlined “Penn’s Amy Gutmann and Comcast’s David Cohen Could Land Plum Ambassador Jobs Thanks to Biden Ties.”

In the piece, Jonathan Tamari and Sean Collins Walsh, normally solid reporters both, hold up the nomination of Penn President Gutmann to be ambassador to Germany and the anticipated appointment of Comcast executive Cohen as the nation’s representative to Canada as somehow a function of shady pay-to-play politics. Cohen, we’re told, has been a longtime Biden fundraiser who once held an event that raised about $700,000 in contributions to Biden’s presidential bid; Gutman paid Biden, then the former-vice president, $911,000 over close to three years to make public appearances on campus as the school’s “Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor.”

Tamari and Walsh construct an argument, backed up by a few quotes from career diplomats and convenient all-purpose sourcing by way of the phrase “experts say,” that is best found in the piece’s thesis: “But several foreign-policy experts said the nominations, if they happen, would continue a long-standing bipartisan tradition of using important foreign-affairs jobs to reward friends, political allies, and donors rather than expertise.”

The problem with the Inquirer piece is there is no nod given to where Tamari and Walsh are coming from. Nor is there critical context given. Just what does an ambassador do, anyway? Are Cohen and Gutmann really unqualified to serve?

To back the claim that something nefarious is afoot, we hear from one career diplomat that “no other advanced country routinely puts amateurs in charge of its embassies,” another that calls these types of appointments “patronage,” and from a good-government activist who says that “this is a corrupt practice that we have not had any success at changing.”

Now, before we dive into precisely what’s wrong with this straw man argument, let me do what Tamari and Walsh do not: Put my cards on the table. I know and like President Gutmann, and think that, on balance, she’s done a terrific job at Penn, particularly when it comes to diversifying the student body and making Ivy League education more accessible to historically underrepresented groups. (That hasn’t stopped me from asking important questions of her.)

And I’ve known Cohen for decades and count him as a friend, which hasn’t kept him from letting me know in no uncertain terms when he feels I’ve gotten something wrong. But make no mistake: I shudder to think where our city would be these last few decades without the locally patriotic contributions of leaders like Cohen and Gutmann.

So that’s where I’m coming from. The problem with the Inquirer piece is there is no nod given to where Tamari and Walsh are coming from. Nor is there critical context given. Just what does an ambassador do, anyway? Are Cohen and Gutmann really unqualified to serve?


MORE ON GUTMANN & COHEN


Under President Trump, we did, in fact, see at least one egregious example of ambassadorships as political payback. Gordon Sondland made his fortune in the hotel business and made a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee before being named ambassador to the European Union. Testimony during the first Trump impeachment trial (the one having to do with extorting Ukraine to investigate then-candidate Joe Biden, as opposed to the one about exhorting an army of low information citizens to storm the capitol) revealed Sondland to, uh, not exactly be Churchillian. One diplomat under oath called him “comical,” “dangerous” and a “counterintelligence risk.”

So, given the Sondland precedent, Tamari and Walsh are indeed writing about a real issue. But is there any universe in which Cohen and Gutmann can fairly be compared to a boob like Sondland? In their varied careers, both have exhibited stunning policy chops, run immensely complex organizations, and—most importantly—have exhibited a talent for diplomacy throughout their time on the public stage, arguably the most important qualification for an ambassador.

In fact, the Constitution is silent on what makes for a qualified ambassador; it simply states that the president shall nominate and the Senate shall advise and consent. But, according to Ryan Scoville in a report entitled Unqualified Ambassadors in the Duke Law Journal, the State Department’s 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, as well as 1980’s Foreign Service Act, specifically lays out ambassadorial qualifications. An ambassador, they hold, is the “Chief Executive Officer of a multi-agency mission” and has “full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all U.S. Executive Branch employees in [country], regardless of their employment categories or location.”

Sounds kinda like what a university president, a public corporation executive or an elected official’s chief of staff might do, no?

It is beyond me that a story about phantom corruption like this can appear in the same newspaper that endorsed for reelection a sitting City Councilman who is under federal indictment.

Besides being an embassy’s CEO, an ambassador’s job is also to serve as America’s chief diplomat abroad. To build relationships with representatives of his or her host country, to recommend and implement American policy and to exert “as a principal duty the promotion of United States goods and services for export to [the host] country.”

You would think that a front page news story about the potential nomination of two prominent local leaders to ambassador positions might, I don’t know, delve into what the job actually is, and how their respective careers might match up. Canada, after all, is America’s leading partner in economic trade. Given that promoting trade is literally a part of the job description, wouldn’t Cohen’s background in business and politics and sophisticated deal-making make him a no-brainer candidate?

Similarly, Gutmann’s background makes her a fascinating choice to represent America in Germany. Her father was a Jewish college student there as the Holocaust dawned. His family store was boycotted due to his family’s faith and he suffered through anti-Semitic discrimination before fleeing Nazi Germany in 1934.

Have you noticed that anti-Semitism has exploded in Germany of late? A rise in hate crimes and the emergence in Parliament of the reactionary Alternative for Deutschland party has much of the world wondering if what’s old is new again. Doesn’t it bode well for America that our representative in Germany has a particular sensitivity to issues of ethnic intolerance and hate? The last time around, American and British diplomats appeased the autocrats. It ought to give us comfort that our potential ambassador intimately knows from her own life how important the “never again” mantra continues to be.

But Tamari and Walsh don’t even make a nod toward reporting on Cohen and Gutmann’s qualifications. I have no idea why. Could be laziness, sloppiness, the absence of smart editing, or some combination thereof. It could be, as we see so often these days, a type of journalistic Trump derangement syndrome: Because Trump chose a political apparatchik as ambassador, our tentacles are now raised.

But it could also be political. I’ve written before about the troubling degree to which newsrooms have been taken over by progressive orthodoxy. A recent survey finds that only 7 percent of full-time journalists are Republicans. A poll during the 1992 presidential election of newspaper newsrooms found that something like 85 percent of journalists voted for Bill Clinton. Last year, after the Inquirer jettisoned its editor for a now-infamous “Building Matters, Too” headline, Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong wrote: “I was initially attracted to this industry because I thought journalists were more progressive than people in other industries.”

What I do know is that front page stories like the one last week about Gutmann and Cohen are overly-simplistic, pander to the worst of what people think about our politics, and have a deleterious effect.

In that context, in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic, the ideological bogeyman could very well become an elite institution like Penn and a corporate giant like Comcast, no matter the good works such entities may engage in. I hope Tamari and Walsh’s piece was just intellectually sloppy, and not an expression of political groupthink. But then I’m not so sure when I recall the longtime Philly newsroom fixture who tells of a moment when, in an editorial meeting, he happened to mention that he’s a political conservative. “I had people coming up to me after, saying, ‘Really? Geez, I’d love to talk to you about that some time,’” he said. “They were looking at me like I was some exotic animal in the zoo.”

What I do know is that front page stories like the one last week about Gutmann and Cohen are overly-simplistic, pander to the worst of what people think about our politics, and have a deleterious effect. For one, by peppering a story about two eminently qualified nominees with words like “corrupt” and “patronage”—not to mention sentences like “most ambassador posts go to foreign service professionals, but many experts still chafe when some of the most prestigious jobs are handed to people whose main qualifications are political ties”—the effect is to devalue actual stories of real corruption. It is beyond me that a story about phantom corruption like this can appear in the same newspaper that endorsed for reelection a sitting City Councilman who is under federal indictment. (Looking at you, Kenyatta Johnson!)

I’m always hesitant to critique the Inquirer, because I believe deep in my bones that communities need local papers of record. Its mission cannot be filled by what we at The Citizen or other niche outlets do. But the stakes work the other way, too. When the Inquirer comes up short, when it’s not smart enough, or blinded by ideology, or overly cynical, we’re all worse off. Democracy is in a fragile enough state. We need our newspapers reporting the crap out of their cities and drawing smart conclusions based on that reporting. Calling balls and strikes, in other words, like any good umpire. In this case, sadly, the ump didn’t even make it onto the field.

Header photo by Eric Sucar, Office of University Communications / Flickr

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