Did you know that The Daily Beast was named for a real beast that it keeps chained in the basement?
No, I haven't seen the creature, and I don't know exactly what it is. But sources familiar with The Daily Beast tell me that …
Unfortunately, that's the level of reporting in the Beast's "Exclusive: Feds Investigate Hobby Lobby Boss for Illicit Artifacts." The family of Steve Green, Hobby Lobby's CEO, has a collection of 40,000 manuscripts and other artifacts that form the core for the Museum of the Bible, planned for a 2017 opening in Washington, D.C.
Problem? Well, the Beast says:
One of America’s most famously Christian businesses is amassing a vast collection of Biblical antiquities. The problem is some of them may have been looted from the Middle East.
In 2011, a shipment of somewhere between 200 to 300 small clay tablets on their way to Oklahoma City from Israel was seized by U.S. Customs agents in Memphis. The tablets were inscribed in cuneiform—the script of ancient Assyria and Babylonia, present-day Iraq—and were thousands of years old. Their destination was the compound of the Hobby Lobby corporation, which became famous last year for winning a landmark Supreme Court case on religious freedom and government mandates. A senior law enforcement source with extensive knowledge of antiquities smuggling confirmed that these ancient artifacts had been purchased and were being imported by the deeply-religious owners of the crafting giant, the Green family of Oklahoma City. For the last four years, law enforcement sources tell The Daily Beast, the Greens have been under federal investigation for the illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq.
Note the phrase "law enforcement sources tell The Daily Beast." The article uses it three times more in other forms: "An attorney familiar with customs investigations explained …", "an individual close to the investigation" and "One source familiar with the Hobby Lobby investigation told us …" No one who knows the case speaks on the record.
This is even worse than the "omniscient anonymous voice" that tmatt complains about. It's more like being deprived of the right to face one's accuser. Bottom line: Hit piece.
The allegation, say those "sources close to the investigation," is that the artifacts were deceptively marked "hand-crafted clay tablets," in a possible attempt to expedite their entry into the U.S. More valuable items are governed by stricter regulations, the Beast says.
Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor from DePaul University, says she explained to the Greens in 2010 about "due diligence with regard to provenance and how to watch out for legal complications with regard to antiquities sales." Yet they imported the tablets under shady conditions a year later, the Beast says.
But a quarter of the article deals not with the artifacts or the museum but with the way the Greens run Hobby Lobby, "as a model of a business run on Christian values." It notes that they place religious ads on Christmas and Easter "to spread their Christian message far and wide."
Now the politics: We're reminded how the Greens fought the Obama administration's mandate to pay for contraception as part of healthcare coverage, finally winning last year in the Supreme Court. In this article's view, it wasn't a case of standing up to federal power; it was about how the Greens "forced the federal government to legally recognize their personal moral standards."
There's the "gotcha": This devout Christian family preaches morality while possibly breaking federal law. Yet another pack of religious hypocrites.
It's a song that has played well in mainstream media.
* "Billionaire Hobby Lobby owners probed in looting of artifacts for Bible museum," blares the New York Post, with typical rashness.
* "Anti-Abortion Hobby Lobby Investigated For Stolen Bible Artifacts: Christian Company Opening Museum In Washington DC," announces the International Business Times, as if either abortion or Hobby Lobby had anything do to with the artifacts.
* Fortune likewise errs with "Hobby Lobby battling with the federal government — again."
* Stronger language in The Daily Mail: "Billionaire Hobby Lobby boss under federal investigation for possibly smuggling hundreds of Middle Eastern biblical artifacts to be exhibited in their 'Museum of the Bible'."
USA Today carried a snickering piece by the word-crunching Newser:
The Museum of the Bible being built in D.C. by the Christian family behind one of the nation's biggest arts-and-crafts retailers is coming along nicely. Maybe too nicely, per law enforcement sources, who tell the Daily Beast that the Green family — the ones whose Hobby Lobby chain claimed a big victory last year when the Supreme Court ruled it didn't have to provide insurance for employee birth control — has been the subject of a four-year federal investigation for "illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq," per the Daily Beast.
Many of the headlines follow the Beast's cues on how Christian the Greens are, or they mention the biblical commandment against stealing. And liberal media, like Jezebel and The Advocate, have pounced on the story, apparently because the Greens and Hobby Lobby aren’t liberal enough. Most of the articles, though, just repeat the Beast's accusations. Among the few that did any original work was The Guardian in the UK, which re-interviewed Gerstenblith, the DePaul University prof.
The Beast does give some space to the defense. Steve Green admits it's possible that some of the 40,000 items in the family collection are illicitly imported, but not purposely. And Cary Summers, president of the Bible museum, says, "There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it." He adds that the four-year holdup is a bureaucratic delay: "Sometimes this stuff just sits, and nobody does anything with it."
Pshaw, replies the Beast:
That innocuous phrase—“incomplete paperwork”—makes it sound as if some forms were simply missing a date or a signature. That is rarely the case with questionably-acquired ancient artifacts—and were the problem merely logistical, the chances are slim that it would take four years to resolve.
Maybe so. But where are the follow-up questions? You know, like: "Why would a simple paperwork error cause a four-year delay? And why were the items marked merely as 'handcrafted clay tablets' when they were historic artifacts? Why weren’t Gerstenblith's guidelines followed?"
Why weren’t the two men given a chance to respond?
Now, it's entirely possible that the boxes of tablets were mismarked. Maybe Green and Summers weren’t paying close enough attention. Maybe their buyers in the Middle East weren’t up on the laws. Neither possibility qualifies for a brand of "liar" or "hypocrite."
By now, the coverage is swallowing its tail: The Beast ran a follow-up yesterday, quoting a story in The Oklahoman: "Hobby Lobby Confirms Federal Probe." Except that, as you know, Cary Summers had already acknowledged the investigation to the Beast. And most of the article was drawn from the Beast's story.
The Oklahoman does get Hobby Lobby to say that it's "cooperating with the investigation," and that the store chain is separate from the museum. The newspaper, however, couldn't confirm how serious the investigation was, saying only: "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not confirm or deny an ongoing investigation, said Lou Martinez, an agency spokesman." At least it got a name, unlike the Beast.
The Oklahoman does add interesting infobits on the Beast writers: Bible scholars Candida Moss and Joel Baden "have a forthcoming article to be published in the Atlantic on the federal investigation that includes the interview with Green." So much for the Beast's claim of an "exclusive." It's more like a hit piece promoting another hit piece.
But I still see nothing in the Daily Beast about those rumors of a creature chained up in its basement. Nothing has been proved, of course; but now that we've read it in the media, maybe an animal control officer should investigate.
Thumbnail photo: "Dream Episode," from a cuneiform tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic. Courtesy of Museum of the Bible.