HOW MANY IS SOME? The New York Times sexed up McCain—and played it slick and slippery: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2008
WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND IT: We rarely use the term work of art around here. But what else can you possibly say about a film as great as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days? We strongly suggest that you go see it—and well suggest that you go at a time when there will be people in the hall. Weve never seen a film reach out and grab the throat of an audience in quite the way this brilliant work did. Seeing this film with a group really matters. You may be slightly cheating yourself if you attend the Tuesday matinee—or if you see it at home, alone.
Heres Ann Hornadays review in the Post. ([T]his shattering drama about a young woman obtaining an illegal abortion during the last days of the Ceausescu regime is sure to upend assumptions about what constitutes cinema and art itself.) When work like this can emerge from a society as put-upon as Romania has been, were forced to praise that old political football, the resilience of the spirit.
Meanwhile, heres Hornadays earlier report on the Oscar scandal surrounding this films omission from best foreign film nominations. 4 Months won the Palme dOr (the palm of gold) at Cannes in 2007.
SNOWED: Sorry—we got snowed out last Friday. Tomorrow, well back-post Fridays shortened Philosopher Fridays selection. This Friday: Taxing Wilt Chamberlain!
COUNTING THE DONUTS: Were approaching ten full years at this post. If we were to list the things weve learned about the mainstream press in that time, these might be the two most important:
Meanwhile, how stupid will our biggest journalists be? Consider these clips from Dowd and Rich, in yesterdays esteemed New York Times:
Readers, youre with Stupid! Rich and Dowd were determined to tell you: The Clinton campaign spent $1200 on Dunkin Donuts in January alone!
The sheer stupidity of that statement captures the way this press corps does business. Surely, no one believes that something significant can be learned from the fact that Clinton spent money on donuts. Yet, each of the monkeys sat down and typed it.
Clinton spent $1200 on donuts? The sheer stupidity of that script didnt keep it out of these columns. But then, weve been with Stupid for a good many years. Tomorrow: Where that stupid line came from.
Tomorrow: Counting (some) donuts.
Wednesday: A familiar old framework.
PART 1—HOW MANY IS SOME: To some inscrutable liberals, the New York Times remains one of our most esteemed institutions.
To people willing to observe the real world, the Times is an upper-class, Versailles-style disaster. The papers attempt to sex up John McCain is just the latest example.
For our money, the Times report was strikingly weak even if you remove the intimations of man-on-young-blonde sex/sex/sex—but well put that off till tomorrow and Wednesday. Today, lets get clear on the pitiful way the New York Times yelled sex/sex/sex about McCains alleged sexy-time conduct.
Was McCain involved in sex/sex/sex? Its fairly clear that the Times has no real idea. But so what? Atop the front page of Wednesdays Times, Jim Rutenberg, and a cast of thousands, started off grandly. Like this:
A thrill ran up the leg! Back in early 1999, some of McCains top advisers were convinced he was having a romantic relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. And she was a cute younger blonde! (Several people have said that these advisers intervened in this matter, the Times reports.) But readers, an obvious question arises: How many top advisers is some? This front-page report is very lengthy—but oddly enough, we never find out. After 3120 words, weve never been told how many advisers believed that McCain was engaged in romance—although, in at least one passage, were plainly misled about the number of aides involved in this matter (details below). In fact, if we read the Times report carefully, we see that some advisers may be as few as two—which may explain why Rutenberg never cites an actual number.
So no, we never find out how many advisers were talking about in this sexy-time piece. But there are other basic things we dont learn in this piece. For example:
Rutenbergs piece runs more than 3000 words. But we never see these (two?) former advisers quoted about how strongly they believed in this romance. The Times report says the pair were convinced of the sexy-time romance. But uh-oh! The word belongs to Rutenberg; it never appears inside quotation marks, coming from the mouths of the actual sources. In fact, these former advisers are never quoted, on or off the record, about their actual views on this matter. What exactly did they think about the possibility of romance? Just how strongly did they believe that McCain was engaging in sexy-time romance? No direct statement ever appears, despite the length of Rutenbergs piece. With that in mind, we offer you a rule of thumb about the way your press corps sometimes does business: When a telling quotation doesnt appear, that may mean that it doesnt exist! What did these (two?) people actually say about the strength of their past convictions? Rutenberg forgets to say—and forgets to say why he forgot.
So no: We dont know how many advisers believed that McCain was involved in some sort of romance. And we dont know how strong their belief may have been, since theyre never quoted. But there are two other things we dont learn in this piece, again because Rutenberg blows right past them. Its worth observing the types of information the Times report fails to provide:
We dont know what led these (two) advisers to think a romance was occurring. In paragraph two, Rutenberg says some advisers were convinced that McCain was engaged in romance. For most people, this would raise an obvious question: Why were they convinced of this fact? What exactly convinced them? But Rutenberg, along with his cast of thousands, forgets to address this obvious point. At one point, were told that McCain and Iseman took a plane ride together—but surely, that didnt convince these advisers. Just what did convince them, then? When Rutenberg forgets to say, smart people should again check their wallets.
But readers, theres something else we dont know: We dont know what these people believe today. Duh! Were told that (two?) advisers believed, nine years ago, that McCain was having a sexy-time romance. ([T]heir concerns receded in the heat of the campaign, were told, somewhat oddly, a bit later on.) But people believe all kinds of things at various times; many such things turn out to be false, and many times, people change their minds. Hence a fairly obvious question: What do these people believe today? These former advisers have had nine years to ponder their prior belief. In the face of flat denials from McCain and Iseman, how convinced are they today about the thing they once believed? Rutenberg forgot to ask about that too—or maybe they gave the wrong answer. (Heres one wrong answer: I no longer believe it. Heres another: Im no longer sure.)
Did John McCain enjoy sex/sex/sex back in early 1999? We dont have the slightest idea—and the esteemed New York Times doesnt seem to know either. But theres one major thing the Times does know—it does know how to be slippery and slick. The Times was slippery and slick in the Whitewater days—and about Wen Ho Lee after that. It was slippery and slick in the run-up to war. And Al Gore? Lets not even go there.
The New York Times has played slick, slippery games with Big Major Dems for the past sixteen years. Why is the Times playing slick with McCain? Our answer will involve speculation.
TOMORROW—PART 2: Regarding the Keating 5, the Times pulls a clownish 180.
PLAYING THE NUMBERS: How many is some? Absent-mindedly, Rutenberg (and a cast of thousands) forgets to say, in a lengthy piece. But in the following passage, we see how numbers sometimes get fudged in exciting stories like this. Go ahead—test your reading skills! In this passage, how many McCain advisers are concerned about sexy-time romance?
Frustrated by the persistent vagueness, lets try to count the number of McCain advisers who believed in sexy-time romance.
First, were told here that some of [McCains] advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene. (Please note: An earlier, stronger word—convinced—has been scaled back in this passage.) And then, an actual number is finally used; were told that two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations. But heres where the number tricks start to come in. Separately, a top McCain aide met with Ms. Iseman, were told—and were told that this meeting was arranged by John Weaver, a former top strategist. That might suggest that as many as four top aides were concerned about sexy-time romance.
But uh-oh! The passage about that meeting with Iseman seems to be grossly misleading. As we seem to learn in that same mornings Washington Post, it was Weaver himself who met with Iseman at Union Station; yes, Weaver set up the meeting with Iseman—but it was Weaver himself who attended! For whatever reason, Rutenbergs language is grossly misleading; he suggests that Weaver sent someone else, seeming to jack our number to four. But if Weaver went to the meeting himself, our number of top aides is back down to three. And uh-oh! As a careful reader will note, Rutenberg never actually says that Weaver believed there was a romance; this may reduce our number back to two. By the way: Weaver could be one of the top advisers from the start of this piece who were convinced that there was a romance. This keeps our number at two—and it reflects the problem with the way Rutenberg keeps track of this storys sources.
(Note: In the course of a lengthy report, reporters sometimes offer varying descriptions of a single anonymous source. Such work can be defended as technically accurate; but in the process, the number of sources may seem to swell. Two or three sources can seem like a dozen—if a reporter keeps quoting them anonymously, while describing them in varying ways. In this way, a story with only two or three sources can seem like a much larger matter.)
For the record, one more problem appears in the passage weve quoted—and it may be the greatest sleight-of-hand in this entire piece. According to Rutenberg, two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with McCain. And omigod: Both said McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately! But wouldnt you know it? Rutenberg forgets to say what kind of behavior McCain confessed to at these meetings! Just what kind of inappropriate behavior did the once-sanctified solon acknowledge? Did he acknowledge an actual romance? Or did he perhaps acknowledge creating a bad appearance? Once again, the Times piece fails to quote any sources—the phrase behaving inappropriately belongs to Rutenberg—and Rutenberg once again fails to explain why no one has ever been quoted. In this passage, many readers will get the impression that McCain acknowledged sexy-time romance. But plainly, Rutenberg hasnt said that. Smart readers should draw back again.
Rutenberg is oddly imprecise at various points in this long, slippery piece. But this is precisely the slick, slippery way the Times has played the game in the past. They did it to Clinton and Gore without end. Our question: Why have they turned on a sanctified solon? What on earth convinced the Times to sex up John McCain?