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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 we’ll suggest that you go at a time when there will be people in the hall. We’ve 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.

Here’s Ann Hornaday’s 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, we’re forced to praise that old political football, the resilience of the spirit.

Meanwhile, here’s Hornaday’s earlier report on the “Oscar scandal” surrounding this film’s omission from best foreign film nominations. 4 Months won the Palme d’Or (the “palm of gold”) at Cannes in 2007.

SNOWED: Sorry—we got snowed out last Friday. Tomorrow, we’ll back-post Friday’s shortened “Philosopher Fridays” selection. This Friday: Taxing Wilt Chamberlain!

COUNTING THE DONUTS: We’re approaching ten full years at this post. If we were to list the things we’ve learned about the mainstream press in that time, these might be the two most important:

They hunt as a pack: The most remarkable thing about the mainstream press is the way they all insist on saying the very same things. This contradicts everything we’re told, in iconic texts, about the way a press corps functions in an open society. Meanwhile, it’s impossible for average citizens to observe this cultural trait of the so-called press corps. You can only observe this trait if you examine a wide array of news sources. Obviously, most people don’t.

We’re all with Stupid: Second counterintuitive fact: There’s nothing so stupid that pundits won’t say it, once it becomes a Standard Text. And uh-oh! We’ve come to feel, in recent years, that many people simply can’t process this basic fact about the press. We’re all accustomed to the idea that major journalists may be “biased.” For many people, though, it seems to be very hard to come to terms with the stupidity of these big players. And yet, you simply can’t describe our modern “press corps” without explaining how stupid they are.

Meanwhile, how stupid will our biggest journalists be? Consider these clips from Dowd and Rich, in yesterday’s “esteemed” New York Times:

DOWD (2/24/08): Hillaryland spent like a hedge fund manager in a flat-screen TV store. Her campaign attempted to show omnipotence by lavishing a fortune on the take-no-prisoners strategists Howard Wolfson and Mark Penn, and on having the best of everything from the set decoration at events to Four Seasons rooms. In January alone, they spent $11,000 on pizza, $1,200 on Dunkin’ Donuts and $95,384 at a Des Moines Hy-Vee grocery store for get-out-the-vote sandwich platters.

RICH (2/24/08): Despite Mrs. Clinton’s valedictory tone at Thursday’s debate, there remains the fear in some quarters that whether through sleights of hand involving superdelegates or bogus delegates from Michigan or Florida, the Clintons might yet game or even steal the nomination. I’m starting to wonder. An operation that has waged political war as incompetently as the Bush administration waged war in Iraq is unlikely to suddenly become smart enough to pull off that duplicitous a “victory.” Besides, after spending $1,200 on Dunkin’ Donuts in January alone, this campaign simply may not have the cash on hand to mount a surge.

Readers, you’re 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 didn’t keep it out of these columns. But then, we’ve been with Stupid for a good many years. Tomorrow: Where that stupid line came from.

Tomorrow: Counting (some) donuts.

Wednesday: A familiar old framework.

Special report: Sexing up McCain!

PART 1—HOW MANY IS SOME: To some inscrutable liberals, the New York Times remains one of our “most esteemed institutions.”

But:

To people willing to observe the real world, the Times is an upper-class, Versailles-style disaster. The paper’s 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 we’ll put that off till tomorrow and Wednesday. Today, let’s get clear on the pitiful way the New York Times yelled sex/sex/sex about McCain’s alleged sexy-time conduct.

Was McCain involved in sex/sex/sex? It’s fairly clear that the Times has no real idea. But so what? Atop the front page of Wednesday’s Times, Jim Rutenberg, and a cast of thousands, started off grandly. Like this:

RUTENBERG (2/21/08): Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client's corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself—instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

A thrill ran up the leg! Back in early 1999, “some” of McCain’s 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, we’ve never been told how many advisers believed that McCain was engaged in romance—although, in at least one passage, we’re 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 we’re talking about in this sexy-time piece. But there are other basic things we don’t learn in this piece. For example:

Rutenberg’s 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 Rutenberg’s 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 doesn’t appear, that may mean that it doesn’t 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 don’t know how many advisers believed that McCain was involved in some sort of romance. And we don’t know how strong their belief may have been, since they’re never quoted. But there are two other things we don’t learn in this piece, again because Rutenberg blows right past them. It’s worth observing the types of information the Times report fails to provide:

We don’t 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, we’re told that McCain and Iseman took a plane ride together—but surely, that didn’t “convince” these advisers. Just what did convince them, then? When Rutenberg forgets to say, smart people should again check their wallets.

But readers, there’s something else we don’t know: We don’t know what these people believe today. Duh! We’re 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,” we’re 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. (Here’s one “wrong answer:” I no longer believe it. Here’s another: I’m no longer sure.)

Did John McCain enjoy sex/sex/sex back in early 1999? We don’t have the slightest idea—and the esteemed New York Times doesn’t seem to know either. But there’s 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? Let’s 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?

RUTENBERG: [I]n 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, “Why is she always around?”

That February, Mr. McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fund-raising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications. By then, according to two former McCain associates, some of the senator's advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.

A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices.

In interviews, the two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career. Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman. The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.

Separately, a top McCain aide met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington to ask her to stay away from the senator. John Weaver, a former top strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, said in an e-mail message that he arranged the meeting after ''a discussion among the campaign leadership'' about her.

''Our political messaging during that time period centered around taking on the special interests and placing the nation's interests before either personal or special interest,'' Mr. Weaver continued. ''Ms. Iseman's involvement in the campaign, it was felt by us, could undermine that effort.''

Mr. Weaver added that the brief conversation was only about ''her conduct and what she allegedly had told people, which made its way back to us.'' He declined to elaborate.

It is not clear what effect the warnings had; the associates said their concerns receded in the heat of the campaign.

Frustrated by the persistent vagueness, let’s try to count the number of McCain advisers who believed in sexy-time romance.

First, we’re told here that “some of [McCain’s] 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; we’re told that “two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations.” But here’s where the number tricks start to come in. “Separately, a top McCain aide met with Ms. Iseman,” we’re told—and we’re 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 morning’s 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, Rutenberg’s 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 story’s 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 we’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 hasn’t 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?