BACK FROM EXONERATION! The Times got tough on the Keating affair. Wed call it a major reversal: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2008
THEYRE STILL COUNTING DONUTS: We plan to return to the donut story—a story of a familiar old type. But at the New York Times, theyre still counting! (This appears on page A16 on todays hard-copy Times.) As weve told you: The culture of this upper-class elite is virtually defined by its stupidity. Heres the problem: For cultural reasons, many people have a hard time coming to terms with this fact.
WERE ALL MATT DRUDGE NOW: We began planning this site in late 1997, for reasons we can no longer clearly recall. At the time, the noxious and inane Matt Drudge was king of the political web—an entity which barely existed.
Ten years later, a vast liberal web has come into being. But, by now, were all Matt Drudge, as Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum made quite clear in yesterdays posts. Drudge says it—and our intellectual leaders repeat it. Life thus becomes very easy.
But then, as Grover Norquist once said: Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are very unpleasant. But when they've been fixed, then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful.
The issue, of course, involves Drudges pronouncement about that photograph of Obama. Mooing contentedly, Drum observed that Drudges post was ambiguous—who distributed the photo—who did it go to? Indeed, Drums caveat put matters mildly; as any advanced fifth grader could see, Drudge didnt say that Clinton staffers had sent the photo in question to him; he simply said that unnamed Clinton staffers had circulated the photo (where, he didnt say), and he quoted an accompanying e-mail message—without saying who the e-mail had gone to. Do you mind if we draw two simple conclusions—conclusions so simple a child could reach them? First: In all likelihood, no Clinton staffer sent the photo to Drudge, or the brilliant fellow would have said that they had. Second: For all anyone knows, some Clinton staffer sent the photo to a friend in Obamas campaign, and the photo and e-mail proceeded from there. Is that what happened? We have no idea. But then, no one but Drudge has the slightest idea what facts (if any) lay behind his report—which didnt keep a pair of moo-cows from mooing the Drudge story forward.
It would be hard to find words low enough to capture the work of these two cheerful bovines. Even as of this morning, Drum still hadnt updated his post to include Howard Wolfsons conference call, in which (quoting Greg Sargent at TPM ), Wolfson strongly denied any official campaign role in pushing the photo of Obama. Having mooed his affirmation of Drudge, Moo-cow Kevin withdrew from the scene, failing to comment on Wolfsons statement. And if anything, Moo-cow Marshall played things even dumber—as he often does in these latter days. As he so often does now, Marshall rushed into print with a premature judgment (the Clinton camp surely did it!), then back-pedaled in a rambling, barely-coherent update (same link)—a non-clarification clarification of a type he has come to master. Incredibly, Marshall eventually linked to Sargents story—while pretending that Wolfsons statement didnt go beyond what had already been said. Not being stable-boys ourselves, we wont bother to scoop Joshs piles; you can limn his posts for yourself. But go ahead: Read his original post, then his update, then read his link to Sargents report. Theres nothing new here, the moo-cow said, as he linked to a report which opened like this:
On a conference call with reporters just now, Hillary spokesperson Howard Wolfson strongly denied any official campaign role in pushing the photo of Obama in a turban and Somali garb.
If you didnt click on Joshs link, you wouldnt know how absurd his characterization was. But certain types have long played this game. The assumption: You rubes wont bother to click on that link! Therefore, you wont see that what has been said is pure, Grade A, moo-cow nonsense.
It would be hard to find words sad enough to capture these posts by these two cheerful cows. In 2002 and 2003, these very serious fellows were giving assent to an oncoming war with Iraq. (Each of the pipe-puffers flipped, or semi-flipped, in early March 2003.) But as of today, theyre even more content. Today, they just wait for Drudge to declaim. Then, they type this: What Drudge said!
Readers, are you happy? Were all Matt Drudge now! Drudge says it—and we agree to believe it! Meanwhile, Keith goes on the air to complain about what those *ss-holes at SNL said. Were all cheerful moo-cows now, given this level of leadership.
Oh yes—one last point. Denial centers scream in your brain (as they scream in ours): What you say just cant be right! These are our imaginary hip white friends! Surely, theyre serving our interests!
Good. God. Almighty. The press corps has constantly showered McCain with that man of honor chastened by a brush with shame stuff. But the word reinvented has long been reserved for tortured, inane, crackpot treatments of Gore—and of other feckless Dems, who constantly make themselves over. And so, the analysts started a bit when they saw this word applied to McCain. And then, reading further, we knew times had changed. Omigod! Look what Rutenberg said!
Some people think McCain got off too lightly? In the past decade, weve read a lot of profiles about McCain and the Keating Five—and we dont think weve ever seen a big newspaper print a rude, if accurate, statement like that. (Nor had we ever seen a paper be so rude as to discuss McCains prenuptial. According to a Nexis search, the New York Times has never used that word with McCain in the past.)
In short, the Times didnt just sex up McCain. They did a 180 on the Keating 5 matter, reinventing their Standard Past Treatment of McCains role in this affair. William Blacks views have always been known, but Black—and others who hold such views— were disappeared by the press long ago. So when the Times says this—Some people think he got off too lightly—a major change in the times has occurred. If you doubt that, lets recall how the Keating 5 was treated the last time McCain sought the White House.
Lets be clear: There is no single accurate way to report McCains role in the Keating affair. But the Times seemed to flip on the Five last week. Why would the New York Times do that?
THE KEATING 5 WAS LARGELY DOWNPLAYED the last time McCain sought the White House. According to Nexis, from April 1999 through March 2000, the matter was only mentioned eight times in the New York Times. (There were 13 references in the Washington Post.) Most of these cites were fleeting references, a single sentence in length—sometimes less. But by November 1999, McCains polling numbers were moving up in New Hampshire; it was beginning to seem he might have a chance to win the Republican nomination. In the Times, Jill Abramson did a lengthy report—1900 words—about the Keating affair. (Headline: Senate Inquiry In Keating Case Tested McCain.) How was the New York Times treating the Five? Heres how Abramson started out. Note a key word—exonerated:
Say what? In paragraph 4, Abramson said that McCain had been exonerated by the Senate probe. Indeed, she went on to say that key word two more times. The way she told it, the cloud of scandal around McCain had lifted eight years before:
It may seem strange to read that McCain was exonerated—and was also found to have exercised poor judgment. But poor judgment was going around in late 1999, especially when big mainstream scribes dealt with their sanctified hero, McCain. McCain was exonerated, Abramson said—and in her article, no one was quoted saying that McCain got off too lightly. Instead, a string of people were quoted saying that the saint had been treated too harshly—and we got the kind of hero framework that was frequently used, during Campaign 2000, when the Keating Five was discussed. In paragraphs 5-8, for example, Abramson let McCains allies boo-hoo-hoo about the unfortunate stain on his record. As usual, Vietnam was dragged into the stew, used to guilt-trip readers into seeing John McCains obvious greatness:
Hurrah! McCain had been hardened! Needless to say, Vietnam had nothing to do with the Five, but it was frequently used as a smokescreen as McCain and his allies boo-hoo-hooed about how badly the great hero felt. (Later in Abramsons piece, McCain himself got to cry a good cry about the way the Keating affair may have contributed to his wifes past drug problem.) And as she continued, Abramson returned to the exoneration theme, as we have noted above. Indeed, the theme continued to play in the Times as the years rolled by. In 2002, Abramson reviewed Elizabeth Drews new book, Citizen McCain. In the process, she said it again: Mr. McCain was ultimately exonerated in a Senate ethics committee investigation of the so-called Keating Five affair. As recently as last November, in fact, exoneration rolled out once again in the Times. Russ Buettner said it this time: Mr. McCain was exonerated by a Senate ethics committee in the Keating case.
Judging from last weeks front-page report, that may be the last time youll ever see the Times say McCain was exonerated. Indeed, the Times seems to have a new attitude about McCain and the Keating matter. Some people think he got off too lightly, the Times now says—just in case readers hadnt heard this.
AT THIS POINT, SHOULD THE KEATING 5 be a big deal? Needless to say, thats a matter of judgment; in our view, the conduct in question occurred a long time ago. But for the record, heres part of the ethics committees final report in November 1991. (Preliminary judgments had been announced ten months earlier.) Based on these findings, Abramson said, in 1999, that McCain had been exonerated:
According to the ethics committee, McCain had violated no law of the United States or specific Rule of the United States Senate. His actions were not improper nor attended with gross negligence and did not reach the level of requiring institutional action against him. But McCain had exercised poor judgment in intervening with the regulators on Keatings behalf. Should this be called an exoneration? Once again, thats a matter of judgment. But the word was missing from last weeks report—and William Black was back on the scene, saying McCain had gotten off easy. Compared to the coverage from McCains last race, the New York Times seemed to have flipped. (Abramson is now New York Times managing editor for news. She discussed aspects of last weeks story in this on-line Q-and-A.)
By the way: William Black wasnt alone in holding those views in real time. Many editorial pages complained about the feckless way the ethics committee had slapped the wrists of four members of the Keating 5, including McCain. One example? The Times itself derided the ethics committee as toothless watchdogs as their judgments emerged:
Ouch! To the editors, McCain was part of an unusually greedy group; he had done outrageous favors for Keating. He had escaped a harsher judgment because the ethics committee was a laughingstock. Editors at the Washington Post seemed to agree. All five of these senators, none other than worldly and wise, tried to bulldoze federal regulators—mostly civil servants doggedly doing their duty—on behalf of a savings and loan high-roller who had almost as much open contempt for the ethical code that supposedly governed them as he had for the regulatory code that nominally governed him, the Post wrote in February 1991.
Two sets of editors were expressing their views; no one was required to share them. And sure enough! By the time McCain sought the White House in 1999, he was the press corps dearest darling; a different attitude tended to prevail when the Five was discussed. By the fall of 1999, Abramson was saying that McCain had been exonerated. Over at the Post, meanwhile, Mark Shields was typing this semi-comical judgment about a magnificent hero:
McCain was judged guilty of nothing more than bad judgment, Shields somewhat comically said, displaying the press corps substantial skill at seeing McCains glass half full. Over eight years, the tone had changed; and now, at the Times, it has changed once again. McCain engaged in sexy-time romance, the Times announced to its readers last week. And Williams Black was back from exile, saying McCain got off easy.
Why has the New York Times flipped on McCain? Any answer will involve speculation.
TOMORROW—PART 3: Those Paxson letters—then and now.
WHERE DO WORDS COME FROM: Exonerated—was that the right word? It seemed to be in 1991, when McCain himself was using it. Heres an item from the New York Times Business Diary, in March 1991:
I have been exonerated, McCain said in 1991. It took eight years, but in due time, the Times itself would say it.