WHO IS MICHAEL DOBBS: The time has come to highlight the problems of the Washington Posts Michael Dobbs.
For better or worse, Dobbs has been given the task of writing the Posts Fact Checker feature for Campaign 08. To date, some of Dobbs problems in that role seem endemic to his journalistic class. Most specifically, he seems to have a strong aversion to criticizing John McCain (details below). And as his work last week reveals, he seems to take inordinate pleasure in awarding Pinocchios (for public misstatements) to Major Dems, like Clinton and Obama. Yesterdays foolishness concerning Obama followed last weeks overwrought work about Clinton (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/28/08). Yes, Obama has misstated some facts about the way his father first came to this country. And yes, Clinton has misstated some facts about her arrival in Tuzla. But Obamas misstatements hardly deserved the front-page, Fact Checker treatment they got. And Dobbs made an utter fool of himself as he pig-piled on Clinton last Friday.
Meanwhile, McCain continues to blather without being noticed; well touch on that age-old problem below. First, though, a basic question:
Who in the world is Michael Dobbs? Who is the person the Post has picked to fact-check your White House election?
Who is Michael Dobbs? Good question! Its remarkably hard to get biographical data on mainstream journalistseven on someone like Dobbs, who has worked for the Post since 1980 while writing three major books. ( To read his brief Random House bio, click here. In the main, Dobbs has worked for the Post as a foreign correspondent.) But to make a long story very short: Dobbs was born in Northern Ireland (date unknown)and he experienced a strange fifteen minutes of fame after witnessing the Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004.
At the time, Dobbs was vacationing off the coast of Sri Lanka with a small group of family and friends. More specifically, he was enjoying a rather lavish vacation on a famous private island owned by his businessman brother, hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs. And uh-oh! In the aftermath of the disaster, Dobbs wrote an almost impossibly tone-deaf account of his experiences; it appeared in the Post just eight days after the tsunami occurred. This piece won Dobbs fifteen minutes of fame. And it gives us reason to wonder, yet again, about the culture (and class orientation) of the people whofact check our elections.
Who on earth is Michael Dobbs? And how tone-deaf was his tsunami piece? Just eight days after the disaster occurred, heres how he kicked things off:
DOBBS (1/3/05): There were 15 of us gathered around the dinner table, from four continents, celebrating Christmas on a fantasy private island in the Indian Oceanwith nothing but sea separating us from the South Pole, the Seychelles and Sumatra.
We handed out presents, ate turkey and Brussels sprouts hand-carried from distant lands, drank a lot of wine and champagne, wore funny paper hats and read silly jokes from Christmas crackers. Hoots of laughter greeted my brother Geoffrey as he instructed us how to slice the Stilton cheese he had brought with him from England. On no account must the Stilton be dug into with a spoon, he insisted.
The tsunami hit the next morning, on December 26. Before providing his strange first-person account, Dobbs offered some background about the island where hed been slicing the Stilton:
DOBBS: Taprobane is a tear-shaped rock just off the southernmost tip of the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka. In the 1920s, a bogus French aristocrat created a luxuriant garden on the rock, topped by an exotic octagonal villa. In the decades since then, Taprobane has played host to a succession of aesthetes and eccentrics, ranging from the writer Paul Bowles to the art patron Peggy Guggenheim to the adventurer Arthur C. Clarke. My brother, a Hong Kong businessman who bought Taprobane a decade ago, markets it to rich Americans and Europeans as "the isle of dreams."
Geoffrey, who is known for throwing fabulous parties, had invited an eclectic selection of guests to this isle of dreams to celebrate Christmas and New Year's. They included my family; a Hong Kong art dealer and his Filipino wife who had organized an exhibit of Sri Lankan maps and prints in the nearby town of Galle; and four vivacious young Australian women, who had come to Sri Lanka in search of themselves. Geoffrey's Angels, we called them.
Like you, we found that last part a bit strange; of the fifteen people flown in for the fete, four were vivacious young Australian women who had come to Sri Lanka in search of themselves. No further explanation was offered, andafter explaining that Taprobanes original owner found refuge on the island after fleeing England in disgrace for homosexual activityDobbs explained what happened when his party began to learn the extent of the tsunamis devastation. It was at this point that the tone of his piece careered so wildly off the tracks. For what its worth, those vivacious young Aussies seemed determined to add to the problem of pitch:
DOBBS: It was not until the following day, Monday, that we saw the ribbon of utter devastation along the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
Except for a few saints and total scoundrels, most human beings are amalgams of selfishness and altruism. The proportions may vary in individuals, but the basic instincts are the same. And so it was with us.
I am ashamed to say it now, but one of my first thoughts was how we could complete our vacation in the style to which we had become accustomed.
The first few hours after the disaster seem almost unreal. My brother was worried about his other properties along the coastand we were all in a kind of trance. At one point, a helicopter hovered overhead, looking for survivors. "What they don't know is that we are all down here, eating Stilton," cracked one of the Aussies. Shortly afterward, another Australian girl began suffering excruciating stomach pains, and was taken by car to Colombo, where she was operated on for a burst appendix. (Our most serious casualty, she is now recovering in Sydney.) The Aussies all had cell phones, which soon came alive with text messages from Perth and Bangkok and Los Angeles. "Merry Christmas, I am on my yacht eating prawns and drinking champagne," read one of the messages. "Sure beats our uneventful Christmas," read another.
We had succumbed so greatly to the charms of life on Taprobane that we found it difficult to tear ourselves away. But by Monday, it became obvious that we would have to leave: There was no water or electricity, and the Christmas leftovers were getting rancid. One of Geoffrey's employees arrived miraculously with a minivan from Colombo, and we packed in a hurry.
Well spare you the lyrics of the haunting song Dobbs daughter composed and strummed on her guitar as the group prepared to tear itself away from the charms of life on Taprobane. But as Dobbs described the way he avoided moping while waiting to be evacuated from one of his brothers hotels, his near-superhuman tone-deafness continued:
DOBBS: We drove up the coast along a trail of ruined homes, twisted buses and wrecked fishing boats to the city of Galle. My brother has a little hotel there, on a hill above the devastated commercial district. The last paying guests were leaving, and the Last Days of the Raj atmosphere Geoffrey works so hard to cultivate was giving way to the grim camaraderie of a MASH ward. Dazed tourists streamed in with stories of collapsed beach cabanas and days and nights in the jungle.
Communications were much better in Galle than on Taprobane, and I soon found myself inundated with interview requests from TV and radio stations around the world. What does it feel like to be a survivor of a natural disaster, the interviewers wanted to know, rather than a professional observer?
I did not quite know how to reply to this question. I did not feel like a victim. I had long since transformed myself back into a reporter, if only because it gave me something to do, rather than moping around, waiting to be evacuated.
Fighting off feelings of victimhood, Dobbs awaited deliverance.
Needless to say, the story had a happy (and tongue-in-cheek) ending. Everyone learned a valuable lessonand we got to wrap things up with a laugh:
DOBBS: In the days since the tsunami, all of us who were on Taprobane this Christmas have been increasingly aware of our extraordinary good fortune. Geoffrey has gone back to Weligama, where he is working with other foreign residents and prominent Sri Lankans to help local people rebuild their shattered homes and businesses and reconstruct the fishing fleet. Lisa and I plan to assist this effort as best we can.
On our last night in Sri Lanka before heading back to Washington, Olivia told me that the experience had made her aware, for the first time, how lucky she is to live in the United States. Alex, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, is reluctant to tell us what she thinks because it would come out sounding "too sappy." But she hopes to establish ties between Whitman and schools in Weligama.
Only 12-year-old Jojo, a sports fanatic with a tough-guy persona, seems impervious to the wave of altruism sweeping through the Dobbs family. "The good thing about all this," he told us, as we cut short our vacation, "is that we will be back in Washington for the last Redskins game of the season."
Happy ending! Thanks to his youth, Jojo avoided the wave of altruism which had so plainly swept away Dobbs.
Given the magnitude of the disaster, this odd account produced a burst of incredulous commentary, from Post readers and outside observers alike. Why did the WP decide to let Robin Leach cover the tsunami aftermath? asked Wonkette. (The post was entitled, A First Person Story About a Third World Tragedy We Forced Ourselves To Finish Reading. For a follow-up Wonkette piece, just click here: WP Reporter Defends Upperclass Twitism.) Were not sure if Ana Marie Cox wrote these pieces; we applaud her heartily if she did. Meanwhile, when Dobbs brother wrote his own account of these events, he managed to adopt a more palatable tone. We ate the remains of the Christmas turkey in silence, Geoffrey Dobbs wrote, describing events of December 26. For the rest of the day we were too shocked to do anything meaningful. On December 27, his niece suddenly broke the silence, Geoffrey Dobbs wroteby offering to donate her Christmas money to help the local people. We didnt hear about the vivacious young Aussiesor about their wise-cracks.
After comparing the Dobbs brothers pieces, one might draw an unflattering conclusion: No one on earth has a bigger tin ear than the modern insider Washington journalist. We have no idea how either brother actually felt about these events, of course. But the businessman adopted a suitable tone. The journalist typed up all the wisecracks.
For the record, it wasnt just Wonkette who noticed the oddness of Dobbs first-person account. The same day his piece appeared, the scribe conducted a Post on-line chat. Dobbs became a bit defensive when confronted with questions like this, just the second question he fielded:
QUESTION (1/3/05): I appreciate that the tsunami came as quite a shock to your vacationing family! Do you feel your account is more than just slightly insipid given the vast amount of poverty just outside the gates of your private island?
In his answer, Dobbs said he had tried to describe what it was like to experience the tsunami from the vantage point of one middle-class American family. And of course, Dobbs immediate family may be middle-class. But youd have a hard time proving it from the tone of his musings.
This brings us back to Sundays front-page piece on Obamaand to Dobbs overall work as the Posts campaign fact-checker.
Yesterdays piece was utterly silly as a front-page, above-the-fold Fact-Checker piece. According to Dobbs, Obama has only made these mistaken comments twice, in more than a year of campaigning. Along with his editors, Dobbs took a sledge-hammer to a gnat when he treated these remarks in this manner. But then, he had gone all the way around the bend in Fridays treatment of Clinton. Which led us to wonder: How heavily has this fastidious fellow fact-checked straight-talking Saint McCain?
The answers are perhaps predictable. According to Nexis, Dobbs hasnt yet awarded any Pinocchios to McCain in published editions of the Post. And uh-oh! When we went to the full archive of his on-line posts, we found a rather unbalanced picture. According to the Posts own accounting, Fact Checker has mentioned Clinton 53 times, and Obama has received 45 mentions. So far, though, McCain has received a mere twenty mentions. For the record, the candidates arent necessarily subject to criticism in each one of these posts, but the imbalance is plainly striking.
Inquiring further, we checked Dobbs treatment of McCains endless misstatements about tax cuts. When we did, we wondered if we werent observing a bit of the press corps familiar, same-old same-old.
Our question: How has Dobbs treated McCains repeated misstatements about his changing stance on Bushs tax cuts? On December 13, Dobbs at least managed to notice a few of McCains misstatements in this general area. But he posted this odd summary, in a piece which only appeared on-line:
DOBBS (12/13/07): John McCain is fortunate that I am giving the candidates a pass this week from awarding Pinocchios, as he would qualify for a few on this one. (I might revisit the issue later.) It looks as if the master of the "Straight Talk Express" is trying to have it both ways. After voting against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts in the Senate, McCain has been atoning for his supply side heresy in his latest presidential run.
For some unstated reason, Dobbs said he was giving the candidates a pass this week from awarding Pinocchiosand therefore, McCain didnt get any.
Of course, McCains misstatements about tax cuts have been legion, as other observers have managed to notice. How AWOL has Dobbs been on such matters? On January 30, during a live debate fact check, he managed to offer this one-paragraph summary of a major, ongoing howler:
DOBBS (1/30/08): John McCain sidesteps a question about the reason why he opposed President Bush's tax cut plan. He has been saying on the campaign trail that he opposed the tax cut plan because it did not include restraints on spending, in addition to the tax cuts. During the Senate debate on the 2001 tax cuts, however, he said that he could not support "a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief." Restraints on spending were not at the top of his list of stated priorities in 2001 when he opposed the tax cuts.
Not at the top of his list in 2001? Barely on his list at all! In fact, McCain has made major, repeated misstatements about his changed stance on Bushs tax cuts. But this is the best that Dobbs has managedjust a short, understated live blog which didnt make the hard-copy paper. In short, groaning misstatements by McCain have been passed over by Dobbs. Meanwhile, on Friday and Sunday, minor misstatements by Clinton and Obama got the full-bore treatment.
For ourselves, we would draw several conclusions from this:
First: If youre going to adopt a special Fact-Checker format, it might be better to appoint several people to the task. The Post has left it all up to Dobbs, and his fact-checking seems quite selectivein a familiar old way, of course. This is much like the way Campaign 2000 was fact-checked: Groaning errors by Bush were ignored while lies by Gore were simply invented. Weve only given a cursory examination to Dobbs work. But the pattern seems familiar.
Second, we cant help thinking of that tsunami when we see Dobbs play this silly old game. Old chaps, weve told you this for years: Increasingly, the mainstream press corps is an upper-class preserve. Increasingly, the press corps opinion leaders are multimillionairesor are the people who slice them their Stilton. Read Dobbs piece about that tsunami, then ask yourself this: Why is the tone-deaf fellow who wrote that piece fact-checking our critical White House election? Why on earth is this tone-deaf fop in charge of so vital a function?
THE HAPPY BIRTHDAY EXPRESS: Two months before Dobbs wrote that odd piece, the heavy hitters of his business sang Happy Birthday to Saint McCainthen kept the news of their clowning quiet. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/11/08; Dobbs wasnt there. Two months later, Dobbs typed up the deathless cracks of those vivacious young Aussies.
These are the people who type your novelssorry, who fact-check your White House elections. Our question: As a general matter, after theyve sung Happy Birthday to Mac, how hard do you think they fact-check him?