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The public editor is a big liar too, if judged by his own paper's standards
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CLARK HOYT PLAYS THE NUMBERS! The public editor is a big liar too, if judged by his own paper’s standards: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 24, 2010

Swimming to dystopia/This Week edition: For decades, your public discourse has been shaped by a small “journalistic” fraternal order. Within this small, inbred, dishonest group, loyalty goes to the clan.

Consider the performance by a five-pundit panel on yesterday morning’s This Week.

ABC’s Jake Tapper was hosting the session, joined by four celebrity pundits. This included three of our most famous broadcast “journalists:” George Will, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson. Rounding out the celebrity group was a “TV Democrat,” Donna Brazile, who will always defer to the clan.

(If we had to guess, we would guess that it was Brazile who started the war against Naomi Wolf back in October 1999. Based on things we’ve been told, we would guess that this deeply consequential war began with “opposition research” sponsored and distributed by Brazile, who had recently become Gore’s campaign manager—not by the RNC. That’s what we’d guess. We’re just saying.)

Back to the latest treasonous act by this small inbred clan:

During yesterday’s roundtable segment, Tapper raised the question of Richard Blumenthal’s character. Eventually, he asked George Will to state his view about the Blumenthal matter. And uh-oh! When Tapper threw to Will, Will emitted a large, groaning howler, which we highlight below:

TAPPER: If you ran—if you ran the Democratic Party, OK, if you can—if you can play along with me— If you were Tim Kaine, if you were Tim Kaine, what would you be doing right now?

WILL: I'd be trying to get him out. Sam, look, it's all very well to embed this statement about Vietnam in some generational trauma. How do you explain the fact that he evidently told the Hartford Courant that he was the captain of a Harvard swim team when he was never on the swim team? How do you explain the fact that he goes on Morning Joe, on MSNBC, and says, "I have never taken PAC money," when he really meant in previous campaigns, because in this campaign, evidently, he's taken $220,000 of PAC money. This is a serial problem.

“This is a serial problem,” our highest lord said, pimping that ludicrous swim team blather as a part of his powerful proof.

Did Blumenthal tell the Hartford Courant that he was captain of Harvard’s swim team? As almost everyone knows by now, there is no evidence that he did—and there’s plenty of evidence that he didn’t. (For one account of this murky matter, just click here. By the way: Despite Will’s statement, the evidence now suggests that Blumenthal was on the swim team.) The inaccurate claim seems to have started at the Hartford Courant in 1978 and 1980 (click here), but there isn’t a bit of evidence showing that Blumenthal was the source of the error. But so what? This monstrous trivia was pimped and misstated on Fox all last week—and then, the card got played by Will, on yesterday’s This Week. Millions of mainstream viewers were thereby told, by a famous celebrity, that Blumenthal lied to the Hartford Courant about this ridiculous matter.

In Will’s defense, he did throw in a weasel word, saying this “evidently” had happened.

Pitiful. But what happened when Will emitted this howler? Of course! Cokie, Sam, Donna and Jake all kept their pretty traps shut! No one spoke up to correct Will’s howler—a groaner which had been used to tag Blumenthal a “serial” liar.

Tapper and three famous guests kept silent. Today, you get to imagine their silence in two different ways:

On the one hand, you could imagine that these four major pundits didn’t know the facts of the case. All four had agreed to go on the air to discuss this high-profile matter. But they were clueless, unprepared.

On the other hand, you can imagine that one or more of these famous stars knew that Will had emitted a howler. But, in loyalty to the clan, they simply refused to speak up.

Our best guess? One or two knew—and one or two didn’t. (This clan is dishonest and incompetent.) But all these people knew the first rule—you must be true to the clan.

You don’t correct your brother’s howlers—even when millions of people get disinformed in the process.

Throughout history, clan members have been their brothers’ keepers. Unfortunately, you and yours aren’t part of this clan, a clan that is inbred, dishonest

CLARK HOYT PLAYS THE NUMBERS (permalink): In the past twenty years, no one has invented more bogus tales than Maureen Dowd has done. (Will someone wake Markos and tell him?) This of course meant that she’d have to sound off on the Richard Blumenthal matter. In this passage from yesterday’s column, the dimmest of all modern “press corps” celebrities explains how she and other such “journalists” calibrate such a story:

DOWD (5/23/10): Consider Richard Blumenthal. The 64-year-old attorney general of Connecticut, who is running for Chris Dodd’s seat in the Senate, had a fine résumé that needed no sprucing up. He has degrees from Harvard and Yale Law School, clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun on the Supreme Court, and spent six years in the Marine Corps Reserve.

But like other politicians, Blumenthal added a filigree here and there, not because he needed them to win, but perhaps because those more heroic actions fed his innermost desires.

Having spotted “a filigree” of error “here and there,” Dowd devoted her column to it, turning directly to her cohort’s mandated psychiatric musings. A psychology professor at UCBS was dumb enough to offer speculations about the meaning of Blumenthal’s “lies”—or perhaps the professor had simply been dreaming of the fame that such witness might produce. Whatever! The dumbest grey lady was off to the races, armed with the best kind of story—the kind she has told many times in the past:

Richard Blumenthal told a lie, when the truth would have been just as good!

You can read Dowd’s column yourself, but keep one point in mind if you do: No one has stretched and misstated the truth more often than Dowd has done.

Is a “filigree” of error worth discussing? On balance, we would say no. But in all honesty, that was the question confronting Clark Hoyt, the Times public editor, when he reviewed this matter on Sunday. The Times had built a gigantic, front-page story around one or two misstatements by Blumenthal—and the paper had worked, very hard, to disguise the poverty of its research. How “fair and balanced” was the Times’ reporting—reporting which continues even today, with this skillfully cherry-picked piece? That was the question facing Hoyt. And alas:

If Hoyt is judged by the New York Times’ standards, he’s a big liar too.

In our view, Hoyt has done a rather good job in his current post. But we think he failed very badly this week—failed in so systematic a way that his own integrity would be called into question, if we applied the hair-trigger standard the Times applies to public figures in its periodic jihads. How did Hoyt fail in his review? Consider another public servant from Connecticut—George Bailey, from It’s A Wonderful Life.

George Bailey had led a good life, tirelessly serving Bedford Falls. But on Christmas Eve 1946, Uncle Billy lost $8000, and George stood accused of bank fraud. Facing scandal and prison, George tried to end his own life. But he was saved by an angel—and later, by the community. The community put that one lost deposit in a larger context. Remembering a lifetime of integrity and service, a flood of regular people donated money to save George Bailey’s life.

The savings and loan had made one mistake. Bailey’s lifetime outweighed that one error.

Did the New York Times do a fair, balanced job, balancing Blumenthal’s career against a few misstatements? Actually no, it didn’t—and Clark Hoyt seemed to work hard in Sunday’s column to keep Times readers from understanding how poorly his paper performed. Just consider the slippery statements from yesterday’s column—statements in which the high-minded Hoyt seemed to be playing the numbers:

In paragraph 1, Hoyt said the New York Times reported that Blumenthal has “sometimes falsely claimed to be a Vietnam veteran.” That statement is technically accurate—but “sometimes” is a slippery word! Crusading “journalists” will sometimes use that world to replace a very small number.
In paragraph 2, Hoyt said this: “The paper cited several instances when Blumenthal made ‘plainly untrue’ statements about his service.” But “several” can be a slippery word too—a word that can be used in place of the very small number “two.” (In this case, we’re not even sure if Hoyt’s statement is technically accurate.)

In that same paragraph 2, Hoyt continued to lay out the indictment: “The article said that on other occasions [Blumenthal] used ambiguous language that could have left the wrong impression.” Again, that statement seems to be technically accurate—but “other occasions” is a slippery construction! It could mean as many as three thousand occasions—or as few as two.

Does Clark Hoyt simply dislike numbers? As he neared the end of his whitewash, he offered another slippery construction:

HOYT (5/23/10): In the end, through all the swirling sand the article has kicked up, a clear set of facts remains uncontested: On more than one occasion, Blumenthal said he had served in Vietnam when he had not.

“On more than one occasion?” Again, that could mean several hundred occasions—or it could mean just two. (In a wonderfully comical moment, Hoyt praises this murky construction as “a clear set of facts.”)

If we chose to trash people’s character in the casual way the Times does, we would tell you, without one word more, how dishonest Clark Hoyt is—how he loves the old trick of skillfully playing the numbers.

Does Clark Hoyt simply dislike numbers? The weakness of the Times hit piece lay in the tiny number of misstatements by Blumenthal the paper was able to find. Depending on how you wanted to count, the paper claimed that Blumenthal had misstated or blurred the facts on three or four different occasions. But on one of these occasions, the Times actually quoted Blumenthal making a perfectly accurate statement; on another, a Connecticut resident on whom the Times had relied instantly said that she’d been misquoted. What are the actual numbers here—the numbers Hoyt tirelessly worked to avoid? In fact, we would say that the Times turned up one instance where Blumenthal misstated his record, and one more instance where he may have done so (although the evidence there is murky). But so what? Behaving in a slippery manner, Hoyt avoided using these very small numbers all through yesterday’s column, hiding behind constructions like “several” and “more than one.” And omigod! Note what Hoyt said in the one instance where he did use an actual number:

HOYT: The Times did extensive independent reporting beyond the video. It filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained Blumenthal’s military records. It interviewed members of the Reserve unit in which he served. And [New York Times editor Joan] Ryan said the paper’s research department searched newspaper articles about Blumenthal spanning 20 years.

Good God! The Times surveyed twenty years of public records—and produced that very meager harvest! In the course of that twenty years, the Times seems to have found only one or two misstatements. But Hoyt persistently failed to give you those actual numbers.

One or two misstatements, over twenty years? It’s stunning to think that the New York Times would build a gigantic, front-page, career-ending piece from so meager a harvest. It’s even worse when its public editor extends the newspaper’s gruesome practice, keeping readers in the dark about these actual numbers.

George Bailey would have died in prison if the modern New York Times had ruled in Bedford Falls.

Hoyt behaved in other unfortunate ways in yesterday’s whitewash. In the following passage, he accepts one of the paper’s more curious frameworks, then plays the numbers again:

HOYT: Ryan said the newspaper found “scant evidence that Mr. Blumenthal himself sought to make clear to his audiences that his service never took him outside of the United States.”

There was some evidence The Times did not mention, like a 2004 Hartford Courant profile saying that Blumenthal, knowing his draft number was coming up, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve like many men hoping to avoid Vietnam. But David Folkenflik of NPR did a database search and found that several Connecticut newspapers had repeatedly mischaracterized Blumenthal’s service.

In this passage, Blumenthal is judged dishonest because he didn’t correct all those errors. (Quoting Hoyt, “several Connecticut newspapers had repeatedly mischaracterized Blumenthal’s service.”) But readers, here we go again! “Repeatedly” is a slippery word; it can mean that the “repeated” error happened as rarely as twice—and that’s amazingly close to what Folkenfilk actually reported. In fact, Folkenflik says the Connecticut Post was the biggest offender—and according to what Folkenflik says, the Post has made only three such errors, dating back through 2003! (We base this on additional research, since Folkenflik fudges a number at one point too.) How different the tone of Hoyt’s passage would be if he’d used these actual numbers instead of his slipperier words!

In our view, Hoyt’s review is a virtual whitewash of some truly horrible “journalism.” He rebuts the weakest complaints about the Times, while avoiding or skipping past the paper’s most serious errors. Most egregiously, he persistently fails to note a basic fact: The Times found very few examples of Blumenthal misspeaking, despite the fact that the paper’s so-called research department “searched newspaper articles about Blumenthal spanning 20 years.”

If we judged others the way the Times does—and we don’t—we’d call Hoyt a big liar too. And we’d emit dark mordant laughter as we reviewed this passage:

HOYT: Reaction to the story was strong and immediate. Blumenthal said at the news conference that he took “full responsibility” for misspeaking about his service on occasion but said he never intentionally misled anyone and called the false claims “misplaced words.” A source in the article joined him at the news conference to contradict what The Times quoted her as saying. Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called the article a “hatchet job” planted by the opposition. Some Connecticut journalists who cover Blumenthal said they were never misled about his military service. And The Times was criticized for selectively editing the video, which was its strongest evidence.

Sad. In that one little highlighted sentence, Hoyt pretends to review a major problem with the Times’ reporting. “Some” Connecticut journalists “said they were never misled” about Blumenthal’s service? Here again, “some” is a slippery word. In fact, a long list of experienced journalists spoke up on Blumenthal’s defense in the wake of the New York Times story—and they said something far stronger than what Hoyt reports. In fact, they said they had never seen Blumenthal misstate his record. If the Times wants to give a full, fair report, its readers deserve to be told that fact. But in that slippery, highlighted passage, Hoyt got out the fudge once again.

Here’s the bottom line on this piece: The Times reviewed the past twenty years—and came up with maybe two misstatements. A tremendous amount of industry has been devoted to hiding those unfortunate facts—and this continued in Hoyt’s column. If we judged people the way the Times does, we’d be calling Hoyt a liar. He might end up in a prison cell—bunked with an aging George Bailey.

Swimming to dystopia, continued: What did Hoyt say about the bungled passage concerning the Harvard swim team? This gratuitous, under-researched, error-riddled passage was used to savage Blumenthal all week, right through yesterday’s This Week program.

What did Hoyt say about that passage? Nothing—he gave it a pass!

George Will proceeded from there. But so it has gone, for the past twenty years, as the paper Hoyt whitewashes has made a sick joke of your lives.

Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! You read this garbage first in the Times. This week, the garbage continues.