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DEFINING THE TIMES! Career liberals acted like Serious People when the Times did it again: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 27, 2010

The limits of Rand Paul and race: Yesterday, we said that Rachel Maddow performed a real service when she kept repeating her question to Rand Paul last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/10). We also said that her question, about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had its limitations.

What are those limitations?

Maddow’s question was based on things Paul had said in earlier interviews. In fairness, this topic does offer a window into the soul of Paul’s “libertarian” “philosophy.” But as Paul was correctly noting by the end of the interview, he had never proposed repealing the Civil Rights Act, and no one else is ever going to do so. At some point, repeated questioning on this topic starts to seem like piling on, and makes Paul a figure of sympathy.

This is especially true when we liberals start suggesting, as we love to do, that Paul must be a racist if he holds such unconventional ideas.

Should the federal government let motel owners discriminate on the basis of race? In the real world, this question will never arise—thankfully, it’s “settled politics.” But at present, senators are facing profoundly serious questions about government’s relation to business owners. Three examples:

Current disasters create an excellent opportunity for progressives to do what we’ve failed to do in the past—to explain why the federal government simply has to regulate business. (Hopefully, in a competent manner.) This is a golden opportunity for progressives to develop a winning politics—a politics average people can accept.

That winning politics won’t result from hypothetical questions about segregated motels, a settled question on which this nation simply is not turning back.

We liberals love to call people racists. It’s a way of pimping our own moral greatness—and it requires almost no thought. On the other hand, we liberals have proven that we’re no goddamn good at building winning political frameworks. A winning framework could emerge from our nation’s recent string of disasters—but only if we set aside our self-pleasuring instincts and talk about the events which might help average people see a larger picture.

If the government doesn’t regulate business, big business interests will take gross advantage. Human nature has always worked that way—and it always will. Progressives ought to be using our recent disasters as a way to help voters reflect on this basic truth, a basic truth the other side works quite hard to obscure. (For example: With demonized tales about those “federal bureaucrats.”)

The current string of disasters points the way to a winning progressive politics. But we liberals enjoy doing other things—and, despite our persistent self-praise, we’re really quite willful and hapless.

By the way, we have one more point about Maddow and Paul. We’ll plan to hit it tomorrow.

DEFINING THE TIMES (permalink): Routinely, the New York Times presents horrible journalism. Consider Charles Blow’s current groaner on the great paper’s op-ed page.

Last Saturday, Blow wrote about Detroit’s murder rate—in particular, about the recent killing of a seven-year-old child. At one point, he let us know how hapless Detroit’s mayor is:

BLOW (5/22/10): Mayor David Bing said Thursday of recent killings: “It’s very demoralizing, very painful. Don’t know how to stop it, quite frankly.” So the hapless become the hopeless.

That’s not what that city needs to hear from its mayor. Detroit is fighting real crime and the even more corrosive and debilitating perception of crime.

[...]

The combination of personal insecurity and financial insecurity has led many to give up on Detroit. Not me.

Luckily, Charles Blow hasn’t given up on Detroit, even if Mayor Bing has! But what did Mayor Bing really say in the wake of this recent killing? We decided to look it up—and we found the sort of thing we constantly find when we fact-check our greatest newspaper. In fact, Bing said many sensible things in the wake of that child’s killing. Blow simply cherry-picked the one fleeting comment that let him take a cheap shot at Bing. It also let Blow take a bow as a hero of urban labor—as a man more full of hope than Detroit’s sad, hapless mayor.

(Blow’s twenty-first commenter performed the same fact-check. He or she posted some of the other things Mayor Bing said in the wake of that killing. “Mr. Blow...has done Mayor Bing a grave injustice by quoting him in isolation and out of context,” the commenter said. “I spent some time ten minutes Mr. Blow didn't trying to get Mayor Bing's comments in better context.” It only took ten minutes, the commenter said. We’ve been there, the analysts cried. To get a more fair-and-balanced account of Bing’s comments, just click here. )

Blow’s cheap shot isn’t the end of the world, but it does represent crummy journalism. But then, crummy journalism is quote commonly found at our greatest newspaper. Blow’s cheap shot appeared just one day after Adam Nagourney’s groaner about Maddow’s interview with Paul (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/10); it appeared one day before the Times’ public editor “played the numbers” about Richard Blumenthal (see >THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/10). And remember: Whatever one thinks of Blumenthal’s misstatements (which seem to be quite few in number), the New York Times’ journalism was groaningly bad as it “reported” this story in gigantic fashion on its front page, two days in a row.

The Times has often trashed Big Dems as bad liars/dissemblers in the past eighteen years. The paper’s “journalism” has often been groaningly bad—and it was again in this instance.

That said, let’s review a few more problems with the Times’ treatment of Blumenthal before we ask a key question: Why do so few “career liberals” speak to this ongoing problem?

How silly and bad does it get at the Times? Consider three more issues:

Logic gone wild: Last Tuesday, the Times published Raymond Hernandez’ original front-page takedown of Blumenthal. The next day, it did a second front-page report, this time by Michael Barbaro. This piece was built around the undocumented claims of Christopher Shays, a former Republican congressman. (Blumenthal is a Democrat.) Shays’ account of Blumenthal’s alleged misstatements may be perfectly accurate—but then again, it may not be. Most comically, though, we noted the way elementary logic can sometimes go wild when the Times goes on a jihad:

BARBARO (5/19/10): Mr. Blumenthal discussed his past statements about his military service after The New York Times reported Monday night on its Web site that he had falsely said in March 2008 that he had served in Vietnam, and had repeatedly failed to correct media reports that perpetuated the claim.

[...]

Politicians have always shown deference to veterans, but for Mr. Blumenthal, it seemed to be a calling. Colleagues said he relished marching in Veterans Day parades and visiting veterans halls, where he would chat about their tours of duty.

Far from hiding his military resume, as some who did not see combat might do, he highlighted it. The biographical page of his Senate campaign Web site prominently displays a photo of a young Mr. Blumenthal, in his crisp blue and white uniform.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh when you read our greatest newspaper. In that first highlighted passage, Barbaro adopted a rather shaky standard from the Times’ original piece; Blumenthal is said to be at fault because he didn’t correct “repeated” misstatements made by others about his service. That’s a fairly shaky standard on which to judge a public official, especially since the number of “repeated” errors seemed to be rather small. (The Times seems to allege eight such errors in the past twenty years, one in a small weekly paper.) But in the second highlighted passage, Barbaro truly sets a new standard for foolishness. Now, Blumenthal seems to be at fault because he didn’t “hide” his military record, the way some others “might” do!

Truly, that is a comical notion. Might we repeat our earlier statement? Sometimes, you just have to laugh at the work of our greatest newspaper.

Thus quoth Jean Risley: In his original takedown of Blumenthal, Hernandez augmented his very slim number of alleged misstatements in several fairly obvious ways. Most dramatically, he padded his slender indictment with a relentlessly detailed account of Blumenthal’s draft deferments, a matter which has nothing to do with the question of whether he has falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam. Hernandez also padded his slender indictment with a ludicrous passage about the Harvard swim team—an inexcusable, insinuation-driven passage which was larded with errors of logic and fact. And, completing the rule of three, he padded his slender indictment by quoting Jean Risley. We offer the full passage:

HERNANDEZ (5/18/10): Mr. Blumenthal has made veterans' issues a centerpiece of his public life and his Senate campaign, but even those who have worked closely with him have gotten the misimpression that he served in Vietnam.

In an interview, Jean Risley, the chairwoman of the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial Inc., recalled listening to an emotional Mr. Blumenthal offering remarks at the dedication of the memorial. She remembered him describing the indignities that he and other veterans faced when they returned from Vietnam.

''It was a sad moment,'' she recalled. “He said, 'When we came back, we were spat on; we couldn't wear our uniforms.' It looked like he was sad to me when he said it.”

Ms. Risley later telephoned the reporter to say she had checked into Mr. Blumenthal's military background and learned that he had not, in fact, served in Vietnam.

Using the power of pluralization, Hernandez said that “even those who have worked closely with [Blumenthal] have gotten the misimpression that he served in Vietnam.” This implies that there are at least several such people who got misled. But Hernandez cited Risley as his lone example, and Risley instantly said that she had been misquoted. The New York Times didn’t deign to tell you that until Sunday, in the public editor’s column.

Was Risley misquoted? We have no idea. But the highlighted quote in that passage seemed odd to us on first reading; it makes better sense if we accept what Risley told the public editor. (According to Risley, she said that Blumenthal looked sad when someone else spoke about coming back.) For the record, we can’t prove that Blumenthal spoke at that ceremony at all, although he certainly may have. In its report the next day, the Hartford Courant listed a half dozen people who spoke, and Blumenthal wasn’t included. (One passage: “Speakers included U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; state commissioner of veterans' affairs Linda Schwartz, the first woman in that role and a Vietnam veteran; state Sen. Tony Guglielmo reading the governor's proclamation; retired Brig. Gen. Dan McHale; and Chris Golden, an American University political science major who as a Coventry student worked on the project to research the 612 biographies.” Blumenthal, a major state official, wasn’t mentioned at all.)

Was Risley misquoted? We have no idea. But please note: Risley was Hernandez’s sole example of a close associate who had been misled, although he claimed that others had been misled through use of the slippery word “those.” Should the Times have told its readers that Risley said the following in a public statement on the day Hernandez’s report appeared? Ed Stannard, in the New Haven Register:

STANNARD (5/19/10): Jean Risley, chairwoman of the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial Inc., also spoke, saying Blumenthal had appeared at dozens of military sendoffs, homecomings and funerals and that he had always spoken of himself only as a Vietnam-era veteran.

"There isn't a nicer, more honorable, more responsive advocate for our Vietnam veterans, our veterans in general, than Dick Blumenthal," she said.

In fact, a long list of reporters and close associates said they’d never seen Blumenthal misspeak. The Times’ refusal to present that information has simply been inexcusable, especially since Hernandez’s slippery construction implied something very different.

Willing to err in all directions: At it turns out, Hernandez and his editors seemed to show that they’re error-machines for all seasons. In his original article, Hernandez offered a shaky alleged example of Blumenthal misspeaking. Since Hernandez had found only three alleged examples of misstatements by Blumenthal, the shakiness of this example was especially striking:

HERNANDEZ: At a 2008 ceremony in front of the Veterans War Memorial Building in Shelton, he praised the audience for paying tribute to troops fighting abroad, noting that America had not always done so. ''I served during the Vietnam era,'' he said. ''I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.”

Hernandez had found only three alleged examples—and in this example, Blumenthal was speaking accurately! (He did serve during the Vietnam era. And he probably does remember the insults.) But how poorly does the New York Times reason? In the Connecticut Post, Richard Weizel offered this report of Blumenthal’s remarks in Shelton that day. Weizel misstated Blumenthal’s service—and he quoted Blumenthal seeming to do the same:

WEIZEL (5/18/08): State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who served as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam, said he was moved by the town's tribute and encouraged that more be done to create jobs, counseling and healthcare for returning soldiers than during the Vietnam era 30 years ago.

“When we returned from Vietnam, I remember the taunts, the verbal and even physical abuse we encountered," Blumenthal said. "It has taken 30 years for people to realize that, however they feel about the wars, they must honor the men and women who serve our country who had nothing to do with the decision to wage the conflicts.

"There is a federal program called No Child Left Behind," Blumenthal said. "I would like to see a new program No Veteran Left Behind.”

“When we returned from Vietnam?” If Weizel’s quotation is accurate, it comes much closer to being a misstatement than the remarks Hernandez quoted. Why did the Times choose to print Blumenthal’s accurate comments while skipping over this apparently inaccurate statement? We have no idea. But so it frequently goes at the Times, where the analytical skills are often amazingly poor.

For ourselves, we’re glad to see the new poll which suggests that Connecticut voters are not being stampeded by this groaning hit-piece. Please note: Yesterday, Joe Biden offered a small jibe at Blumenthal’s expense—but only because he himself had drifted into language which seemed to suggest that he too had been in Nam. Small clue: Politicians frequently talk about “we,” about “our generation,” as Biden did before clarifying. Can we talk? Whatever the truth may be about Blumenthal’s (apparent handful of) misstatements, politicians often make statements which are wrong or misleading without intending to mislead.

Final question: Why have you seen so few complaints about this episode at liberal sites? Just a guess:

Conservatives persistently trash the New York Times, even when the paper has done nothing wrong. In this way, conservative voters are trained to disregard all bad news which comes from the Times, even if the paper has reported correctly.

That is a foolish state of affairs. An equal-but-opposite state of affairs obtains among liberals.

The New York Times played a leading role in creating the Whitewater pseudo-scandal (and the whole Whitewater era). The Times then played a leading role in creating the deeply consequential war against Candidate Gore. Four years later, the New York Times played a leading role in creating the narrative that Candidate Kerry was a feckless flip-flopper. (He was for it before he was against it!) In the interim, the Times had done some famous bungling in its pre-Iraq coverage.

The Times does tons of horrible work—and its bungled character jihads have often been aimed at Big Democrats.

Liberal voters rarely hear this. One reason: The careers of liberal journalists often lead through the New York Times. Your heroes dream of jobs at the Times. Your right to be warned about this often hapless newspaper takes second place to their dreams.

The Times’ attack on Blumenthal has been a journalistic mess. But then, so were the paper’s earlier jihads about both Clintons, and then against Gore. Conservatives never put up with this crap—but many of your favorite liberals failed to draw these connections last week. They huffed and puffed and tugged their beards and acted like Serious People. You and your interests can just go to hell at such pivotal times.

As with Kagan’s silence, so perhaps with theirs: Future careers come first.