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HOW TO SPEAK (RICK) STENGELESE! Sometimes a victory cigar is just a cigar—unless you’re a big Sunday pundit: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27, 2007

DUBYA SI, EDWARDS NO: Whose pols does the New York Times most like to slime? Last Friday, the paper offered a slippery front-page report, suggesting that John Edwards did something wrong in setting up a foundation designed to address poverty issues.

But two days later, the Times offered a make-up report—a report which vouched for a major pol’s character. In this case, though, the Times was mind-reading George W. Bush—offering a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good explanation of the gentleman’s stand on immigration.

Neither report was especially strong. Each was built around motive and mind-reading. But as a general matter, it was Dubya si—and Edwards no—on the front page of Gotham’s great Times.

We’ve already seen the way the Times made Edwards seem like a bad guy. With Bush, though, it was quite different. What explains Bush’s immigration stand? As you read, note Jim Rutenberg’s cheerful view—and note the source of his insight. And readers, one more thing—go ahead! In this piece, you’re allowed to feel good:
RUTENBERG (6/24/07): Mr. Bush has pursued a goal of providing citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants with rare attacks on his conservative supporters, who have derided his approach as tantamount to amnesty. There are various political motivations for Mr. Bush to push for his plan, including the rapid growth in the nation's Hispanic population, a voting group that he has long considered to be potentially Republican.

But the roots of Mr. Bush's passion lie here in Midland, now heavily Hispanic, the city where Mr. Bush spent much of his childhood and to which he returned as a young adult after spending his high school and college years in the more genteel settings of Andover and Yale.

As a boy, and later as a young, hard-drinking oilman, his friends say, Mr. Bush developed a particular empathy for the new Mexican immigrants who worked hard on farms, in oil fields and in people's homes and went on to raise children who built businesses and raised families of their own, without the advantages he had as the scion of a wealthy New England family.

The symbiosis fit with the Bush family's Northeastern, free-trade Republicanism, which took on a Mexican flair, especially after Mr. Bush's parents hired a live-in Mexican maid in Texas who became part of the family, and his brother, Jeb, married a young woman from Mexico who initially spoke little English.
Let’s be frank; Rutenberg doesn’t really know why Bush has chosen his path on immigration. But he chose a feel-good explanation, and it ran on page one of the Times. “The roots of Bush’s passion” lie in Midland, we were told, where Bush “developed a particular empathy” for the Mexican immigrants he saw all around him. And Rutenberg knows that this must be true. After all, he was told this pleasing story by “his [Bush’s] friends.”

What explains Bush on immigration? We don’t have the slightest idea. But we can guess that John Edwards’ friends might have a pleasing tale to tell too. Sadly, friends of Edwards failed to appear in last Friday’s story.

WHAT DIDN’T THE NEW YORK TIMES KNOW...: Yesterday, we looked at the way the press corps failed to report Patrick Fitzgerald’s judgment about Valerie Plame. (“It was clear from very early in the investigation that Ms. Wilson qualified under the relevant statute...as a covert agent.”)

Today, we look at what the New York Times didn’t know about a local boy—Rudy Giuliani. Readers, what didn’t the New York Times know? And when didn’t the New York Times know it?

Last week, Newsday reported a somewhat embarrassing story; in May 2006, Giuliani quit his spot on the Iraq Study Group in favor of lucrative speaking engagements. We gave the assignment to a team of crack analysts: In real time, what did the Post and the Times report about Giuliani’s departure?

The answer was: Not much. In real time, the Washington Post did report the fact that Giuliani had quit the Group. This short account appeared in the paper’s “Washington in Brief” section:
WASHINGTON POST (6/1/06): Former attorney general Edwin Meese III has replaced former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as a member of the Iraq Study Group, the group's co-chairmen announced yesterday.

Meese served as attorney general during the Reagan administration and holds the Ronald Reagan chair in public policy at the Heritage Foundation. Giuliani resigned in May from the 10-member bipartisan study group that provides assessments of conditions in Iraq and the surrounding region.

James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton are co-chairmen of the group.
Short but sweet. But accurate.

At the Times, things were different. Yes, Giuliani’s a home-town boy, so you’d think they’d follow his moves pretty closely. But as far as we can tell from the Nexis records, in May and June 2006, the paper failed to report that he’d left the Iraq Study Group. (Nor does the AP seem to have noted this.) And then, that fall, the paper bungled. David Sanger reported on the ISG’s progress. And uh-oh! He offered this:
SANGER (10/9/06): The Iraq Study Group, created with the reluctant blessing of the White House, includes notable Republicans and Democrats, among them William J. Perry, a former defense secretary under President Clinton; former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York; the former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor; and Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a longtime civil rights leader.
Oops. By now, the home-town kid had been gone for almost five months, but the paper of record didn’t seem to have heard. But within a week, the Times found out! One week later, the paper offered a comical, two-part correction:
CORRECTION (10/16/06): Because of an editing error, a front-page article last Monday about assessments of United States strategy in Iraq by James A. Baker III, co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, referred incorrectly to the group's origin. It was created at the urging of Congress, not by Mr. Baker. Because of an editing error, the article also included an outdated reference to the group's membership. While Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, was an original member, he withdrew and was replaced by Edwin Meese III...
Huh! Sanger’s report had included Giuliani “because of an editing error,” the paper now said.

But just what was that “editing error?” We checked—and we found what we’d semi-suspected. To all appearances, Sanger had simply cut-and-pasted this passage from Steven Weisman’s original Times report, written when the Iraq Study Group was first formed:
WEISMAN (4/24/06): Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton chose the other members of the group, trying to pick respected people who would be prepared to take a fresh look at the situation, they said.

Among their team are William J. Perry, a former defense secretary under President Clinton; former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York; the former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor; and Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a longtime civil rights leader, Washington power broker and confidant of President Clinton.
That passage was right—when Weisman wrote it. In October, Sanger seems to have cut-and-pasted the very same words—but by then, the listing was wrong.

The Times was still clueless about their boy. And Sanger had cut-and-pasted wildly. But don’t worry—the Times knew just how to play it. One week later, they found Giuliani—and they said that an “editing error” had caused all the bad mixed-up work.

Was the mighty Times pounding the pavement, trying to learn why Giuliani had quit? For five months, they didn’t even know he was gone! Eight more months passed—and it fell to Newsday to explain why “America’s mayor” had packed his bags and left.

Special report: A day in the life!


PART 1—HOW TO SPEAK (RICK) STENGELESE: Sunday! The day of the week when God himself rested! In modern times, though, it’s the day of the week when top-ranking pundits showcase their skill at throwing off large, honking howlers.
Consider Rick Stengel, Time’s managing editor, appearing on last weekend’s Chris Matthews Show. In most markets, the informative show airs on Sunday. So Stengel knew what was required.

And just like that, opportunity knocked! The gang was considering Michael Bloomberg’s possible run for White House glory. And so, it was time for some meaningless trivia—and it was time to read Bloomberg’s mind! The eponymous program’s excitable host played tape of Bloomberg making a meaningless statement at a fatuous dinner event—a May 8 dinner event thrown by Time. Then, he threw to Stengel for comment. Needless to say, Matthews was eager to learn the meaning of the mayor’s remarks:
MATTHEWS (6/24/07): Mayor Mike Bloomberg has made the moves and sent the signals he might run as an independent. But we know he wouldn't even do this lightly. He's a guy who likes to win. Last month, Rick Stengel's Time magazine picked Bloomberg as one of the world's 100 Most Influential People, and at the ceremony—I was there—Bloomberg was asked to name his biggest inspiration. And he went with the Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerbach, a guy who won a lot.

BLOOMBERG (on videotape): Red Auerbach was, to me, the kind of role model we all should have. He was a guy who cared about one thing. He cared about winning, but he cared about winning in the right way. Red Auerbach cared about winning, but if you looked at the Celtics, they always wore their jackets with pride. There wasn't any false arrogance. There wasn't any trash talk. There was an understanding that they represented the best things in America, and they were role models to all of us. Red Auerbach unfortunately died about a year ago, but who will forget that when Red Auerbach lit up the cigar in Boston Gardens, saying, “We've won this game” and he won it the ways we all want to win: honestly, with talent. We need more people like that in this country. My role model was Red Auerbach.

MATTHEWS: Rick, what's that tell you?
Poor Bloomberg! Asked a dumb question in a roomful of swells, he stood and wasted everyone’s time, naming Red Auerbach as a youthful role model. But his statement had made a type of clear sense. Bloomberg grew up in Medford, Mass.—a close-in suburb of Boston—during the height of the Celtics’ reign. (Full disclosure: We were right next door, in Winchester.) And like Bloomberg, Auerbach was Jewish.

But Matthews was hosting a Sunday panel; therefore, he was eager to learn what Bloomberg’s statement had actually meant. And so, he tossed to Stengel, whose mag had thrown the fatuous dinner at which the pointless question had led to the time-wasting answer. When he did so, Matthews got the kind of answer so often heard on the sabbath:
MATTHEWS: Rick, what's that tell you?

STENGEL (gesturing confidently): Chris, never in American history has a New York City mayor praised a coach of the Boston Celtics. Why? The New Hampshire primary.

MATTHEWS: Oh, you're unbelievable!

STENGEL: Boston covers the market.

PANEL: Ohhhh!
Or maybe that should have been uh-oh! Yes, Boston covers the (New Hampshire) market—but independents don’t run in the New Hampshire primary! Stengel had taken six full weeks to ponder the meaning of Bloomberg’s statement. Six weeks later, this was what he had wrought.

No, Stengel’s statement didn’t seem to make sense. But so what? In the time-honored manner, it showed the pundit corps’ vast superiority to the mere mortals they stoop to cover. It showed they can read these mortals’ minds, teasing out the hidden meaning of even their most pointless statements. And it showed that they can apply their dumb-as-rocks frameworks in all earthly cases—even in cases where their frameworks clearly don’t seem to apply.

Readers, we think it was Freud who first said it: Sometimes a victory cigar is just a cigar. But on Sundays, leading pundits like to showcase their cohort’s dumbest narratives and practices. It was Casey Stengel who was often derided for incoherent sports-based remarks. But this Sunday, Rick, not Casey, struck out.

But then, in our modern world, this particular type of Stengelese has become a Sunday tradition. This past weekend, the gas-bag gang proved it all sabbath long.

FULLER DISCLOSURE: We were Red Sox people, of course. But Casey Stengel once told our sainted mother he liked her. Reason? His wife was named Edna, too.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Kathleen Parker does hair!