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THEY LOVE THE SMELL OF DEATH IN THE SUMMER! Jumping the shark and smelling the glove, Gail Collins melts into self-parody: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JULY 9, 2009

Washington Post in decline/Sotomayor edition: Wow. In this morning’s Washington Post, Jerry Markon presents a front-page review of Sandra Sotomayor’s Second Circuit decisions. The work is extremely weak.

Let’s start with this astounding account of a standard Markon used in categorizing Sotomayor’s decisions. The system was devised by Donald Songer, a political scientist:

MARKON (7/9/09): Sotomayor's votes in split [non-unanimous] cases were compared with those of other judges through a database that tracks federal appellate decisions nationwide, a random sampling of 5,400 cases. The database codes decisions as "liberal" or "conservative" based on what its creator, University of South Carolina political scientist Donald Songer, says are common definitions. Votes in favor of a defendant, for example, are classified as liberal, while those supporting prosecutors are called conservative.

Could Songer’s “common definitions” really be that simple-minded? We have no idea. But according to Markon, he himself has counted Sotomayor’s decisions as “liberal” any time she voted in favor of a defendant.

It’s hard to believe that the basic brain-power of the Post has slid to this pitiful level.

Second, let’s note a relative trifle. We’re always amazed when big newspapers present writing of the type which follows. Again, the point is relatively minor. But this paragraph is defiantly bad, almost designed to confuse:

MARKON (continuing directly): Sotomayor's votes came out liberal 59 percent of the time, compared with 52 percent for other judges who, like her, were appointed by Democratic presidents. Democratic appointees overall were 13 percent more liberal than Republican appointees, according to the database analysis.

Let’s pretend that those “common definitions” actually make sense. This passage says that Sotomayor votes “liberal” 59 percent of the time—and that other Democratic-appointed judges vote “liberal” 52 percent of the time. Question: How often do Republican-appointed judges vote “liberal?” Markon makes the reader cipher that out for himself! (The answer would seem to be 39 percent, although we can’t be completely sure.) If you want readers to absorb your basic facts, this is a remarkably unhelpful way to present them. (Rewriting that final sentence: “Republican appointees voted liberal 39 percent of the time, according to the database analysis.” Stylistically, that’s a bit repetitive. But you’re no longer obscuring the facts.)

That said, let’s review a basic claim in Markon’s report. This is his opening paragraph:

MARKON: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's opinions show support for the rights of criminal defendants and suspects, skepticism of corporations, and sympathy for plaintiffs alleging discrimination, an analysis of her record by The Washington Post found. And she has delivered those rulings with a level of detail considered unusual for an appellate judge.

According to Markon’s opening paragraph, Sotomayor’s record shows “sympathy for plaintiffs alleging discrimination.” This claim is somewhat odd, because other studies have suggested that her record in discrimination cases is hard to distinguish from the records of her fellow judges. And in theory, this is important. Some complaints about Sotomayor have turned on the claim that she’s a “racist” who tends to vote her race/ethnicity.

Do Sotomayor’s decisions show some sort of unusual sympathy for plaintiffs alleging discrimination? In fact, Markon never explains, supports or discusses that first-paragraph claim at any point in his report. He never revisits the topic. In the following passage, he may be explaining the “logic” behind that claim, although there’s no way to be sure:

MARKON: To examine the record of Sotomayor, whose Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday, The Post reviewed all 46 of her cases in which the 2nd Circuit issued a divided ruling, nearly 900 pages of opinions. Although Sotomayor has heard about 3,000 cases, judicial scholars say split decisions provide the most revealing window into ideology because in such cases the law and precedent are often unclear, making them similar to cases heard by the Supreme Court. President Obama, who nominated Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter, has said Supreme Court justices will be in agreement 95 percent of the time.

Markon has reviewed only 46 of Sotomayor’s cases—out of about 3000! And who knows? In that handful of cases (1.5 percent of the total), Sotomayor may have favored a few more plaintiffs claiming discrimination than her fellow judges. But let’s state the obvious: In the vast bulk of those 3000 cases, she judged just like the other judges, since the cases were unanimous. Other analyses have reviewed all her discrimination cases—and have found that her voting record differs little from the records of her fellow judges. She has shown “sympathy for plaintiffs alleging discrimination” to almost exactly the same extent as everyone else.

That said, let’s revisit Markon’s basic claim, which may need some clarification:

Sotomayor voted “liberal” 59 percent of the time, Markon says. But uh-oh! He seems to say that Sotomayor’s percentage only involves her 46 non-unanimous cases. Similarly, he seems to suggest that those other percentages (Republicans vote liberal 39 percent of the time) only involve “split cases.” This would mean that Sotomayor’s percentage of “liberal” votes has been derived from just those 46 cases—from less than two percent of her total record! Similarly, that 39 percent record by Republican judges would only derive from their non-unanimous cases.

Is that how Songer’s system works? We’ve read and reread what Markon wrote. Sorry—we just can’t tell.

Markon also stirs a semi-debate, asking if Sotomayor engages in too much basic fact-finding. But this is a woeful piece of work. The Washington Post is in deep trouble—as is the nation it serves.

THEY LOVE THE SMELL OF DEATH IN THE SUMMER: In the summer of 1999, Maureen Dowd disappeared from her post. When the lady returned, refreshed and relaxed, she penned a string of thoughtful columns on the following topics:

Maureen Dowd column topics, 1999:
July 28: She described her recent lazer eye surgery.
August 1: She reviewed the movie “Runaway Bride.”
August 4: She discussed a new Talk magazine piece about the Clintons’ marriage.
August 8: Bob Dole on the prospect of being “first gentleman.” (His wife was running for president.)
August 11: She compared two famous “blond icons”—Hillary Clinton and Marilyn Monroe.
August 15: Might Warren Beatty run for the White House?
August 18: Bush and the question of youthful drug use.
August 22: More Bush and the question of youthful drug use.
August 25: She reviewed a sexy-time cable film about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.
August 29: She examined John McCain’s life story, psychoanalyzing his reasons for seeking the White House. (“Never have so many men wanted to run...to prove they are worthy to larger-than-life dads.”)
September 1: “I ran into Kato Kaelin the other night,” she wrote—before discussing Monica Lewinsky’s plan to launch a lipstick line.
September 5: She offered her review of Paris, a new Las Vegas casino hotel.

As a history-changing White House campaign took shape, Dowd had three big things on her mind—celebrity, gossip and sex.

Today, Dowd remains a simpering ninny, spreading around DSM diagnoses about Big Major Pols. And she has Gail Collins right there by her side! In case you haven’t been keeping score, her is the breakdown of Lady Collins’ recent columns—including the massive piece of self-parody she unloosed on the world today:

Gail Collins column topics, 2009:
June 20: John Ensign’s affair.
June 25: Mark Sanford’s affair.
June 27: Mark Sanford’s affair.
July 2: Mark Sanford’s affair.
July 4: Sarah Palin’s resignation
July 9: Michael Jackson’s funeral.

As your nation struggles with monetary heists, unemployment and national health care, Collins has three major things on her mind—celebrity, sex and gossip. This morning, though, she stoops to explain the thinking of her high class:

COLLINS (7/9/09): The media, for its part, plans to continue talking about Michael Jackson for quite a while—this is the first time since the election that we feel we have everyone's attention.

Collins couldn’t quite decide if “the media” was “it” or “we.” But helpfully, she tried to explain the reason for her own current focus. Darlings! When they write about Michael Jackson, they feel they have everybody's attention! Then too, this gives them a topic so simple-minded that their own weak attention won’t stray.

Health care is boring—to people who have it. Writing about it? That’s hard!

Might we state the merely obvious? Especially on our cable “news” channels, they love the smell of death in the summer! It 1997, it was Lady Di. In 1999, it was JFK Junior (oddly, Dowd took a pass); in 2004, it was President Reagan. And then, there were the non-celebrity deaths and disappearances. Most notably, this includes Chandra Levy’s disappearance in 2001, which they milked—and improved with two bogus facts—right through September 11.

There are serious topics one might explore surrounding the life of Jackson. (One example: The way he helped teach a generation of young people to dream past strictures of “race.”) Collins didn’t much visit such places; she preferred to smell the gentleman’s glove and seek out ways to kill time. Principally, she simpers about Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s proposed resolution in praise of Jackson. On balance, we tend to see Lee as a bit of a showboat. But we let our analysts enjoy a good belly-laugh when they reached the end of the Lady’s column. As she closed, she scolded the lower House for wasting its time in this fashion:

COLLINS: America is a sea of woe these days, and we want to believe our elected representatives are spending every waking minute trying to help. Deep in our hearts, we know that many of them wouldn’t know what to do with a problem if they had it captured in a glass jar with no air holes. But we prefer not to be reminded of their uselessness by hearing that they spent their time arguing about whether the King of Pop deserves a posthumous ceremonial commendation.

If you can’t do anything serious, guys, it’s really better not to do anything at all. Spend your free time in prayer and contemplation.

For decades, Collins’ tribe has been astounding. But the Lady jumped the shark today with this bit of self-parody.

America is in a sea of woe? We want to believe our elected representatives are trying to help? Funny! That’s what we’ve always wanted to believe about our Big Famous Journalists!

You won’t hear much about health care from Collins; the Lady already has it. Nor will you hear about the topic from Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow. On our progressive cable “news” channel, the tedious topic has been dispatched to the ghetto of the 6 PM hour. In later hours, when we rubes are watching, we keep getting handed sex on the hoof. Our side is badly in need of help in sorting out the health care debate. But like the Ladies Collins and Dowd, the Jesters Olbermann/Maddow don’t do the topic. At all.

Last night, the Ensign sex scandal seemed to be Maddow’s first planned topic. (It got bumped back by breaking news, which Maddow bungled, like KO before her.) Why are we given Our Own Rhodes Scholar? To read love letters! Like the letter she read last night, from Ensign to his “admitted mistress:”

MADDOW (7/8/09): The first major Republican sex and corruption scandal of the summer—twice buried—is now reaching out from beyond the grave. New detailed and scandalous evidence surfaces to further—of all things—the John Ensign sex scandal.

Today, the Las Vegas Sun published a handwritten letter purportedly written by John Ensign to the campaign staffer he has admitted to having an affair with. Her name is Cindy Hampton. The letter is dated February 2008—that would have been during the time of the affair, according to the senator`s own time line.

And the letter reads:

Cindy,

This is the most important letter that I’ve ever written. What I did with you was wrong. I was completely self- centered in only thinking of myself. I used you for my own pleasure, not letting thoughts of you, Doug, your husband or your kids come into my mind.

I betrayed everything I believe in. I lied to myself over and over. I justified my actions because I blamed my wife. Doug has been a great friend to me over the years and I threw all of over that away over wanting to feel good.

I take 100 percent responsibility for my actions. Plain and simple, it was wrong. It was sin.

We called John Ensign’s office today to confirm that this letter was in fact written by him. They have not returned our calls so far.

The letter was given to the Las Vegas Sun by the husband of Ensign’s admitted mistress, Doug Hampton, who’s referenced in the letter. Hampton today also filled in a few of the other outrageously scandalous blanks in this story. He admitted that he was attempting to extort millions of dollars out of Senator Ensign.

Mr. Hampton also said that within 24 hours of writing this plaintive letter, Senator Ensign was already back to pursuing his wife. Ensign, that weekend, reportedly telling Doug Hampton, quote, "I’m in love with your wife." And we know from Ensign`s own admission that the affair didn’t end until six months after this “It all has to be over now, it was sin” letter was dated.

Finally, Hampton has started filling in some “outrageously scandalous blanks!”

For the record, we watched a bunch of cable news programs last night. As far as we can tell from Nexis, only Maddow favored viewers with a reading of Ensign’s letter. In fairness, one break-through did occur: For the first time, Maddow didn’t pretend to be embarrassed as she treated us rubes.

Repeat: Maddow is marketed as a Rhodes Scholar. And yet, she doesn’t do health care! Later on in last night’s show, she burned another whole segment trying to figure out how it feels to be the Unabomber’s brother.

As marketing mavens will do, the corporate world offers an array of faces to its “news” consumers. It can be hard to see that those who purport to be in our tribe are much like those in another.

We’re not saying that these hot sex scandals shouldn’t be covered at all. But on Countdown and Maddow, health reform simply isn’t covered. The topic doesn’t exist. Nor will Naomi Klein be back. Are we really undergoing “the biggest heist in monetary history?” Klein said that to Maddow on May 6—and turned into burnt cable toast.

(Spitzer won’t be back either.)

Does the answer to this topic selection possibly lie in the world of Bill Wolff? In that world, they love the smell of death in the summer—and the taste of hot sexy-time sex.