Part 4—Sober as a judge: Incomparably, your Daily Howler keeps demanding—and getting—results.
Yesterday, MSNBC brought itself up to date with respect to its transcripts. In fairness, we’d be slow to post transcripts too, if we had transcripts like theirs.
On Wednesday morning, the New York Times reported on a four-page statement it said it had received from Paul Nunziato’s lawyer.
Nunziato is head of the Port Authority police union. (He hasn’t stepped down or been fired.) On Wednesday evening, Rachel Maddow built two segments around the Times report.
Below, you see the way Maddow started her first segment. By normal journalistic standards, little of what you see is accurate.
We can’t say we blame MSNBC for slow-walking such material. To watch the whole segment, click here:
MADDOW (3/5/14): When access lanes onto the world’s busiest bridge were shut down, apparently on orders from a staffer in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office, in order to act some sort of still unexplained political revenge on a little town called Fort Lee, New Jersey—It’s depressing to watch a “liberal news channel” broadcast that type of work.
When that happened this past fall, allies of the governor tried to cover up the fact that they had done it. They concocted a cover story, saying it wasn’t a political vendetta that made them shut down that bridge. They said it was a totally innocent, apolitical traffic study. They didn’t do it for some still unexplained political reason. They just did it as a traffic study.
It wasn’t a traffic study. But for a long time, they tried to get away with saying that it was. “Nothing to see here, nothing to see here.”
By the time Bill Baroni, Governor Chris Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, appeared before the New Jersey legislature in November to try to sell the legislature on the idea that it was a traffic study, that whole attempt at a cover-up had already pretty much been debunked by then.
It was almost two months before that testimony when the head of the Port Authority was quoted in the media as saying that not only had he never heard of a traffic study, no one else had either. Not local officials. Not local police. The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed sources saying bluntly, “There was no study.”
The piddle got worse as Maddow proceeded. For now, let’s consider those five paragraphs.
On a journalistic basis, what’s wrong with that work? Let’s start with the novelization.
As Maddow starts, she starts telling a favorite story—a story about “a little town called Fort Lee” and “the world’s busiest bridge.”
As far as we know, the GW is the world’s busiest bridge. But on a journalistic basis, that fact has nothing to do with this story.
Would this problem be less significant if this was the world’s third busiest bridge? Obviously not. That phrase is endlessly used by Maddow for novelistic effect.
Meanwhile, is Fort Lee “a little town?” It isn’t exactly De Smet, the famous “Little Town on the Prairie.”
Fort Lee’s population is 36,000. For purposes of the lane closings mess, it serves a much larger area, an area filled with movers and shakers.
The little town by the busiest bridge is a novelistic device. It creates a version of Maddow’s favorite tale, in which she defends some pitiful little guy against an encroaching giant.
Ideally, journalists should try to avoid such novelization. (More prejudicial than probative.) In her standard, simple-minded way, Maddow went there first.
So far, none of Maddow’s claims were necessarily “false.” But as she continued, basic lines began getting fudged.
Your assignment: Evaluate the chronology in the passage which follows:
“When that happened this past fall, allies of the governor tried to cover up the fact that they had done it. They concocted a cover story, saying it wasn’t a political vendetta that made them shut down that bridge. They said it was a totally innocent, apolitical traffic study. They didn’t do it for some still unexplained political reason. They just did it as a traffic study.”
Allies of the governor “tried to cover up the fact that they had done it?” Through this construction, Maddow suggested, as she typically does, that the alleged cover story was concocted after the fact.
Maddow knows that chronology is false, but she constantly seems to assert it. Even accepting her supposition that the alleged traffic study was a sham, it would be easy to state the chronology in a clear, accurate way.
In such a presentation, viewers would be told that Wildstein went through the motions of conducting some sort of study or test before and during the traffic lane closings. (“Even before the lane closings happened, allies of the governor were acting out a cover story to hide what they were doing.”)
Maddow almost never does that, and this completely tilts her story. By her second paragraph Wednesday night, her report about the little town was already a bit of a mess.
“It wasn’t a traffic study,” Maddow then said, feeling no need to explain what she meant or how she knew it. And uh-oh! As she continued, she quickly began to deal in blatant misstatements of fact.
According to Maddow, “that whole attempt at a cover-up had already pretty much been debunked” by November 25, when Baroni testified before the legislative committee.
Watching Maddow Wednesday night, we didn’t know why she would say that. As she continued, she explained her claim—and she made some blatant misstatements, softened by a slippery selection of facts:
MADDOW: ...that whole attempt at a cover-up had already pretty much been debunked by then.Did the head of the agency say the things Maddow described? Pretty much, yes—he did. The Maddow Blog links to this October 1 report in the Wall Street Journal.
It was almost two months before that testimony when the head of the Port Authority was quoted in the media as saying that not only had he never heard of a traffic study, no one else had either. Not local officials. Not local police. The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed sources saying, bluntly, there was no study.
In fact, the Journal quoted only one unnamed source saying bluntly, “There was no study.” (The unnamed source wasn’t asked what he meant or how he knew that.)
Meanwhile, was Port Authority head Patrick Foye actually quoted saying the things Maddow describes in that passage? Actually, yes—he was! This is the relevant passage in the Wall Street Journal report:
MANN (10/1/13): Mr. Foye, an appointee of Mr. Cuomo, wrote that the lane closures were made without informing numerous interested parties, including himself, local and Port Authority police, Mr. Sokolich, and commuters.Assuming Mann’s report is correct, Foye said those things in that email. But here’s the problem: Long before Wednesday night, Maddow knew that several of his statements were wrong.
His email also throws into question the Port Authority's prior explanation for the shutdown: that the lanes were closed so the authority could perform the traffic study.
In the email, Mr. Foye listed the divisions within the authority that weren't consulted before the traffic pattern was changed, including the police department, and the Traffic and Engineering division.
In fact, the Port Authority police were consulted, as Maddow plainly knows. The traffic engineers had also been informed, as Maddow recently stated in detail. (Text below.)
If Foye said those things in that early email, he made some early misstatements. (It happens.) But please! As of Wednesday night, Maddow plainly knew—had known for months—that those statements were false. She also knew it was wrong to say that no one had heard about a traffic study.
Maddow knew that was wrong—but so what? She used that erroneous statement, attributed to Foye, to drive a puzzling claim—her claim that the traffic study “had already pretty much been debunked” by the time Baroni testified.
Readers, can we talk? If you’d played a drinking game that night, a game based on Maddow making accurate statements, you would have been stone cold sober by the time this segment was over. Let’s get clear on the extent to which Maddow is willing to play her viewers.
In that early email, Foye mistakenly said that the Port Authority police and traffic engineers hadn’t been informed. Maddow was willing to use those claims to “prove” a peculiar assertion.
Plainly, she knew those claims were wrong. Below, you see her, a few weeks ago, taking credit for breaking the story about the way the engineers were consulted.
At the time, we wondered if this was perhaps her latest “smuggled correction:”
MADDOW (2/19/14): Thanks to Steve Kornacki’s reporting, we now believe that that was David Wildstein taking a ride around with a Port Authority police lieutenant whose name is Chip Michaels. And Chip Michaels turns up in a few other places in the documents that have been released publicly so far.That was Maddow, taking credit for breaking the story about the way the engineers were consulted. (She had briefly mentioned this back in December.) And there she was this Wednesday night, saying no one had been consulted, using this fact to drive a puzzling claim.
Now we have previously reported, we actually broke the news on this show, about how David Wildstein actually did the work over a period of a couple of weeks of planning the bridge shutdown before he actually put it into effect. What was fascinating about that is that he got some options from the career employees around the bridge, from the technocrats, from the traffic engineers, about ways to mess with Fort Lee.
David Wildstein asked them specifically to model some new traffic patterns that would result in reducing Fort Lee’s access to the bridge. But the options that the traffic engineers gave David Wildstein once he asked for that apparently weren’t draconian enough. Because David Wildstein went back to the traffic engineers after he got the first batch of options from them and he asked them for worse options.
He asked them to make the lane shutdown even more severe than what the traffic engineers had initially offered him. Presumably so as to cause maximum pain to Fort Lee, since we know that’s what they were trying to do.
We reported previously on this show that that happened in August last year, ahead of the actual shutdown. Well, now, as of today, we have something that suggests at least a similar dynamic at work once the shutdown was already underway.
By the way, did Maddow know that the Port Authority police had been informed? Of course she did! On that same show, she was trying to hang Chip Michaels, an officer on the Port Authority police. On that program, she invented statements by two different people to make it seem that Michaels had been trying to make the traffic jams worse.
She simply dreamed two statements to help her allege misconduct by Michaels. On Wednesday night, she was pretending that no one had been consulted.
Maddow is almost pathological in her dissembling about Fort Lee. As she continued on Wednesday night, so did her misconduct.
As she began to focus on Nunziato, she wildly embellished several things he and Bill Baroni have said. What follows involves some clownish embellishment and a heinous omission:
MADDOW (3/5/14): What’s more interesting than the fact that Paul Nunziato was wrong when he was trying to advance the cover-up is the fact that he so adamantly and so publicly tried to advance the cover-up.Sorry, Piscataway! Baroni never said the cover-up was all Nunziato’s idea; neither did Nunziato. That was pure embellishment, creating a more pleasing tale.
I mean, he took credit for it! Bill Baroni said, “Hey, it was all that guy’s idea.” And Paul Nunziato said, “Yes, yes! It was all my idea. That was me.”
Meanwhile, as Maddow complained about the way Nunziato “so adamantly and so publicly tried to advance the cover-up,” she failed to report what Nunziato’s lawyer had told the New York Times.
According to Nunziato’s lawyer, Nunziato believed there had been a traffic study all through the fall and early winter. According to the lawyer, Nunziato believed that until January 8, when the first batch of emails involving Wildstein and Bridget Kelly was released.
We can’t tell you if that’s true. But it isn’t enormously hard to believe, unless you’ve been misinformed about these events in the way favored by Maddow.
People! By all accounts, Wildstein went through the motions of conducting some sort of traffic study or test. By all accounts, two major bridge officials believed he was conducting some such test.
Each man testified at length, under oath. According to their testimony, they thought he was behaving very unwisely, but they didn’t believe he was staging a hoax. There’s no obvious reason why Nunziato might not have believed that too.
Nunziato’s lawyer told the Times that he did believe that until the emails appeared. But Maddow didn’t tell her viewers what the lawyer had said.
Instead, she accused Nunziato of heinous behavior—of “adamantly and publicly trying to advance the cover-up.” That was a very serious charge. Even as she pretended to discuss the New York Times report, Maddow forgot to tell her viewers what the lawyer had said.
We’ll repeat what we said some time back. Someone ought to take Maddow by the arm and lead her quietly away.
As she pretends to cover the Fort Lee case, her behavior borders on disturbed. That said, her supervisor’s background is entirely in comedy and sports, and viewers enjoy all her clowning.
Still coming: Two ways to imagine this conduct