Part 3—The way our press corps works: It’s startling to observe the intellectual norms of our modern, upper-end “press corps.”
Consider Carter Eskew’s piece about the Mastro report. The piece appeared on the op-ed page of yesterday’s Washington Post, in its hard-copy editions.
Eskew began with a warning about Chris Christie’s claim that he knew nothing about Fort Lee. “If he is lying, the prevarication would be worse than the action,” the upright Eskew said.
From there, it was straight downhill for Eskew and his concern for the truth. Let’s ignore his logical wanderings. Soon he was saying this:
ESKEW (4/1/14): As others have noted, the report is sharply personal in its depiction of Kelly's supposed emotional state and its contribution to her actions. It describes her as having been dumped by one of the other figures in the scandal, Bill Stepien, and “looking upset” and seeming to have been “crying.”Given his opposition to sexism, Eskew ends in a rather odd way. But you know. Whatever!
Many commentators have described the report's language as sexist, but what's more important is what Kelly thinks about it. Christie's reaction indicates he doesn't care what she thinks; the case is closed. Whatever professional or personal reasons Kelly had to remain loyal to the governor are gone. And, to use a metaphor that Mastro might understand, the U.S. attorney is a strong shoulder for Kelly to cry on if she has any tears left.
The highlighted passages can be defended as (almost) technically accurate. The report does say that Kelly had a “personal relationship” with Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager in 2013. The report also says that the relationship “had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking” by the time Kelly sent her now-famous email to David Wildstein in August 2013.
Among liberals, it quickly became the norm to paraphrase as Eskew did, using “dumped” to heighten the sense that Christie and his defenders have been speaking in “sharply personal” ways about Kelly. For the record, the word “dumped” doesn’t appear in the Mastro report. By law, it appears in every liberal paraphrase of the Mastro report.
How about the rest of that passage? Does the Mastro report also “describe Kelly as...‘looking upset’ and seeming to have been ‘crying?’”
Technically yes, it does—but that has nothing to with the claim that Kelly got “dumped” by Stepien. In the Mastro report, four different Christie staffers say that Kelly looked or seemed upset on December 13, when Christie is shown insisting that staffers come forward with anything they know about the lane closings.
One of those staffers, Deborah Gramiccioni, says “it looked as if [Kelly] had been crying” at one point later that day.
Did Kelly look or seem upset on December 13? Was she crying at some point?
We have no way of knowing! We do know that Eskew’s account may tend to be misleading in its portrayal of these events. We also know that it follows a widely-pimped script—a script in which the Mastro report is said to be “sharply personal in its depiction of Kelly's supposed emotional state” in a way which is sexist.
Is that true? Is the Mastro report “sharply personal in its depiction,” in a way which is sexist?
For ourselves, we’d lean toward no, especially given the supersized claims churned by many partisans. But we aren’t here to judge Mastro’s report. We’re here to evaluate the work of the upper-end press corps.
To judge the work of the upper-end press, let’s look at Kate Zernike’s report in the New York Times. Rather plainly, Zernike’s report helped give this script its start.
The Mastro report is more than 300 pages long. It was released last Thursday.
By Thursday evening, Rachel Maddow was on the air with an error-riddled, snark-infested account of the report. Tomorrow, we’ll look at her work, and at the gruesome, ridiculous work which has emerged from Chris Matthews.
For today, let’s consider Zernike’s report, which appeared in the New York Times Friday morning.
Zernike is one of the worst reporters we have ever covered. Below, you see the start to Friday’s report, headline included.
Hours later, the Daily Beast was copying from Zernike’s report; her piece was widely quoted elsewhere. In that sense, this was the start of the script about the “sharply personal” treatment of Kelly:
ZERNIKE (3/28/14): Irate Friends See Sexism in Report on Former Christie AideAccording to Zernike, the Mastro report explains Kelly’s conduct “in unusually personal terms.” Yesterday, Eskew noted that “many others” beside himself had offered this critique.
She “seemed emotional.” She was “habitually concerned about how she was perceived by the governor.” A boyfriend had ended a relationship.
Bridget Anne Kelly has been the center of blame in the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal since early January, when it was revealed that she sent an email calling for “some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Gov. Chris Christie, seeking to stanch the damage the scandal had caused to his political fortunes, fired her as his deputy chief of staff after that, calling her “stupid.” But the report commissioned by Mr. Christie and released Thursday doubles down on a strategy of portraying Ms. Kelly as duplicitous, weeping frequently and dependent on men for approval and stability.
Though the lawyers who wrote the report did not interview her, they explain her conduct in unusually personal terms—she is out of the office attending to a family member who had been hospitalized; a brief relationship “had cooled” at the “behest” of the man, Mr. Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien.
Zernike was one such scribe. How strong was her analysis?
Let’s start with a flat misstatement. Despite what Zernike wrote, the Mastro report does not portray Kelly “weeping frequently.”
Indeed, Kelly is never shown weeping in the Mastro report. Zernike’s statement helped drive a script, but it was flatly false.
That said, let’s look at Zernike’s first paragraph, where she does get something right. The Mastro report does say that Kelly “seemed emotional.” It makes that statement at one lone point, on page 99.
Is that a marker of sexism in the Mastro report? Careful! The report applies the term “emotional” to Christie’s behavior in five or six different passages!
On page 10, the report says this: “It was an emotional session, in which the Governor, welling up with tears, expressed shock at the revelations...” Other such descriptions of an emotional, teary-eyed Christie appear on pages 11, 103, 131 and 132.
How odd! Christie is described behaving in an “emotional” way much more often than Kelly! But so what? Zernike selected the single reference to Kelly, thereby defining her script.
Let’s continue in paragraph one. Does the Mastro report really say that Kelly was “habitually concerned about how she was perceived by the governor?”
Yes it does, again at one lone point. But is that statement a marker of sexism? At another point, the report describes David Wildstein “express[ing] his concerns about his future, his position at the Port Authority, and how he was viewed in the Governor’s Office (something with which Wildstein was preoccupied).”
Warning! Zernike was building a script this day. And alas! When our journalists build preferred scripts, they will sometimes make flat misstatements (“weeping frequently”). More often, they’ll carefully pick and choose the facts they decide to bring forward.
Zernike was already picking and choosing in her first two paragraphs. In paragraph 3, we meet a rather strange claim about the Mastro report—a strange claim which keeps the script building.
Zernike asserts that the Mastro report “doubles down on a strategy of portraying Ms. Kelly as duplicitous.” That’s a very strange way to put it, although it feels helpfully gendered.
Can we talk? The Mastro report says that Kelly lied to her superiors on several occasions about her knowledge of the lane closings.
Rather than report that finding in a straightforward manner, Zernike chose to reframe the finding. The report “portrays Kelly as duplicitous,” Zernike says. This is where script comes from.
As we move to paragraph 4, we get some comic relief.
Zernike was building a script this day. And when our journalists build their scripts, they’re rarely troubled by the specter of self-contradiction. They seem to understand their guild’s low intellectual standards.
Consider the point where Zernike introduces the notion that, in Eskew’s copy-cat phrasing, “the report is sharply personal in its depiction of Kelly's supposed emotional state.”
By now, everyone has said that! Once again, this is the place where Zernike created that meme:
ZERNIKE: Though the lawyers who wrote the report did not interview her, they explain her conduct in unusually personal terms—she is out of the office attending to a family member who had been hospitalized; a brief relationship “had cooled” at the “behest” of the man, Mr. Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien.Question: Why is it “unusually personal” when the Mastro report states the reason for Kelly’s absence from the office on a key occasion? We have no earthly idea.
Kelly was helping a sick family member that day; this paints her in a sympathetic light. It’s quite a stretch to include that in the indictment of the Mastro report, especially if you plan to quote this passage from the report only three paragraphs later:
ZERNIKE: Even when Ms. Kelly was promoted, the report notes it was “though she lacked Stepien’s expertise and background.” It narrates her boss’s story with more heroic details: “Having canceled a planned trip to Florida with his wife for her birthday, Governor Christie returned to Seaside Park, New Jersey, to meet with business owners affected by the boardwalk fire.”Go ahead—try to explain it! In paragraph 4, Zernike says it’s “unusually personal” when the Mastro report mentions the fact that Kelly was helping a sick family member. Three paragraphs later, it isn’t “unusually personal” when the report mentions Christie’s vacation plans with his wife!
Readers, you’re right—that doesn’t make sense. But this is the way your “press corps” works when it’s busily building a script. This is the sort of clownish work Times editors wave into print.
As she continued last Friday’s report, Zernike quoted unnamed friends of Kelly making strange complaints about the Mastro report. One example:
“If you’re going to throw her under the bus, she shouldn’t be alone under the bus,” one unnamed friend complains. This friend has apparently never heard of David Wildstein, who is very much under the bus in the Mastro report.
In a similar vein, a Democratic consultant is quoted saying that Christie “is throwing every sexist slur at Kelly while needlessly and aggressively injecting details about her personal life.”
Whatever you think of the Mastro report, that statement is quite hyperbolic. But from that quoted statement, and from statements by some reporters, it’s hard to miss a possibility: That seems to have been the initial Democratic narrative about the Mastro report!
On Monday night’s Hardball, the Wall Street Journal’s Heather Haddon said that Democrats had been “really fixating” on that line. Last Friday, Zernike was pimping this narrative forward through some gong-show journalism.
No, Virginia! The Mastro report doesn’t portray Kelly “weeping frequently.” And we’re worry, but no: Whatever you think of the Mastro report, it really doesn’t “throw every sexist slur at Kelly,” though that claim may start seeming true by the time Zernike finishes with her selective presentations.
Is the Mastro report sexist at all in its treatment of Kelly? If so, how sexist is it?
Having seen the work of people like Olbermann and Matthews down through the years, we’d have to say the report isn’t gigantically sexist. This brings us to one last point:
According to Zernike, the Mastro report “doubles down on a strategy of portraying Ms. Kelly as...dependent on men for approval and stability.”
If you’ve read the Mastro report (most pundits haven’t), you almost have to laugh. In its pages, Kelly is constantly chewing out various men who work beneath her. She’s also trying to fry a certain mayor’s ascot for dinner.
As Rachel Maddow noted last Thursday before she knew what the narrative was, Governor Christie is weeping and bawling all through this freaking report. Bridget Kelly is carrying on a bit like Vlad the Impaler.
We can’t say what the truth may be, but those are the portraits in this report. Only a clown—and Zernike is one—could emerge from the Mastro report with that pitifully preconceived script, the script from which the Daily Beast would cut-and-paste a few hours later.
What is the truth about Kelly’s behavior? We can’t tell you that. Beyond that, there’s a great deal to criticize in the Mastro report.
Most of it has gone unmentioned by our pitiful “press corps.” And there’s a reason for that:
For at least the past several decades, our “journalism” has turned on scripts—inventions dreamed by people like Zernike, who pick and choose among the facts to produce the story they like.
In our view, Eskew’s account in yesterday’s Post tended to be quite misleading. The Mastro report doesn’t describe Kelly “looking upset” and seeming to have been “crying” because she’d been “dumped” by Stepien.
But that’s the impression a reader would take away from Eskew’s piece. It feeds the official story-line, in which the report is overly personal, sexist.
In our view, the alleged sexism of the report has been overstated. But from its first paragraph forward, it’s hard to overstate how bad Zernike’s journalism is.
No, Virginia! Kelly isn’t shown “weeping frequently” in the Mastro report. In fact, she isn’t shown weeping at all, though mighty Christie is shown in tears in five different passages.
Kelly isn’t shown weeping at all! But Zernike’s false statement went spanning the globe, along with the rest of her piddle.
This is the way our “press corps” works. It has worked this way for decades now. People are dead all over the world because of similar conduct.
The Drums, the Chaits, the Marshalls and others will not speak up to insist that this stop. This will continue on and on, presenting a challenge to each of us.
Tomorrow: Propaganda from Matthews and Maddow