The silliest children on earth: We often find ourselves asking this question:
What do people think they’re reading when they read the political coverage in the New York Times?
We found ourselves asking that question again this morning. It came to us as we read a front-page report about Candidate Bush’s “cerebral debate style.”
The piece was written by Michael Barbaro, one of the Times’ endless stable of sillies. His name always triggers alarm bells here. But crackers, please!
Above the fold, on the Times’ front page, Barbaro started like this:
BARBARO (9/14/15): On the debate stage, Jeb Bush has committed the sin of over-explanation, answering a pithy 1994 attack on his business career with so many details about leases and debts that a baffled crowd erupted into boos.We always wonder: What do subscribers think they’re reading when they read foofaw like that?
He has delivered high-minded put-downs, promising in a 1998 face-off to establish a charter school “for people that distort the facts” and mischievously guaranteeing admission to his opponent.
And he has mangled seemingly simple sentences, vowing in a 2002 confrontation that “we can make Florida a bright—have a brighter future for—for all Floridians.”
Consider that allegedly “mangled sentence”—the one which appears above the fold on the front page of today’s Times.
Later in his report, Barbaro says that Bush has “participated in about a dozen official debates since first running for public office.” If that’s the most badly “mangled” sentence Barbaro found in those dozen debates, then it’s fairly clear that Candidate Bush actually doesn’t mangle his sentences much.
Still, there it was in paragraph 3! Why did Times readers think it was there? What did they think they were reading?
All in all, Barbaro’s 1400-word report is a typical piece of mainstream debate “fictition.” Most absurdly, it’s filled with standard exciting tales about the ways Bush allegedly lost his first election in 1994 on the basis of foolish blunders and perfect squelches during that year’s debates.
(In truth, there was only one debate that year. That basic fact might be hard to discern from Barbaro’s report.)
Barbaro graduated from Hamden Hall Country Day, then from Yale in the class of 2002. Today, he toys with Times readers, producing piffle like the anecdote we’ve posted below—the anecdote with which he closed this morning’s report.
It's a standard variation on a treasured press corps theme: “The Perfect Squelch Which Won an Election.” Full disclosure! Incumbent governor Lawton Chiles is slightly misquoted here:
BARBARO: As Mr. Bush prepares for a televised brawl with Mr. Trump, that 1994 debate against the wily Mr. Chiles looms larger than ever, a searing lesson about the dangers of taking on an unpredictable opponent.Did Lawton Chiles really defeat Jeb Bush with his wonderful “he-coon” remark? Did that line really “change the course of an election?”
Midway through that face-off, which seemed like an agonizing draw, Mr. Bush, the newcomer, suggested that Mr. Chiles, the incumbent, had lied to “strike fear in the hearts of the voters.”
Mr. Chiles stood silently, resting an elbow on the lectern and taking it all in. Then, peering over at Mr. Bush and jabbing his finger, Mr. Chiles delivered an unscripted line about himself that changed the course of the campaign.
“I want to call attention to this old, liberal liar,” Mr. Chiles said self-mockingly, pausing for effect. “The old he-coon walks just before the light of day.”
The camera captured a seemingly baffled Mr. Bush looking around the room and then toward the moderator, NBC's Tim Russert. Neither candidate's aides had any idea what Mr. Chiles meant. But across the state, an entire generation of native Floridians understood.
The he-coon is the oldest and wisest member of a raccoon pack, a cunning hunter who knows exactly when to strike. Mr. Chiles used the old Southernism to make it clear: He was not done being governor yet.
“Jeb was speechless,” Mr. Stipanovich recalled. “He didn't know how to respond.”
“At that moment,” he said, “Lawton Chiles defeated Jeb Bush.”
There’s absolutely no evidence that Chiles’ remark swayed votes one way or the other. Still, typists like Barbaro simply love debate tales of that type.
How much do mainstream “reporters” love such simple-minded stories? Earlier in his report, Barbaro had seemed to describe another way Bush lost that same election!
BARBARO: Theatrics have failed Mr. Bush at times. During a dramatic 1994 exchange in Tampa, he dared the sitting governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, to look into the eyes of Mr. Bush's business partner, who sat a few feet away in the audience, and repeat an attack on the two men's ethics.There was only one debate between Chiles and Bush that year, a point which won’t be clear to most of Barbaro’s readers. Keeping that point in mind, let's review Barbaro’s work:
''I know you don't respect me, but I know you respect Armando Codina,'' Mr. Bush said. ''Can you look him in the eye and say that we've done anything wrong?”
Mr. Chiles, deploying his Southern drawl and a gift for outmaneuvering opponents, looked toward Mr. Codina, smiled and reflected on the businessman's wisdom in hiring the son of an American president.
“I think,” Mr. Chiles declared, “he made a good business decision when he took you on as a partner.”
The audience broke into loud laughter. A few days later, Mr. Bush lost the election.
First, Barbaro implied that Bush lost the election that year due to that exchange about Codina. Then, he quoted an adviser flatly saying that he lost the same election when Chiles made his “he-coon” remark.
There’s absolutely no reason to think that either claim is true. Meanwhile, did the audience “break into loud laughter” when Chiles delivered that first perfect squelch?
One part of the audience certainly did! But seconds later, another part of the same audience tried to shout Chiles down as he continued talking.
In short, the audience was rather unruly that evening, with partisans cheering for and against each candidate. Barbaro gives a false impression with that remark about the “loud laughter.” But then, what else is new?
(To watch that entire debate, you can just click here. The Codina exchange starts around 13:30. The “he-coon” remark comes around 33:00. There’s no reason to think that either exchange won the debate, decided the election or changed a single vote, except in the New York Times’ endless novels.)
This morning’s front-page report is basically silly piddle. How silly was Barbaro willing to be? Go ahead—fathom this:
BARBARO: Interviews with current and former advisers to Mr. Bush and reviews of video footage from his debates as a candidate for governor reveal him to be a debater with as many deficits as strengths. On stage, his mastery of policy is almost unrivaled, but he struggles to synthesize it in compelling ways. He is capable of telegraphing deep compassion in one moment, but can convey unmistakable peevishness in the next. He defaults to analytical earnestness, rarely offering flashes of humor.To state the obvious, interviews with advisers can’t “reveal” anything of this type. Meanwhile, is Bush’s “mastery of policy almost unrivaled?” He has made constant policy misstatements this year which he has had to walk back.
For better or worse, advisers acknowledge, his brand is self-seriousness.
“His style,” said Sally Bradshaw, a top Bush campaign adviser, “is substance.”
“His candidacy,” she added, “is not based on theatrics.”
Final point—did any adviser really say that Bush’s brand “is self-seriousness?” Bradshaw certainly doesn’t do so. Does Barbaro know what that means and implies?
Barbaro is a constant silly embarrassment. In fairness, that’s the only type of reporter the New York Times seems willing to hire to cover domestic politics.
If it isn’t silly, embellished or soap-operatic, the Times is unlikely to run it. Routinely, this leads us to ask the question we posed at the start of our piece.
What did subscribers think they were reading when they read today’s third paragraph? It was above the fold on the Times front page—and it didn’t make much sense.
Why was that “mangled” sentence there? What do subscribers think they’re reading when they read foofaw like that?