How could they know it was true: If you’re a student of press criticism, the Dowd/Biden story provides a rare chance to do some pundit-watching.
Never have so many pundits played it so dumb in so many ways. In part, pundits are ducking the role of the New York Times in this peculiar episode.
It’s mid-July, 2015. Joe Biden tells Maureen Dowd a story about his late son, Beau Biden. Or maybe Hunter Biden told Dowd, saying he was in the room when the conversation in question occurred.
At any rate, someone tells Dowd an unusual story—a story with a bit of an ugly twist. According to the story Dowd told in the Times, Beau Biden used his last few nouns to take one last shot at the Clintons!
Let’s assume that someone told Dowd some version of this story—that she didn’t just make the whole thing up. Here are some obvious questions:
How did Maureen Dowd know that the story was true? How did she know that each part of the story was true? More specifically, how did she know that the ugly part of the story was true, if we assume that she didn’t invent that part of the story?
Let’s take it to the next level:
How could Maureen Dowd’s editor know that the story was true? How could he or she know that the ugly part of the story was true?
Presumably, there was no way to know that the story was true—or that each part of the story was true. Presumably, there was no videotape of the conversation Dowd described.
(It has been widely described as a “deathbed” conversation, though Dowd didn’t explicitly say that.)
How could Dowd know that the story was true? How could her editor know such a thing? Presumably, they couldn’t know! In the normal world of normal journalism, there’s a remedy for that problem:
In the normal world of normal journalism, the journalist would cite the source who told her the story in question. Ideally, she would cite the source by name.
On that basis, readers would know what the journalist was doing. They would know that she was providing that person’s account of something they said had occurred.
Dowd would then be reporting Joe or Hunter Biden’s account of something they said had occurred. Readers would know what they were getting—a story as told by Joe or Hunter Biden. Readers could evaluate the story in that light.
Dowd and her editor didn’t take that approach. Dowd never cited any source for her arresting story, which had one compelling twist. Instead, she told the story as an omniscient narrator—as if she herself had observed the events, as if she herself knew what had happened.
That’s a compelling form of story-telling. But on what journalistic basis was the Times willing to let Dowd tell the story that way?
Journalistically, this episode only got stranger when the New York Times, on that very same day, included the story in a front-page news report, sourcing the story to Dowd’s unsourced column. Here’s the way the story was told in that front-page news report in the Sunday New York Times:
CHOZICK (8/2/15): On Saturday, the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that Mr. Biden had been holding meetings at his residence, “talking to friends, family and donors about jumping in” to challenge Mrs. Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two nominating states.In that way, an unsourced story hit the front page, sourced to an unsourced column.
One longtime Biden supporter said the vice president had been deeply moved by his son's desire for him to run.
“He was so close to Beau and it was so heartbreaking that, frankly, I thought initially he wouldn't have the heart,” the supporter, Michael Thornton, a Boston lawyer, said in an interview. “But I’ve had indications that maybe he does want to—and ‘that's what Beau would have wanted me to do.’”
Ms. Dowd reported that as Beau Biden lay dying from brain cancer, he “tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” Mr. Biden's other son, Hunter, also encouraged him to run, she wrote.
Does this peculiar set of decisions by the Times resemble actual journalism? Around the press corps, career journalists won’t be eager—haven’t been eager—to discuss the role of the Times in this peculiar episode.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the ways a few major pundits critiqued this peculiar story on Tuesday night. We thought Joan Walsh did something which was very unusual and quite constructive. We thought other liberal pundits tended to turn tail and run. That’s the way it tends to work when the New York Times is involved.
At any rate, we’re left with a basic problem:
There was an ugly twist to the story, at least in the way Dowd told it. Our questions for public editor Margaret Sullivan:
Who told Dowd that part of the story? Did her editor even realize that the story, as Dowd told it, had a bit of an unpleasant twist?
Did Dowd’s editor pay special attention to that particular part of the story? What made him or her think that he or she knew that this part of the story was true?
Why did a front-page news report source an unpleasant claim to other “reporting” which was unsourced? Is the Times so accustomed to sliming the Clintons that “journalism” of this type seems thoroughly normal by now?
Are there any rules at the New York Times? Why was this twofer unsourced?
Tomorrow: Joan Walsh gets it right