THE SHORTHAND AND THE POWER: Animal abuse! And adultery!


EPILOG—Watching the shorthand work: Give him some credit! In his pitiful January 15 column, Dana Milbank did explain how “shorthand” works.

This is a very accurate account of modern pseudo-journalism:
MILBANK (1/15/12): The media tend to assign each candidate a character flaw as a form of shorthand (John McCain was volatile, George W. Bush was dopey, Obama is all talk). Ominously, Romney's descriptions are the same applied to Gore 12 years ago: assuming "personas," going through "makeovers," attempting "regular-guy" traits, exhibiting "robotic" behavior and issuing new versions, such as "Romney 3.0."

For Romney, the problem now becomes that reporters...are perpetually on the lookout for new examples to add to his dossier of awkwardness.
Exactly! First, the “press corps” comes up with a simple story line, referred to here as “shorthand.” And once that narrative has been selected, “reporters...are perpetually on the lookout for new examples” which support this preferred narrative.

This isn’t a form of journalism; this is how people write novels. Milbank only omitted one part of the package—the tendency of us fallible humans to purchase these novelized tales.

Alas! When novelized shorthand gets fed to us rubes, we rubes tend to swallow the porridge. For one recent example, consider a post by Hullabaloo’s David Atkins. Atkins was looking ahead to Saturday night’s returns from South Carolina:
ATKINS (1/21/12): Such a suspenseful night tonight. Who will win the battle for the hearts and minds of the most conservative voters in the most conservative state in the nation? Is it the animal-abusing vulture capitalist who pays a 15% tax rate with Cayman Islands bank accounts? More likely, is it the surging ethically challenged, openly racist serial adulturer with a hatred of child labor laws? The goldbug neo-confederate? Maybe the guy who wants to eliminate birth control?
Mitt Romney is an animal abuser! (Gingrich is a serial adulterer!) Especially in a tribal setting, our lizard brains tell us to buy the shorthand we’ve seen deployed.

We were especially struck by Atkins’ reference to “animal abuse.” In this reference, we see the fruit of a shorthand campaign—a campaign in which we’ve been asked to form a judgment of Romney based on something that supposedly happened in 1983.

We say “supposedly” because no one was there to fact-check the tale about poor Seamus, the allegedly abused Irish setter who was “strapped to the roof of the car.” For ourselves, we don’t doubt that this hoary old tale really happened, but we wouldn’t bet the house on it. Originally, the story was told to the Boston Globe by one of Romney’s sons. Almost surely, this was part of an attempt to humanize Romney as a regular dad, pretty much just like yours. (Pretty much like Chevy Chase in the Lampoon movie series.)

Did the tale get embellished a bit in the telling? Like you, we have no idea. We also have no problem believing that Seamus enjoyed it up in his carrying case, protected by the homemade windshield dear old dad allegedly built for him. (This is what Romney himself later said when he was asked about this.)

Children like Atkins have no idea what actually happened in this incident; borderline lunatics like Gail Collins also have no way of knowing. But so what? Collins has pushed this story extremely hard; it has appeared in more than thirty of her New York Times columns. And sure enough: We human beings, weak of mind, are always ready to purchase such shorthand, especially when it details the horror of those in the other tribe. In this way, Romney has become an “animal abuser” in the mind of one suggestible child—and Gingrich is a “serial adulterer.” This follows a decade in which liberals and Democrats argued (persuasively) that the press corps shouldn’t put so much stress on the private lives of politicians.

(Mandated response: But Gingrich was hypocritical!)

Romney is an animal abuser! This is the moral Atkins has dragged away from this “shorthand” tale. This helps us see the power of shorthand. To see how foolish such judgments can be, consider the puzzle which follows.

To Atkins, this hoary old bit of shorthand tags Romney as an abuser. But that doesn’t seem to be the moral Lady Collins dragged away from this tale. Last month, Leslie Bennetts actually asked the high lady to explain her view of this ancient event (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/19/12). Writing in the Daily Beast, Bennetts reported what Collins told her:
BENNETTS (12/17/11): [T]his incomparable gem might have been lost to history were it not for the heroic efforts of New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins, who has made a point of mentioning Romney’s unusual strategy every single time she writes about him (which is, not surprisingly, often).

“How could anyone not want to mention it?” says Collins. “I just love that story, because it came from one of his sons, who thought of it as a story about Romney’s leadership qualities. It’s very Mitt Romney in every way, and it’s very much about control. The guy is rich, but he chose to get them all to Canada for the summer by packing five boys in the car with his wife and putting the dog on the roof. A rich person could have found an easier way to do this.”

Although Collins has performed a vital public service in keeping this story alive for the American electorate to ponder, the news was originally reported by The Boston Globe, in which the anecdote about Seamus was evidently intended to demonstrate his owner’s “emotion-free crisis management.” (It also demonstrated the limits of an Irish setter’s gastro-intestinal fortitude, since Seamus responded to the stress of hurtling along at high speed, trapped in a box, by succumbing to explosive diarrhea that streamed from the car roof down onto its windows, eliciting howls of “Gross!” from the Romney boys).

But during a campaign in which even the Mitt-Bot’s hair seems uptight, this event also illuminates other important issues. “The point, for the son, was that they designated a certain number of rest stops, and Mitt had those stops identified,” Collins explains. “When the dog got diarrhea, Mitt got out and hosed down the dog, but nobody else was allowed to get out of the car, because it wasn’t one of the designated rest stops.”
If Bennetts can be trusted, Collins didn’t see this hoary old tale as a tale of abuse. According to Bennetts, Collins said that this hoary old tale is “very much about control.” Is that why Collins has cited this story in more than thirty of her columns? Like other fully human life-forms, we have no earthly idea. But on a recent TV machine thingy program, the ever-fatuous Rachel Maddow seemed to offer a third account of what this story means:
MADDOW (1/12/12): The reporter from the Boston Globe who first described the Seamus incident in 2007 did not write about this incident again for four and a half years after he wrote the original story. He finally broke his silence and wrote about it again for the first time this week.


He does think that one part of this is important. He says, "To me Romney’s critics have focused on the wrong part of the anecdote. It`s not that Romney put his dog on the roof. I’ll take the Romneys at their word that Seamus loved his al fresco rides. What is beyond debate, though, is that this far into this particular trip, Seamus had ceased enjoying his ride."

Right? This would be the gross part of the story.

"Faced with such irrefutable evidence, most people I suspect would have relented and let the ailing dog cram into the back of the wagon."

Right. Even if you’re OK with the dog being strapped to the roof of the car, once the dog has been up there for hours and is sick, once he is ailing, you take a hose to him and then put him back up there and keep driving with him still strapped to the roof of the car for more hours?
This rendition also has the scent of “animal abuse.” But Rachel seems to accept the idea that Seamus loved his ride on the top of the car--and as the Globe reporter npted, this is the part of the roof-dog tale which has damned Romney for many others. To Rachel, the key point here is different: Once Seamus began to emit what she described as "those brown liquids," Mitt should have let the ailing canine come inside the car.

Please understand: In these presentations, Atkins, Collins and Maddow are debating an alleged dog care incident which is twenty-eight years old. Collins has worked extremely hard to turn this into campaign “shorthand.” Now that she has accomplished this task, all the baboons are free to imagine what the shorthand shows. And uh-oh! As the baboons engage in this task, Romney’s proposals go unexplored. So does his conduct at Bain.

Atkins hasn’t discussed that Reuters report about what Romney did to those steel mills. Neither has Maddow, an extremely well-paid cable TV entertainer. But she did spend twenty minutes that night reviewing this bit of campaign shorthand—and this is the way the chimps and baboons have “covered” elections for decades.

This is the way the shorthand works when it interacts with suggestible minds. What are the problems with this silly system? First, it leads us away from the serious matters which would anchor political discourse in a slightly more rational culture.

Second, let’s state what is blindingly obvious: The pernicious effects of this shorthand system have mainly served right-wing interests! Today, the children of the pseudo-lib world love to play this dumb game too. But among us pseudo-liberals, no one explains all the harm this practice has done—the massive, irreversible harm it has done in the recent past.

We must be the phoniest people on earth! Tomorrow, Paul Krugman’s bad post.

Bill Turque described the same practice: in December 1999, Newsweek’s Bill Turque explained why the press corps kept inventing new LIES by Candidate Gore. In the following passage, Turque explained the workings of pseudo-journalistic “shorthand,” just as Milbank recently did in the Post. He also explained the route by which George Bush would get to the White House:
TURQUE (12/13/99): Perhaps most disabling for Gore are episodes like the Love Canal stretch: small but easy-to-spot untruths. Together with past misstatements—like claiming to have created the Internet—they feed the notion that he's a phony. With the campaign press now on full embellishment alert, the slightest deviation from fact, no matter how innocuous, will stick like chewing gum to the heel of his shoe.
In fact, Gore hadn't told an “untruth” about Love Canal, “easy-to-spot” or otherwise. But in the highlighted part of that passage, Turque describes the same process Milbank described just this month. Having adopted the “shorthand” that Gore was a LIAR, the “press corps” was now on full alert! In Milbank’s language, reporters were “perpetually on the lookout for new examples to add to his dossier.”

That perpetual lookout wasn’t journalism; it was the crafting of a novel. But this is a very enjoyable game. Today, the silly children of the pseudo-left very much enjoy playing it too.

Forget about those two steel mills! Forget those plutocrat proposals! Mitt Romney abused his dog—or he showed a fetish for control, whichever tale floats your dinghy! And Gingrich is a serial adulterer! Go ahead! Novels are fun!

This is “news” as low-IQ sport. Over the course of the past forty years, it has served your interests quite poorly.


  1. A large dog with explosive diarrhea? My first thought would not be to bring him into the car, I have to admit. My God, I'm a potential abuser.

  2. John, somehow I think you're missing the point. Are you perhaps a journalist?

  3. DH-We say “supposedly” because no one was there to fact-check the tale about poor Seamus, the allegedly abused Irish setter who was “strapped to the roof of the car.” For ourselves, we don’t doubt that this hoary old tale really happened, but we wouldn’t bet the house on it. Originally, the story was told to the Boston Globe by one of Romney’s sons. Almost surely, this was part of an attempt to humanize Romney as a regular dad, pretty much just like yours. (Pretty much like Chevy Chase in the Lampoon movie series.)

    "For the record, neither Tagg nor any other Romney was my original source for the anecdote. Collins and others have pushed this silly line to suggest how tone-deaf the Romney brood must be. In fact, I went to the then 37-year-old Tagg only after having heard the Seamus story at the very end of a long interview with a close friend of the Romney family. Seeking to penetrate the stock image of the air-brushed family, I had asked that friend what stories the Romneys reminisced about in the privacy of their own home. As soon as the Seamus road trip anecdote passed his lips, I knew it was a gem. But I was determined to avoid a situation where Romney’s handlers could call into question the anecdote – or the entire article – because I had gotten some small detail wrong. So I insisted that Tagg poll his mother and brothers and persisted until I had confirmed every last fact. Far from being tone-deaf, Tagg realized as I dug deeper that the story could cause his father grief. Yet Tagg’s participation actually helped his dad. After all, the first version of the story I’d heard from the family friend – who hadn’t been an eyewitness – improbably had Mitt driving the station wagon right through a carwash. Imagine the howls from PETA if Seamus had been introduced to the world with the image of high-pressure wraparound brushes pummeling a defenseless, diarrheal dog.

    So, no the story was not originally, "told to the Boston Globe by one of Romney’s sons." It came to the reporter's attention by a close family friend according to the reporter. Also, it was easily accessible on how the reporter researched the story and his sources, so there was no need for you to speculate. For someone that is so critical of others errors due to "laziness" or "hackwork", would it not behoove you to get the facts right? As you have described so effectively over the years, when writers get basic information wrong it tends to call into question the rest of their work, their motivea, and their overall competency. The original falsehood tends to spiral out of control. Too often, we end up in fantasy land debating dragons vs. unicorns, not real problems and possible solutions.

  4. Which leads me to your vague disparagements of the coverage of Gingrich's marital foibles. I think most if not all of your readers think that
    marital indiscretions are not substantive disqualifers and should not be used for gutter journalism. However, Gingrich is a special case since he ran his campaigns in Georgia as a family values candidate. More importantly, from 1992-1998 he was constantly harping on any camera that would have him, that the "law is the law" and "character matters" , while he was breaking the laws of his home state and behaving very similarly to those he was demonizing for lacking character. He is not an ordinary politician, in that he villified behavior in others behind a wall of religious and moral codes that he was not willing to follow. He states he has changed since the 1990s, but he still had no problem moralizing in a recent debate of the "the sanctity of marriage" in disparaging equal rights for homosexuals, while according to his second wife he was very pliable in his adherence to stated sanctity. Not to mention, if he is not the modern architect of the politics of personal destruction he is most certainly the posterboy, it is absurd that he now calls foul on any sort of reckoning of his past actions not corresponding to his rhetoric.

    It is akin to finding out that Joe McCarthy was not only a Communist but is alleged of having committed treason. To not chastise and question Mr. Ginrich on his rank hypocrisy is asinine.

    Is your problem with the propaganda of
    Atkins and the hackwork of King? Or do you have a problem with the entire framework of the issue?
    Some clarity on this subject would be helpful.

    Lastly, I would like to state that I have been a huge fan of this site for many years, since the election of 2000. However, it has lately become almost a 21st century version of the Lost Cause with Clinton and Gore taking the place of Lee and Jackson as mythical saints amongst us with their myriad flaws (they are humans not deities) never mentioned in the case of Gore and rarely in the case of Clinton. While a contemporary equal like Longstreet (Dean) is either unjustly criticized or erased from the history. I don't think the Lost Cause did any favors for this country, and I don't think a romanticized narrative (at times) masquerading as analysis of this country's media and Democratic party (hint the problem started way before Muskie) in the last half of the past century does us any favors now.

    1. You're not the only long-time reader of this site. So I ask you, Where's the "mythical saint[ing]" of Gore and Clinton that supposedly happened here?

      That's your own straw person, okay?

  5. I would suspect Atkins is a "progressive" of the "both parties are the same" type. These people don't feel obliged to play by any rules, Yes friends and neighbors, there are "blame America first" types on the left, and these tend to be the people who feel empowered to say just about anything about anyone. Let us note, in an otherwise just fine appearance on "Real Time" Rob Reiner played the "dog on the roof" card, and Bill Maher didn't exactly object.
    Thing is, when someone engages in this conduct many on the left hold them up as darling truth tellers, who deserve to be indulged. Did you note how Clinton's Impeachment, and the grotesque aspect Christopher Hitchens played in it, was airbrushed out of ALL the Hitchens obits, including Glen Greenwald (who probably thought Hitchens was just fine in those days).
    In this sense I find Gingrich's run at least interesting. Winning the nomination, at least to SOME degree, would force a reexamination of Impeachment Time. The public did get that Historic embarrassment wrong, but they were brow beaten into it by the press, who insisted Gore would pay for Clintons sins.

  6. No, just pretending that there was enough merit in Rachel's "point" about the dog to merit discussion. I'm saying that not only was Rachel's discussion of the dog story useless and a waste of time, she was wrong on the "merits." I'm taking a principled "no-explosive-diarrhea-in-the-car" position.