WALTER AND DAVID AND RUSH AND GAIL: Are we smart enough to survive?

MONDAY, MARCH 12, 2012

Part 1—What Neil Swidey said about Collins: On January 8 of this year, Neal Swidey returned to the scene of the crime.

Swidey, a Boston Globe reporter, recalled the piece of work he says has made him “an asterisk.” That work, which he published five years ago, involved Mitt Romney’s former pet dog.

The piece appeared in 2007. By the start of this year, it was time to look back. Here’s how Swidey started:
SWIDEY (1/8/12): In the annals of presidential campaign coverage, I am an asterisk, and a tiny one at that—the journalist who unearthed the story of how Mitt Romney once drove to Canada with his dog Seamus in a carrier strapped to the roof of the family station wagon. In the nearly five years that have passed since I dug up that golden nugget, there's been so much chatter about the anecdote that “Romney” and “dog” have become inseparable dance partners in Google searches entered from around the world...Still, I have refrained from writing more about the Romneys’ Irish setter and his bout of highway-borne gastric distress. The reason? I dread the thought that Seamus might somehow make it into the lead paragraph of my eventual obituary.
Back in 2007, Swidey wrote the tale of the dog on the roof as a very small part of a very long biographical series in the Globe. That series treated the life of Candidate Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who was running for president.

The tale of the dog on the roof of the car started Part 4 of this very long series. It was a very small part of a lengthy installment which ran 4600 words.

In truth, Swidey’s report about Romney’s dog was a bit novelized; a bit of canine mind-reading was added to help shape the narrative. But at least it was brief! (The incident in question occurred in 1983.) But alas! Given the choices we make as a people, that anecdote is the only thing anyone remembers from the Globe’s long biographical series. As Swidey notes, the tale has achieved a life of its own, a peculiar and important process he discussed in his January piece.

Swidey’s discussion was quite worthwhile; we'll review his piece as the week unfolds. (Headline: “What our fascination with Mitt Romney’s dog says about our culture.”) But let’s return to the piece of reporting which started this now-famous, world-renowned mess.

As he continued his recent piece, Swidey recapped the now-famous tale he told in 2007. In the process, he named a major American “journalist” who, in Swidey’s judgment, has persistently distorted this story:
SWIDEY: To recap: Sometime during a 12-hour drive from Boston to Canada in 1983, Mitt's oldest son, Tagg, noticed a brown liquid running down the rear window of the family station wagon. Realizing the liquid was being discharged by their dog, Mitt pulled off the highway and into a gas station, borrowed a hose to wash down Seamus and the car, and then returned the dog to his rooftop carrier for the duration of the trip. Most media reports have accurately relayed those basics. However, exaggerations and faulty assumptions have been advanced, most notably by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who has trotted out the ghost of poor Seamus in more than 30 of her pieces since 2007.
Oof. Citing Gail Collins as worst in show, Swidey complained about the “exaggerations” and “faulty assumptions” some in the media have advanced about this now-famous story. “The exaggerations tend to be patently absurd,” he wrote, offering one gruesome example. “The assumptions, however, are more subtle, and therefore more believable, but just as untrue.”

To Swidey, Collins is the media’s worst offender; she is the one journalist he chose to call by name. He didn’t go into great detail about the exaggerations and assumptions which he says have dogged this story. He didn’t detail Collins’ errors, although he did specify one.

But if it’s distortion, misstatement and nonsense you like, you don’t have to pick Neil Swidey’s brain in search of Gail Collins’ errors. She kept churning apparent misstatements and false assumptions in her ridiculous column last Thursday—a column she devoted, in full, to the tale of Mitt Romney’s 29-year-old pet dog.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the apparent errors with which Collins littered this latest column. For today, let’s salute the occasional readers who have scolded this extremely strange person for the way she keeps pimping this tale.

In comments, Collins’ readers endlessly thank her for wagging the tale of the dog on the roof of the car. The story adds to their enjoyment of life, they explain—and it provides a deathless insight into the soul of Mitt Romney. Occasionally, though, readers fight back, sometimes sarcastically, as was the case last Thursday with this kill-joy from New Jersey:
COMMENTER FROM NEW JERSEY (3/9/12): Thank you Gail for answering all of these questions about Seamus. Here I was spending so much of my time educating myself about the multiples wars, declared and undeclared, our country is fighting; the unprecedented use of drone attacks killing innocent people; Attorney General Holder's almost unbelievable defense this week of the president's authority to kill Americans in lieu of Constitutionally required due process; our apparent march to war in Iran for no apparent reason and with the likely outcome of further eroding our standing in the world and causing the deaths of countless more innocents; policy positions by Republicans that are absurd on their face, such as Romney's own economic plan which would add trillions in debt thanks to tax giveaways to the wealthy; a terrible unemployment problem; our healthcare system which is massively more expensive than that of other first world countries, and all with the same or worse health outcomes; an outdated war on drugs policy that puts millions of non-violent offenders in prison to the detriment of their families and our society while enriching our growing privatized prison system; and the list goes on and on.

It is very refreshing to come to this Op-Ed space and instead read about a silly event from 30 years ago which has no bearing on anything.
Once in a while, a kill-joy complains. But such complaints are not the rule. Indeed: Relentlessly awful as Collins has been, her readers may be even worse.

In fairness to those readers, most of them don’t know that Collins keeps distorting their favorite old tale. As if to toy with the rubes who read her, Collins cited Swidey’s recent piece in her column last Thursday. In a rather typical act of defiance, she just didn’t tell her readers what Swidey had said about her!

She forgot to report that Swidey said that she has been distorting this tale. That she has been promoting exaggerations and false assumptions, thus treating her readers like fools. That she has been worst of them all.

On-line, she provided no link to Swidey’s piece. And she forgot to report what he said!

In fairness, it isn’t likely that Collins’ readers have heard about Swidey’s judgments—which could of course always be wrong. But good lord! As bad as Collins’ judgment has been, the judgment of many of her readers may be even worse.

Last Thursday’s column—it was all about Seamus—generated 691 comments. Can we talk? The sheer stupidity of those comments raises an existential question:

As a people, are we smart enough to survive?

As a people, can we survive? Walter and David aren’t gatekeepers now. Every damn fool in the whole damn world can go on-line and spout. Beyond that, patently crazy bags of wind are now in charge of three-hour radio programs.

To some extent, you can’t get a spot in talk radio or cable “news” unless you play this game.

Walter and David were once in charge. Today, crazy, store-bought, dishonest people run vast swathes of the discourse. Beyond that, people like Collins write twice-weekly columns in our best-known newspapers.

No one is there to protect us now—to protect us from our own flawed judgment. The rules have changed in the past forty years. So here’s the question we’ll ponder all week:

Given the way the rules have changed, are we smart enough to survive?

Tomorrow: Exaggerations, false assumptions, apparent misstatements

Coming: The question of relevance, with more about David and Walter—and Rush and Howard and Gail


  1. "Walter and David were once in charge. Today, crazy, store-bought, dishonest people run vast swathes of the discourse. Beyond that, people like Collins write twice-weekly columns in our best-known newspapers.

    No one is there to protect us now—to protect us from our own flawed judgment. The rules have changed in the past forty years." - B. Somerby

    >>>Now who is the "damn fool" who's going "on-line and spout"-ing off?

    walter cronkite and david brinkley werent in charge of their networks anymore than gail collins is the boss at the ny times. nor did any of the three control the sources of their advertising revenue or sat on their companys boards of directors.

    the rules haven't changed in the last forty years -- the golden rule is the same, i.e. gold rules. . . . to the extent their has been a change its something you don't seem to want to talk about, but it been behind the scenes, masked by a lack of visibility.

    1. except for welch who conveniently plays into your novelized version of history where everything was honky dory until people who happened to be of irish ancestry bullied their way into prominent media jobs. . . . and when they werent stealing their jobs, welch hired them...didn't he have ancestors who lived on a small island sticking out into the atlantic? that settles it then. the end.

    2. I don’t agree.
      The rules have changed. In fact, there has been a sea change.
      The philosophy of the TV networks in the 50’s and 60’s was that news was important and they had a duty to accurately inform the public.

      The philosophy now is that ratings and sponsors are more important than the truth or the viewers.
      NBC’s David Brinkley and Chet Huntley commanded the news, along with CBS’s Walter Cronkite, and the other guy. His name is Mudd.
      These reporters, and that’s what they were, didn’t run the news departments, but they did decide what they would present to the public, and what they wouldn’t report. They were not simply talking heads reading a script.

      From the Huffington Post, April 19, 2008. Al Eisele

      “Mudd, who turned 80 in February, planned to write about the decline of TV network news until publisher Peter Osnos of Public Affairs disabused him of the notion. ‘Everybody knows what happened to the networks. Why don't you write about how great network news used to be? Why don't you write about that great Washington bureau you were part of?’”

    3. i didnt say all is the same, just that the main rule is the same, the control of the moneyed interests.

      obviously things have changed dramatically. but mr.somerby would distract you with mere symptoms such as these huge businesses choices for front men and front women.

      he is scapegoating people you may want to blame, mainly the people who happen to be of irish-catholilc ancestry, to gull you into looking away from the source of the changes.

    4. just to be more clear gravymeister, that was a very thoughtful comment and i agree with what you say about the moneyed interests exercising less control back then.

      my point is that they could have at any point taken away the reporters autonomy ("gold rules") and also that imo they were exercising some level of control even back then through the type of people they hired and their known biases and subtle signals given to the news people when necessary so that they knew what the boundaries were as far as what was fit to be broadcasted and printed on this issue or that.

  2. The changes have not been just slow evolution of citizen's attitudes. The Fairness Doctrine and the Communications Act of 1934 have been repealed in the last 30 years.

  3. yes and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 further enabling the amoral moneyed interests. but that would be too dry for mr. somerbys novel. he would rather have you look away from such things and concentrate on how dowd and collins somehow pied pipered thousands of journalists and hundreds of media businesses over the cliff.

    1. Been reading here for years... Never got the impression Somerby let owners and editors off the hook... Nor that his only agenda was to slime Irish Catholics...

      But since you now mention it...

      Your claims are without merit, weary. People who can read will know better.

      The maximum that can be said in fairness in this regard against Somerby's critique is that he too often neglects to stress the role of wealth in shaping our system of discourse.

      But "he'd rather have us look away from such things?" No, that's a load of crap.

    2. wow. if yiour comment is any guide, i question your reading skills as well as your logic. i didnt say scapegoating irish catholics is his "only agenda". my guess is that its not his main purpose either. ... but it serves his apparent larger purpose of shifting blame. . . .

      second, you say he doesn't “let owners and editors off the hook” but then say “he too often neglects to stress the role of wealth in shaping our system of discourse”. which is it?

    3. Check the archives weary. You're wrong.

    4. and btw im niot a fan of collins or dowd -- i dont care whgat they say and i dont read them. . . . my point about them is that its the other journalists fault if they are influenced by their superficiality. blaming collins and dowd for leading the whole profession astray could not be more obviously unfair.

      im more aware of mathews sins but mainly from media site critiques but i dont care what he says either and i only rarely watch him. however as bad as he was, he wasnt as bad as he was portrayed, on a relative basis, at least imo. and he seems to have improved from what he was.

      you can have welch. hes a typical big business greedhead. . . . but aside from having an enormously big mouth, how different was (retired in 2001) he from the other big biz people who controlled media companies? do they get off scott free becuase their ancestors werent from ireland and catholic?

    5. im not a big fan of commenters who assert they know better becuase they say theyve read something and imply the other guy hasnt. or who say that they have this or that degree or experience. anybody can impute to themselves any level of knowledge they like on a comment board or try to denigrate someone elses knowledge. . . . but saying it doesnt make it true. and its weak.

    6. Nosauce from weary.

      "second, you say he doesn't “let owners and editors off the hook” but then say “he too often neglects to stress the role of wealth in shaping our system of discourse”. which is it?"

      If you think Bob's every post should be about ownership, then there is an either/or here. And you're also slightly demented.

      OTOH, if you have some reading comprehension you understand that I was saying BOTH A) you're wrong, because Somerby quite often has drawn attention to the editors and owners of our media AND B) the most I am personally willing to concede is that he might usefully make this point more often.

      That Somerby's trying to distract us from the problem of wealth in our media is your own fantasy, belied by a tour through the archives, as someone else suggested.

      Pretending Somerby's views is that "everything was honky dory until people who happened to be of irish ancestry bullied their way into prominent media jobs" is frankly insane.

  4. “Pretending Somerby's views is that "everything was honky dory until people who happened to be of irish ancestry bullied their way into prominent media jobs" is frankly insane.” - swan

    >>> amazing. you question my mental faculties and yet you dont even seem to grasp the central point of the article youre commenting on:

    “Walter and David were once in charge. Today, crazy, store-bought, dishonest people run vast swathes of the discourse. Beyond that, people like Collins write twice-weekly columns in our best-known newspapers.
    No one is there to protect us now—to protect us from our own flawed judgment. The rules have changed in the past forty years. So here’s the question we’ll ponder all week:“ - b. somerby

    >>> ill put two and two together for you. somerby is implying that the people he usually writes about (who else?) critically are the “crazy, store bought dishonest people” and that it used not to be that way back in the day when cronkite and brinkley were ”in charge to protect us”, to keep out the relative newcomers somerby singles out most often and most severely for criticism – namely those of irish catholic heritage.

    and somerbys criticism is not the usual kind. he says these people of irish catholic heritage are responsible for the decline in journalism generally. . . . that they have a svengali-like influence over the majority in their profession. . . . and occasionally he has even said it outright, that it is their irish-catholic-ness which is the problem.

    1. >>>one might think that somerbys views expressed today were just a one-time thing. not so. the below quote is from a few days ago. the last paragraph is all-important. i only included all that preceded it to keep it in context. the same sentiment is expressed as today but he goes further and slyly hints that if he wanted to hear what somebody of irish catholic heritage had to say he would go to where they all are, at the bar. and also that those of irish catholic heritage are at the bar because they are crazy.

      The empress' new obsession!
      THURSDAY, MARCH 8, 2012

      Collins jumps the pooch: We’ll plan to discuss this topic next week, along with related issues.

      That said, Gail Collins’ latest column raises the most obvious question: Is our society sane?

      As a general matter, it’s a bad idea to introduce questions of mental illness when we talk about politics. (As a general matter, it’s a very bad idea.) But we have never seen a major writer comment about Collins' ongoing series of columns. And today, she has jumped the pooch.

      In our view, this raises a basic question: Are we sane as a people? As a people, were we ever sane? Or were we protected from ourselves by past societal practices?

      (During the era of Walter and David, shit like this couldn’t get into print. Crazy folk weren’t allowed through the door in those less democratic days. If you wanted to hear someone talking like this, you had to go down to the bar.)

  5. all that said, i still think, on balance, he provides a service in giving a different take on the media even if i disagree with a lot of it. i most definitely agree on the disaster that the 2000 presidential election was for our country.

    and its not like anti-irish catholic bigotry is anything new.

  6. Walter Cronkite wasn't some dozey pretty-boy who just sat in front of a camera, read the news and was paid millions for it. He was a reporter, when te word meant something. He flew combat missions in B-17s in World War II and managed to get up out of his chair and go and see what was going on in Vietnam, a couple of wars later. To compare him with wankers like Brian Williams or, god spare us, the "iconic" Tim Russert is patently absurd.

  7. Weary, who were the people Welch hired at NBC? Now, what do they happen to have in common? Good thing Somerby grew up Irish and Catholic instead of Jewish. FSM knows where you would have gone with that! (Matthews Russert Williams Gregory)
    Did Welch only hire Irish Catholics?

    1. im not out to knock any other ethnic heritage or religion, if that is what youre implying. does anything i said sound like i was to you? the moneyed interests and their tools love to artificially divide us and they have been very successful. this is something 'we', americans, should have first and foremost on our minds for our own good.

      welch grew up american. if his ancestry was english would you say he grew up english?

      if i recall correctly somerby has some irish catholic heritage. he has mentioned his "irish aunts" numerous times. but i didnt bring up his ancestry or his religion today or any other time but personally i see it as an even greater offense to knock your own heritage.

      as to who welch hired as head of the nbc parent company ge, i dont know but it sounds like maybe you do. why not just say whats on your mind instead of being cryptic about it? . . . ive heard that mathews and williams and russert all have at least some irish heritage and are or were catholic. gregory i understand has at least some jewish heritage and is jewish by religion.

      i hope this helps.

    2. weary:

      You should go back through the archives. Bob has occasionally mentioned the irish catholic ancestry of Dowd, Matthews, Russert, et. al.

      However, he has done so in a very specific context. Specifically, he has referenced it in connection with the very unusual gender trashing that these individuals have subjected democratic politicians to.

      Bob sees in that gender-trashing, a throwback attitude to gender relations which he recognizes as belonging to his Irish Catholic ancestors.

      Bob repeatedly emphasizes that modern Irish Catholics do not hold these throwback views on gender when noting the "odd" fact that NBC employs literally dozens of Irish Catholics who clearly hold these outdated and minority views (even amongst Irish Catholics).

    3. Good luck with this, Anonymous. weary's argument doesn't seem to be evidence-driven.

      Incredibly, he really does think he's "proven" Somerby has a special animus toward Irish-American Catholics.

      "Everything was honky dory until people who happened to be of irish ancestry bullied their way into prominent media jobs."

      Media in the past was an unalloyed good, he says Somerby implies. [It won't matter that Somerby demonstrably doesn't believe this.]

      Irish-Americans "bullied" their way into the press corps. [What does Somerby really think? It doesn't matter.]

      The intrusion of Irish-Americans in our media is what's responsible for a decline. [Did Somerby say that? No, but so what?]

      "Everything was honky dory until people who happened to be of irish ancestry bullied their way into prominent media jobs."

      That's weary's caricature of Somerby's view. He won't be swayed from it.