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.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.
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.
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