WALTER AND DAVID AND RUSH AND GAIL: Debating the question of relevance!


Part 6—Gail Collins won’t talk about Bain: When Gail Collins jumped the pooch last week, bright-eyed readers perked up their ears and let her know they had noticed.

Last Thursday, Collins devoted her entire column to a murky tale from 1983 concerning Mitt Romney’s pet dog. In response, she received 691 reader comments.

One week later, she wrote this transcendently pointless column about recent congressional action. Do neutrinos move almost as fast than light? This column slowed the passage of time. Having failed to mention the dog, she got 204 comments.

Quickly, let’s return to the dog, as Collins persistently does.

Judging from their comments, very few of Collins readers ever entertained the thought that they might not really know what happened to Mitt Romney’s dog. Even fewer seemed to have imagined that they might be getting bogus or selective information from Collins herself.

Not one reader mentioned the fact that Collins deliberately passed on a “rumor” in last Thursday's column! We the people are very clueless—very credulous—when it comes to such things.

This puts us at the mercy of people like Rush and Sean and Gail.

Was Collins feeding her readers fake facts? Judging from comments, this thought had crossed few people’s minds—and most of her readers cheered her on, praising her for her brilliance and her astonishing talent.

That said, a small but hardy band of dissenters complained about Collins’ obsession. One said Collins was simply “lazy;” another said she was “bankrupt of ideas” and was hiding this fact with her doggy obsession. But others made a different claim:

The hoary old tale of the dog on the roof was trivial, pointless. Irrelevant!

Very few readers wondered if they were getting fake info from Collins. A larger number complained that her Groundhog Day conduct was pointless—irrelevant. On Monday, we posted a long and bitter denunciation from a reader who wanted Collins to focus on the nation’s actual issues and problems (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/12/12). A small but hardy band of dissenters offered similar complaints:
COMMENTER: I am no fan of Mitt Romney and most certainly will vote for Obama. That said, I find it odd that the Times wastes it valuable and limited op-ed space on topics as unserious as Romney's dog. It diminishes the newspaper's authority and prestige and adds nothing to the political discourse. Time spent reading a column like this is wasted time, like the time spent watching a low-grade reality show.

COMMENTER: I voted for Obama last time and almost certainly will this time, but gosh I'm getting tired of having folks on both sides of the aisle beaten up over things that are misinterpreted, misunderstood and irrelevant. And I love your column but it is time for you to move on.

COMMENTER: It's precisely this sort of moronic fixation on an event that surely Seamus long ago forgot about, that makes our election process so venal and vapid.

COMMENTER: Can you put this to rest now? Your constant harping on Seamus feels like being pestered by some 9 year old who thinks they are being clever by repeating the same thing over and over. It feels like water torture...What Mitt Romney did as governor of Massachusetts is far more relevant to what he did with his dog 30 years ago.

COMMENTER: With her habit of beating a dead horse (er, dog), is Gail Collins morphing into Maureen Dowd? Well, at least she hasn't started comparing Obama to Mr. Spock, or Dick Cheney (or was it GWBush?) to Darth Vader. But she has developed the habit of taking one statement or incident in a politician's life and believing that that allows her to gain a window into that person's soul or psyche, or to accurately predict how the person will behave as president.
That last reader made the unkindest cut, comparing Collins to Dowd. But all these readers wrote to say that this hoary old tale is pointless—irrelevant. Intriguingly, a number of readers in foreign ports wrote to offer the same view. Writing from distant ports of call, they puzzled over Collins’ conduct:
COMMENTER FROM NEW ZEALAND: By all means vote against Romney—though, in the primaries, who, in the world, would one possibly vote FOR? But vote against him on real grounds. Getting up-in-arms for such a vacuous reason is like voting against W solely because he couldn't pronounce “nuclear.” Are there not enough REAL issues?

COMMENTER FROM CANADA: I am not sure what to think of Mitt, but he is a serious person seeking to be his party's candidate for the highest office in the United States, and that while it is fair play for a a journalist to make a few references to this incident, to do it over and over again, to use it as a metaphor for everything the man has ever done or will ever do, is getting pretty tired, and is of no further value to the debate.

SARCASTIC COMMENTER FROM AUSTRALIA: I can’t believe there is no evidence of the Romneys having a family dog at the moment. What are all those reporters doing for a living? Was this simply a case of sloppy journalism or is there a sinister conspiracy here? I will not be able to sleep at all unless someone gets to the bottom of this.

COMMENTER FROM CHINA: As someone who has lived outside the U.S. for the past six years, I've got to say: You've got a really silly country going on there.
We’ll admit it—we assumed that last commenter was mocking Collins. Soon, though, Helen from Chicago replied to this reader’s comment. She assumed that his sarcasm had been aimed at the other tribe:
REPLY TO COMMENTER FROM CHINA: Me too, I am living outside the USA for a while and cringe when asked to explain the goings on of the Republicans. A common remark is "they are worse than we are." This is not a compliment.

Or maybe Romney was not concerned about the dog because he was thinking about all his wife's horses.
What did the fellow in China mean? This reader offered a witty putdown of Mitt straight from her tribe’s favorite chants.

A small but hardy band of readers complained that this tale is irrelevant. That said, a much larger number of readers expressed the opposite view. They wrote to say how sure they were that Collins’ story does allow her “to gain a window into [Romney’s] soul or psyche.” To these readers, the story of the dog on the roof is extremely relevant:
COMMENTER: Excellent! Sometimes, all it takes is one true story about a candidate to tell you all you need to know. This is one of them.

COMMENTER: As so many readers of your columns have written before I am writing this, Seamus' story is the best explanation of Romney characteristics (which have been on display far too long now), as well as the most telling commentary on his character that we could have asked for…Kudos for making us laugh while we are being educated about a presidential (?) candidate.

COMMENTER: At first, Gail, I thought to myself, "Here she goes again with another Seamus story.” This time around, however, you've provided more detail (at least more than I, personally, have read in past columns), and it makes one thing perfectly clear: Romney's inexcusable treatment of the family pet is a metaphor for how he'd govern.

COMMENTER: I'm just glad that someone has replaced John Kerry as the most awkward and out of touch presidential candidate in recent history. And this is a lot more fun than "Swiftboating" because it's actually true!
Citizenship is very easy when we perform it this way! “Sometimes, all it takes is one true story about a candidate to tell you all you need to know,” that first commenter said. The second commenter thanked her leader for “educating” us.

According to that fourth commenter, this story is better-than-Swiftboating because it’s actually true.

Had these readers considered the possibility that Collins’ story isn’t true—that the columnist who has been tickling their tribals might be playing them for fools, in much the way Rush Limbaugh does? There was no sign that they had. Other readers, more credulous still, explained what we can learn from this story in a bit more detail:
COMMENTER: I'm sorry Ms. Collins' continuing use of Seamus bores, upsets, or frustrates [some readers] but it's a METAPHOR FOR MITT! Get it? It's the little behavioral things that we all do that reveal our true character, not what we say and do when the cameras are rolling (although Mittens is not so great in that context either). Nevertheless, most career politicians have handlers and flack catchers whose job it is to hide their true character, but sometimes the public gets lucky (see, e.g., the Nixon tapes). What is trivial to you is quite revealing to many of us.

COMMENTER: Personally, I am not up for Ann's role of mute admirer any more than Seamus' penthouse views or the bulging bladders of the back seat. If a president Mitt decides, in his truly emotion-free style without a lick of common sense, to nuke the disobedient Middle East, what's the chance that Ann, so called heavy weight of the campaign, would suggest he consider the innocent civilians? About as good a chance that Seamus gets inside accommodations in the future.

COMMENTER: Setting the whole dog thing aside for a moment, the bizarre laugh that Romney comes out with every time he is caught out by a question (which is all too often) is one of the reasons that almost nobody likes the guy. It highlights that he possesses not a shred of actual humor, and while being likeable probably should not be the number one reason to vote for someone, it is not entirely irrelevant, either. Imagine some world leader making an unexpected comment to a potential future President Romney and imagine Romney sitting there with that odd wooden smile on his face giving out with that weird little laugh. That mental picture makes me cringe.
The first commenter compared the relevance of the dog on the roof to that of the Nixon tapes. The second commenter drew a more nuanced lesson from the hoary old tale; based on her conduct regarding Seamus, Ann Romney wouldn’t intervene if her husband was starting a war!

The third commenter even managed to spot the relevance in the way Romney laughs. These are the gentle souls Gail Collins keeps playing as she keeps telling her favorite tale, misstating her facts as she goes.

Is this story relevant in some manner or fashion? That is a matter of judgment. That said, no such story can be relevant if it’s built on bogus facts—and almost no one stopped to ask if Collins has engaged in such conduct. Out of 691 comments, no one mentioned the astonishing way Collins simply repeated a “rumor” last week. But then, very few callers challenge or question Sean or Rush on their radio shows.

Bottom line: We the people just aren’t very sharp. Most likely, we never have been. This helps explain the old code of conduct which people like Collins and Limbaugh (and Hannity and Dowd) have been taking to pieces over the past twenty years.

In the days of Cronkite and Brinkley, the story of the dog on the roof would not have been broadcast or published. For better or worse, we wouldn't have been given the chance to judge this campaign this way. Why would this story have gone to the dump? Consider our favorite comment to Collins’ fact-challenged piece:
COMMENTER: How Mitt Romney treated his dog is very relevant when you consider how he treated the employees of the companies he helped destroy as CEO of Bain Capital.

Then, Romney did say he likes to fire people; especially all the middle- and working-class people who serve him.
Do you like people? Or do you hate them? This well-intentioned but comical comment puts us all to the test.

What is this reader saying? He says this story “is very relevant” when you consider the way Romney treated people during his tenure at Bain.

This well-intentioned person seems to be saying this—the story of the dog on the roof helps us understand the way Mitt Romney treats people. It didn’t occur to this simple soul that Collins has barely written a word about that actual topic, about Romney’s conduct at Bain!

If we want to know how Romney treats people, why not write about it? Why write about the way he treats dogs, then base our conclusion on that? Collins has offered “water torture” concerning the dog on the roof of the car. But quite literally, what follows is her only reference in the past year to Romney’s conduct at Bain. Note how quickly she loses interest, then runs right back to the dog:
COLLINS (11/19/11): This is an unusually delusional presidential field. Mitt Romney's greatest political asset is that he doesn't seem to actually believe it when he says he's been consistent on matters like health care reform or abortion. Thank God there's at least one guy on the stage who knows he's fibbing.

Romney is the richest person running for president, worth somewhere between $190 million and $250 million. Most of that came from his work at Bain Capital, a firm that bought up troubled companies and gave them makeovers. Although many people lost their jobs when Bain Capital reeled in their employers, Romney's work did create a lot of new value. Which, on occasion, Bain Capital walked away with, leaving the remnants of the company flopping helplessly on the beach.

In 2010, Mitt earned somewhere between $9.6 million and $43.2 million, according to The National Journal's calculation of his financial reports. I believe I speak for us all when I say that there seems to be a lot of room in the middle of that estimate, but you get the idea. Much of that came from investments, but Romney also gets quite a bit of cash for making speeches. He once made $68,000 for one appearance before the International Franchise Association in Las Vegas.

People, if you were raking in more than $9.6 million a year, would you waste your time talking to the International Franchise Association? Perhaps you would if international franchises were especially close to your heart. But, in that case, why charge them $68,000? There are a lot of mysteries in the Mitt saga. For instance, if you were a very wealthy father of five energetic young boys, would you choose to spend your vacation driving the whole family to Canada with the dog strapped to the roof of the car? Wouldn't it be more fun to take a plane to Disneyland?
That is Collins’ sole attempt to discuss Romney’s conduct at Bain. Instantly, she wandered off-topic. She self-medicated with humorous trivia, then ran back to the dog.

Collins keeps writing about the dog. She doesn’t seem to care about the people who were left for dead during Romney's tenure at Bain.

On Monday, we’ll try to finish our exploration of this rich treasure trove of comments. They give us a look at the soul of the public. And at the mental life of one modern post-journalist, a person who’s not unlike Limbaugh.

Coming: Why do we the people seek these simple stories?


  1. 4 comments

    1. Collins apparently believes in time travel. She says Romney was wealthy in 2010, so she concludes he was wealthy in 1983. However, Romney didn't inherit his fortune. He earned it. So there was a time in his life when he wasn't rich.

    It's easy to find out that he wasn't wealthy yet in 1983. Romney didn't co-found Bain Capital, the source of his wealth, until 1984. In 1983, he was only 8 years out of school. He'd been working on a salary as a consultant and had a family of seven to support.

    2. All celebrities get paid to be speakers, even the rich ones. E.g., my professional organization once considered Ted Kennedy as keynote speaker. As I recall, his fee at the time was $25,000.

    3. Romney gets blasted for owning two Cadillacs, but he's also blasted for vacationing frugally. He can't win.

    4. New York Times comments are moderated. It's possible that some comment critical of Collins didn't get published.

    1. David is right again.

      1. Romney did inherit enough stock from his father to pay for school and put him and Ann and his growing family in an apartment, and feed them, and really live pretty well. But that's not rich. Everyone inherits stock from his father, and Romney's just happened to be the chairman of American Motor Company.

      2. Kennedy was a hypocrite for asking for so much money. Since he was a liberal, he should have spoken for free.

      3. Romney does get blasted for his wife owning the two Cadillacs, many other cars, multiple homes, and building a basement larger than some cul de sacs. Most people have multiple cars and homes. He tried to save money by taking a road trip and here comes Gail Collins. Santorum is on his tail now about this.

      4. he New York Times doesn't let everything through. Are they blocking critical posts about Collins? They don't stop her from trashing poor Mitt.

  2. Since, unlike Mr Somerby, I don't get the hard copy Times I don't know if they still say "All the News That's Fit to Print" at the top of page one. If they do they should change it to "All the Shit That's Not News We Print". How the mighty has fallen!

    I've become increasingly frustrated at how fatuous Current TV's crop of people are becoming. They seem to have abandoned serious issues and are tilting at windmills and sending thrills up their viewers' legs. Current's motto might be "We Are All Gail Collins Now".

  3. Bob, may I echo Commenter No. 2?

    "And I love your column but it is time for you to move on."

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I have a friend who can become inured to the feelings of her audience . Many of these occasions are moments when this fine woman recounts irritating intercourse she has been conventionally compelled to observe . I have often asked her , "If you thought this was drudgery , why recount the deadening material at such length ?" . This has often led to cheerier topics .
    Mr. Somerby has taken up a constricting logic which he permits to direct him in observing American political reporting and discourse .
    I have often shuddered and heard the remarks which thank mercy someone , not me , does this so I do not need to .
    Thank you Mr Somerby .