It happens every fourth spring: Last Saturday, the New York Times offered a clownish critique of Candidate Rubio’s driving record.
With that topic out of the way, the paper addressed a weightier topic in today’s hard-copy editions.
To what extent should readers trust the judgment of the Times? Their new report about Candidate Rubio started out as shown below, with a troubling tale about a luxury speedboat:
EDER AND BARBARO (6/10/15): For years, Senator Marco Rubio struggled under the weight of student debt, mortgages and an extra loan against the value of his home totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in 2012, financial salvation seemed to have arrived: A publisher paid him $800,000 to write a book about growing up as the son of Cuban immigrants.There he went again! Plainly, the Times suggested that Rubio’s purchase of the luxury speedboat was unwise—an emblem of his shaky personal finances.
In speeches, Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican, spoke of his prudent plan for using the cash to finally pay off his law school loans, expressing relief that he no longer owed “a lady named Sallie Mae,” as he once called the lender.
But at the same time, he splurged on an extravagant purchase: $80,000 for a luxury speedboat, state records show. At the time, Mr. Rubio confided to a friend that it was a potentially inadvisable outlay that he could not resist. The 24-foot boat, he said, fulfilled a dream.
Among the serious contenders for the presidency, Mr. Rubio stands out for his youth, for his meteoric political rise—and for the persistent doubts about his financial management, to the point that Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign flagged the issue when vetting Mr. Rubio as a possible running mate in 2012, interviews show.
Allegedly, Rubio made some comment to that effect to some unnamed friend. We’d call that “evidence” very weak. Sadly, we’d say it’s “evidence” of a type they love at the New York Times.
Hedonists, can we talk? Unless Dylan Byers is wrong, it turns out that the “luxury speedboat” pretty much isn’t a luxury speedboat. Still, the boat in question did cost $80,000. Was this purchase unwise in some significant way?
Frankly, we can’t tell you. We’ll give our standard excuse—we read the New York Times!
We can say this—when we read quite a bit further into today’s hard-copy report, we encountered this account of Rubio’s current finances. It didn’t sound like things have necessarily been all that bad since 2012, when the boat in question was purchased:
EDER AND BARBARO: The Rubios have taken steps to stabilize their finances in recent years, aided primarily by proceeds from his two books. Since 2012, they have started college savings accounts for his four children, put away at least $150,000, given $60,000 to charity and refinanced the mortgage on their primary home to lower the monthly payments.The Times reporters never say how much money Rubio accrued in those “proceeds from his two books.”
They do report, a bit later on, that Rubio “earned $2.38 million from 1998 to 2008.” Presumably, that was before the large additional money from the books began coming in.
Reading that passage, is it clear that Rubio couldn’t afford the “luxury speedboat?” We can’t say we’re sure! The Times report seems a bit slippery to us at various times, as Times reports of this type often do. And by the way—the passage we just showed you apparently turned out to be wrong.
This is the way that passage reads in the on-line version of the report. Changes like this don’t heighten our confidence in the Times’ basic competence:
EDER AND BARBARO (as now presented on-line): The Rubios have taken steps to stabilize their finances in recent years, aided primarily by proceeds from his two books. Since 2012, they have put away at least $150,000, given $60,000 to charity and refinanced the mortgage on their primary home to lower the monthly payments. (Mr. Rubio set up college funds for his four children at birth, an aide said.)Whatever! We see no note saying that the earlier version of this passage was wrong.
Personally, we wouldn’t vote for Candidate Rubio. We’re also inclined to caution readers about the New York Times.
The Times began with an anecdote which turned on a single alleged comment. Was the alleged remark joking or possibly semi-joking? With a newspaper like the Times, the reader never knows.
The Times will often present such shaky material at the start of its major news reports. On balance, the American people are poorer by far for the work of this slippery “newspaper.”
From personal experience: Trust us. Interviews with candidates’ friends can operate in this way:
The friend may spend an hour or two speaking with a reporter, possibly even lunching. When the report appears in the press, a single comment may be quoted, possibly yanked out of context.
A joking remark may even be offered straight. On one occasion, we saw a fact attributed to us about the candidate in question—a fact we hadn’t even known until we saw what we were said to have said, or perhaps until we heard it from the reporter.
“At the time, Mr. Rubio confided to a friend that it was a potentially inadvisable outlay that he could not resist?”
In our experience, statements like that should be taken with a Biscayne Bay of salt. That's especially true if they come at the start of a major Times report.
Did we mention the fact that we wouldn’t vote for Candidate Rubio? That said, we wouldn’t base our judgment on a report about a “luxury speedboat”—a shaky report about a “speedboat” which quite possibly isn’t.