Supplemental: Again, the role of the New York Times!


How could they know it was true:
If you’re a student of press criticism, the Dowd/Biden story provides a rare chance to do some pundit-watching.

Never have so many pundits played it so dumb in so many ways. In part, pundits are ducking the role of the New York Times in this peculiar episode.


It’s mid-July, 2015. Joe Biden tells Maureen Dowd a story about his late son, Beau Biden. Or maybe Hunter Biden told Dowd, saying he was in the room when the conversation in question occurred.

At any rate, someone tells Dowd an unusual story—a story with a bit of an ugly twist. According to the story Dowd told in the Times, Beau Biden used his last few nouns to take one last shot at the Clintons!

Let’s assume that someone told Dowd some version of this story—that she didn’t just make the whole thing up. Here are some obvious questions:

How did Maureen Dowd know that the story was true? How did she know that each part of the story was true? More specifically, how did she know that the ugly part of the story was true, if we assume that she didn’t invent that part of the story?

Let’s take it to the next level:

How could Maureen Dowd’s editor know that the story was true? How could he or she know that the ugly part of the story was true?

Presumably, there was no way to know that the story was true—or that each part of the story was true. Presumably, there was no videotape of the conversation Dowd described.

(It has been widely described as a “deathbed” conversation, though Dowd didn’t explicitly say that.)

How could Dowd know that the story was true? How could her editor know such a thing? Presumably, they couldn’t know! In the normal world of normal journalism, there’s a remedy for that problem:

In the normal world of normal journalism, the journalist would cite the source who told her the story in question. Ideally, she would cite the source by name.

On that basis, readers would know what the journalist was doing. They would know that she was providing that person’s account of something they said had occurred.

Dowd would then be reporting Joe or Hunter Biden’s account of something they said had occurred. Readers would know what they were getting—a story as told by Joe or Hunter Biden. Readers could evaluate the story in that light.

Dowd and her editor didn’t take that approach. Dowd never cited any source for her arresting story, which had one compelling twist. Instead, she told the story as an omniscient narrator—as if she herself had observed the events, as if she herself knew what had happened.

That’s a compelling form of story-telling. But on what journalistic basis was the Times willing to let Dowd tell the story that way?

Journalistically, this episode only got stranger when the New York Times, on that very same day, included the story in a front-page news report, sourcing the story to Dowd’s unsourced column. Here’s the way the story was told in that front-page news report in the Sunday New York Times:
CHOZICK (8/2/15): On Saturday, the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that Mr. Biden had been holding meetings at his residence, “talking to friends, family and donors about jumping in” to challenge Mrs. Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two nominating states.

One longtime Biden supporter said the vice president had been deeply moved by his son's desire for him to run.

“He was so close to Beau and it was so heartbreaking that, frankly, I thought initially he wouldn't have the heart,” the supporter, Michael Thornton, a Boston lawyer, said in an interview. “But I’ve had indications that maybe he does want to—and ‘that's what Beau would have wanted me to do.’”


Ms. Dowd reported that as Beau Biden lay dying from brain cancer, he “tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” Mr. Biden's other son, Hunter, also encouraged him to run, she wrote.
In that way, an unsourced story hit the front page, sourced to an unsourced column.

Does this peculiar set of decisions by the Times resemble actual journalism? Around the press corps, career journalists won’t be eager—haven’t been eager—to discuss the role of the Times in this peculiar episode.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the ways a few major pundits critiqued this peculiar story on Tuesday night. We thought Joan Walsh did something which was very unusual and quite constructive. We thought other liberal pundits tended to turn tail and run. That’s the way it tends to work when the New York Times is involved.

At any rate, we’re left with a basic problem:

There was an ugly twist to the story, at least in the way Dowd told it. Our questions for public editor Margaret Sullivan:

Who told Dowd that part of the story? Did her editor even realize that the story, as Dowd told it, had a bit of an unpleasant twist?

Did Dowd’s editor pay special attention to that particular part of the story? What made him or her think that he or she knew that this part of the story was true?

Why did a front-page news report source an unpleasant claim to other “reporting” which was unsourced? Is the Times so accustomed to sliming the Clintons that “journalism” of this type seems thoroughly normal by now?

Are there any rules at the New York Times? Why was this twofer unsourced?

Tomorrow: Joan Walsh gets it right


  1. I still do not get it and perhaps never will. What is so ugly about somebody not wanting Hillary to be President?

    Maybe it is because I am in that camp myself. And have been for over 8 years now.

    I especially do not think it is ugly for a son to tell his dad "You would make a better President than Hillary".

    1. Imagine if Chelsea's last dying words to HRC were......"Captain America* would make a better POTUS than you........"

      * “Captain America”. Used by Michelle Obama and Biden’s personal staff to refer, almost sarcastically, to the vice president’s unbridled optimism and enthusiasm for the United States.

    2. There are a couple of things that make this ugly.

      1. This was presented as the dying wish of Beau Biden. It is ignoble to be preoccupied with keeping someone else out of office on one's deathbed. It seems petty and vindictive.

      2. Expressing a desire for Biden to run, not because he has a vision for his presidency, but to keep someone else out of office is a slap at Biden. Most candidates try to stay positive and present what they would do in office, only going negative when they have to, since that makes them appear desperate and weak. The idea is to give the people a choice and believe that one's own program will be perceived as better by sufficient voters to win office. You don't run to keep someone else out.

      3. According to Dowd, Beau didn't say that his father would make a better president than Hillary. He said the country would be better off with Biden values. That implies that there is something lacking in Clinton values -- in fact, it evokes all the slurs against the Clintons. That is a particularly ugly way to phrase support for his own father.

      Lots of people prefer other candidates than HRC. There's nothing wrong with that. What is wrong with what Dowd reported is that it is emotionally manipulative to report a son's dying wish for his father to beat that awful Clinton. It is like the Make A Wish foundation turning down a dying child's request to go to Disneyland.

      If Biden had any class, he would have waited a suitable time after his son's death, then announced for the presidency with the statement that he has the full support of his family, including his son Beau. Leaking to Dowd so that she could point out that the dying man really really wanted his dad to be President is ugly all by itself. Adding in the gratuitous slap at those Clinton values makes it worse.

      Whatever her faults, Hillary Clinton tried to show class during her campaign -- even in the face of some outrageous attacks on her (setting aside accusations about what her supposed surrogates might have done without her knowledge or consent). She generally tries to stay positive and focused on the issues. Because this leak could only have come from Biden himself or his family directly, it appears Biden does not have the same scruples. The contrast between those alleged Biden values and his conduct is unfortunate. Biden is off to a poor start with this kind of backdoor stab at Hillary.

      If Dowd hadn't included the remark about Clinton values, attributed to Beau, it would still have been manipulative, but not as ugly, in my opinion. Somerby leaves the door open for the possibility that Dowd added that herself. If so, she didn't do Biden any favors.

      Finally, Biden did not comment upon much less disavow Dowd's report of what was said. His silence means that Beau was quoted accurately because if he were not, he should have said something. A classy person would have said something anyway -- perhaps noting that his family's grief is private, not political and that he was not focusing on election matters at a sad time. It seems to me, such a statement would not have been true, so perhaps it is better he didn't make it. That too, makes me think less of Biden.

    3. @7:45

      One thing this is not is a "far right wing conspiracy."

      HRC has David Brock doing her duty work. Not once has she ever repudiated Brock's reprisals.

      HRC takes a back seat to no one when it comes to playing for keeps in a party nomination fight. Just playback her 2008 strategy for candidate Obama.

    4. You really should start your own blog.

    5. Garbage pit - starting at the top.

    6. Shorter cicero - [fart] [fart] [fart]

      Now pay me.

    7. What the hell are "Biden values"?

    8. The value of having Dowd shilling for you.

    9. Not that anybody will see this, but I still don't see it.

      1. I don't presume to tell a dying man what he should or should not want to say before he dies. What if he really did say it.

      2. When the negative is there, it is very hard to avoid going negative. I ran for office against an incumbent. Why do that if the incumbent doesn't suck? Biden would not just be "running for President". To enter the race this time would be - to challenge Hillary, to go against the number one contender. There would need to be some strong motivation to do that. More than just - you are slightly better than Hillary.

      3. He said the country would be better off with Biden values. Actually that does imply that Beau had a pretty good opinion of Biden values. For some reason he thought "Biden values are awesome, my dad is awesome." Maybe you can read his mind, read between the lines and just KNOW - he is implying that Clinton values suck (which would be wrong - those are Lewinsky values) (sorry about that, I accidentally fed myself a straight line and could not resist. The devil made me do it.)

      Beau did NOT say anything bad about Clinton values. His statement was plainly POSITIVE about Biden values. Biden values are better than Clinton values, not necessarily because Clinton values are bad (although as Senator from 1992-2000, Biden may very well have shared some complaints with Beau about things the President was doing (policy wise - I was thinking about the tax cuts of 1996 for example (get your mind out of the gutter). But clearly the country can be better off with Biden values, simply because of the awesomeness of Biden values.

      One could imagine that the story is ugly, but it does not have to be.

      Then again, one basic fact is - there are Big Dawg Democrats. A yellow dog Democrat will vote for a yellow dog if it is on the Democratic Ticket. A Big Dawg Democrat would vote in the primary for ANY Big Dawg that is running against a Clinton. We feel that "the era of Big Dawg" needs to be over. Maybe the Bidens are in that camp, or maybe they just know we exist and are seeking a champion.

    10. I read it. I always thought Bill was the Big Dawg.

      Your point about Beau is well taken. But to a veteran of the Lost Cause (The War Against Gore/Clinton*) anything that does not praise either Al, Jr. or Hillary Rodham is twisted, ugly and a act of sliming. Especially nasty and backstabbing if it is only implied and thus requires the poor, mentally disabled vet of those bloody campaigns from '99-08 to have to read between the lines to find it.

      * It is called the War Against Gore/Clinton because the Big Dawg did not lose his part of the War. The Big Dawg, when telling Forbidden Tales of the Wa, never includes the part about Gore.

  2. Maybe Beau Biden was the source. Maureen Dowd, an old friend of his dad, interviewed him on his deatbed.

    1. In that case, she could have sourced the quote to him in her article.

    2. He requested anonymity, because he was on his way to heaven and didn't want to get bounced at the gate.

  3. I think Dowd made it all up and Biden didn't want to embarrass her by saying so. It is way more her style than Beau Biden's (based on him being a better man than Joe Biden).

    1. "I think ..."

      Oh yeah - I can't.

  4. Shorter Bob "I had game in high school" Somerby: if liberals would only tell the press what to print, they'd do it.

  5. "How He Got There"

    A novel way behind it's time. The Spanish Armada of the 21st Century. Meanwhile, while we exhaust our meager attention span on the "Beltway Media" and how the liberals are turning into the other tribe, Hunter Thompson spins in his grave and finally reaches equipoise, knowing that he pulled the trigger at precisely the right time in history.

    By the way, David in Cal is a ick - sorry CMike and AC/MA

  6. Garrick Huntley's proofreaderOctober 9, 2015 at 1:36 AM

    Correction: By the way, David in Cal is a dick - sorry CMike and AC/MA.

  7. Not to worry it seems Joe has a few skeletons in the closet so to speak.

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  9. Howler wants to blame Dowd's dubious work on editors, but someone like Dowd is the journalistic equivalent of the Supreme Court.

    It's one thing to have a team of tireless fact-checkers at The New Yorker combing stories about orchid thieves for inaccuracies. It's quite another to expect a daily paper to fully vet every story from every cub reporter. Surely every veteran columnist understands that. Bob Dylan sells out to IBM; Dowd embellishes her reporting. Ethical purity is greasy kid stuff.

    Remember Jason Robard's speech as Ben Bradlee: "I can't do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody."

    As well he should.

  10. So maybe Down didn't name Joe Biden as the source for the dying nounless words of Beau Biden because she knew he had no credibility. She had already proven he is a plagiarist,


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