A fascinating episode: Friend, are you intrigued by the way the mainstream “press corps” scripts our White House campaigns?
If so, you’re in luck! Yesterday’s claim that “Biden-told-Dowd” is a hundred-year opportunity to see the nation’s pundits in action discussing the work of their guild.
Last night, we thought E. J. Dionne was worst-in-show as various cable pundits discussed the meaning of the affair. That said, Jonathan Alter wasn’t far behind. Joan Walsh, newly released from Salon, turned in the top cable performance.
Chris Matthews offered the most fascinating comment. We’ll post that comment below.
That said, let’s postpone our discussion of the various pundits. For today, let’s establish some basic points to keep in mind as you watch our pundits discuss, or pretend to discuss, this latest magical mystery.
Once again, we don’t know if Biden was the source for Maureen Dowd’s column about the dying son's last words. For ourselves, we'd always assumed the most likely source was Biden’s other son, Hunter Biden, although of course we had no way to know.
If Biden actually was the source, we don’t know how much the horrific Dowd “improved” what he actually said. Given Dowd’s appalling history, it’s entirely possible that she embellished whatever it is she was told.
Did Biden tell the story to Dowd? If so, the story was profoundly self-serving by the time it reached print. You should keep the following points in mind as you watch the pundit discussions, real and feigned:
The ugly Clinton-hatred: The idea that Beau Biden wanted Joe to run didn’t start with Dowd’s column. The Wall Street Journal had reported that claim five weeks earlier.
The ugly new twist which appeared in Dowd’s column concerned its implied Clinton hatred. In Dowd’s telling, the dying man loathed the Clintons so much that he used his last few nouns to slime them one last time, even as he lay dying.
That made the story an ugly story. It remains an ugly story today. That also turned it into a story many of Dowd’s colleagues would love. It made that column the latest chapter in Dowd’s apparently endless book of disordered Clinton/Gore-hatred.
Not for attribution: Was Joe Biden really Dowd’s source? If so, we note an important point—he spoke to her on a “not for attribution” basis. As she told her startling story, Dowd didn’t identify her source.
Last night, a range of pundits said that this was just Joe-being-Joe—this was Joe just talking to folks, as he always does.
Sorry. If Biden actually was the source, this wasn’t Joe-just-talking-to-folks. This was Joe talking to the nation’s most venomous Clinton-hater on a not-for-attribution basis.
When Biden spoke to Stephen Colbert, he did so on network TV. Whoever spoke to Maureen Dowd spoke to her in secret.
The New York Times cited no source: The publication of Dowd’s column constituted another milestone in the journalistic disintegration of the New York Times.
Good God! Dowd was telling a remarkable story about the Democratic front-runner and the sitting Democratic vice president. But Dowd provided no source—none!—for her remarkable tale.
On the front page of that same day’s New York Times, the repeatedly ludicrous Amy Chozick made matters that much worse. She told the story of the dying man’s last nouns as part of a front-page news report. She “sourced” her report to Dowd’s “reporting”—to reporting on that very day's op-ed page, reporting which stated no source.
This has nothing to do with anyone in the Biden camp. But will public editor Margaret Sullivan explain this odd procedure? It’s time for her to try.
(In fairness, Chozick’s ludicrous front-page report did earn one distinction. It replaced the Times’ 4400-word report about the Clintons’ scary uranium deal as the most ridiculous piece of journalism this year.)
Importantly, the column triggered a narrative: In his muck-raking piece at Politico, Edward-Isaac Dovere said the column provided a service to possible candidate Biden.
“It was no coincidence that the preliminary pieces around a prospective campaign started moving right after that column,” Dovere wrote. “People read Dowd and started reaching out...in truth, Biden had effectively placed an ad in The New York Times, asking them to call.”
Whoever the source may have been, we’ll assume the column did have that effect. But it had a second important effect—it triggered a Standard Group Story among the nation’s pundits, a story which was very sympathetic to Biden and very unhelpful to Clinton.
From that day to this, reams of pundits have repeated the Standard Official Group Story. They’ve gushed about Biden’s authenticity while histrionically feeling his pain.
They’ve said that his somewhat erratic behavior was a sign of his grief—and of his vast authenticity. We’ve seen no one raise the possibility that Biden was perhaps behaving badly in some way as he surfed the tale about the dying son who used his last few nouns to attack the heinous Clintons.
The column triggered a group recitation. Those recitations have uniformly built Biden up and helped tear Clinton down. Our mainstream “press corps” behaves like that, especially when the horrible Dowd floats new Clinton-hatred
East Coast Irish Catholics of the world, unite: Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve long discussed the disproportionate role We Irish have played in the press corps’ endless wars against the Clintons and Gore.
This cultural problem reached a somewhat comical zenith when Jack Welch reinvented NBC News as an East Coast Irish Catholic preserve, with the island of Nantucket serving as its Vatican City. But make no mistake—the most disordered Clinton/Gore-haters have tended to come from the disproportionate numbers of We Irish within the mainstream press.
Joe Klein once noted this same phenomenon. For the most part, you’ll never see this cultural phenomenon discussed within the press corps.
Last night, Chris Matthews almost went there! He offered his thoughts to a trio of pundits who had exactly nothing to say about the awkward story which had emerged within their guild.
As we start, USA Today’s Heidi Przybyla is making an irrelevant comment, as our pundits tend to do at such awkward moments. All in all, Matthews seemed to think that Biden probably had spoken to Dowd. He offered some cultural context:
PRZYBYLA (10/6/15): You have to talk to people who are close to Joe Biden as well. There’s no one who doesn’t believe he was genuinely grieving at that time. And I don’t doubt as well that he didn’t have a conversation with Maureen Dowd in that context. She’s known him for many years.In this moment, Matthews briefly drew the curtain back from the social workings of the upper-end mainstream press corps.
MATTHEWS: Let me suggest an ethnic connection here, too. We don’t have a term like “lantzman,” but there is a connection among the Irish. And Joe Biden always has the breakfast on St. Patrick’s Day with a bunch of people. I’m in the larger circle, I’m not in the inner circle, but I’ve always been friendly with that family. And I think he feels very comfortable with Maureen.
And I think that they do talk about that old sad Irish thing that you share. It’s very much an Irish thing! You sort of grieve—everybody else doesn’t grieve! But I can see him in the middle of a conversation with Maureen, telling the story of what Beau said, without some plan.
Within that press corps, it has also been “very much an Irish thing” to savage the Southerners, Clinton and Gore. Until his reinvention in 2008, Matthews was one of the most virulent and unscrupulous Clinton/Gore attack dogs.
Dowd has long been queen of that guild. Originally, she was accompanied by her childhood friend, the late Michael Kelly, a crazoid Clinton/Gore hater.
Why have We Irish played the leading roles in this long peculiar jihad? We could offer two principal speculations. But in that passage, Matthews is telling you that the Irish Catholic pol, Joe Biden, enjoyed a long-standing connection to the Irish Catholic Clinton-hating columnist, Dowd. Matthews could see them getting together to do our sad Irish thing.
That doesn’t mean that Biden was the source for the column. However, please note this:
Matthews said he can picture Biden talking to Dowd in the sad way We Irish do, “without some plan” for his political gain.
We can picture that too! But if Biden spoke to Dowd about this, he did so on a not for attribution basis. If this was Joe just being Joe, why did he do that?
We saw no pundit address that point last night. It was constantly ignored.
Was Biden the source for the column? We have no way of knowing. It only matters to the extent that it helps us see the way the press corps builds narratives around our White House campaigns, in which they praise the pols they love and savage the pols they hate.
That said, Matthews’ rumination about We Irish is well worth considering. It offers us a tiny look at the million things which determine the way our presidential campaigns get spun—a tiny look at the million things you aren’t normally permitted to know.
Dowd and Matthews are rich and famous. In truth, they aren’t obsessively honest, and people below them won’t talk.