I wrote earlier this month about Maureen’s Dowd in promoting Bidenmania. On one hand, I’m glad that questions are being asked about the column, but on the other, I’m annoyed because they’re the wrong questions. TPM:
But in an interview with the CBS show “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night, Biden said that his son’s request wasn’t what it was made out to be.
“Beau all along thought that I should run and I could win,” Biden said. “But there was not what was sort of made out as kind of this Hollywood-esque thing that, at the last minute, Beau grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run, like, win one for the Gipper.’ It wasn’t anything like that.”
Margaret Sullivan, the public editor for The New York Times, wrote on Tuesday that she looked into the matter after hearing from readers who wondered whether Biden’s comment conflicted with Dowd’s column. She asked Dowd to respond.
From Dowd’s email to Sullivan:
The Vice President confirmed on CBS that he often talked to Beau about running for president, and that Beau thought all along that his dad could run and win. Mr. Biden said what never occurred was a “Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute” there was a deathbed request where Beau “grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run.’ ”I never reported a last-minute deathbed scene where Beau grabbed his father’s hand. In fact, my column recounted a conversation they had seated at a table after Beau knew his prognosis was bad. He was terminally ill for some time.
Ultimately, Sullivan decided that Dowd was in the clear. But Sullivan wrote that the news staff took Dowd’s column “a step further — in fact, a step too far.”
Got that? Maureen Dowd is absolved because, to the extent anyone thought that her column portrayed a maudlin death-bed scene, that was a mischaracterization!
As I noted, the real problem is that, regardless of the exact details of the story, Maureen Dowd did her readers a dis-service by not being candid about the source of her information. Margaret Sullivan deals with that with hand-waving:
Opinion-side columnists have a lot of leeway, and they should. Ms. Dowd took full advantage of that freedom in this column by reporting something newsworthy without describing her source (though, frankly, it wasn’t hard to figure that out, given the paucity of choices)
But if Dowd had been fully forthcoming about her sourcing, it probably would have spared the body politic quite a bit of Biden drama. The sub-text of Sullivan’s dismissive response is: “look readers, you should expect that our columnists have hidden agendas, and if you were fooled, it’s your own damn fault.”
The Times shouldn’t get to dodge the hard questions about journalistic ethics by casting them as nontroversies over literal accuracy.
They’ll get away with it though.
They always do.