Talking points, spin, partisan positioning — day in and day out, politicians and their handlers are working overtime to get the upper hand on their political rivals, usually through the conduit of reporters and their insatiable thirst for quotes. Often, there seems to be a sort of unspoken agreement between the political and reporting classes to wink, nod and let some obvious stretches of the imagination slide when news organizations run with some item that was obviously planted. The agreement serves to keep one party’s spin on the front pages, and gives a reporter enough to go on to file a story. Thus all needs are met — except, of course, those of the reader.
There are times, though, when the spin rings so thoroughly hollow that one wonders how it got past even the rustiest of bullshit meters.
Take for example today’s New York Times, in which reporters John M. Broder and Carl Hulse file a story about how Republicans are distancing themselves from now-former California Rep. Randy Cunningham, who resigned earlier this week after pleading guilty to taking over $2 million in bribes and evading taxes.
Up top, the two reporters include a paragraph attributed to “some Republican officials” who claim that “Democrats in Congress were equally guilty of questionable behavior, including lobbyist-paid trips and underreporting of campaign contributions.”
First, we were under the impression that the Times was trying to crack down on anonymous sources, or at least tell its readers why whoever was doing the speaking can’t go on record. The phrase “some Republican officials” tells us exactly nothing. The vice president is a Republican official, but then so is the treasurer of a county-level clubhouse in Obscure, Nebraska. So, who was it?
Beyond that, why does the Times blindly quote the claim that Democrats in Congress are “equally as guilty” as Republicans of “questionable behavior,” without naming names or giving examples, or at least insisting that those mysterious “some Republicans” do so?
Are some Democrats involved in “questionable behavior?” Of that, we have little doubt. Are they “equally as guilty” as Republicans? According to recent history, not even close. At the top end, we have Sen. Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate, who is under scrutiny for the timely sale of stock in his family’s company just before the price of said stock tanked. More famously, there’s our friend Tom DeLay, who, after being indicted by a Texas grand jury for alleged campaign finance wrongdoing, was forced to step down as majority leader in September. Then you have the indictment of “Scooter” Libby, the ongoing, and expanding, Abramoff / Scanlon scandal, and the bribery investigation of Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney. In addition, three California Republicans are under investigation for possible violations of House ethics rules. The Democrats are no angels, and have their own ethical lapses under investigation here and there, but the truth is, in this session of Congress, they’re nowhere near the scale or scope of alleged Republican transgressions.
After including the “some Republicans” paraphrase up top, painting Democrats with the same broad brush as Republicans in trouble, much of the rest of the Times piece is dedicated to chronicling the misdeeds of various Republicans in ethical or legal hot water. Those dang Democrats never show up in the litany of politicos with legal woes.
So why are they there in the first place? On the surface, it appears that Broder and Hulse included the anonymous quote trashing unnamed Democrats to give the top of their piece the illusion of “balance.” Then, having dispensed with their bow to the false god of objectivity, they turn to what they intended to do in the first place — which is, in the wake of the Cunningham confession, lay out the roll call of other Republicans in trouble or under investigation.
This is one head feint that fools no one. Come on, guys — just grab the ball and run straight ahead. It’s faster, it’s more honest and it’s prettier.