Howell Raines isn't the only one who has had some explaining to do at the once good, once gray New York Times. Brother Raines finally stepped down as executive editor last week, and nothing became his brief but disastrous tenure more than his ending it.
But for a casebook example of how journalism came to be considered one of the black arts, consider someone who's still at The Times — star columnist Maureen Dowd. She has just shown how to use a few little dots the way a magician does his silk handkerchief: to create an illusion.
Maureen the Magnificent needed only an ellipsis to pull off her trick and, hesto presto, the simple meaning of a presidential comment was changed. It's done like so, to quote her column of May 14:
"Busy chasing off Saddam, the president and vice president had told us that al Qaeda was spent. 'Al Qaeda is on the run,' the president said last week. 'That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely, being decimated. ... They're not a problem anymore.' "
Here is what the president actually said in Little Rock, Ark., on May 5, with the missing words in italics:
"Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely, being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem any more."
Makes quite a difference, doesn't it? The president was clearly referring to those terrorists jailed or dead not being a problem anymore — not the whole, murderous outfit. Q.E.D.
But who reads texts? It was Maureen Dowd's incomplete, foreshortened, distorted quotation that took wings, and has been repeated by now on MSNBC (by Bill Press), CNN (by Miles O'Brien), ABC (by Dan Harris), the Nation (of course) and various others, including foreign outlets that love to bash this president almost as much as his domestic critics do. Even if they have to edit out some of his words to do it. (As if this president didn't commit enough linguistic gaffes unaided. We haven't had a president with his mysterious way with words since Dwight Eisenhower.)
As it turns out, the sardonic "they're not a problem anymore" construction is one of W's favorites. He uses it every chance he gets. It's probably the wry combination of understatement and closure in the punch line ("not a problem anymore") that appeals to the Texan in him. It sounds like a line Clint Eastwood might utter in one of his Lone Star epics. You can almost see our cowboy president blowing the smoke away from his six-shooter afterward.
There's never been any mystery about which terrorists he was referring to — those in the hoosegow or No Longer With Us.
So why would a columnist in Maureen Dowd's stellar position resort to so obvious and unconvincing a trick?
I would like to think it was just fatigue. It was another hurried and harried day in the newspaper business, the lady had a column to write, and, what the heck, it would be in the paper for a day, then forgotten, and that would be that. Nobody would notice. But somebody did.
But even if nobody had, wouldn't the writer know? It's called loading-dock tension in the trade — the knowledge that the proof of your mistake is just waiting out there to be delivered, to be circulated to hundreds of thousands in unrecallable black-and-white. I know the feeling, and hate it. But it usually drives me to bang out a correction even before the presses have stopped running. (I value my sleep).
Why has Maureen Dowd remained Above It All? Does she think working for the New York Times confers some kind of immunity from the rules the rest of us go by? But these days the Times is an example to beware, not emulate. In only a few short months, it has given teachers of ethics courses at journalism schools years of material.
Maureen Dowd's little distortion will cling to both her and the president whose words she had twisted, particularly if she never takes responsibility for it. She really ought to, for at least a couple of reasons:
First, because she has been found out.
Second, she would sleep better.
Or as Cosmo Castorini tells his daughter at the end of one of my favorite films, "Moonstruck": "Tell him the truth, Loretta, they find out anyway." Mr. Castorini, as I recall, was a plumber; he should have been a journalism instructor.