The Corner

What I Really Told the New York Times about Scalise

Jonathan Martin of the New York Times somehow managed to present me on a front-page story as pushing an analysis that was diametrically opposed to the main points I repeatedly made to him.

At the request of the editors of both publications mentioned later in this sentence, I spent most of yesterday working on columns assessing the Steve Scalise/David Duke situation, one here at NRO for national audiences and another for the Louisiana Advocate making references that are more familiar to those local audiences. The evening before, I had tweeted out several remarks supportive of Scalise.

Enter Martin. Knowing of my long Louisiana political/media roots, he called me to comment on the situation for the Times. I spent exactly 18 minutes and 27 seconds on the phone with him. It was a perfectly pleasant interview/conversation. My comments exactly tracked the columns I already was working on. In the course of them, three or at most four times I offered short qualifiers acknowledging how bad the situation looked for Scalise from a distance. They were clearly outlying comments, as in, “Well, of course it looks bad because of X, but the reality of the context shows Y.” Of the 18:27, I bet I spent 17 minutes, or maybe 17:30, giving background of the sort that appeared in my two columns and defending Scalise. On two occasions, I even stopped the narrative and said something almost exactly like this: “Okay, I know how news articles work, and there’s no way you can include everything I’ve just said. I just wanted you to understand the background. But I know you need something more pithy and definitive, so . . .”

And then I proceeded to give him the short, sweet summation of my key conclusions of everything I had just been saying. There could be no mistaking what my central message was, because I flagged it, quite clearly, in this way, with him expressing thanks for me doing so. The first of such declarative sentences was something like: “In short, I find Scalise’s explanation entirely believable.” I’m less clear in my memory about how I worded the second declarative sentence, but it was something like: “If you need something else, try this: ‘When his whole career shows the opposite of what a single event looks like, Scalise deserves the benefit of the doubt.’”

Again, there can be no doubt whatsoever what my message was. After all, why would I spend almost all day researching and writing two exonerations of Scalise, only to then tell the Times that my main takeaway was that Scalise’s behavior was “offensive”?

Yet Martin quoted one of the three qualifiers I offered in the long interview. Yes, he quoted the words accurately, but so entirely out of context as to be nearly 180 degrees — call it 175 degrees — from the patently clear message I was giving, the same message I had tweeted out and was in the process of putting into two columns. So my defense of Scalise came out in the context of people listed as not believing Scalise, and of me finding his actions “offensive.” For “balance,” Martin included the least important of my exonerations of Scalise, as if I were merely throwing Scalise a tiny bone rather than what I was really doing, which was absolving him while throwing his critics three small bones.

Even after I complained, leading Martin to very mildly amend the earliest version of his story that ran on the NYT web site (and I think in its earliest print editions), the piece came out like this. Now, follow that link and then imagine the exact same story without​ my sentence about there being “no indication that he holds truck with these sort of views.” Read that story, and then read each of my two columns, and see if there is any way at all to reconcile the messages therein. I bet you can’t.

There’s just no way to interpret this other than that Martin, even if unintentionally, heard only what he wanted to hear from me. This occurred even though, as noted above, I stopped twice and directly flagged my main conclusion for him, labeling it clearly as such, in short, declarative fashion.

I’ve been around this communications game a long time. I know how to make myself clear. That’s why I so openly circled back to flag my main conclusions, getting verbal assent from him that he understood. Yet somehow he ended up misrepresenting my emphasis.

In 23 years as a professional journalist, I’ve had complaints four or five times that I slightly misunderstood and misrepresented some ambiguous remarks. Never has anybody complained that what I represented of their opinion was virtually the diametric opposite of what they clearly said. But that’s what happened here to me. The New York Times owes me an apology.

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