No, Journalists Don’t Have Dramatic License
Here’s a controversial opinion: Fiction doesn’t belong in newspapers unless it’s clearly labeled as such.
Anonymous sources are tricky enough, but journalists simply have no business contriving dramatized scenes with invented dialogue and characters — describing their innermost thoughts and feelings with no attribution whatsoever. To do so is inherently deceptive.
Which brings us to the Curious Case of the Redhead and the Vice President — specifically New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Joe Biden. Now for partly subjective reasons, I’ve always responded favorably to Biden. In accent and demeanor, he resembles my late father — not a flawless but a big-hearted, fundamentally decent man with a disarming smile and a touch of what the Irish call “blarney” about him.
Or maybe more than a touch, given the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the term: “talk that is not true but that is nice and somewhat funny and that may be used to trick you.”
And maybe not so nice, sometimes. You be the judge.
On 60 Minutes last Sunday, Biden confronted what he described as a false narrative surrounding the death of his beloved 46-year-old son Beau from brain cancer.
“[P]eople have written that, you know, Beau on his death bed said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run,’ and, there was this sort of Hollywood moment that, you know, nothing like that ever, ever happened,” Biden told Norah O’Donnell.
“Beau all along thought that I should run and I could win,” he added. “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.”
The vice president mentioned no names, but he didn’t need to. The author of a melodramatic August 1 column setting off a months-long carnival of rumor and speculation about Biden’s entry into the Democratic presidential race was Maureen Dowd—Washington journalism’s number-one obsessive Hillary Clinton hater. (Check out Media Matters’ exhaustive list of Dowd columns comparing Hillary to movie villains from Godzilla to Mommie Dearest to Glen Close in Fatal Attraction, if you doubt me.)
Starting off with a labored comparison between Hillary and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as “two controlling superstars… wanting to win at all costs and believing the rules don’t apply to them,” Dowd’s column soon descended into Dickensian melodrama.
Neither citing nor alluding to a single source, Dowd employed what novelists call third person omniscient narration to describe the dying Beau Biden begging his father to save America from the Clintons:
My kid’s dying, an anguished Joe Biden thought to himself, and he’s making sure I’m O.K.
“Dad, I know you don’t give a damn about money,” Beau told him, dismissing the idea that his father would take some sort of cushy job after the vice presidency to cash in.
Beau was losing his nouns and the right side of his face was partially paralyzed. But he had a mission: He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.
It was news from nowhere, immediately bolstered by a same-day front page Times article citing what Dowd supposedly “reported” about Beau Biden’s dying declaration and his father’s strategy meetings with advisors.
So now Joe says it ain’t so.
Which begs the question of why the vice president waited almost three months to speak up. But it would appear to disconfirm Politico’s troubling October 5 story citing “multiple sources” that Dowd’s unacknowledged source was Joe Biden himself. That one a spokesman called “categorically false” without, however, mentioning any problems with the original column itself.
An unsympathetic observer could almost wonder if Biden wasn’t trying to have it both ways: encouraging speculation about his political intentions without confirming or denying his dying son’s disparaging of “Clinton values.” Not a pretty picture, although perhaps understandable in view of the man’s terrible grief.
As for the New York Times, its editors are taking shelter behind Dowd’s lame alibi that her column didn’t literally mention a “deathbed” and the fact that, yes, the vice president definitely thought about running for president.
Mind reading and make-believe dialogue are apparently no problem.
Photo: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks on stage at an event to discuss the about the minimum wage at the Javitz Convention Center in New York, September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid