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No, Journalists Don’t Have Dramatic License

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No, Journalists Don’t Have Dramatic License

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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

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Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate. A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows. Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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35 Comments

  1. Dominick Vila October 28, 2015

    Journalism is not even a semblance of what it was half century ago. The focus today is not finding the truth, or even a mild effort to be objective, but sensationalism, ratings, and the Almighty $$$. Ms. Dowd descended to the bottom of a stinking pile. Hopefully she will stay where she belongs.

    Reply
    1. FT66 October 28, 2015

      She must be fired in order to retain the dignity of NYT. We welcome and are eager to be informed real news and not lies.

      Reply
    2. John Murchison October 28, 2015

      True, in the old days being fair and neutral was a source of pride in journalists. They also were not afraid to call out “yellow journalists”. I guess we cant go back huh?

      Reply
      1. Dominick Vila October 28, 2015

        We should try to preserve the things that worked in the past, and reject the things that did not contribute to our economic, social, or personal well being.

        Reply
    3. jamcrky October 28, 2015

      Dom it reminds of that old show Dragnet, Sgt Joe Friday ( Jack Webb) saying just the facts, just the facts…….Maybe some journalist should remember that

      Reply
  2. Jinmichigan October 28, 2015

    The fallacy of this article is the beginning premise that Maureen Dowd is a journalist. She is a hack at best. And the NYT grows ever more disappointing on a daily basis.

    Reply
    1. MVH1 October 28, 2015

      She is a hack and NYT is growing ever more disappointing on a daily basis, along with Washington Post. Her irritating hatred of and attempts at destruction of Obama have also irked at the very least.

      Reply
    2. John Murchison October 28, 2015

      The Gray Lady has lost her luster. I was wondering how long she’ll last as a news organization. As for Maureen Dowd, well it is too bad. I use to think she was something special. Her fixation with Hillary has slowly rotted her journalism.

      Reply
  3. John Murchison October 28, 2015

    Very disappointing. Journalism and all news media need to smarten up and stop these whole sale fabrications or no one will believe them. It’s bad enough that opinion and entertainment has contaminated reporting but these lies make news entirely fake.

    Reply
    1. MVH1 October 28, 2015

      “Or no one will believe them,” I think that’s already happening among serious news readers. My reliable sources have shrunk.

      Reply
      1. John Murchison October 28, 2015

        The turning point for me was during the Preamble of the Invasion of Iraq with Ws pile of obvious lies for going in. The media was either complicit or too timid to question the whole thing. I lost a lot of faith in the news world after that.

        Reply
  4. rednekokie October 28, 2015

    This seems to be the way of reporters now. They seem to forget that their job is to report accurately as possible, what happens in the world. They are not supposed to speculate, guess, wonder — any of that — simply report what happens. The news media as a whole comes under this umbrella of job description.

    If they would only do that — a lot less hysteria would be created out of nothing.
    If they would only do that, then belief in what they say might — just might return.
    But I’m not holding my breath until they do.

    Reply
  5. Jerpell October 28, 2015

    Oops….Unless these journalists are dealing with republican conservatives, then there are no rules. Journalist rules only apply to democrat liberals….

    Reply
  6. FireBaron October 28, 2015

    Dowd’s obsession with Hillary started when she was the 1st Lady, and refused to pander to the NYT in general, or Dowd in particular. This odium continued during her run for and tenure as Senator from New York.

    Reply
  7. Eleanore Whitaker October 28, 2015

    For American women, this entire harassment and attack on Hillary doesn’t fool us. When you strip away all the smoke and mirrors, step back and look objectively at the rude, obnoxious way the men of the GOP spoke to Hillary during the Benghazi investigation, you see the true GOP men in their most genuine adolescent behavior, ruled by their middle aged hormones to “get” a woman…any woman they deem too powerful.

    Dowd is like so many covert male operatives of the media. Like a good little puppy, he obeys his masters. No matter how far beyond the limits of common courtesy, common decency and respect they have to go to obey like good little doggies.

    There was a time when, free press meant free and truthful. Not Free to lie and lie and lie to push an ideological and mostly egotistical agenda.

    Reply
    1. MVH1 October 28, 2015

      Couldn’t agree with you more on every point. Well said.

      Reply
    2. Paul Bass October 28, 2015

      Hey Eleanore,
      Please go over to Yahoo occasionally and help me on PP and Hillary.
      Apparently Yahoo has quite a large proportion of Fox viewers, that like to spread their lies. I regularly point out their logical and moral inconsistencies, but there are too many of them for me to keep up. Any help in this effort will be appreciated. You have a fantastic day!

      Reply
      1. RED October 28, 2015

        Yahoo is where the most vile disgusting creatures of the right bizarro world exist!! It’s difficult to believe that such a bastion of total ignorance actually exists, until you see the stupidity for yourself. The Yahoo people are beyond hope, save your energy for humans.

        Reply
        1. Paul Bass October 28, 2015

          I agree! It’s amazing the stupidity on display. I can’t help myself, when i see total BS, I have to comment on it.
          Thanks, though, I thought that yahoo comments might be typical of the American electorate. If it is we should all weep for our country!

          Reply
          1. RED October 28, 2015

            Agreed, Paul. I’m not enormously optimistic about the American electorate but my experience with Yahoo is that it’s the haven for the most vile of the vile. I’ve always suspected that’s likely because Yahoo is one of the older and less sophisticated websites or ISP’s, therefore its commentators are also the least sophisticated and ignorant folks, kinda like if you were to go to a World Wrestling event, it’s pretty low odds you’ll find any MaCArthur geniuses or even high school graduates but I’m sure you would find lots of people who had been in hunting accidents or domestic violence cases.

            Reply
      2. Eleanore Whitaker October 28, 2015

        No problem…glad to help.

        Reply
    3. paulyz October 28, 2015

      What about Carly Fiorina criticizing Hillary as well, is she a man also?

      Reply
      1. Eleanore Whitaker October 29, 2015

        Carly Fiorina is what is known by the male honcho CEOs as a “never was.” She sucked up and sucked up thinkng she’d break through a glass ceiling at HP. Little did she know she was just filling the compliance for EEO because HP is notoriously MAN addicted for their top jobs.

        So, they gave her 2 years and picked at her marrow like all men try to do to women when they resent any woman in a position of authority. Admit it..that IS what this Get Hillary GOP BS is ALL about…not that she’s Hillary Clinton…that she has ovaries and not a penis.

        Fiorina was never going to get more than 2 years at HP because so long as any company doing business in the US meets their 24 month EEO quota to prove no inequality in male/female hiring or promotions, they are home free. I know this because J&J was one of our major customers of our management consulting division which processed their EEO compliance reports to the fed and state.

        Reply
        1. paulyz November 1, 2015

          What about Hillary, is she a puppet of men as well, or is it only Democrat women that have a penis?

          Reply
          1. Eleanore Whitaker November 1, 2015

            Let me guess…You’re a typical bossy, overbearing bully boy who thinks every woman is yours to command?

            Let me give you the first clue. There have always been women who DO NOT NEED ANY MAN. We pay the same taxes as you bulls do on salaries 79 cents for every $1 you bulls make.

            Sorry if you have a problem with any woman being more intelligent, more superior and more capable than morons like you. Get over it. Educated women today only keep you guys around for amusement. Your clown acts are the product of Daddies of the 50s and 60s who greased up their hair with Brylcreme and then boozed up on Friday nights. Great example the bossy little shitbags learned from their Daddies. Enough with your silly Daddie’s Boy act.

            Hillary made asshats of the GOP at that Benghazi hearing. And now the whole country knows that the brainless idiots like Gowdy were chewed up and spit out by Hillary. Wait till you see what’s coming from Sen. Warren. You boys will be eating cow dung for breakfast.

            Reply
  8. MVH1 October 28, 2015

    Dowd has become too vicious for my taste. I hardly read what she writes anymore. It’s fun though if you agree with her.

    Reply
  9. FT66 October 28, 2015

    Thanks Gene Lyons, thank you again for bringing this issue into the limelight. We are noting down those journalists who are making up news instead of reporting real news. Why should any trusted reporter use the term: “Anonymous Sources” if at all what they are reporting is 100% true? It is a coverup to hide their lies.

    Reply
  10. oldtack October 28, 2015

    Dowd is just another example of the deviousness of Mass Media. Mass Me

    dia is the biggest “enemy” we have. Don’t waste time and effort reading Newspapers or sitting in front of your TV listening to coffee klatch gossip sessions that pose as 24/7 news.

    Go on the Net and find what is going on here and in all areas then focus i on what looks like unheard news then explore from there.

    Always keep in mind that the TV Media are where they are and draw high salaries , not for News but for how much exposure and drawing power to attract businesses that by expensive Ads which make Millions for the talking heads and Billions for the Owners.

    It’s not News, it is Business.

    Reply
  11. imavettoo October 28, 2015

    Dowd has always struck me as a shrew but now we know that she is actually all the things she has accused Ms. Clinton of being all these years. It’s known as projection.

    Reply
  12. greenlantern1 October 28, 2015

    Biden has often been called a dummy.
    Our ONLY VP, to enter a plea bargain, was Nixon’s first, Spiro Agnew!
    SMART?
    Biden has often been called a coward.
    Ever read the book, DERELICTION OF DUTY?
    The author bravely flew missions for Bosnia!
    In one of them; Biden was right in the cockpit!
    Coward?

    Reply
  13. Darsan54 October 28, 2015

    I don’t know MoDo’s problem with the Clintons is, but I wish she would take it into therapy and stop trying to solve it in public. Oh, and how do you know when MoDo is lying? When the NY Times publishes it.

    Reply
  14. elw October 28, 2015

    Anyone who has watched a loved in their cancer death bed would know how impossible that whole story was. Dowd has a tendency to write fiction, been caught at it a number of times. She is a nasty person who makes a mockery of Journalism.

    Reply
  15. MichaelC October 28, 2015

    Maureen Dowd is a gossip columnist, nothing more, and a bad one at that.

    Reply
  16. alansnipes October 29, 2015

    Exactly right. Dowd invented the narrative about Beau not wanting the Presidency to be “turned over to the Clintons” because she is so deep into Clinton Derangement Syndrome that she cannot help herself. However, the editors of the Times should have no such excuse.

    Reply
  17. fairleft October 30, 2015

    What is the New York Times’ motivation for employing her?

    Reply

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