Friday, February 09, 2007

Mea Culpa Déjà Vu? A TIME Bureau Chief Takes a Different Tack…

A diligent reader of this blog (there are some, really, and I thank them profusely) will know that I have apologized not infrequently. There are three reasons for this:
1) I make mistakes.
2) I want to move on.
3) I don't want to lose readers.

Apparently, these things do not apply to at least one blogger, as I discovered to my horrified fascination. If you like watching nature programs where swarms of ants dispatch much larger insects and other big game, read on:

TIME magazine in an attempt to mine the blogosphere for more revenue hired Joe Klein and Anna Marie Cox, a couple of media stars who have been around the bloc and then some, added two TIME correspondents, and started (this January?) the political blog Swampland (likely a political double entendre playing on D.C.'s original malarial environs).

On Jan. 23, one of the bloggers, Jay Carney (TIME Washington Bureau Chief), posted this comment on the upcoming State of the Union Address, where he suggested that President Bush would try to learn from the "lessons of the Clinton recovery, both in 1995 and later, during Monica, in 1999, is that Americans reward presidents who, even in the face of enormous distractions, focus on issues that matter to them", and would not "spend much time tonight talking about surging troops in Iraq or the Global War on Terror. Instead, he'll put forward what for him will be progressive and bold policy proposals on health care, the environment and immigration reform." Mr. Carney, however, cast doubt on President Bush's chances, writing "[h]is plight is so dire, and his fate so inextricably tied to one issue, that no matter what he proposes tonight, he is unlikely to lighten the public's sour mood, about him or the state of the union he governs. "

However, in his zeal to draw a parallel between the two presidents, he misrepresented President Clinton's drop in the polls around the end of his first term. Alert readers quickly exposed the polling data misstatement and its incident fallout over the narrative of the post, as well as another less egregious error regarding SOTU sitting arrangements.

But the matter did not end there. Because of, I believe, his misstatement, many readers got the impression (wrongly in my view) that he himself sympathized with drawing a parallel between the Monica Lewinsky incident and the War on Iraq as "enormous distractions". Many readers wrote in to express their indignation, often in the no-holds-barred language of the political blogosphere. These readers tended to assume that he was sympathetic to President Bush.

Mr. Carney, at this point, could have acknowledged his error, conceded that some of the misunderstanding over his opinion (very skeptical) of the Bush strategy could have been avoided had he checked his facts more closely and otherwise taken care to telegraph his punchline (quoted above). Then, he could justifiably gone on to criticize readers who had missed his point completely and requested that they read his posts to the end before drawing conclusion. He may have requested a little more civility, though I am sure that would have fallen on deaf ears.

Instead, he went on the attack. And he decided to do this in a separate post. (A host has that option.) The opening salvo:

"Amazingly, some Swampland readers seem to think my earlier post about President Bush's State of the Union address was too sympathetic to Bush, which proves nothing but that the left is as full of unthinking Ditto-heads as Limbaugh-land."

Um, maybe so, maybe not. But it is usually unwise for a public figure who seeks to appeal to a non-Ditto-headed audience to answer in anger with invectives and sweeping indictments. Particularly when many of your critics are clearly not of their ilk. Worse, although he did concede that President Clinton's poll numbers "were not mired in the 30s", quoted in self-defense a low of 37% for June 2003 (more than a year and a half before President Clinton's own SOTU!) and a disapproval rate of 57% in September 2004 (four months B.S.). Thus, he came across as uncomprehending at best, evasive, even dissembling, at worst. He also did not even bother to refer to the sitting arrangement gaffe.

Readers have been more than happy to heap more insults on his self-inflicted, very much self-aggravated wound. I am merely a casual reader of Swampland, but I am sure that these two posts have generated more comments than any other pair of posts on this joint blog. And even a casual scan leaves it clear that few, if any, are coming to his defense.

Since his ill-fated second post, Mr. Carney has remained silent on this matter. In fact, in the last week or so, he has stopped posting on Swampland, period. His face and bio remain in the frame, so he has not officially retired from the blogosphere, but he had better return soon, or that will become the subject of attention in its own right.

He can do this with his mistakes because he is a denizen of the MSM and the Washington Consensus (most prominently coming down on Stephen Colbert in his 2006 Gridiron speech). He has a place to retreat to. He can afford to lose his blurkers, because he has a public platform of his own.

But the blogosphere will remember. And self-denial of fallibility will have its costs. His every move will be watched for the slightest error, which will in turn be neatly and not so neatly ridiculed till Kingdom come. And his message will have an even greater chance of getting lost.

A blogger is his/her own primary researcher, fact checker and editor. And the blogosphere will do it for you, for free, post facto. Mr. Carney will do well to bear that in mind if he ever is inclined to return.

In the meantime, the irony is that his prediction about President Bush not spending much time on Iraq fell through but there was little to no mention of it in the comments that I scanned.

In this vein, Mr. Carney's co-blogger Joe Klein seems to be handling these matters and more broadly his own learning process exceptionally well. This may not be surprising, given his role as a player in his own right. But it's worth emulating.

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