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“A Distasteful Degree Of Opportunism”: Public Editor; No Problem With Dowd Column, But News Story Needs Correction

Today New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on the Maureen Dowd-Joe Biden controversy (see my previous post), allowing the columnist to defend her account of the fraught conversation between the vice president and his late son, Beau Biden.

“The column is accurate,” affirmed Dowd, noting that on 60 Minutes, Biden referred to a “Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute” his son had made a deathbed request that he run for president:

I never reported a last-minute deathbed scene where Beau grabbed his father’s hand. In fact, my column recounted a conversation they had seated at a table after Beau knew his prognosis was bad. He was terminally ill for some time.

She also noted that Dick Harpootlian, the South Carolina Democratic activist, had referred to Beau’s wish for his father to enter the presidential primary in a June Wall Street Journal column.

Sullivan concurred: “A re-reading of the column (and a second look at the vice president’s words on CBS) bear [Dowd] out. There is no mention in the column of a deathbed conversation or hand-grabbing, and there is mention of father and son sitting at a table.”

She has a point. But “deathbed” is not necessarily a literal expression; in Dowd’s August 1 column, she described Beau as having lost control of his face and his speech. She also recounted Joe Biden’s inner thoughts as he spoke with his son, and quoted Beau as pleading that “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”

Sullivan did chide political reporter Amy Chozick and the paper’s news editors for repeating and amplifying Dowd’s story in a front-page news article , complaining that the following sentence merited a correction:

Ms. Dowd reported that as Beau Biden lay dying from brain cancer, 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.

Evidently Sullivan believes Biden merely denied was that this conversation occurred while his son was actually prone — when he sounded as if he was denying the tone of the discussion as reported by Dowd and repeated by Chozick. We may never know exactly what he meant, unless another interviewer asks Biden a few more questions: Did he talk to Dowd himself? Was her account of his conversation with his son (and his own inner thoughts) accurate? And why did he wait almost three months to issue a denial?

On national television, Biden went out of his way to correct the record: “Nothing like that ever, ever happened.” Nothing like that – and Dowd’s column, which set the tone of subsequent sensational coverage in the Times and everywhere else, was a lot like that. The issue isn’t whether Beau Biden was lying down or sitting at a table, but what kind of conversation he had with his father about the presidency, the Clintons, and “Biden values,” which – if Dowd is indeed telling the truth – seem to include a distasteful degree of opportunism.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, October 27, 2015

October 28, 2015 Posted by | Joe Biden, Maureen Dowd, The New York Times | , , , , | 4 Comments

“A Maureen Dowd Media Conflagration”: Dowdgate? Biden Insists Deathbed Scene With Son Beau Never Happened

Not every day does the Vice President of the United States accuse America’s most respected newspaper of publishing a falsehood about him and his family. Over the weekend that is what Joe Biden alleged, posing a difficult problem for The New York Times.

Appearing on CBS 60 Minutes, Biden denied that the affecting deathbed scene between him and his older son Beau, as famously recounted by Times Op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, had ever occurred. Dowd’s sensational August 1 column sparked a media conflagration, fired up the “draft Biden” movement, and the scene, not incidentally, was reported on the paper’s front page that same Sunday.

According to Dowd, Beau Biden on his deathbed “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.” But according to Joe Biden, it didn’t go down that way at all.

Asked by correspondent Norah O’Donnell about the conversations he had with Beau about running for president, he replied:

Well, first thing I’d like to do, and you’re being very polite the way you’re asking me the question because some people have written that, you know, Beau on his deathbed said, “Dad, you’ve got to run,” and, there was this sort of Hollywood moment that, you know, nothing like that ever, ever happened…Beau all along thought that I should run and that I could win…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.

While the facts behind this bizarre drama remain mysterious, the motivations seem obvious. Certainly Dowd, whose corrosive hatred of Hillary Clinton is the stuff of soap opera, wanted to encourage the entry of Biden into the Democratic presidential primary (as did many of her colleagues in the Beltway press corps). As for Biden, the dramatic scene in Dowd’s column encouraged supporters and sympathizers to rally behind his possible campaign, which may explain why he failed to shoot down the story until now.

While the vice president allowed this anecdote to persist for two months — notably failing to deny it when he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or when Politico reported that he was its source — he seems to have no compelling reason to prevaricate about the matter now.

That leaves a big dark cloud of doubt over Dowd and the Times editors. (In today’s edition, a story on an inside page about Biden’s 60 Minutes interview glancingly notes his denial of “news reports about conversations with his dying son,” while neglecting to mention the role of the newspaper and its star columnist.) Presumably the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, will inquire how this happened on behalf of perplexed readers. The explanations should be interesting.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, The National Memo, Ocetober 26, 2015

 

October 27, 2015 Posted by | Joe Biden, Maureen Dowd, The New York Times | , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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