It is said that an infinite number of monkeys banging on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce a precise replica of Shakespeare's Hamlet. A couple dozen monkeys fighting over three typewriters for an hour and a half, on the other hand, will yield something a lot closer to Frances Martel's inane write-up of a National Enquirer article for Mediaite. (Slate's John Dickerson aptly describes the underlying story about a supposed Obama sex scandal as an “investigation about an alleged rumor.” Marc Ambinder adds that he and other reporters looked into the non-story years ago, and found that ... there's nothing to find.)
By now you probably know that Martel's Mediaite article was guilty of treating "old, evidence free rumors as breaking news" in part because Matt Drudge was hyping it and that there are some indications Martel was more interested in creating a scandal than reporting on one.
But what struck me about Martel's article was just how poorly-written it was, and how little she seemed to understand the article she was summarizing. And in reading several other recent Mediaite articles by Martel and managing editor Colby Hall, it seems this is a common problem.
Now, I make more than my share of grammatical errors (both of my own doing and as a result of overzealous auto-correct mechanisms and under-zealous proofreading.) Nobody wants to be a pedantic grammar scold. Besides, I'm not nearly a good enough writer for it to be a good idea for me to criticize someone else's writing. But the posts from Martel and Hall over the past week are just riddled with sloppy writing and poorly-reasoned arguments. I'm not talking about things that can easily be chalked up as simple typographical errors -- commas in the wrong place, homophone errors and the occasional tense mistakes -- though there are plenty of those. I'm talking about more serious flaws. Faced with such sloppy writing and flawed arguments, I can't help but wonder if those flaws reflect a deeper problem at Mediaite, particularly in light of the fiasco that unfolded over the weekend.
Here's how things started -- the headline on Martel's initial report:
National Enquirer's Obama Scandal: Claims Surveillance Proves Affair
Who or what is claiming that “surveillance proves affair” ? According to the headline, “National Enquirer's Obama Scandal” is making that claim. But a scandal can't make a claim, so Martel presumably meant that the Enquirer was making that claim. But even if she had written it correctly, she'd have been wrong: the Enquirer made no such claim.
Moving on to Martel's lede:
...the National Enquirer published a story last night claiming that President Barack Obama was caught having an affair with a former campaign staffer at a Washington hotel...
Nope. The National Enquirer published a story claiming that sources say Obama was caught having an affair. Someone whose job is writing about the media should certainly understand the difference between “The National Enquirer claims X” and “The National Enquirer reports that other people claim X.”
Martel's next sentence:
The Enquirer claims insiders have known about the scandal and are willing to pay some serious cash for the story
“Insiders have known about the scandal” can only reasonably be read as meaning Obama insiders have known about the scandal. But what the Enquirer actually reported was that “top anti-Obama operatives” are offering $1 million for the story. So Martel's “insiders” aren't Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod; they're Barack Obama's opponents. Who knows who they're “insiders” to.
The Enquirer is also promising hotel surveillance footage that could prove that Obama and Baker entered and left the hotel at the same time.
That's an interesting use of the word “promising,” given that the Enquirer said such footage could exist, and quoted a “DC insider” saying "if the tape surfaces, it will explode the scandal."
These errors aren't simple typos or split infinitives; they suggest fundamentally muddled thinking. They indicate that the writer simply didn't understand the material she was writing about -- which is odd, since all she was doing was summarizing a short National Enquirer article.
Martel's follow-up article was headlined “National Enquirer Obama Story Update: Retracts Hotel Surveillance Claim,” which I suppose means that the Enquirer, not Martel, is providing an update, and that update is a retraction of a “hotel surveillance claim.” In her opening paragraph, Martel elaborates a bit:
The National Enquirer, which published a report this morning that “investigators are attempting to obtain a tape” that proved an illicit rendezvous between President Barack Obama and former US Senate campaign staffer Vera Baker, has updated their story this afternoon to retract the claim that there is video evidence of the affair with the alleged testimony of an anonymous chauffeur.
But, again, the Enquirer never made such a claim, so it can hardly be in a position to retract it. (I have no idea what “retract the claim ... with the alleged testimony of an anonymous chauffeur” is supposed to mean, by the way.) If you look at the Enquirer article Martel links to, you won't find the tabloid retracting anything. Indeed, later in Martel's second article, she acknowledges that the Enquirer didn't issue a retraction:
The Enquirer has not made clear the changes other than adding the word “update” to the body of the report.
So maybe Martel meant that the Enquirer simply removed the “claim that there is video evidence” from it its article? But the Enquirer never made that claim in the initial article; Martel made it up (or, more charitably, misread the Enquirer.) And the updated Enquirer article Martel linked to contains this line: “Now, the investigators are searching for a hotel surveillance videotape.” That's essentially the same thing the Enquirer reported in the first place: That (unspecified) people are looking for a videotape, which may or may not exist. Despite Martel's claims of a “retraction,” there is no substantive change in the Enquirer's reporting about the videotape.
Looks like the National Enquirer Obama sex scandal is unraveling rather quickly. The latest from the paper is that “An Enquirer reporter has confirmed the limo driver's account of the secret 2004 rendezvous.” The limo driver allegedly in the know about the affair is not a new piece of their puzzle- that claim was there last night- but in the absence of the video evidence of ambiguous age, which was the center of their report and would have been the one thing to lend them any credibility, the limo driver is the core of the story. [Emphasis added]
“Video evidence” was not the center of the initial Enquirer report, which mentioned the possibility of video evidence. The limo driver's claims were the “core of the story” all along: 203 of the initial story's 370 words were about the driver. And the possibility of video evidence was noted in the second Enquirer article, too. (Edit: that line may not have been in the article when Martel wrote about it. But in any case: the Enquirer didn't “retract” anything.) So the only thing that really changed was that Martel apparently read the Enquirer's reporting a little more carefully. Then she continued to inaccurately describe the whole thing, perhaps in order to cover her own previous mistakes.
Martel then moved on to defending her decision to write about the Enquirer article in the first place:
Truth or not, the story proved to be the first major test for the tabloid since it accurately reported the John Edwards affair, which restored public faith in the tabloid and resulted in the reaction to the story we saw last night. The major publicity that they elicited from that proved their one powerful foray into journalism was enough for the media to react with slightly more respect this time around given the subject at hand, and that was the reason the report surfaced here- not that the Enquirer published it, but that it had the journalistic capital, so to speak, for such a wild story to demand attention. As a news and media analyzer and curator, its our mission to report stories that are being reported. A story with this type of dubious, paper-thin accusation wouldn't normally make the cut, but when a newly respected gossip forum reports it- and the story is reported solely because of the tabloid's new reputation- it's news in the media industry.
That's rambling and chaotic and both repetitive and self-contradictory. Martel says she didn't write about the Enquirer article simply because “the Enquirer published it” -- but then twice says that is why she wrote about it.
Mediaite managing editor Colby Hall also felt the need to defend Martel's reporting: “I want to rebut the notion that we should not have covered this story at all.” That's all well and good, but the real problem is that Mediaite reported the story terribly, not that it did so “at all” -- and Hall ignored that complaint. Had Martel “covered” the Enquirer article by accurately stating its contents and pointing out that it was a great big ball of nothing, she wouldn't have been criticized.
Did we give credibility to what some are claiming to be a paper thin account? Some may say yes, but only those who did not read the story carefully.
Actually, those who read the story carefully understand that Martel badly overstated and mis-reported what the Enquirer posted. And they understand that you have to read Mediaite stories carefully, just to figure out what in the world Mediaite writers are trying to say. For example, Hall's defense contained this sentence, which he apparently fed through a wood chipper before posting:
Information is so widely available in this day and age - the hope that people will not discuss a story, no matter how questionable its sourcing - is a time that has passed.
More from Hall's defense of Martel:
The days of a paternalistic media protecting the populace from questionable information has passed. Good or bad for the country and the world, it is. That is where we are today.
Yes, the days has passed. It is, and that is where we are. Got it?
Now, it's tempting to think this sloppiness was a result of Martel and Hall scrambling to post quickly about what they thought was a fast-evolving story. That's what I assumed at first. But a quick look at their other posts from the past few days reveals similar sloppiness.
Here's the lede of Martel's piece about Bill Maher:
To Bill Maher, nothing is sacred. And while he spent most of his career proving that by supporting those on his side of the aisle, last night he took some time to criticize public officials he has vocally supported, including the recently-deceased Ted Kennedy. [Emphasis added]
Huh? How has Maher “supporting those on his side of the aisle” proved that “nothing is sacred” to him? That just doesn't make any sense -- if anything, it suggests that Maher has pulled his punches when it comes to his allies, which is pretty much the opposite of behaving as though “nothing is sacred.”
Martel's article about Republican Connie Mack's criticism of Arizona's new racial profiling law:
He also appealed to the current Republican political climate, and, referencing the health care debate, concluded, “I've been a consistent defender of freedom. And, when it's convenient, its easy to do. When it's not convenient, it's not as easy to do.” He also called for those in the public talking about the importance of the “ideals of America.” [Emphasis added]
I don't know how you appeal to a climate, or what that last sentence is supposed to mean.
Martel's article about Keith Olbermann and Dave Foley:
Olbermann acknowledges he only became aware of it [a 1994 Foley sketch] recently through Twitter, and in a segment that could be considered a celebration of Glenn Beck's appearance on this year's Time 100 list, Olbermann welcomed Foley to discuss his opinion of Beck. Needless to say, he had very few nice things to say, and the resulting segment was full of comments that, even for a show that routinely names him the “worst person in the world,” were scathingly personal.
The barbs at Beck escalated from the mildly immature ( “I don't want to contribute to his happiness in any way” ) to the classlessly inappropriate ( “we have to be very careful who we let into rehab” )- it's a miracle Foley chose not to gloat about Beck's mother's suicide. Through all the nasty personal attacks, however, there is a very interesting observation: as Rush Limbaugh rose to prominence in the mid-1990s, a group of satirists saw the potential for a bolder, more vivid, more charismatic voice to take that message and make it accessible to a much broader audience. [Emphasis added]
Who is the “he” in the first bolded sentence? Olbermann, probably -- Olbermann was the person taking action in the previous sentence. Who is “him” ? Olbermann? Beck? Foley? Beck, I guess.
Now look at the next bolded sentence. That suggests Martel has been writing about Foley's criticism of Beck, not Olbermann's. So maybe Martel meant in the first bolded sentence that Foley -- rather than Olbermann -- “had very few nice things to say” ? Who knows? Who did “all the nasty personal attacks” come from -- Olbermann or Foley? Martel's account does not make it clear. She's supposedly writing about things people said on television, but she doesn't even manage to make clear who she's talking about.
Here's Martel writing about Sarah Palin:
Palin attacked the “lamestream media,” as she is wont to do, for a headline she saw on one of the cable news channels claiming that the Arizona immigration law made it “illegal to be illegal” in a manner that could be construed as a bias against the bill. Media Matters dug up a chyron, above, reading precisely that, except it's from a segment on Fox and Friends.
To her credit, her aside on the “lamestream media” does not directly reflect on her knowledge of the illegal immigration issue or how to run a state, and her point that attacking a law that makes it illegal to be illegal is ridiculous still stands.
Well, no, it doesn't stand. It's stupid. It isn't a “point,” it's a strawman. Nobody is attacking the law for “making it illegal to be illegal.” They're criticizing the law for what it authorizes law enforcement to do in order to determine whether people are in Arizona legally. If Martel thinks Palin made a “point” that “still stands,” she simply doesn't have any idea what she's writing about.
And here's Martel writing about Father Jonathan Morris's appearance recent on The O'Reilly Factor:
Father Morris' initial response to Cardinal Mahony's comments seemed consistent: just because someone crosses into the country illegal and commits an immoral act does not give the government free reign on what to do to them. Then he seems to lose track of his words and argue in favor of the law, agreeing that he wants to see illegals removed from the country, but wait! “This law is idiotic. It's crazy, because it's not going to fix the situation.”
So Martel is asserting that wanting “to see illegals removed from the country” is inconsistent with opposing the controversial Arizona law in question. But those two things aren't inconsistent at all.
Listening to an intelligent person flounder so desperately to sound informed about a topic so far from his expertise is more than a little painful...
Yeah, I know the feeling.
Meanwhile, Mediaite managing editor Colby Hall has trouble getting out a single sentence without mucking things up. At least five of Hall's posts in a five-day stretch last week contain errors in their very first sentences. Several of those mistakes are, to be sure, are the kinds of insignificant little things that generally aren't worth noticing. But when Mediaite's managing editor has five posts in five days in which he doesn't even make it through the first sentence without making a mistake, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they're rushing things a little too much over there. And even when Hall manages to write a successful lead, he often runs into trouble later in his post.
Here, Hall seems to be confused about who is catching flak:
There is no question that, as opinion media has evolved over the last decade, Fox News has become the dominant voice in the new and changing environment. And since the majority of Fox News opinion journalists are conservatives, one could easily argue that this been a great development for conservative efforts, particularly the GOP. But not so fast - just weeks after catching some rhetorical flak from David Frum and Senator Tom Coburn, now NY Times' conservative columnist Ross Douthat is piling on.
The way that's written suggests Douthat caught flak. But of course Hall meant that Fox caught flak.
More substantively, Hall quotes Douthat noting a variety of supposed conservative successes that occurred before the existence of Fox News, then writes:
There are some apparent syllogistic flaws suggested in this thinking - namely, that any of these historic moments may not have happened had dominant Fox News been on the air at the time.
But Douthat quite obviously wasn't suggesting that those things may not have happened if Fox had been on the air. He was saying that they did occur without Fox. Those are two very different statements. “A is not a necessary condition for B” is not the same as “If A exists, B cannot occur.” That's just basic logic.
A pretty good hint that Douthat was arguing that conservative successes are possible without Fox News, rather than that Fox News makes conservative success impossible, is sneakily hidden in Douthat's headline: “Does Conservatism Need Fox News?”
Had Douthat been suggesting what Hall thought he was suggesting, that headline would presumably have been more like “Can Conservatism and Fox News Coexist?”
OK, you get the point.
Two quick notes: First, all of those are from just the past week. So classics like Martel's completely bogus use of the phrase “directly implicate” missed the cut. Second, I ignored countless small mistakes -- incorrect verb tenses, homonym confusion, obvious typos, missing words, extra words, etc -- both because the errors don't really matter all that much and because in many cases, errors like that can be introduced by overly aggressive word processing software. I'm more concerned with Mediaite's repeated inability to make clear who or what they're writing about, or to understand the arguments they're making and responding to.
Given the sloppiness that permeates recent posts by Martel and Colby, it shouldn't be surprising that Mediaite would botch the National Enquirer story so badly. Indeed, it seems inevitable that they would do so. If the past week of posts from Hall and Martel are any indication, Mediaite badly needs some quality control -- a commitment to making sure the material they post is coherent and accurate and logical.