The New York Times invokes Cokie's Law
One of the my little contributions to this old liberal blogosphere over the years has been the coining of certain phrases as shorthand for certain, shall we say, quirks in the elite establishments. One of the earliest was a criticism of the media called "Cokie's Law." It's named after Cokie Roberts who famously said during the Lewinsky affair (about whether or not Hillary Clinton really blamed Bill's rough childhood for his misbehavior):
"At this point it doesn't much matter whether she said it or not because it's become part of the culture. I was at the beauty parlor yesterday and this was all anyone was talking about."
This is a common rationale among the high priests of the Village to excuse their propensity to gleefully traffic in gossip, rumors and smears. It's "out there" you see --- they have no choice.
So imagine my surprise (not) to see one of the New York Times editors sputtering excuses for helping the wingnuts smear Rick Perlstein with absurd allegations of plagiarism:
“We wrote about it because it was out there and thought we could take it head-on in the story. We did that in the most responsible way possible, and put it in context,” Mr. Brink said.
Yes, he actually said that. Sure, there was little basis for the accusations and we didn't independently verify them (beyond a "cursory" look by the reporter) but they had no choice since it was "out there." Once again, one of the Village tabbies helps us understand how this works. During the same era Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan explained it to us:
Was Mr. Clinton being blackmailed? The Starr report tells us of what the president said to Monica Lewinsky about their telephone sex: that there was reason to believe that they were monitored by a foreign intelligence service. Naturally the service would have taped the calls, to use in the blackmail of the president. Maybe it was Mr. Castro's intelligence service, or that of a Castro friend.
You see, spreading malicious, partisan smears is the definition of responsible journalistic behavior. Or at least that's what they tell themselves as they gleefully accept some spoon-fed political slander from professional character assassins.
Is it irresponsible to speculate? It is irresponsible not to.
Luckily, the public editor Margaret Sullivan is having none of it:
Yes, the claim was “out there” but so are smears of all kinds as well as claims that the earth is flat and that climate change is unfounded. This one comes from the author of a book on the same subject with an opposing political orientation. By taking it seriously, The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.
And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it. Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.
These stupid accusations have been dispatched by many fine people by now and I don't think anyone's taking them seriously. But if the publishers of the Perlstein book assumed hat the New York Times would do "responsible journalism" in this they really need to understand just how they define that: "it doesn't matter if it's true or not --- it's out there."