The day Maureen Dowd wrote f — — news

Amid all the debate about what is true and what is f — — news, I am reminded of a remarkable journalistic moment that showed how hard it is to know when someone is kidding or serious. And how you can be sincere but spread false information.

Dowd (Fred R. Conrad photo, New York Times)

It was early in 2009, the first months of the Obama presidency, and Maureen Dowd, the sly and witty New York Times columnist, put tongue in cheek to describe how she had gained exclusive access to classified testimony of a supposedly secret meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In the scene created by Dowd, Democrats on the committee, led by Dianne Feinstein, are grilling former Vice President Dick Cheney about the torture methods he and President George W. Bush approved to interrogate terrorism suspects.

Dowd dropped hints all through the column that it was a put-on. The first clue should have been that a columnist was playing the uncharacteristic role of an investigative reporter writing about leaked information.

Are you kidding me?

But the late Carlos Fuentes, renowned at the time as a novelist and essayist, quoted Dowd in his syndicated newspaper column as though everything she wrote were literally true. Fuentes was a revered figure in the Spanish-speaking world, and his column was carried by scores of newspapers around the world.

(I read it in Mexico, his home country, in the daily Mural. You can read it here in El País, then and now considered Spain’s most important newspaper. I wrote about Fuentes and Dowd at the time, in Spanish).

Dowd caricatured Cheney as a crass, crude, and abusive power-monger, and Fuentes accepted Dowd’s version as evidence rather than entertainment. Perhaps it merely confirmed his view of Cheney as, in his words, “el malo de Malolandia” — roughly, the worst of the worst.

Cheney defends the torture methods:

“Those insects weren’t even poisonous,” Cheney growled. “Facial slaps? Abdominal slaps? Throwing a naked man into a wall? Kid stuff. Those methods worked. They kept us safe for seven years. Safer than with that delicate Hawaiian orchid in the White House [Obama]. America is coming across as weak and indecisive. Just when Rummy [Bush’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld] and I had stomped out that ‘Blame America First’ flower-child culture, Obama has dragged it back, apologizing profusely all over the world for the country he’s running, canoodling with greasy dictators, kissing up to those weasels in Europe, which is only free today because of our military. Friends and foes alike will be quick to take advantage if they think they’re dealing with a Creamsicle.”

This language seems extreme even for Cheney, which should have been a tipoff to Fuentes. In a letter to the editor of El País, an alert reader pointed out that Fuentes didn’t get the joke and that some of the scenes Dowd described were taken from the fictional television series 24.

Fuentes. Photo, Encyclopedia Britannica

But Fuentes quoted five paragraphs from Dowd as proof that Cheney, not an endearing figure in real life, was the embodiment of evil, and accepted her story as literally true.

At one point, Cheney’s crassness ticks up a notch when he tells Republican Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran who had been imprisoned for five years, and was tortured, “Shut your piehole . . . Everyone’s sick of you being an apologist for torture. Why don’t you go join that pantywaist Specter on the other side where you belong?” (McCain had just lost the election to Obama, and Sen. Arlen Specter had switched parties from Republican to Democrat.)

Dowd has us laughing even more as Cheney describes, with apparent relish, a series of preposterous torture and terrorism scenarios, and then comes out with this:

“In 2006, after an incident with the man who made history by becoming the first black president . . .” Senator Feinstein interrupted: “Excuse me, Mr. Cheney, are you talking about Barack Obama?”
“I said the first black president,” Cheney snapped.

This is a little joke and another clue. Republicans hated the fact that Bill Clinton had a special connection with black voters.

Lest there be any doubt that she was kidding, Dowd finishes with this:

“Mr. Cheney,” Feinstein said, sounding shocked, “your testimony is delusional, not to mention derivative.”
Cheney looked apoplectic, not to mention apocalyptic. “How dare you,” he cried, “demean our country’s finest counterterrorism agent, Jack Bauer?”

Jack Bauer, of course, was the fictional hero of 24.

Satire, parody, truth

Now you may be wondering about Fuentes’s level of English, but he attended an English school as a boy in Washington and was quite fluent (see this interview with him on Charlie Rose). But as anyone knows who has become fluent in a foreign language, humor is subtle, and the meanings of words can be slippery.

So, was Dowd creating f — — news? Hardly, but she was creating fiction in the context of a newspaper, which could create some confusion. Journalism and fiction are supposed to be separate. And Dowd, whose commentaries previously won a Pulitzer Prize, builds her reputation on being reliable and fact based, even when writing opinion. But columnists have more freedom and joke around all the time.

So what about Carlos Fuentes? I feel sympathy for him. Many times one of my Spanish colleagues makes a comment, everyone starts laughing, and I am the only one who doesn’t get the joke.

No retraction

Fuentes’s intention was not to deceive but to enlighten and inform. Still, he misinformed thousands, perhaps millions, of readers. Was that a lie? No. Was it deception? No. He believed what he was saying.

Still, he had great standing and prestige around the world. People trusted him. His opinion mattered. He likely affected the image of the U.S. for some people. We expect more from people of his learning and reputation.

I wrote to editors I knew in Mexico and asked for a clarification or retraction. Nobody was interested. The only person I could find who pointed out Fuentes’s error was the reader of El País mentioned above.

That awful word

What would Facebook or Google do with this? I shudder to think. There is no way an algorithm would be able to parse all the subtleties of Dowd’s column and identify her work as suspicious or untrustworthy or f — — news unless it was labeled as satire. (I am so tired of seeing that word abused that I can’t bear to write it out.)

Ultimately, I trust people more than businesses or technology platforms to identify what kinds of information to trust. People are capable of distinguishing between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources, if they really care. Frankly, many times they don’t.

Our biographies — life experiences — shape the way we view things. So those views usually don’t change unless we experience some earth-shaking personal event. We don’t believe a friend would ever be capable of committing a crime, for example, until they do. Then we might change our view of them.

People who wanted to believe Dick Cheney was a creepy megalomaniac had already made up their minds. People who thought Cheney was a patriot and justified in approving torture would hardly have been persuaded otherwise by Dowd. I just got a kick out of the way she wrote it.

If there had been no column by Maureen Dowd, Carlos Fuentes would surely have written something similar on torture, Bush, Cheney, and the U.S. government. You could pretty much predict what he would say on any subject. That means he was just like most of us.

We human beings are pretty good at figuring out who’s who, where they stand on things, what their values are, and whether we should believe them. We just need to be more curious.

As for Dowd, I think she was engaging in a bit of nostalgia at the time. Bush and Cheney and the rest of their crowd had given her eight years of rich material. I think she missed having them to kick around. Probably still does.


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