Saturday, June 20, 2015

‘Times’ Drives Past Real Rubio Issues

"Marco Rubio got four tickets! In 17 years! I assume The New York Times obtained this damning information from Marco Rubio's plaque in the 'Hall of Best Miami Drivers Ever.'"—The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, quoted in “Jon Stewart Shreds The New York Times for Its Marco Rubio Coverage,”, June 11, 2015

Never before has so much reporters’ time been spent to so little effect. Even many devoted progressive readers of The Gray Lady scratched their heads, trying to figure out why so many column inches—including all that precious front-page space!—were given over to a story about traffic violations.

As Jon Stewart—hardly a right-winger hero—pointed out, Marco Rubio’s number of speeding tickets over nearly two decades is not only well within the experience of many Americans, but it appears downright low for Florida, a state where so much wide-open space, so many fancy cars, and so many Miami Vice reruns of Crockett and Tubbs chasing criminals encourage high speeds on the roadways, practically begging for state troopers to issue citations so numerous that that they will undoubtedly help fund public-safety complexes.

Now, Mrs. Rubio—well, 13 citations do seem a tad excessive. On the other hand, it appears that she took remedial driver classes to reduce the penalties, the way most normal people would, and there doesn’t appear to be a whiff of a suggestion that either Rubio tried to bribe or intimidate any officer. (If that effort did occur, it failed dismally. Perhaps, after all, that was the reason for the Times story—if the Senator can’t fix a little thing like a speeding ticket, then how do you expect him to fix massively dysfunctional Washington?)

So, unless Jeanette Rubio decides to drive her hubby to all his campaign appearances, I doubt that their difficulties in tracking the speedometer are going to amount to much.

Really, you have to wonder what the deal is with the Times and traffic violations. Back in 1991, an article by Fox Butterfield and Mary Tabor considered the life of the young woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her. “Woman in Florida Rape Inquiry Fought Adversity and Sought Acceptance,” the headline proclaimed. This was a rather upscale variation on the “facts” in the article—a string of jobs, short-lived relationships with men (resulting in out-of-wedlock birth), and—of yes—17 traffic tickets, which, many readers felt, was meant to suggest that the accuser (named, unlike in normal journalistic protocol in rape cases) was a no-account, speeding tramp.

What all those traffic tickets had to do with rape never was explained in the article. Come to think of it, the Times didn’t explain what those tickets had to do with Senator Rubio’s fitness for the Presidency, either.

By publishing such a trivial piece, the paper made readers lose sight of other articles on Rubio with at least somewhat more substance. The following week, the Times examined the debt burden with which he has struggled. It raised real questions why someone with such problems could saddle himself with a luxury expenditure (an $80,000 speedboat).

More to the point, it raised legitimate questions: about how Rubio proposed to take on an even more massive expense—a Presidential campaign (through a South Florida auto tycoon who subsidized his job as a college professor, then employed Jeannette Rubio at the firm) and about how he dared to lecture America about living beyond its means when he was guilty of all of that and more (“If you allow politicians to spend money, they’ll do it,” he has said about the deficit—and if anyone would know about “spending money,” we now know, it’s him).

All of this was drowned out by the guffawing over the Times traffic study. If the paper ever hoped to knock Rubio out of the ring with a combination of damaging stories (and honestly, can we entirely rule that out?), the response among GOP voters should have been enough to disabuse it of that notion.

Indeed, the reaction was not unlike that experienced by Senator John McCain when the then-GOP candidate faced questions in the 2008 campaign arising from a Times story about blond lobbyist Vicki Iseman and his relationship with her.

Nearly a year later, after Ms. Iseman had filed a libel suit against it, the paper short-circuited further legal proceedings with the following Editor’s Note: “The article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.”

Oh no, of course the Times never “stated” that. Of course it “did not intend to conclude” that. It wanted its readers to do so.

The Times’ “interest in that story was not in [McCain’s] private romantic life,” executive editor Bill Keller explained some months later. “It was in his relationship with lobbyists, plural.” Well, that was fascinating, because there weren’t pictures of lobbyists, plural, but of Ms. Iseman and the client on whose behalf she was lobbying the Senator. Moreover, the lead in the article was not about a bunch of fat cats getting too close to McCain but about the fear among certain aides that the relationship with Ms. Iseman in particular had become “romantic.”

All of this was happening while The Times was studiously ignoring allegations regarding another Presidential candidate: John Edwards. By the time Edwards admitted to his own affair, Richard Stevenson, director of the Times campaign coverage, said the matter “hasn’t seemed to me to be a high priority for us at this moment.” He said this at a point when, at the upcoming Democratic Convention, Edwards might still, after his lack of success in the primaries, have been seriously considered for a Cabinet post--perhaps part of the reason why, after overwhelming evidence was unearthed, Edwards, while copping to the affair, still denied that the baby involved was his, all logic to the contrary.

The newspaper’s public editor at the time, Clark Hoyt, noted the stark incongruity of the coverage: “When the Enquirer published its first “love child” report, The Times was going energetically after the McCain story.” Guess which one was substantiated by the facts and which one wasn’t?

The Times—no, the nation—paid a price for its lack of judgment on McCain. The Senator, who had enjoyed his give-and-take relationship with reporters in his unsuccessful 2000 run, now became more suspicious of them. To GOP primary voters queasy about his conservative bona fides, he could point to what the most prominent liberal paper had just tried to do to him. Contributions and votes from the right wing poured in. He slanted in that direction from that point, where he has remained since.

A similar dynamic is now at play with Rubio. GOP voters who may have been mildly dismayed by his attempt to work out a compromise on immigration reform in the Senate now have every reason to be enthusiastic about him. The Rubio camp immediately jumped on the “elitist” paper for its coverage. 

In its eagerness to shoot with any weapon at hand against the Senator, the Times only cemented his bond to the right wing—and, unfortunately, may have made it easier for more Americans to relate to this politician who has espoused positions untenable for the working of the government and the safety of the nation.

The Times drove past real, substantial issues that it should have confronted Rubio with, asking the following questions:

*“Is it really only up to South Carolinians, not ‘outsiders,’ to decide whether to fly the Confederate flag over the state capitol, as you have claimed? Would you have felt the same way when it was flown when secession was declared in 1861 and desegregation was resisted in the 1950s and 1960s?

*“How can you continue to deny the reality of man-made climate change when approximately 2.4 million people and 1.3 million homes, nearly half the risk nationwide, sit within 4 feet of the high tide line in your state? How can you ignore an issue whose moral urgency is being addressed now by the spiritual leader of your own church?”

*“How can voters believe in your credibility when you denied any part in the government shutdown a year and a half ago, only two months after telling conservative radio host Mark Levin, according to Huffington Post: “On this issue we’re willing to fight no matter what the consequences, politically or otherwise [are]. If that issue is not Obamacare, I can’t understand what issue it would be. You cannot say you are against Obamacare if you are willing to vote for a law that funds it."

 (The photo accompanying this post, showing Marco Rubio addressing the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, was taken by Gage Skidmore.)

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