Saturday, May 30, 2009

Jeffrey Rosen, Jonathan Chait, Gossip, and Lies

The writers for The New Republic--fast becoming America's leading magazine for milquetoast politics and tabloid-style hit pieces--is circling the wagons against the widespread censure of Jeffrey Rosen's Sonia Sotomayor hatchet job, which was a hastily written piece based entirely on gossip from anonymous sources. Its most infamous line is almost certainly this one: "I haven't read enough of Sotomayor's opinions to have a confident sense of them." (And yet Rosen is a lawyer; one would think those opinions might have been of interest to his assessment.)

Yesterday, Jonathan Chait weakly defended Rosen against accusations that he is a gossipmonger, and John Cole eviscerates Chait's defense in a must-read post ("The Worst Defense Since the '81 Colts").

Chait's basic premise is this: If I say it isn't gossip, then it isn't--dictionary definitions be damned. But what really irritates me about Chait's post is that, in order to defend Rosen's article, he has to deliberately distort--scratch that, he had to lie about--what it contained: "He [Rosen] spoke first-hand with several of Sotomayor's former clerks, who provided a mixed picture."

Yet here's what appears in Rosen's original piece:
Sotomayor's former clerks sing her praises as a demanding but thoughtful boss whose personal experiences have given her a commitment to legal fairness.
The trash talk against Sotomayor, on the other hand, comes not from "Sotomayor's former clerks" but from other sources:
But despite the praise from some of her former clerks, and warm words from some of her Second Circuit colleagues, there are also many reservations about Sotomayor. Over the past few weeks, I've been talking to a range of people who have worked with her, nearly all of them former law clerks for other judges on the Second Circuit or former federal prosecutors in New York. [emphasis added]
Chait has always struck me as one of few remaining intelligent writers for a magazine I have found increasing loathsome over the years, so it's particularly disappointing to see him engage in these tactics--tactics that assume both the stupidity of his readers and critics and their inability to look things up on the Internet to see whether various claims are true.

If Rosen (and Chait) had any integrity left, they would apologize for an extraordinarily indefensible, gossip-filled piece (parts of which have been proved false) rather than try to excuse themselves by claiming that the article contained things it most certainly did not.

But, unfortunately, that clearly won't happen. In the world according to The New Republic, only politicians should apologize. Journalists are exempt from such indignities.