A quick trip through the alternate reality that dittoheads mistake for the real thing

Yesterday, I hit the “source” button on my car stereo to switch from Elvis Costello’s “Green Shirt” back to FM, but only hit it once instead of twice, so it first stopped on AM — which I never listen to.

And there was Rush Limbaugh, whose voice I hadn’t heard since Robert Ariail used to play the show in the background while drawing his cartoons. And I decided to pause there, and listen.

This afforded me a glimpse into the alternative reality inhabited by Donald Trump and his supporters.

First, Limbaugh told about the early days of his career when he was first gaining notoriety, and he was so innocent as to think media people were honestly interested in learning about him — before he “wised up” and learned the truth (in the Trumpian sense of “truth”), which was that they all had an agenda and were out to get him.

He spoke of something that commonly happens in interviews — he would say something, then immediately realize that that wasn’t exactly what he meant, and ask to be allowed to rephrase it. At which point, he says, the reporter would say No way: This is what you said, and I’m not going to let you edit the story to suit you.

Yep, that happens. There are reporters who think journalism is some sort of contest conducted under rigid rules that are not subject to personal judgment, and one must never put the source in the driver’s seat, allowing him to control what goes into the paper. That’s collusion.

And they have a point, to some extent. For instance, I would not have allowed Richland County Sheriff Allen Sloan to “take back” what he said to one of The State‘s reporters in that infamous 1989 interview about crime at Columbia Mall. That was a situation of a public figure saying something that was shockingly revealing of his character (even if it was a very bad joke, it was revealing), and not to be papered over.

But in an everyday interview with someone who sincerely edits himself by saying, “That’s not exactly what I meant,” of course I allow him to rephrase it any way he wants. You know why? Because I want to know what he really thinks. It’s not rocket science. And a reporter with half a brain should be able to tell the difference between a source sincerely trying to express himself better and someone trying to manipulate. But you have to use judgment. It’s not black and white.

Anyway, back to Limbaugh. So he had some bad experiences with reporters who probably didn’t trust him any more than he did them — or any more than he does now, since he says he hadn’t wised up yet in those days.

Rush’s point in telling that story was to set up the Wikileaks “revelation” that New York Times Magazine‘s Mark Leibovich emailed a Hillary Clinton staffer to get permission to use some quotes from an interview with the former secretary of state.

Or, as Breitbart would have it (since I was driving and not writing down what Rush said):

The New York Times allowed the Clinton Campaign to pick and choose what parts of an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton would be used in an article titled, “Re-Re-Re-Reintroducing Hillary Clinton,” the Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails have revealed.

The Clinton campaign vetoed nearly the entire interview, but even in the portions they did approve for publication, they had Mark Leibovich edit out a mention of Sarah Palin, apparently at Hillary’s personal request.

“My apologies for the delay. I finally had to get her in person,” Clinton Campaign Communication Director Jennifer Palmieri replies to Leibovich, implying that she had to wait to talk to Hillary about what parts of the interview they would allow being used. “Fine to use the moose, but appreciate leaving the mention of Sarah Palin out.”…

The email exchange (Wikileaks Podesta Email 4213) between Palmieri and New York Times writer Mark Leibovich was forwarded to John Podesta by Palmieri in July 2015. Leibovich sends a transcript from the portions of his interview with Hillary that he would like to use saying, “I wanted option to use the following (obviously wouldn’t use all, but a portion) *These exchanges were pretty interesting…..would love the option to use….*”…

After dishing out the marching orders, Palmieri finishes by telling Leibovich, “Pleasure doing business.”…

That’s pretty much the way Rush told it, with emphasis on the “Pleasure doing business” part. The alt-right seems to think that was particularly telling.

And in the Trumpkin universe, I’m sure it was. In that world, this was a huge “gotcha.” It was proof positive that the media are in bed with the Democrats!

But in the universe I live in — the universe where people know how these things actually work — I’m thinking, Well, obviously that conversation — or that part of it, anyway — was off the record. And Leibovich, being a good journalist, was pushing to get the source to go on the record with some of it.

And yep, that’s what was going on, according to Politico:

In a midsummer 2015 exchange, Leibovich wrote to campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri, asking that certain pieces of his New Hampshire interview with Clinton be made “on the record,” for use in his July article (“Re-Re-Re-Reintroducing Hillary Clinton”)….

I hardly need mention this, but during the time I was listening, Limbaugh never said, “off the record.”

Breitbart does make some confusing references to on-and-off-the-record, but not in a way that makes it clear that this completely exonerates the writer from any sort of unethical collusion.

In fact, it shows that he was trying to get even off-the-record material onto the record, which was the point of the emails. But folks, if you’ve allowed a source to go off-the-record on something (which you have to ask for BEFORE saying something, not after), then that’s it. The source is in the driver’s seat on that material. You cannot ethically use it without the source agreeing to put it on the record.



Condemn Leibovich for going off-the-record in the first place if you’re so inclined, but I won’t — along with letting sources rephrase what they’ve said, going off the record is one of the best tools for learning what a source is really thinking. Maybe you can’t use the actual words, but that knowledge can help you to better interpret and prioritize the stuff that is on the record, and more accurately represent what’s going on.

Just as there are reporters who won’t let you rephrase, there are those who are philosophically opposed to letting anyone go off the record, ever. But I’m too curious to be one of them. I don’t just want to know what the person is willing to say for print. I want to know everything that person knows. And while going off the record may not tell me everything — and in the hands of a wily source, it can be as much a device for deception as the carefully crafted public remark — it will tell me more than I otherwise would have known. Even if it’s just what the source wants me to think he or she thinks, that in itself tells me something…

Of course, all of this would be lost on most dittoheads. Even if Limbaugh had explained about it being off the record, he probably would have said the words in a way that dripped with sarcasm, portraying “off-the-record” as another one of the tricks those shifty media types use in trying to pull the wool over the eyes of honest, hard-working, angry white men…

Or not. Since I didn’t hear the whole rant, I could have missed the part where he backed off and decided to be fair to Leibovich. In which case, good for you, Rush…

11 thoughts on “A quick trip through the alternate reality that dittoheads mistake for the real thing

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t know if I like it or not. I had trouble making much sense of it. Sounded like a couple of guys b.s.ing to me. Except without references to grabbing women by the crotch…

      1. Doug Ross

        You’ve definitely gone off the deep end with Trump now. Not everything is about him, is it? What the heck are you going to do after November 8th? I hope you confine your Trumpophobia to just your blog and don’t harass your friends and families with dire predictions of the apocalypse.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          How many times have I heard this?

          You’ve definitely gone off the deep end with _____ now. Not everything is about ___, is it? What the heck are you going to do after [this is over]? I hope you confine your ____ophobia to just your blog and don’t harass your friends and families with dire predictions of the apocalypse.

          Just fill in video poker, the state lottery, various aspects of the need for government restructuring, the Confederate flag, or anything that I’ve pushed hard enough on that it made some people uncomfortable.

          Until the nation is safe from this threat, I will not back off, I assure you. NO ONE who can see the danger we’re in should back off one bit. That’s why you see Foreign Policy endorsing a presidential candidate for the first time in its history, and The Atlantic to endorse for only the third time in its history. The previous times were ones of crisis as well. They endorsed Lincoln, and they endorsed LBJ — not that LBJ was a Lincoln, but because Goldwater was seen as that much of a threat. An excerpt from what they’re saying this time:

          Today, our position is similar to the one in which The Atlantic’s editors found themselves in 1964. We are impressed by many of the qualities of the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, even as we are exasperated by others, but we are mainly concerned with the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump, who might be the most ostentatiously unqualified major-party candidate in the 227-year history of the American presidency.

          These concerns compel us, for the third time since the magazine’s founding, to endorse a candidate for president. Hillary Rodham Clinton has more than earned, through her service to the country as first lady, as a senator from New York, and as secretary of state, the right to be taken seriously as a White House contender. She has flaws (some legitimately troubling, some exaggerated by her opponents), but she is among the most prepared candidates ever to seek the presidency. We are confident that she understands the role of the United States in the world; we have no doubt that she will apply herself assiduously to the problems confronting this country; and she has demonstrated an aptitude for analysis and hard work….

          Then there are all the editorial boards out that that have never endorsed a Democrat, or haven’t done so in a very long time, who are doing so now.

          Doug, I’m as sorry as I can be that you can’t see how serious this situation is. But those of us who do have a moral obligation as citizens to sound the alarm, and to keep doing so until the crisis is past…

  1. Bill

    It’s not just AM radio. Try listening, as I did recently, to an entire radio station devoted to this sort of thing: WGTK, Upstate Conservative Talk, at 94.5 FM. From what I heard, the picture of the world it presents doesn’t much resemble the world I live in. Unfortunately, many neighbors and even some family members inhabit this dark, alternate reality.

    One of my relatives boasts that he never reads, watches or listens to mainstream news media – because, in his words, they’ve all been bought off. Instead, he gets all his “news” from Breitbart, Drudge, the World News Network and that despicable conspiracy monger, Alex Jones. He has a good heart, but his mind has been poisoned by these people. Any time I try to correct the misinformation he’s gotten from them, he dismisses it, telling me I just don’t know what’s going on, because I still pay attention to mainstream media.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I kept it on that station for the rest of the day, listening in whenever I was driving.

      Later, I heard an extensive rant about how there was NOT a budget surplus at the end of the Clinton administration.

      Boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about THAT, but as I recall it was kind of a matter of semantics. Looked at one way, yeah, the budget was balanced. Yet the debt was still growing. So lots of Democrats and Republicans (who had worked on it together — try to imagine that today) went around bragging about balancing the budget, and even having surpluses. Meanwhile, deficit hawks such as Fritz Hollings insisted the budget was NOT balanced, or else the debt wouldn’t be growing.

      I forget what the difference was. Maybe something having to do with how you counted entitlements, or the interest on the debt, or something. Accountant stuff…

      The point was this: Both sides were working hard to balance the budget, and coming closer than anyone had done in a long time. So congrats to them, say I…

      But this guy, Dan Bongino, was really WORKED UP about it. He was like one of those cats in the early 16th century who were ready to go to the stake over whether works were important in light of grace. They, and he, produce this response in me: Lighten up, Francis…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Bongino acted like this is some kind of wild lie made up by Hillary Clinton, something that only dumb liberal Democrats (whose math abilities he kept mocking) would believe.

        Allow me to share this excerpt from John Kasich’s campaign website:

        Success in Washington Balancing the Federal Budget: As chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, John Kasich led the historic effort to balance the federal budget for the first time in a generation, cut taxes, start paying down the national debt held by the public and generate a projected $5 trillion surplus….

        Oh, and by the way. When he made that claim in a debate, the NYT fact-checked him thusly:


        Note the three factors that led to the balancing, and debated surpluses…

        Oh, and note also that I had to screenshot that to show it to you. Now, the NYT is so hostile to the idea of being quoted that even when I right-click and hit “print,” I’m still not able to copy text…

  2. Burl Burlingame

    If a person is unable to divine the difference between reporting and repeating, that’s on them.

    1. Juan Caruso

      “If a person is unable to divine the difference between reporting and repeating, that’s on them.”
      That is certainly an understatement.

      Yet, before one is equipped to correctly divine what an interviewee actually thinks, one must be capable of discerning whether the latter can support what is actually thought with a sound degree of logical evidence. Otherwise, the interviewee should only be pegged as political incorrect, skeptical of beliefs accepted by the press without question.

      Many journalists of our day demonstrate little ability to assess logical support for controversial beliefs on either side of controversies, much less possess any proclivity for eliciting evidence to support each side of a controversy. Too many journalists are, rather than reliable reporters of fact, scroungers of the newsworthy superficialities. — Not only have their readers been dumbed down…

      Surprisinlg to many, Rush Limbaugh’s radio program belongs in the superficial category (tl:dr) as well. After listening long ago, I found him as much a waste of my time as Donald Trump’s contrived reality show(s, which I gladly have never, ever watched.

      Professional journalists do not yet comply with obvious best practices of reporting:

      1) either possess expertise in matters upon which you, the journalist, report facts to readers, or disclose your inexpertise.
      2) report contrary assessments by dissenting experts when topics are controversial.
      3) never write an opinion piece without related education and experience that sets you apart from educated, experienced readers.

      How many of those dismissive of Trump did watch his inane entertainment shows? My guess is quite a few.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Juan, those are conditions that would shut down all news reporting.

        It’s journalism, not a term paper. It’s not an arena in which one must present academic credentials, thank God.

        Experts with credentials are, with rare exception, people who’ve been busy learning things other than how to cover a story and put out a newspaper.

        My point is — and this is lost on many people — journalism is its own area of expertise, and it takes years and years to master it.

        And journalism has its own rule for dealing with material that the journalist is unsure about: “When in doubt, leave it out.” That’s generally said regarding some discrete point of fact the reporter hasn’t been able to nail down. But it also applies to things one lacks the expertise to place into proper perspective.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    Experience and expertise in a field is useful for a reporter when sourcing, but not when writing — the story is constructed for readers who AREN’T experts. In other words, ordinary citizens.

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