July 23, 2005

"Anatomy of a Rumor."

Marty Schwimmer, a lawyer, has "An Anatomy of a Rumor" but characterizes a post of mine badly enough that it took me a while to absorb his whole analysis. He writes:
Ann Althouse a law professor, reads Wonkette's piece, notes that she had come to the same 'conclusion' that Wonkette did, and therefore she concludes that the NY Times had intentionally placed the bits about Peppermint Patty (and a photo of Roberts in a 'all-male wedding photograph' (as in photo of the groomsmen)) to plant the notion that Roberts was closeted.
Here's what I wrote in the linked post:
I read the same NYT piece Wonkette did.

And the same notion crossed my mind. I do think the NYT piece was subtly constructed to plant this idea. Just look at the series of photographs they chose: young John in plaid pants, young John with his boys' school pals, young John in a wrestling suit with his fellow wrestlers, John with footballers, and -- the final pic -- John smiling in an all-male wedding photograph. The article also says Roberts married his wife when both were in their forties and that that their children were adopted.
A notion crossing one's mind is not a "conclusion" -- in quotes or out of quotes. My point is that reading the NYT piece was making me think something. Once conscious of the notion arising in my head, I set out to track down what was making me think something that I had not directly read in the article. "Conclude" is even too strong a word for my suspicion that the Times had tried to make the nominee look gay.

But I am aware that my commenters and other blogs, including Powerline, have picked up the notion that "the left" is deliberately rumormongering and that my post is a link in the rumor chain and taken to mean that the NYT in fact tried to hurt the nominee by creating the rumor. Schwimmer makes the important point that many people will only read Powerline. And Powerline, notably, doesn't even link back to me, but only to Charmain Yoest, who writes that I "might have a point" about the NYT article.

Schwimmer writes:
Gordon Allport, in the 'The Psychology of Rumor' describes the manner in which rumors are transmitted (I'm using Malcolm Gladwell's summary of Allport from his book 'The Tipping Point'): The story is leveled - details essential for understanding (such as the fact that Wonkette is a humorist) are removed. The story is sharpened - the source of the 'facts' are no longer Wikipedia and the NY Times but 'the left' and 'Democrats.' The story is assimilated - the story is changed to make sense to those spreading the rumor. The Democrats are spreading a scandolous rumor about the innocent nominee for their own purposes.

That story will [make] more sense then that someone would make a not particularly funny joke about Roberts being on the wrestling team, at least to those who will link to the Powerline without checking the links back to Manhattan Offender and Wonkette.
This is decently analyzed, but it doesn't really get my role straight. I checked Wonkette after I read the Times piece and thought it made the nominee look gay. I figured if the article was really giving off that impression, Wonkette would probably have something to say about it -- and she did. So my thoughts didn't have an origin in Wonkettish japery. My thoughts had their origin -- as much of my blogging does -- in reading a newspaper article with an awareness of my own impressions. I wasn't passing along and transforming a rumor (though getting some confirmation of the impression from Wonkette did encourage me to blog the impression).

People should notice how strong a move Powerline made! John H. Hinderaker, a lawyer, wrote:
They Were Already Beneath Contempt...

...but now some Democrats have sunk lower. They are hinting that John Roberts is a homosexual because he was once photographed--more than thirty years ago--wearing plaid pants. You think I'm making this up?...
Now, I'm the only one who brought up the pants. Am I suddenly "some Democrats"? Or is the NYT "some Democrats"? Who's doing the hinting in Powerline's analysis? If you're going to hurl such contempt out into the world, shouldn't you get it straight whom you're talking about?

The fact is: not one person, let alone any "they," "hint[ed] that John Roberts is a homosexual because he was once photographed... wearing plaid paints." One person, me, thought that the NYT was trying to create the impression that the nominee is gay through (among other things) a photo layout that included the picture with the pants. Innumerable people have pointed out that the pants, while awful, are not the sort of thing a gay man would favor. But you have to see the sequence of photos of Roberts grouped with lots of men and not one woman. The overall picture of enthusiastic male camaraderie is quite strong. Yet, of course, the NYT has complete deniability. Shame on me, they can say, for reading anything into it. That's why I considered it "subtly constructed."

I started out writing this post irked at Schwimmer for making me look like the person who deviously extracted that satire from the observation that the NYT is making Roberts look gay, and I do want to correct that. But in the end, it's Powerline that I'm really irked at. Is this Powerline's modus operandi or just an isolated lapse?


Mr. I said...

I've personally never liked Powerline's modus operandi. But what I find interesting about the whole "Roberts is gay thing," is how offended people are at the suggestion. Why should anyone care?

Jack said...

It's been my experience that what you are remarking upon at Powerline, with the twisting of meanings and selective quoting, is the MO for many blogs that "got big" during the Rather/memo imbroglio.

They have gotten too big for their britches in my opinion, but what do I know? I'm just a wee bitty blogger...

Contributors said...

My outrage at "The Times" was in large part due to my respect for your judgement. Because you're not a partisan and you did pick up on this -- that told me I wasn't over reacting. But no one blogging on this can accuse you of being a link in the rumor chain without being hypocritical. After all they themselves have blogged a "link." Myself included.

As far as Schwimmer's hair splitting: "The story is sharpened - the source of the 'facts' are no longer Wikipedia and the NY Times but 'the left' and 'Democrats.'"

He's fabricating a distinction between "The Times" and "Democrats" where none exists. The paper is a daily Democrat talking point with a fierce anti-Bush liberal agenda. And I'm talking about it's front page, not editorial. No stretch is required to move from "Times" to "Democrats."

You wrote: "Yet, of course, the NYT has complete deniability."

No, they don't. What they have is a long track record of brilliantly written but biased hit pieces. And they're the only ones getting "outted" in the dust-up.

b.sikes said...

i read the nyt piece, and later, yours, and came to the same impression/conclusion as you. i never read the wonkette.

it was a fine, well-crafted 'dog-whistle' piece, by the author (and by the institution), and judging by some of the original comments (and later, downsteam left-liberal blog chatter), 'the dogs' heard it clearly.

i'll also stay with my statement that your initial 'thinking through your fingertips' was less elegent and less devloped that than your usual fare - or maybe my reading abilty shrunk.


Gerry said...

I think I am pretty much with Harry on this one.

I think there is a good lesson in the post you linked to here, in that it is easy at times to manage to become, totally unintentionally, part of a sequence of events or system that, I think, most of us would regard as reprehensible.

But I am not sure that the Powerline is really the ones who deserve ire here. As Harry pointed out, I do not think it is unreasonable to read something that the NY Times is up to, and describe it as being done by "some Democrats." The next step in the 'rumor chain' would be for the word 'some' to be dropped, and a blogger somewhere to post their anger at Powerline for smearing moderate Democrats everywhere.

It's the chain that is ugly this time. Anyone can pick a particular link that they think is uglier than the rest, but I'll say that the chain was ugly as a whole.

Looking at the chain as a whole, even though I think it is an ugly chain, I also am not particularly irked at anyone involved. There but for the grace of God go I. I do not see any way of thinking that anyone listed acted with any sort of malice intended.

Except for possibly the initiator-- the New York Times. Like you, I was left with the impression that they were acting with intention in that piece. Unlike you, I cannot say that I had not read anyone else's opinion on the matter before reading the article; I read it because of your post. I hope I read it completely objectively, but had a seed been planted?

But that bit of kvetching aside, I think the proper party to direct anger at in this whole affair is the New York Times.

But they have plausible deniability, don't they?

EddieP said...

30 years ago, half of us american males wore plaid pants. Plaid pants, white belts and white patent leather shoes were all the rage. They were considered stylish and were extremely popular in the 70's. I had three pair myself. Give me a break on the plaid pants = gay theory, even though that is probably the story the NYT was pitching.

Contributors said...

Gerry -- "I think the proper party to direct anger at in this whole affair is the New York Times."

Exactly. And that's the link that's being created in the conservative part of the chain. In the liberal swamps "The Times" reached it's goal. But conservatives are aiming their outrage in the proper direction. It must disappoint them to discover we're not the bigots they counted on.

Maybe the NYT didn't see enough liberal outrage and decided to gin some up? Liberals consider conservative gays like they do conservative blacks: Traitors -- strayers from the liberal plantation. Look at what they've said (or, not condemned being said) about Rice and Clarence Thomas.

Who knows? You can cherry pick anyone's life to create any impression you want. And that's exactly what they did.

Ann Althouse said...

Dirty Harry: Your last comment makes me think of an assignment for a hypothetical journalism class: Pick a prominent public figure, then, using completely verifiable facts about him or her, write a profile that will create the impression that the person is gay but will not expose you to the charge that you created that impression intentionally. In class, we'd discuss technique and ethics.

Charlie Martin said...

To be frank, I'm learning to think about the NY Times as little as possible.

I'll also grant that if the Powerline guys have a sense of humor, they apparently keep it in a sealed humidor and take it out on special occasions only.

But they're not mischaracterizing you; they don't even mention you. They link Yoest, who does mention and link you, but also links several other things, and points out the way the "Robert is gay" notion is being vectored from several sources.

I guess I don't understand why you're annoyed at Powerline.

Charlie Martin said...

Oh, yeah ... I had a pair of those plain pants too. Roberts is seven months older.

Gerry said...

Heh. A class to teach how to do something, and discuss the questionable ethics of doing that something.

It would give us plausible deniability to the charge that we were hoping to see the technique used more.

Ann, it's a shame you are on the side of good. There is an evil mastermind in there busting to get out.

Ann Althouse said...

Charles: Reread my post if you don't get why I'm irked at Powerline. You're pointing out things I discuss in the post as if I didn't perceive them.

Ann Althouse said...

Well, Gerry, I am in the business of manufacturing lawyers. Isn't that evil enough?

Jay Random said...

I'm sure you've seen the DU thread on Dancing Jack's obviously gay proclivities... sure, a joke, but maybe the writers/designers of the NYT piece were 'just kidding' too.

I've only looked at the NYT piece online so maybe the pix are more suggestive laid out on a paper page. Personally, the slideshow & comments seem more of an attempt to make him look a bit silly (viz. goofy corn or football-on-the-tarmac pictures during the 2004 campaign) and emphasize his youthfulness (hence, to libs/Dems, the threat he represents) than an effort to insinuate gaiety.

Wrt Powerline, note Dirty Harry's equivalence of the NYT and Dems -- that's all Powerline's done with their "they". The NYT may be an institution, but individuals wrote the story, edited it, composed the page and picked the pix. I, like Dirty Harry and Gerry and surely others, don't find it at all out-of-line to impute the paper's "subtly constructed" insinuation to some liberals/Democrats.

The fact that John at Powerline mentioned the plaid pants doesn't mean they were noticed due to your post (which you further seem to suggest means they should have linked to you instead of Yoest). And I must add, you say you were "the only one who brought up the pants", which is a patently ridiculous claim -- just as it would be ridiculous to assert that someone else's post on the NYT piece put ideas (or a "conclusion") into your head. Your posting of the comment doesn't preclude a million other minds from noticing or bringing up the same aspect to others -- in fact, since your overall point was that the NYT intended to lead people's thoughts in that direction, it would be odd or at best a sad failure if you were the only person to have drawn the connection!

The main difference here seems to be that you think it was subtle; Powerline considers it blatant. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree on that distinction.

Ann Althouse said...

Jay: Check out Yoest's post. She gets the plaid pants thing from me and not from anywhere else. It's not as if I'm going it's-all-about-me.

Gerry said...

It's beyond evil. And I will think so until the day I really need one (a day I am sure will come).

Brendan said...

I love the guys at Powerline. They're as sharp and shrewd as they come. I don't think their "gay rumor" slam is a slap at you specifically, because anyone with the vaguest familiarity with your blog knows you're no Democratic hack. Instead, their fury probably has its genesis in the nonsensical attacks on Roberts' son, which pre-dated the Times piece. And since the Times is more or less a Dem rag, well, they felt emboldened to use "Dems" instead of a pronoun like "they." However, if their lampooning of the plaid pants angle is directly attributed to your post, well, I'm afraid you deserved it. The observation was patently absurd. Plaid pants were ubiquitous in the early 70s--not unlike bell-bottoms or wide ties--and have never been associated with feminity in any way. Trust me, I was alive during those days and clad in plaid. Same goes for my father and two brothers. The "all-boys school" ploy? More mischief. Would the NYT insinuate that Hillary's a d*ke because she toiled at Wellesley? Not on your life.

Jay Random said...

I did read Yoest's post before making my first comment. I'm still not sure why you're so sure she notes the plaid pants purely because of your comment, IOW that it could not have been because she read the article itself and looked at the pictures herself -- perhaps before she ran across your post.

Is it fair to say that you are annoyed with Schwimmer for linking but distorting your post, but more annoyed with Powerline for (a) failing to include your post wrt the pants while (b) failing to exclude your post from their "they" (who are hinting things)?

If so, not trying to say you think it's all about you but I do think that's a bit out of kilter. The rumor chain concept is Schwimmer's, and he got your post wildly wrong.

Per my reading, however, Powerline mentions the pants to link to Yoest, who led with the pants and emphasized them by including the picture. She reinforces your point, with appropriate attribution, that the NYT article is constructed with details designed to leave a particular impression (not just add a little color), but has also selected a single detail to highlight in order to expose or accentuate how ludicrous and contrived the implied insinuations truly are.

I would have thought that meshed neatly with your original point -- not that you're the only one who could have noticed the hints, but that anyone might come away from the article with a sneaking impression of how the details of Roberts' life add up, that doesn't stand up to scrutiny in the light of day. Other folks are going to take that point in other directions, as different ideas occur to them. The plaid pants are in the public domain, so to speak, and what others may eventually make of them is no cause for angst or ire, but could indeed continue to be entertaining.

Ann Althouse said...

Jay: Considering that virtually everyone has pointed out that plaid pants are not gay, I don't see your point.

Ampersand said...

"And the same notion crossed my mind. I do think the NYT piece was subtly constructed to plant this idea. Just look at the series of photographs they chose..."

I think Schwimmer was being fair (aside from putting "conclusion" in quotes, which seems dishonest). Saying "I do think" and "just look at" makes you sound a lot more conclusive than if you had only said "the same notion crossed my mind"; whether you intended to or not, your original blog post did give me the impression that you had drawn a conclusion, not that you were just entertaining an idle notion.

Events like this convince me that the Times is mistaken to even attempt to be fair, because you and everyone to your right are so unwilling to ever give the Times a fair shake. The piece as a whole - which you don't discuss - is clearly a puff piece bending over backwards to praise Roberts. We're led to believe that Roberts is kind, generous, brilliant, modest, etc.

The response of too many conservatives - and you, as well? Based on genuinely ridiculous evidence, you manufacture the false, mean-spirited claim that the Times is trying to suggest that Roberts is gay. Because they published a photo of him playing football, him wrestling, and him being a groomsman - all of which are perfectly normal activities for young heterosexual men.

Can you even see how utterly unfair you're being?

It's pretty clear that no matter what the Times publishes, you'll bend over backwards to make up, out of thin air, some malicious intent to it.

And yes, Wonkette agreed with you. The difference is, she was kidding.

Ann Althouse said...

Ampersand: You don't seem very familiar with this blog. I've blogged maybe a thousand pieces from the Times. Your characterization of my approach to the Times is refuted by a year and a half of posts here. Why not figure out what you're talking about before spewing?

Ampersand said...

Ann, I read your blog at least once a week. As I said on my blog last night, commenting on your post, you are "usually much more sane than this." Rereading my previous comment, my penultimate paragraph makes it sound like I think this sort of response is typical of you, when of course it is not. I apologize for that.

Nonetheless, your interpretation of the Times in this particular case is completely unfair - and typical of how conservatives (which you don't count yourself as, I know) read the Times.

Ann Althouse said...

Well, Ampersand, all I can say is I call them as I see them.

amba said...

The style of the Left is subtle, in-group, aren't-we-superior-because-we-get-it innuendo. Jon Stewart shows video of Bush doing or saying something, raises his eyebrow, and sighs, turning the video into a parody of itself for the cognoscenti of irony, almost without saying a word. The style of the Right is distortion and trumped-up outrage. Rush Limbaugh rants where Jon Stewart sighs.

So with the Times and Powerline. I didn't see the Times piece, but from the way you describe it, you could easily have wondered if it was innocent and you were just reading the gay thing in. You said "Did I imagine this?" and Powerline took it and said, "Aha!! Those terrible people on the left are trying to smear John Roberts."

Two styles of propaganda. And all a matter of social class. The Left style is much more elitist. The Right style is overkill, taking pains to be so loud and obvious that no one misses the point or, for that matter, notices the real point.

amba said...

I love the idea of someone keeping their sense of humor in a humidor. A humoridor.

amba said...

It keeps your sense of humor from getting too dry . . . Sorry.

Ann Althouse said...

Amba: You're a sublime blog commenter!

vbspurs said...

I want props, Ann, for sticking up for you on 22 July, way before this rebuttal post, since I filet'ed them about the difference between "rumourmonging" and a passing opinion.

I want my P-R-O-P-SSSS. *to the tune of Dire Straits*


vbspurs said...

"Rumourmongering" even.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, VBSpurs!

Unknown said...

Well I'm glad you started this Ann, because you've shown how the right will go ballistic anytime they think they spot homophobia on the left.

It's kind of like the KKK monitoring every single word the ACLU mentions and then saying "there, there, you just said something racist TOO".

And, of course, their accusations are almost always wrong.

It just makes the knee-jerk right-wing blogs look totally stupid with zero sense of humor.

Which is true of course.

vbspurs said...

It just makes the knee-jerk right-wing blogs look totally stupid with zero sense of humor.

Which is true of course.

Read it and weep, sug.

And let it never be said a Neo-Con Conservative Christian free-marketer doesn't have a sense of humour.

We just have have more stocks to monitor.

Uptown Girl

anacoluthons said...

I'm sorry, but your retrospective description of your initial post is bizarre. How on earth was it unfair to say that you "concluded" that the NYT piece was subtly constructed to plant the "gay" idea, after you wrote that "I do think the NYT piece was subtly constructed to plant this idea."? It wasn't "I do think that maybe..." or "I do think the article reads as if it were..."

Come on. If Schwimmer misunderstood your thoughts based on your initial post, it's because it didn't say what you meant it to.

If someone writes, "It crossed my mind that

Knemon said...

"And, of course, their accusations are almost always wrong."

Come now.

You know this isn't so.

(Well, the leftie gay-baiting-as-political-bludgeon part, not the ACLU-as-crypto-racists part).