Press Box

Bloggy Tuesday

A McCain-New York Times Feud?; Fishy Friday; JFK on speed; what the hell is “affordable housing”?

John McCain

In what I interpret as retaliation, the McCain campaign froze the New York Times out of direct access to the candidate’s medical records last week.

The campaign picked a “pool” of news outlets—including ABC News, the Arizona Republic, the Associated Press, Bloomberg, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News, Reuters, and the Washington Post, but not the Times—to take notes from the records for three hours on Friday, May 23. No photocopying was allowed, and nonpool news organizations had to rely on the pool’s reports for their stories.

I rarely feel sympathy for Times reporters, and if you’ve ever met one, you know why: They whine whenever the world dares to stop revolving around them. The clearest demonstration of Times egomania comes from a friend who served as a foreign-service officer in Saigon during the Vietnam War. One afternoon his phone at the Embassy rang, and the voice on the other end said, “Please hold for the New York Times.”

Obviously, I don’t think the Times deserves an automatic invitation to every party. But the campaign has some explaining to do if it lets five TV news outlets inspect McCain’s medical records but excludes the Times. This looks like payback for the TimesFeb. 21 story about McCain and the female lobbyist, which had him and his campaign spitting nails (and even outraged the Times public editor).

The McCain campaign is free to talk to whomever it wants, whenever it wants, to share medical records selectively, and to punish the Times for ripping its candidate. (I thought the Times story was good and fair.) But it’s not in McCain’s short- or long-term interests to retaliate against a news organization, even if he has a good case. A reporter denied is a vengeful force. He’ll only dig deeper, perhaps dislodging information that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. (See also the Richard Nixon administration.)

“Fishy Friday.” Over at the Politico, Ryan Grim tracks what he calls “Fishy Friday” stories. When potentially damaging news is dumped to the press on Friday, the first assumption among reporters is that the dumpers chose the day so the articles would appear on Saturday newspapers, the least-read edition of the week. An expertly deposited Friday news dump can often limit a contentious story’s play to just one day.

The McCain dump came at the cusp of a three-day weekend, when most Americans were occupied with something other than the campaign, making it a “Super Fishy Friday” story.

As awful as the McCain campaign’s treatment of the Times may be, the candidate and the campaign are still a million times more open than the zipped-lip, locked-down, maximum-security, unapproachable Obama campaign. Why isn’t the press complaining about Obama’s lack of transparency?

The Economist Style. Scholar Mark Falcoff cracks the British newsweekly’s code in his recent reviewof a book by the Economist’s Michael Reid. The magazine’s house style, Falcoff writes, is a

… conflation of condescension, hard economic data, and on-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand pronouncements which seem always somehow to come down (just barely) on the side of optimism.

JFK, Speed Freak. Last week, a journalist and a scholar argued in a May 22New York Times op-ed that President John F. Kennedy made a mistake by meeting with archrival Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev so early (June 1961) in his administration. Khrushchev took advantage of the green president, the authors write. If Obama really wants to follow in Kennedy’s footsteps, he should realize that “sometimes there is good reason to fear to negotiate”—namely inexperience.

Former Times reporter Boyce Rensberger (a friend of mine) published a letter in the May 24Times suggesting that Kennedy’s performance at the summit may have been inhibited by something other than inexperience. Rensberger writes:

… Kennedy may well have been high on amphetamines.As Lawrence K. Altman and I reported in The New York Times on Dec. 4, 1972, [PDF; purchase required] Kennedy was accompanied to the summit by Dr. Max Jacobson, a physician who routinely injected the stimulant into many prominent figures. Dr. Jacobson told us that he injected Kennedy there. White House records confirm that the doctor was on that trip. It is not certain that the shots contained “speed,” but Dr. Feelgood, as patients called him, is known routinely to have mixed amphetamines into his potions. The drug causes not only feelings of euphoria but also an exaggerated sense of power and superiority.

Affordable Housing. Where do I go to register my annoyance over the appearance of the phrase affordable housing in the news?

In most newspaper stories, affordable housing is code for “subsidized housing,” with either the government or somebody else (a nonprofit; a coerced developer) covering the difference between the market price and what the resident pays.

The earliest newspaper mention of affordable housing I found this afternoon was an Aug. 23, 1970, New York Times letter to the editor (PDF; purchase required), although I’m sure it’s not the first. The euphemism is so common that Nexis dredges up more than 1,800 examples of it from the nation’s top six dailies in the past year. Over the same period, the phrase subsidized housing scores only about 160 hits.

In his book Unspeak, Steven Poole explains that phrases like affordable housing are usually created and popularized by advocates as a linguistic dodge. Such phrases allow a speaker or writer to say something without saying it, to express a view without getting into an argument, and to make a point without having to justify that point. (Other prime examples of unspeak: pro-choice, pro-life, tax relief, tax burden, community, reform, intelligent design, regime change, and sharpshooters.)

Affordable housing, like other virulent forms of unspeak, disarms its critics before they have a chance to argue. Anybody against affordable housing must be for unaffordable housing, i.e., homelessness, and hence a real shit.

Editors of the world, delete this phrase from the lexicon!


Run into any unspeakable unspeak lately? Here are examples culled by my readers last year. Send your new discoveries to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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