No significant news story is woven so tightly that you can’t tug a thread loose. (Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr/CC)
Sports fans may get excited over spotting something like back-to-back sacrifice bunts. I geek out over spotting two instances of the loose threads defense in the same week.
First, mighty Amazon responds to a New York Times article. The original article came out in August. It said Amazon’s success was built in part on pushing white-collar employees to their limits and beyond. Amazon’s response came two months later. Presumably it was so delayed because spokesman Jay Carney has not signed up for Prime membership, which gives you free two-day rebuttals.
Anyway, Carney pointed to four anecdotes in the lengthy Times story. (Though he assured us that “there are others.” Probably just out of stock at the moment.) One person quoted in the Times story, Carney said, resigned after being confronted with evidence of misfeasance. Another, who told the Times she worked for four days without sleep, later blogged that no one had forced her to do it. This, along with her admission that she was in an emotional crisis at the time, Carney cites as a point in Amazon’s favor — because, I guess, good managers know to ignore signs of stress in their employees and let them overwork it out.
The Times responded to Carney very quickly. He responded right back, and the hot takes flew in from all sides. My favorite is one from The Awl, which dissects the questionable actions on both sides.
I had just finished describing this episode to my students as an example of the loose threads defense when another popped up in my social media. Cindy Gamrat, booted out of the Michigan legislature and now running to replace herself, explained to her Facebook fans that the media needed to apologize to her.
Briefly, Gamrat and another Tea Party legislator, both married, turned a professional partnership into a sexual affair. To try to keep that from upsetting their family-friendly supporters, her paramour floated a rumor about being caught with a male prostitute. Just when this was getting interesting, it turned into a story about misuse of funds.
What was the media’s fault? According to Chad Selweski on Politically Speaking,
Gamrat said that she never admitted to misusing taxpayer dollars to cover up her affair with Courser [i.e., the Other Man]. That flies in the face of her written apology to her House colleagues in which she said she accepted the findings of the internal House investigation. In addition, the chair of the special House committee that recommended Gamrat’s expulsion saw things in black-and-white terms. Rep. Ed McBroom told the media that the reason for such a short stint by the committee … was that Courser and Gamrat essentially pleaded guilty during their testimony.
[Gamrat also] said she did not share a House office with Courser, a Lapeer Republican. She bases this on the physical location of their two offices. Yet, clearly the media reports focused on how these two tea party lawmakers took the unprecedented step of sharing staff, though their two districts were located nearly 200 miles apart.
Again, the classic loose thread defense. In other words: Any news story of sufficient length will have at least one or two loose threads. Sometimes it’s a source who isn’t quite a choirboy, or one who realizes after the fact that there might be repercussions for speaking the truth. Other times it’s journalism’s Achilles heel: Our reliance on language.
Language is an at best imperfect tool for communication. All too often, we journalists have to turn to words to tell our stories. And, as noted linguists Led Zeppelin said, “you know sometimes words have two meanings.”
Whatever the cause, loose threads can be found in news stories. They’re an inescapable part of the nature of the business, and the nature of human communication. This is why I’ve never been impressed with Internetizens who act as if they are sticking it in the eye of Mainstream Media by pointing out selected errors. Those errors have been there all along. And they’re usually not a sign of bigger problems; they’re just loose threads.
But one classic defense for those on the sour end of a news story is to pull at some loose threads and assure the public that, if they kept pulling, the entire story would unravel. Carney is right; one of the Times sources later said she still loves the nice people who captained the Amazon galley, and pulling that oar was purely her choice. That doesn’t make what she said about working four days without sleep any less awful, or change the overall thrust of a story built on dozens and dozens of interviews. Cindy Gamrat is right; she didn’t actually sit in her lover’s lap behind a desk. Or, at least, not all the time. And, yes, some readers probably interpreted the phrase “shared an office” as meaning something like that. But it was the real hanky-panky, financial and physical, and not the seating arrangements that got her tossed on her ear.
As a journalism nerd, I love it when someone trying to blame the media pulls a tried-and-true switcheroo. You can have your flashy sluggers like Donald Trump. I appreciate the subtler, more sophisticated sophistry of the loose threads defense.