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Friday, December 30, 2011

Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Breitbart, and the Making of a Non-Story

Posted By on Fri, Dec 30, 2011 at 2:40 PM

Andrew Breitbart: crank source?
  • Andrew Breitbart: crank source?

Newsrooms across the country went on red alert yesterday as the conservative website -- a URL one can reliably say was never destined for non-ironic use -- posted what appeared to be quite a scoop. In an exclusive interview, Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, said her mother wanted to retire.

The younger Pelosi was quoted as saying that her 71-year-old mom was only holding on to her House seat at the request of unnamed "donors." With these meager ingredients -- the Right's favorite septuagenarian West Coast Liberal punching bag, a telephone interview, and the barest whiff of campaign-finance-related corruption -- a story to dominate the news cycle was born.

But was it really a story? Was it anything, beyond a vague quote repurposed for conservative and sensationalist ends?

Let's take a look at what Alexandra Pelosi actually said:

She would retire right now, if the donors she has didn't want her to stay so badly. They know she wants to leave, though. They think she's destined for the wilderness. She has very few days left. She's 71, she wants to have a life, she's done. It's obligation, that's all I'm saying.
Now amend that: Alexandra Pelosi apparently texted after the story went live to correct a misquote -- she had said donors believed her mother was destined for "greatness," not "wilderness." (With the correction, her quote makes a hell of a lot more sense. Donors would presumably want to keep Pelosi in office because of her potential for greatness, not her future wanderings in the "wilderness," whatever that means.)

Pelosi's office, when the grown-up news outlets chased this story, predictably denied that the House Minority Leader is thinking about retirement. What are we to make of all this?

Let's be clear: Alexandra Pelosi's comments were certainly catalyst enough for a news story. With that interview in hand, a good journalist could have explored the not-at-all surprising possibility that a 71-year-old career politician who has likely reached and passed the pinnacle of her legislative career in the past few years -- Pelosi cemented her legacy by repeatedly herding Democrats into line to support President Obama's major domestic initiatives -- might think about bowing out. (She certainly doesn't have to worry about her San Francisco seat being lost to the GOP.)

Calls to her aides, those close to her, including the aforementioned "donors," once identified, would have been in order. Instead, we had a string of headlines either parroting the premise of the story or rejecting it based on the disavowals of Pelosi's spokespeople. This isn't journalism, since no effort was made to discern which side was lying; it isn't even stenography, since the exact meaning of Alexandra Pelosi's original words was far from clear.

The ultimately mild fallout from the Pelosi Fake Retirement story follows a similar pattern to other media controversies manufactured by Andrew Breitbart, the publisher of Isolated facts or quotes are pushed forward in the form of print or video, the rest of the media hastens to catch up -- in the process giving undue legitimacy to the original report -- and in the end no new information has been added to our understanding of the topic at hand. Nothing has been learned.

Reporters would do better to treat the likes of not as a competing news organization, but as that figure known perenially to real journalists, in real cities: the unreliable crank source, the guy who shows up in the office lobby in a worn houndstooth jacket, meticulously arranged file folders in hand, pestering the receptionist to speak to a reporter. The information he presents might be factually accurate, and it might even lead, eventually, to a news story. Far more often, alas, it is a thin factual underlay for a theory that falls obviously short of the truth.

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Peter Jamison


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