Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I did not have textual relations with that woman: The Johannson e-mail relationship with Obama

Headline credit to an unidentified reader of The Campaign Spot at National Review Online.

Some time ago, Politico interviewed Scarlett Johannson regarding her support of Barack Obama, and she mentioned a "dialog" between the two of them. Yesterday, The Trail at The Washington Post quoted Sen. Obama indicating that he sent but one e-mail message to Johannson, apparently contradicting her account.

I say "apparently" because you really never know how you're going to look when the press starts putting your quotations into a story. I find this little matter between Obama and Johannson interesting primarily because of the press treatment angle. Does it have significance for the presidential campaign? Maybe. A little.

When I saw the piece at The Trail today, it made me wonder if the original interview at Politico had drawn an extended inference into Johannson's words (I read the Politico interview when it first appeared, mind you). Observe the way Shailagh Murray puts the story together:
LOS ANGELES -- As he headed to a Hollywood fundraiser, Sen. Barack Obama downplayed the idea that he hobnobs with actress Scarlett Johansson.

The movie star, who campaigns actively for the Illinois senator, recently told the website Politico, "You'd imagine that someone like the senator who is constantly traveling and constantly 'on' - how can he return these personal emails? But he does, and in his off-time I know he also calls people who have donated the minimum to thank them."

She said Obama had responded to one note about a debate, commenting to her that the questions were "silly."

In the next paragraph, Murray goes on to paraphrase Obama as saying Johannson did not even have his personal e-mail address and provides the following quotation:
"She sent one email to Reggie, who forwarded it to me," Obama said, referring to his 26-year-old personal assistant, Reggie Love. "I write saying, 'thank you Scarlett for doing what you do,' and suddenly we have this email relationship"
Murray's presentation of the story ends up providing some pretty nice cover for Obama. That's certainly the way I took it at first blush. The quotation from Johannson leaves it ambiguous as to whether the "e-mails" (plural) refers just to her messages or also to messages from others. The next paragraph factually matches Obama's statement. Johannson sent "one note about a debate"--ostensibly a paraphrase of Johannson--and Obama's statement "She sent one e-mail" dovetails perfectly. So maybe the interview story ended up exaggerating things.

But I thought I recalled that the original story at Politico provided a stronger impression than that from Johannson. It turns out that had Murray (or her editor?) had been willing to use a bit more space or choose slightly different quotations and paraphrases Obama could have looked much worse:
She e-mailed him after some of the Democratic debates, offering her thoughts on his messages and performance. “After the silliness of the last ABC debate,” she said of the highly criticized event co-hosted by Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, she wrote to congratulate him on “holding his ground.”

His replies have been thoughtful, she said, more than a brief line or two; on the ABC debate, he responded that the questioning was “difficult” and he was being pounded on “one silly question after another.”
These lines appear to indicate more than one e-mail from each side. Did Politico's Jeffrey Ressner draw an unjustified inference? Apparently not. Johannson's words, if she was quoted accurately, appear to provide a pretty solid framework for the understanding that a more extended back and forth took place between Obama and Johannson:
Johansson is somewhat shocked that he keeps up their back-and-forth correspondence. “You’d imagine that someone like the senator who is constantly traveling and constantly ‘on’ — how can he return these personal e-mails?” she asks. “But he does, and in his off-time I know he also calls people who have donated the minimum to thank them. Nobody sees it, nobody talks about it, but it’s incredible.” She adds, “I feel like I’m supporting someone, and having a personal dialogue with them, and it’s amazing.”
That last line is the key. Without that line to sustain the idea that a continued exchange took place, neither story really makes sense. Unless the reporter is an outright fabulist (the lack of outcry speaks in his favor), then Johannson did convey the impression of a back and forth exchange that is downplayed in Murray's reporting. But the response from the Obama campaign as reported by Murray makes no sense minus the understanding that textual relations took place.

Thus, a real discrepancy exists between the Johannson account and the Obama account. One of them might be lying (take your pick), or--using a bit of imagination--something slightly weird may have taken place, like a campaign staffer impersonating Obama and leaving Johannson with the impression that she sustained a dialog with Sen. Obama. I'm not sure who deserves the lion's share of the benefit of the doubt. If Obama is lying, then this story reasonably has some relevance to the campaign.

Who knows? But in any case it's interesting to see how the press treats these issues.

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