Thursday, October 28, 2010

St. Petersburg Times spinning for Sink

CNN continued its reporting and analysis of the Alex Sink debate story.  Sink's debate with Republican opponent Rick Scott has stayed in the news because Sink was caught breaking the rules.  Sink compounded the error by scapegoating the staffer who sent the message.  CNN's panel does a nice job on the story:

The St. Petersburg Times posted a story this morning on the new audio material. Watch for the spin. Put your head down if dizziness occurs.
TALLAHASSEE — A debate-cheating flap continued to nag at Democrat Alex Sink on Wednesday even as new video surfaced showing she might not have known a campaign staffer broke the rules until it was too late.
The makeup artist was also part of Sink's staff.  Why doesn't she know better than to show Sink a message that may be from "Brian"?  Shouldn't Sink be wary of any message she receives during the break because of the rules to which her campaign agreed?

Just wait 'til they get started:
The new video clip, posted Wednesday by CNN, indicated Sink was handed the phone before she realized the message was about her debate against Rick Scott, her Republican opponent for governor.
Ahem.  The above is not news reporting, because the video evidence can provide no assurance that Sink did not know the message was from a member of her staff.  It is news analysis at best and more probably ought to count as an opinion.  I will cheerfully concede that Sink may not have initially known the message was from her staff.  The evidence is ambiguous on that point.  But when Sink accepted a message from her staffer by reading it off the phone, she broke the rules.  And the breakage was doubled because the makeup artist, according to the CNN transcript, conveyed a corresponding message to Sink.
Makeup: Do you want some food? … A grape? Anything?
Sink: No if I eat a grape, I won't have anything. I'm okay. Thanks though. …
Makeup: This is from … they said … (they both look down at device). I don't know who that's from, if it's from Brian or …
Sink: I don't know.
Makeup: They're saying you need to stand up.
Man walks over: Are you okay?
Sink: Yeah. You want to give me a little more water? (Man walks away.) They're saying what?
Makeup: Stand up to them more.
CNN political editor Mark Preston: I'm sorry, did you just show the BlackBerry? I'm sorry (bends over to pick it up).
Makeup: What's that?
Preston: (unintelligible)
Sink: Oh that's okay. It didn't have anything on it that was …
I believe Sink meant to say "It didn't have anything on it that I could comprehend" since that is essentially the account she later gave of the incident.  Unfortunately, her response to Preston makes it appear that she understood the message and judged that it was of little importance to the debate, and apparently not even a breach of the rules ("Oh that's okay.")!

More spin control from the Times:
CNN didn't post all of the audio from the exchange, but CNN debate moderator John King accurately noted that the stylist twice discussed the contents of the message, in which a campaign adviser wanted Sink to "stand up'' more to Scott.

Sink, who wasn't clear about what she was being told, even asked the woman to repeat the message.
Again, the story breaks the conventions of objective journalism.  An objective writer does not know whether or not Sink is clear about the message.  It is clear that Sink wanted the makeup artist to repeat what "they" were saying, and since the makeup artist was able to receive messages Sink may have expected content not included in the text message.  The objective writer doesn't make that call.

Compare the "contents" of the message as expressed by the makeup artist to the text of the message on the phone (appearing in a separate story from the Times):
Alex Sink's makeup artist shows her a message that reads: "The attorney on Sykes suit said Alex did nothing wrong. Tell not to let him keep talking about her."
The content of the text message helps make clear that the infraction was twofold.  The makeup artist was used as a go-between.  The text instructs her to convey instructions to Sink.  And she did.  But Brian May was made the scapegoat and the Sink campaign refused to identify the makeup artist:
The makeup artist, whom the Sink campaign would not identify, didn't seem to know much, either, as she showed the phone to Sink.

"I don't know who that's from,'' she said, her voice growing quiet with a question: "If it's from Brian?"
The makeup artist didn't know much?  She knew the gist of the message ("They're saying you need to stand up"), she knew it was from a "they" that might have included "Brian."  Since she was part of the staff it is reasonable to assume she referred to Brian May, in which case she made an accurate educated guess as to the sender.  She knew a good bit, even if her execution of her role helped land the boss in hot water.

New questions in light of the additional information released by CNN:

What was said prior to the makeup artist showing Sink the phone?

Who is the stylist and why wasn't she fired, given that she transmitted debate strategy to Sink?

Why won't the campaign identify the stylist?

Why can't the Times (Marc Caputo, Beth Reinhard) report the story straight?

Oct. 28, 2010:  Removed a couple of duplicate paragraphs.

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