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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Howell's by now retracted corrected and cancelled howler

I am beginning to be concerned about my obsession with Deborah Howell. I believe that Carol Burnett got her big break when she sang the hit song "I made a fool of myself over John Foster Dulles." Attempting to avoid personal insults, I should add both that Deborah Howell is much sexier than John Foster Dulles and that she doesn't have to worry about me stalking her and harassing her with phone calls in which I talk about the unambiguity of the third person singular pronoun "he" and felafel.

Still in this harmless, low traffic, non obscene, not too personal and occasionally correctly spelled blog, I link to Josh Marshall who manages to have something useful to say as always. In his brief summary he notes that some have claimed that the distinction between money given by Abramoff and money given by his clients after he so recommended is without a difference. I can't help responding to this argument (I tried).

First I don't think a newspaper can make that argument when one of the statements is a factual error. I don't think a newspaper can argue that an error of fact is too minor to correct when it is challenged. This seems to me (and Deborah Howell) to be an obviously necessary rule.

Second I don't think the distinction is without a difference. In fact, I think it is necessary to make more distinctions if one wants to understand the controversy (although I have no idea why any sane person would want to do that). Consider 5 catagories

a. Money given by Jack Abramoff's clients
b. Money given by Jack Abramoff's clients after he recommended such giving
c. Money given by Jack Abramoff's clients because he recommended such giving
d. Money given by Jack Abramoff's clients at his direction.
e. Money given by Jack Abramoff.

In the original Howler, Howell conflated a and e. This is clear since she claimed that the giving was "substantial." If one clicks the link she used for evidence of b,c or d, and one relies on Mark Schmitt (see below) to understand how capitoleye works (it is very very simple) one finds that the total in c demonstrated by the Washington Post is $500 (to Max Cleland) which is not substantial.

Now are these distinctions without differences ? I think it is absolutely clear that the distinction between a (for which the Post presents significant evidence of considerable contributions to Democrats) and e must be important exactly because Abramoff gave often and always always to Republicans. If one wishes to argue that there is no important difference between a and e, one has to explain why the patterns are totally different. I think any attempt to understand this undeniable fact leads one to consider some donations by Abramoff clients to have been made in spite of not because of Abramoff. This means that the data on total giving by Abramoff clients is even less relevant than it appeared at first (which is basically totally irrelevant).

Howell says she wrote e when she should have written d. d clearly is zero dollars. Abramoff worked for his clients. They gave him money. They did not owe him obedience. Indeed (see below) the tiny scrap of information on Abramoff recommendations does not match actual giving. This shows, as if it were needed, that Abramoff did not command his clients.

To be charitable replace d with c. The distinction between c and b is as important as any aspect of Abramoff campaign donations (which is not very). It is clear that Abramoff could not convince his clients to instantly cut off Democrats completely and that he would have lost their trust if he tried. The scrap of a document cited as evidence provides no information on this. Thus Howell has shifted from a false claim to a claim unsupported by evidence.

I assume that, at this point, I have no readers to whom to apologise for this boring pointless post.

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