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On Credibility

September 2, 2014

Let’s do an exercise. This is an exercise in logical thinking. It’s an exercise in basic political strategy. It’s also an examination of the way news articles come together, and a reflection on standards and ethics in journalism.

At issue is an article that appeared yesterday in the NY Post. It reported that Governor Cuomo is considering dumping his running mate.

The first question that should occur to someone as they read this article is: Why would the Cuomo campaign be considering such an action now, with a just one week to go before the primary election? 

 This isn’t something that helps them in any way. This “news” is only likely to energize the opposition. It tells the opponent that all the polls are wrong and that race is very close and that they might be on the verge of a shocking victory.

The next question is:  Who, exactly, is making this strange announcement?

Well, the article quotes “a source close to the Cuomo campaign.”

We wonder: Who could that be? Cuomo runs a tight ship. He has a very small circle of advisors. He’s also rather secretive, famously so.

It just doesn’t make sense to us that he or anyone close to him would be talking about such a sensitive topic. Not now. And certainly not with the NY Post.

So how did the Post reporter come by this information?

Well, the reporter would have had to call up the source and engage him or her by asking a question about the status of the campaign. It would have been something like: “So what is the thinking now about the challenge from Teachout and Wu?”

The source would have then had to provide some context for his or her claim that the governor is considering dumping Hochul. He or she would have had to explain that – again – contrary to external polls, the internal polls show that Wu – not Teachout – is gaining and that he might win.

More than that, the source would have had to say that the Governor and his top advisors are engaged in contingency planning based on those internal polls. 

But again, this doesn’t make any sense to us. If it was true that the internal polls have shown Hochul in trouble, the campaign would be redoubling efforts on her behalf – not planning to dump her. You’d do that later, after the election. You wouldn’t waste time now. You’d be doing all you could to push her over the top. 

Also, if the source actually told the reporter that the Governor’s internal polls showed that Hochul was indeed tanking, why wasn’t that information about the internal polls mentioned in the article?

But rather than talking about internal polls that show a close race, the article notes that Cuomo and his top operatives have been setting expectations that Teachout and Wu might get a quarter or as much as a third of the vote.

The Cuomo camp isn’t stupid – they wouldn’t float those numbers only to have them exceeded. And if they are floating numbers that show a 70-30 race, how can it be that they are afraid that Hochul is going to lose?

At this point in the exercise, we’re really starting to have doubts about the veracity of the article. And when we go back to examine the sourcing on which this article is based, those doubts multiply.  The exact quote from the person close to the governor’s campaign is as follows:

“This is the painful scenario being reviewed by the Cuomo people, who realize that there is a possibility that Wu could win the primary.”

Ask yourself this question: Would a political operative talk that way?

If you are part of the Cuomo team, or close to it, would you refer to your friends and colleagues as “the Cuomo people.”  That’s a term indicating detachment. 

Beyond that, this quote is simply too convenient, too pat. It too perfectly summarizes the thesis of the article, and it does so in language that is written language,  not spoken language.

Sources – especially political operatives – just don’t speak in grammatically perfect ways.

If there really was a source close to the campaign who said this, he or she would have said it after painting a dramatic picture of urgency, angst and maybe even disarray in the campaign. After all – if true – this really is a shocking development. The source would have said something akin to this:

“Yeah, the race is close. Nobody thought it would be. But suddenly, nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen. It’s a possibility that Wu could win and people are really nervous and jazzed about it. A lot of people think that Hochul should have been more active. There’s a lot of debate internally about what to do. We know we have to push hard in the time we have left. Hopefully, we pull this out because it would be a really painful scenario otherwise.”

Something like this would be realistic – not the clinical quote that appeared. 

At the end of this exercise, we’re left wondering whether the quote, the source and the article are phony.

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