And the Backstory of the Seattle Times Massive Punkage

by: Matt Stoller

Thu Oct 23, 2008 at 13:02

So the Seattle Times political department spent yesterday doing two things.  The first part of the day involved smirking about a story 'journalist' Emily Heffter was about to publish making false claims about Burner's Harvard degree.  The attitude was probably something along the lines of Boo-ya!  This was Heffter's Watergate, she busted that Darcy doin' lots of exagerrating.  The editors probably said something like, nice job, Emily, you sure showed that you're no liberal media.  Do more of that and you may get a raise, and by that we mean your buyout package might be larger when we lay you off.

The second part involved walking that story back out of sheer embarrassment, changing the headline, and acting defensively towards the various academic, ex-students and ex-faculty who pointed out how obviously this journalist and the Seattle Times editors had been punked by Reichert.  And indeed, we found out today that's what happened, from Melissa Santos of the Tacoma News Tribune (a somewhat conservative paper) in a post titled 'Reichert camp "shocked" about Burner education claim ... or are they?'

Matt Stoller :: And the Backstory of the Seattle Times Massive Punkage
Reichert spokeswoman Amanda Halligan, who posted on this blog (hi Amanda), was revealed as an obvious liar.

Halligan said the campaign has been stretching the truth about Burner's degree to say the ex-Microsoft manager is more qualified than Reichert to deal with the economic problems plaguing America. Voters should now know that's not the case, Halligan said.

She added that the Reichert campaign was "completely shocked" by the revelation in today's Seattle Times.

But Reichert questioned the legitimacy of Burner's claims in a phone interview with me Oct. 10, more than two weeks ago.

He was criticizing Burner for proposing her own plans to fix the economy and withdraw from Iraq, areas he said are outside her realm of expertise.

"She's not only a computer science major from Harvard, she's now an economics major," Reichert said. "And she's also a general."

So Reichert himself was pushing the story two weeks ago to various journalists, Heffter meekly served her role as stenographer, and then Reichert's campaign professed to have learned of it today.  Ok then.  No one could have predicted that uncritically reporting Republican opposition research on an obviously falsifiable hit job would backfire.

Meanwhile, ex-Dean Harry Lewis points out that Darcy didn't just study economics, she studied non-wussy economics.

I'm the professor and ex-dean who was quoted in the story, and as it happens, also the guy who wrote the CS degree requirements. At the time Darcy was at Harvard, she would have needed, as part of her CS degree requirements, several courses in a technical specialization area related to CS. She fulfilled that CS degree requirement by specializing in Economics (which meant, by the way, that she couldn't have taken just the easy, non-mathematical Ec courses). So it's not exactly a minor (which we didn't have then, though we do now), and it's also not anything that the registrar would be able to certify (because it's an internal requirement of the computer science faculty). But it's something everyone getting a degree in CS had to do (though other students would have other specialties). The way Darcy is describing herself is accurate.

And Matt Yglesias, who went to Harvard as well, chimed in.

Harvard, as you know, is old and fancy. Consequently, it has a lot of old and fancy terminology and procedures that differ somewhat from the American norm. They don't, for example, have "teaching assistants" (TAs) instead they have "teaching fellows" (TFs). You don't live in a "dorm" you live in a "house." Instead of "RAs" there are "proctors" and "tutors." And instead of "majors" there are "concentrations." If I want to communicate some fact about my college experience in a normal way, however, I'll say that "when I was in college I majored in philosophy, Walid Hussein TAed two of my classes, and my dorm was near Noch's." By the same token, there are no minors at Harvard. What Burner did is the Harvard equivalent of doing a joint degree in computer science and economics, though it's not technically called that and the process (which would involve taking an adequate number of economics courses and then writing a thesis that bridges both subjects) is probably somewhat different from what you might find elsewhere. That she chose not to give a tediously detailed description of the academic procedures of her undergraduate institution is just common sense.

Emily Heffter, I tried to warn you.

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Huh. (4.00 / 2)
I guess I always assumed the Seattle Times was a real newspaper, not the West Coast clone of the Washington (DC) Times. Maybe the names confused them? How sad for Seattle not to have a real daily. Makes it pretty hard to be seen as a real city, I would think. Poor Heffter -- but at least now she's eligible for the Judith Miller fellowship at the Weekly World News Memorial Institute.

But a question: was Reichert an economist and a general? And if not, does he have nothing to say on Iraq or the economy, since by his standard they are outside his "realm of expertise"?

Seattle Papers (0.00 / 0)
Is the P-I not a real newspaper? This isn't snarky or rhetorical, I have no idea what it is like. The few times I've read the Seattle Times I've never noticed major problems with it, so my judgment might be less than perfect :)

[ Parent ]
Times v. P-I (0.00 / 0)
The Seattle Times is a family-owned, non-union newspaper that tends toward a moderate-Republican, pro-business philosophy that is decidedly more "conservative" than region it serves.  

The P-I is a struggling union shop owned by the Hearst Corporation.  I would not call them liberal, though they do occasionally show a rare capacity to write sympathetically about union actions, anti-poverty organizations, etc.

USA: 1950 to 2010

[ Parent ]
My unexciting email exchange with Heffter (begins at the bottom) (4.00 / 1)
No, it's not particularly helpful.  As the Open Left article points out, a joint degree at Harvard works differently from a joint degree elsewhere.  You are not declared a degree-holder in economics, although you do the work.
- Hide quoted text -

On Thu, Oct 23, 2008 at 1:34 PM, Emily Heffter wrote:

   Hi arg11:

   Thanks for your note. Even Darcy Burner doesn't claim that she actually has a degree in economics. I wasn't hasty. I spent quite a bit of time yesterday talking to officials at Harvard about Burner's degree, and they all agreed she does not have a degree in economics. So for me, it comes down to the claim Darcy Burner made in her debates, which you can see on the video. Did she claim to have a degree in economics? Yes. Does she have one? No.

   Reasonable people can disagree about the way we played the story or the way I wrote it, but in the context of the national economic crisis, the way Burner characterizes her expertise in economics matters. That's why I wrote the story.

   I hope that's helpful.

   Emily Heffter
   Seattle Times

   From: arg11
   Sent: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 5:06 PM
   To: Emily Heffter
   Subject: please cover our candidates accurately

   Dear Ms. Heffter,

   You recently wrote an article in the Seattle Times, in which you claim that Darcy Burner doesn't have a degree in economics from Harvard.  Perhaps you were over-eager to get a zinger in, but your story does not seem to be accurate.  According to Matt Stoller at Open Left, a degree from Harvard works as follows: "You get a degree under one department, take classes in another, write a thesis joining the two, and that thesis is reviewed by professors from both departments.  It's actually much harder to get a joint degree, but the registrar shows a degree only from one department because Harvard doesn't have minors.  In fact, economics is a fairly easy degree to get, while computer science and economics takes a lot more work."  Now, you may be right; perhaps Burner doesn't have an economics degree, but it seems to me that you may want to do more than superficially investigate this matter.  Judging from what I have seen of the story, you seem to have arrived at a hasty conclusion, and I would recommend that you review the facts and, if necessary, write a new story.  It is only fair.


'reasonable' is the new 'serious' (4.00 / 2)
Reasonable people can disagree about the way we played the story or the way I wrote it, but in the context of the national economic crisis, the way Burner characterizes her expertise in economics matters.

The same rationale applies to Heffter.  It's especially important to get this right, and she didn't.

I don't see what's 'reasonable' about this.

[ Parent ]
I haven't gotten a reply from Emily... (0.00 / 0) lucky duck.

I posted my letter to her in the last thread on this topic.

Great reporting Matt (4.00 / 1)
It would have been great if Heffner had written with the same level of research and integrity as you have in this post, Matt.

Seattle papers (0.00 / 0)
For those of you who are not from Seattle, the Post Intelligencer is fairly liberal and the Seattle Times is not.  Although they endorsed Obama this time, they endorsed Bush previously.  The Blethen family lobbies continuously against the "death tax," fearing that their family owned newspaper will be sold.  The Times' editorial board has some quite conservative members.  The Burner story is not a surprise nor is the lack of research on what a Harvard degree means.  But unfortunately, the more liberal PI endorsed Reichert.  Yech!

I got that letter, too (0.00 / 0)
To which I responded:


Gotta love that "reasonable" and "I hope that's helpful."

In the context of our national journalism crisis, and the way you characterize your expertise in media matters, this isn't helpful. I never said that she had a degree in econ or that she didn't misspeak. I'd love to see a so-called journalist (what's it take to get that degree these days?) bend over backwards to clarify a misstatement like CNN did for Sarah Palin:

http://www.talkingpointsmemo.c om/archives/239490.php

Gotcha word-processing is only bad if it bothers Republicans.

I hope that's helpful.


Tom Marcinko

Maybe not as effective as it could have been, but then I didn't spent as much time on a canned reply as Ms. Heffter seemed compelled to do.

Kind of irritating and condescending, isn't it?  "I hope this is helpful."  'Cause I have no idea how big grown up journalists do their jobs.  And she's correcting me for a claim I never made.

What do we have to do to get a little bit of context, even-handedness, vetting of obvious B.S. right-wing talking points, and genuine balance from these parrots?

More investigative posts like Matt's, and more answering back at them.  So many of these journos are legends in their own mind, and if they feel they need to put out a form letter (or if management told them to compose a reply) then that's a sign that their ego has been bruised.  

One thing they all hate is the suggestion that they do the bidding of management.  

I'll warrant those CNN hacks who did the five-minute apology to Palin probably got a short sharp trip to the woodshed by some suit they spend a lot of time disdaining after hours.  

Matt, please keep up the good work.


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