If you write for a living in the social-media age, you know that headlines are everything. Half the replies to your piece, if not more, will be aimed squarely at the point made in your headline regardless of whether you addressed the substance of those replies in the story itself. Relatedly, it’s as common as the sunrise on Twitter for someone with media influence to promote a dubious yet sensational report from partisan media, drawing thousands of retweets in the process, then having to correct the record later in a second tweet when the earlier report proves false. The second tweet might get a few dozen retweets by comparison.
Mark Twain famously said that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has its shoes on. In the modern age, the lie has made 50 trips around the world and is en route to 50 more before the truth is even out of bed. And even after the truth is out of bed, it might not make it past the front door before everyone’s lost interest.
I mention all of that to help you understand the logic of this hit piece on Nikki Haley in the Times. It’s not perfectly analogous to the Twitter phenomenon I described: The truth is mentioned right here in the story itself. But it’s buried six paragraphs in, treated as an afterthought in a piece that’s clearly designed to buttress the narrative that Trump’s team of alleged swamp-drainers is running up exorbitant tabs on the taxpayer dime. Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, now Nikki Haley:
The State Department spent $52,701 last year buying customized and mechanized curtains for the picture windows in Nikki R. Haley’s official residence as ambassador to the United Nations, just as the department was undergoing deep budget cuts and had frozen hiring…
“How can you, on the one hand, tell diplomats that basic needs cannot be met and, on the other hand, spend more than $50,000 on a customized curtain system for the ambassador to the U.N.?” asked Brett Bruen, a White House official in the Obama administration.
Then there’s this in the sixth paragraph, the subject of the asterisk in my own headline:
A spokesman for Ms. Haley said plans to buy the curtains were made in 2016, during the Obama administration. Ms. Haley had no say in the purchase, he said.
Ah. That’s the Paper of Record’s concession that its own story is garbage, but garbage that’s too useful to Democratic talking points to be spiked completely. They’re sufficiently ethical that they’ll let you know that Haley’s not actually to blame for this supposedly shocking example of wasteful spending. In fact, the last Democratic administration is. But they’re sufficiently unethical when it comes to promoting their ideological interests that they’ll run it anyway and trust that many readers won’t notice that detail.
“But wait,” say critics, “it’s not like the Times saved that information for the very end of the story. It’s in paragraph six, towards the top. Readers are going to see it once they get past the headline.”
Are they? What if they … don’t want to get past the headline?
There were starving children in America during the Obama administration too, when the curtains were ordered. Don’t expect this Young Leader of Tomorrow to be too bothered about that. And before you say “He’s just a dumb kid,” note that the lefty attack dogs at Think Progress are also flogging the NYT story today, aghast that Trump’s State Department would slash diplomatic budgets while fulfilling the order for Haley’s curtains. It’s now a moral outrage, it seems, for a Republican administration not to reverse the worst examples of profligate spending ordered by a Democratic administration which Think Progress ardently supported. (This is strike three for TP this week, by the way. They breathlessly promoted the dubious Feinstein letter yesterday, then got dinged even by fellow liberals for whining when the Weekly Standard caught them dead to rights on another lie about Kavanaugh.) One thing it would have been useful for them or for the Times to address is whether the State Department could have canceled the order for the curtains even if it wanted to. The contract was signed in 2016; backing out now because the price was too high would be an actionable breach, one would think. Would it have been better if Team Trump reneged on a deal Obama had bound them to, then got sued and had to pay up anyway?
One more thing. The chief defender of the curtains purchase in the Times story isn’t Haley or one of her mouthpieces, it’s Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy was appointed as a top management official in the State Department at the end of the Bush administration and spent the entirety of the Obama administration in the same job. Presumably he signed off on the purchase in 2016 when it was made, but either way he’s happy to defend it now. They’ll be used for years, he told the paper of the curtains, and it’s important to have a mechanized device so that the ambassador can close them quickly in case of a security threat. The State Department uses the building for entertaining foreign diplomats too; the decor isn’t a pure luxury for the ambassador herself. It’s much ado about nothing according to an Obama-era official, yet people like Hogg and TP are lunging at it because the premise of Republican budget-slashers being spendthrifts for their own creature comforts is irresistible to their prejudices. If they want to hammer Trump on profligacy, may I interest them in this instead?
I’ll leave you with this:
Update: The Times has retreated.
Editors’ Note: September 14, 2018
An earlier version of this article and headline created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase in question. While Nikki R. Haley is the current ambassador to the United Nations, the decision on leasing the ambassador’s residence and purchasing the curtains was made during the Obama administration, according to current and former officials. The article should not have focused on Ms. Haley, nor should a picture of her have been used. The article and headline have now been edited to reflect those concerns, and the picture has been removed.