Political Soothsaying

Chris Collins 2010 Summer Green Series Speaker

Photo by Flickr User KVIS

What I do here is offer my opinion on issues and events. I seldom cover actual news, and on the rare occasion that I do, I still do it from a particular point of view, and will ultimately tell you what I think about it – and what I think you should think about it. 

What the Buffalo News does is report the news, except in clearly defined columns, and on the op-ed pages, where the author’s own opinion is proferred. 

What nobody does is enter psychic mode and extrapolate what an interviewee actually meant to say, and then offer up an amended version of a quote. 

The Batavian is a website that mostly reports the news. It has occasionally delved into opinion writing, but for the most part it reports on goings-on in the courts, sports news, development, entertainment, who got arrested at Darien Lake, and what happens on the scanners. It’s small-town reporting at its purest, and it’s a great resource for Batavians who until recently had only a single local paper. It also covers local, state, and federal political races that are relevant to its readership.  It’s a straight news outlet. 

Earlier this week, I highlighted an interview that the Batavian’s Howard Owens conducted with congressional candidate Chris Collins, where he made some outrageous statements about the survivability of breast and prostate cancers. The quote was as follows: 

The healthcare reforms Collins said he would push would be tort reform and open up competition in insurance by allowing policies across state lines.

Collins also argued that modern healthcare is expensive for a reason.

People now don’t die from prostate cancer, breast cancer and some of the other things,” Collins said. “The fact of the matter is, our healthcare today is so much better,  we’re living so much longer, because of innovations in drug development, surgical procedures, stents, implantable cardiac defibrillators, neural stimulators — they didn’t exist 10 years ago. The increase in cost is not because doctors are making a lot more money. It’s what you can get for healthcare, extending your life and curing diseases.” [Emphasis added].

Later that day, the Erie County Health Commissioner issued a statement challenging Collins’ assertion, and urging people to get tested and to be vigilant for breast and prostate cancers. Almost at the same time, Collins’ opponent, incumbent Congresswoman Kathy Hochul released this

“Chris Collins has demonstrated a stunning lack of sensitivity by saying, ‘people now don’t die from prostate cancer, breast cancer, and some of the other things.’ Tragically, nearly 70,000 people will die this year from these two types of cancer alone.  We can disagree about public policy without making these kinds of outrageous and offensive statements.”

Good statement – concise, pointed, properly angry and scolding. The quotation was verbatim from the Batavian’s piece.  
However, The Batavian’s Howard Owens was not happy, and he expressed his displeasure in a novel way. Without differentiating his post from the straight reporting the Batavian otherwise usually engages in, he posted a pure opinion piece which, I think, crossed a line. After printing Hochul’s statement, Owens opines, 

That’s the statement, with no reference to the source nor the full quote so people could judge the context for themselves.

The original source is The Batavian (both as a courtesy to The Batavian and as a matter of complete transparency, the Hochul campaign should have included this fact in its release).

I’ll be the first to admit that I get pissy when I don’t get proper credit for something, but is this more a fit of pique than anything else?  After all, Collins’ statement about cancer survivability stands on its own, and speaks for itself.  If there exists any doubt about the pure meaning of Collins’ words, then it’s up to Collins to explain them and expand upon them, no? But here, Owens goes on to reproduce the entire paragraph in which Collins’ cancer quip is contained, and continues: 

On its face, the opening part of the quote from Collins sounds outrageous, but in context, clearly, Collins misspoke. More likely, he meant to say. “Fewer people die from prostate cancer, breast cancer and some of the other things.” [emphasis added].

First, Owens supposes that Collins simply misspoke. Well, what Collins said seems outrageous because it is outrageous. Context? The context about which Owens is so concerned is open to interpretation, I suppose. But isn’t that conclusion solely within the province of the utterer of the words, or the reader of the article?

Is Collins grossly misinformed about cancer survivability, or is he just a clumsy politician who was trying to embellish a point about how Obamacare is horrible and health care is expensive, and should be? That’s my call – not Owens’. 

Propriety aside, I don’t see any evidence that Collins “misspoke”. There was no follow-up, and he didn’t correct his statement. Collins didn’t go on to further explain or expand upon what he said about breast and prostate cancers. He just went on to assert that some 40 year-old medical technologies like TENS machines and implanted defibrillators “didn’t exist 10 years ago”. 

The whole paragraph is a load of semi-informed nonsense. The whole paragraph is Collins’ politicization of health care to persuade readers to maintain the status quo. Yet Owens argues that it’s important for voters to consider Collins’ BS about cancer within the context of all the other falsehoods and lies he excreted during that portion of the interview. 

The real outrage, though, is Owens’ second assertion – suggesting what Collins must have meant to say, and completely re-stating what Collins said, in quotation marks.  That’s not how journalism works. What else exists in that paragraph to help reach the conclusion that Collins really meant something different from what he actually said? After that first ridiculous sentence, Collins utters not another word about cancer

If Owens thought Collins “misspoke”, he could have asked a follow-up; for example, “wait, you just said no one dies from breast cancer or prostate cancer, you didn’t really mean that, did you?” But there was no such follow-up. There was no explanation; there is no relevant context to further explain what Collins meant. Owens is playing psychic and ex-post-facto trying to repair a Collins gaffe. Hey, Howard, what did Collins “mean” when he repeatedly called Shelly Silver the “anti-Christ”? What did Collins “mean” when he invited a female Republican bigwig to give him a “lapdance”? 

Allow me to divert from the underlying point by asking, why? 

Why do WNY media and their personalities and writers bend over backwards so regularly and consistently for Chris Collins? Is it because Collins demands that kind of treatment in exchange for access? Is it because they’re enamored of his money and success? Is it because of campaign ads?  I’m asking seriously. This guy gets away with so many lies, so often, and he gets a routine uncritical pass. 

Think I’m kidding? Just this past Sunday, Bob McCarthy wrote the same bunch of brown-nosing BS about Chris Collins that he’s written at least twice before. “[Collins] had done everything he said he would do. His administration was scandal-free. And he lost.”  In November 2011, McCarthy wrote, “How did a county executive who fulfilled all his promises with minimal effects on taxes and no scandals manage to lose?”  Then again in December 2011, McCarthy wrote, “This time, the defeat seems to genuinely hurt. Collins struggles to grasp how he lost after keeping all his campaign promises of 2007 while running Erie County without a hint of scandal.”  I addressed the blatant inaccuracy of the “scandal-free” / “promises kept” assertions here

That’s a lot of identical puffery of one guy, multiple times in one year. The same reporter did a story on this Collins cancer kerfuffle , and Collins basically said he knows people with cancer. Having politicized cancer by suggesting that, thanks to America’s unsustainably expensive health care system, “no one dies from” certain types of the disease, Collins issued this: 

As the brother of a breast cancer survivor, I am grateful for the medical advances that saved my sister’s life, which would not have been possible a generation ago,” he said. “I find it troubling that Kathy Hochul would politicize the seriousness of cancer.

Hey, Chris and Howard – where in that extended Batavian quote did Collins mention a single, solitary medical advance, treatment, or medication that has anything to do with improved breast and prostate cancer survivability over the past generation? I’ll answer for you: nowhere. Perhaps reporters shouldn’t try to play soothsayer and, weeks later, divine what their interviewees “mean” to say, and then create phony “amended” statements, complete with improper quotation marks.  

Owens concludes,  

That’s not what he said (I taped the interview and the original quote as published is accurate), but the rest of the quote clearly explains the larger point he is trying to make, which is that medical advances have driven up the cost of healthcare.

To rip this quote out of context and try to use it to paint Collins as some sort of insensitive boob is the kind of below-the-belt, negative campaign tactic that keeps people from being engaged in the process and casting intelligent votes. Frankly, I think of Kathy Hochul as somebody who is more dignified than this sort of mudslinging.

Well, actually, it is precisely what he said, isn’t it?  I mean, if the original quote as published is accurate, then Collins said exactly what you wrote. Does it “clearly explain” some uninformed point Collins was trying to make about Obamacare-is-bad? Not really.
Is it mudslinging? By whom
Do I think that Chris Collins really believes that breast and prostate cancers don’t kill people anymore? I don’t really know, but I’m willing to accept that he’s a reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-informed person who would know that these cancers remain quite lethal.  So, do I think he “misspoke”? Not really – “misspoke” implies inadvertent error. So, what’s going on? 
I disagree with Owens’ crystal ball about what Collins “meant” to say. I think Collins said exactly what he meant to say; that people, generally, don’t die from prostate and breast cancers as much anymore, thanks to innovation and technology.  But he never properly expressed his point, and certainly didn’t back it up.  He politicized cancer and medical advances in order to make a point that we should maintain the current, unsustainable, unfair, over-expensive and under-performing system of private health insurance we have today, and that Obamacare (and, by extension, Kathy Hochul), are bad.  He was doing what politicians do – embellishing facts to score a political point. To suggest otherwise; to suggest that Hochul’s statement was an egregious horror whilst Collins’ was an earnest mistake, is utter nonsense.
Politicians are engaged in a competitive system and have to differentiate themselves through persuasion. Collins made a factual assertion, and his opponent criticized it. If Hochul crossed some arbitrary Owens line of propriety, so did Collins. 
Owens suggested on Twitter that I was being hypocritical, because I cheered him when he embarrassed Jane Corwin last year.  The facts beg to differ.  In 2011, Owens was doing his job as a reporter – asking Corwin pointed questions about the second videotape that would have shown her staffer Michael Mallia harassing Jack Davis.  He was committing journalism in the first degree – pretending to be a Lily Dale psychic with respect to Collins’ “meaning” isn’t the same thing. 
In 2011, Owens didn’t fire up the Batavian posting machine to specifically fisk a statement that Corwin made, accuse her of a “slur”, and suggest that the verbatim transcription of what someone said wasn’t really what they meant to say, and then create and publish a fictional amended quotation to reflect that “meaning”. 
Owens is entitled to his outrage at Hochul’s rather mild reaction to Collins’ politicization of cancer, but to accuse her of a “slur” for repeating what Collins said, and criticizing it, is ridiculous. To create an opinion piece specifically to call her out for it is silliness. To – without any factual evidence – condescend to the reader by explaining Collins’ meaning and amending his statement, and surrounding it in quotation marks, is outrageous. 
Maybe what Owens misspoke. What he meant to say was, “Hochul’s statement was quite tame, and I’m genuinely upset that she didn’t cite the Batavian.
Sucks, doesn’t it? 


  • I’m looking forward to having Owens and the Batavian tell us what you meant to say in this story, instead of what you actually wrote. 

  • Thanks for the write up, Alan. You’re a peach.

    • I mean, is he wrong? The crux of the argument is that you decided to write an opinion piece about what Collins MEANT to say. How do you know that? Did Mr. Collins tell you off the record what he meant to say? Did he or his campaign otherwise communicate to you that he MEANT something different from what he said?

      If he didn’t, you’re simply making something up to try and spin Mr. Collins’ comments, and that’s not something any journalist should do. 

    • I think you misspoke. What you meant to say was, “Hey, Alan – fuck you and the horse you rode in on.” 

      You’re welcome. 

  • This from the party that has its propaganda wing arguing that Obamacare is now a new tax.  Because the Supreme Court said so.

  • Alan, your snide gloating is loathsome. Fortunately, I believe most of the people in this Congressional district pay little or no attention to you. I’m tired of every political debate being reduced to who can get the most juice from an 8-second sound byte.

    • Or, maybe it’s important to figure out more about the people who seek to obtain votes in order to go to Washington and represent us. Six of one, half-dozen of the other, I suppose!

  • Howard Owens, The Batavian, September 12, 2008:

    On its face, the opening part of the quote from Governor Palin sounds like brain-dead drivel, but in context, clearly, she misspoke. More likely, she meant to say. “The physical proximity of Russia to Alaska has nothing to do with my qualifications or experience on foreign policy.”

    A question for Mr. Owens – are you a reporter or a stenographer? One would think that when a candidate for Congress states that “People now don’t die from prostate cancer, breast cancer and some of the other things…”, a sentient journalist would at least look up and say “er….what?”

  • Robert Galbraith

    This story should be that Chris Collins thinks the healthcare is so expensive because we get what we pay for. The cancer comment was doltish, but the fact that it is getting play over a substantive issue brings down the conversation.

    •  Rob hits the nail on the head here: this is exactly the point. Many US physicians, who have the best damned union in the world (it’s called “the AMA”) have somehow gotten the idea that God has promised them a seven-figure salary. Insurance and HMO owners and investors and pharmaceutical industry owners have gotten the same notion. We spend out time going nuts over dumbass quotes like this one from darling Chris, while our pockets are picked: day, after day, after day.

  • You forgot the best part where Howard accused us of ‘lying’ about him after we factually described his actions regarding the Collins quote.  These observations of the facts, according to Owens, were actually lies due to our ‘partisan blinders.’

    (The quotes used in this comment were used in context, no quotes were harmed in the writing of this comment.)

  • Remember Chris Lee did not intend for anyone from his district see his Craigslist photos

  • You’re using way too many words and devoting far too much useless energy by trying to parse the situation here. Let me try mine.

    Like you, I’ve been both a lawyer and a journalist- and both come with implicit rules of civility and courtesy. You don’t earn them- you GET them. You need an extension of time? Anything short of blowing a statute of limitations, I give it to you. You misplace a document I sent you (or maybe, even, the original of what you sent me)? I send it to you. But. Fool me once, shame on you because there isn’t going to be a second fooling, and those courtesies disappear through the end of time. I’ve only acquired a short list of those over almost 30 years, but I know every single one when and if they’d ever ask and they will hear “no” at the speed of light.

    It’s the same with the journalist hat on. Everybody gets their gaffes.  Nobody really thought Obama meant he’d been to “all 57 states” when he literally said that,  everybody knew it was a momentary campaign-trail speech lapse, and nobody other than the wingnuts ever tried to make anything out of it. But the other side of the health care debate in general, and Collins in particular, are on the short-list for having worn out their right to courtesy with the press, credentialed and citizen. As for Collins himself, he gets no pass after all of the debate dodging, the back-room machinations over Bellavia (both this time and in 2011), and his history of denying his bad actions. And don’t even get me started about giving a shred of gaffe-courtesy to the side of the health care debate with unlimited resources and unlimited chutzpah in using them- who spread lies about “death panels” and “coming between you and your doctor” and “OMGWTFITSATAX!!!!” and who pontificate about “repeal and replace” without committing Word One to what they’d replace WITH.

    You said it. That’s the fact, Jack.

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