- The New York Times published an op-ed analyzing Melania Trump's actions
- The column is full of unsubstantiated theories
- Written by Maureen Dowd, the piece threatens to dumb-down discourse
- Rather than focusing on policy, Dowd irresponsibly relies on gossip
The New York Times’ list of columnists reads like a who’s who of the centrist intelligentsia. From Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman to three-time Pulitzer winner Thomas Friedman and two-time Pulitzer Nicholas Kristoff, the New York Times’ columns section is less meant to be informative and more to be explicitly influential. These authors want to shape debates and enlighten audiences.
But on Jan. 27, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times ran off the rails and published a column which spins an impressively bloated series of claims that First Lady Melania Trump is trolling her husband, President Donald Trump, and that means she is in the anti-Trump camp.
From the believable to the ridiculous, Dowd’s column does not enlighten readers with the insight of a public intellectual, as columns are meant to do, not does it actually have much facts in it to speak of.
Dowd’s piece, entitled “Trump Hits Alps, but Melania Is Frosty in Florida” reads more like a Twitter rant, and risks dangerously dumbing down the conversation regarding the family in the White House and U.S. politics in general.
The New York Times' Race to the Bottom
The New York Times is falling into the trap it has so consistently critiqued other publications like Fox News for doing: reproducing meaningless talking points bashing the other side without a genuinely compelling counter-narrative.
The entire article is trying to prove that Melania has been maintaining a tight regime of subtly trolling her husband at every opportunity, with the assumption that she is unhappy in the marriage. The theory that she is unhappy—fair enough, but to what intellectual end does serve? Let’s review the article.
The third sentence shows the article’s hand: “[Trump] is an idiot-savant who plays in the roiling ocean of Twitter as naturally as a blubbery-necked sea lion.”
The description is funny, but in trying to reshape the American public sphere to be more civil, calling the president an idiot sea lion doesn’t drag Dowd’s side out of the mud so much as revel in it.
The article then lists a series of claims that Melania is counter-trolling Trump, and they range from believable to downright conspiratorial.
The most believable is that, in response to Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes revealing him bragging about sexually assaulting women, Melania Trump wore a pussy-bow blouse to quietly rebut Trump’s misogyny.
Melania and her pussy-bow blouse (AFP/FILE)
Confusng Gossip for Insight
Quickly thereafter, the article forgets truth and puts disparate pieces of information together to spin a narrative with the logic that anything Melania does can be perceived as a pushback against Trump.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Melania visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. Dowd then says this very standard-operating-procedure visit was a jab against Trump’s defense of neo-nazis at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in August of last year. U.S. Presidents and First Ladies consistently visit sites memorializing the Holocaust, and there is no proof provided that her intentions were to undermine Donald.
Then when it came out that Trump paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair between him and her, Dowd says Melania became “even more elusive,” going so far as to make a “stealthy landing in Florida on an Air Force plane.” Dowd here is claiming Melania is getting back at her husband by boarding a plane.
There is no further explanation to this theory: Dowd seems to trust the reader to implicitly understand her logic that Melania flying to Florida—something that happens all the time—as sign of trolling her husband. And stealthily? Her landing is a matter of public record, and the fact that Dowd knows it happened means it wasn’t very stealthy.
Dowd also manages to slip in a bit of liberal nostalgia, comparing Donald to Barack Obama, claiming, “Barack Obama was always calling to our better angels.” Nevermind that Obama sought to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers more aggressively than any other president, including Trump, or that Obama’s half-hearted and reluctant interventions in the Middle East.
Snake Oil Punditry
With Dowd’s more unbelievable theories, she is committing the cardinal sin of journalism: peddling unfalsifiable claims as evidence of a larger trend. The claim is that Melania is unhappy and her reactions to Trump are part of the larger rejection of Trump in American discourse.
The fact that the piece appears as an op-ed betrays the reality that Dowd is trying to influence and shape a larger debate by connecting tenuous pieces of information together. This is irresponsible in any format, especially one as influential as a New York Times column.
But even if Melania is taking occasional jabs at her husband, what does this information provide to the American public? It could mean that she is unhappy in her marriage, but the Trump marriage’s inner-workings looks utterly opaque and seems to involve power to such an extent that a traditional understanding of a loving married couple falls apart as a meaningful lense to truly understand it.
Using Melania’s suspected unhappiness as a benchmark of the larger American discontent with Trump is counterproductive. Rather than using celebrity gossip as a tool of political discourse in The New York Times, Dowd could have dissected Trump’s horrendous policy decisions that are more tangible and proven to be disastrous than a rocky relationship between him and Melania.
In showing how Trump hurt the people he campaigned to help by relying on Wall Street executives and relinquishing any semblance of economic populism, Dowd could have actually reverberated with an audience more meaningfully, and potentially converted some Trump supporters to skeptics.
As it stands however, Dowd’s column is an exercise of preaching to the choir of those who are already convinced Trump is a bad guy, and are eager to collect any and all supposed evidence to enforce their conviction, even if that ‘evidence’ is unsubstantiated and amounts to base gossip.
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