December 08, 2007

Journalistic exegesis

Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall is applying a hermeneutical microscope, not to the constitution or the bible, but to one sentence from a story in the New York Daily News ("Editorial Dispute over Shag Fund", 12/07/07):

... there's some controversy over the specific meaning of the reports that then-Giuliani mistress Judi Nathan's NYPD valet and security escort also helped walked Nathan's dog.

Now, the original report, or at least the most recent one came in this December 1st article in the New York Daily News which detailed how the NYPD was dragooned into being Nathan's personal limo service when they ferried her on trips to her parents house 130 miles away in Pennsylvania.

The key passage comes midway through the article ...

At the time, it was not uncommon to see Nathan being chauffeured around the city in an undercover Dodge with two detectives, who sometimes even helped to walk her dog.

Now, since the article was published, I've taken this to mean that the NYPD officers detailed to take care of Nathan sometimes walked her dog for her.

We can characterize this as the transubstantiation position: the role of dog-walker was entirely taken over, at least in substance, by a cop (though this was not plain to the eye, since these were undercover officers).

But Paul Kiel disagrees. He interprets the statement as meaning that the cops escorted Nathan while she walked her dog.

This is the consubstantiation position: during dog-walking, a cop was present alongside Ms. Nathan, who remained present as well.

As often in doctrinal disagreements, the arguments hinge on subtle details of semantic and pragmatic interpretation, as sentence meaning interacts with contextual facts in counterfactual reasoning as to what the writer's intentions must have been:

To me, Paul's reading is redundant. A security detail escorts you everywhere you go in public. So saying they were helping her walk her dog if they were only escorting her while she did it would be misleading.

In other words, I read this as implying direct cop to dog contact, that they were walking her dog.

And the hair is split even more finely as others get into the discussion:

Meanwhile, TPM Editor-at-Large David Kurtz basically takes my position but does a little bit of annoying hedging. From our work chat area, I quote David writing, "I imagine them holding leash while she talks on phone, that kind of thing."

I take it that the elaboration of this argument on Josh's blog is basically a display of fatigue-induced silliness. Still, it must be an interesting experience for the writers of the Daily News article, Michael Saul and David Saltonstall, to find their sentence dissected and examined as if it were a clause in the Bill of Rights or a verse in Leviticus.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 8, 2007 10:09 AM