CNN Afflicts 'the Skinny-Dipper,' Comforts Jesus Christ

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As a story about a congressman who swam nude in a lake spreads through the media it discredits almost everyone who takes it seriously.

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A screenshot from Politico's day two coverage of Congressional skinny-dipping. Despite their headline, Rep. Yoder, who swam naked, happens to be running unopposed.

On Monday morning, I gave Politico a hard time for interviewing dozens of sources and consulting public records so that it could breathlessly report that a year ago, a congressman went skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee while on a junket to Israel. It especially amused me that the story noted an FBI investigation into the matter, treated that as if it were a perfectly normal thing, and compared skinny-dipping to various sex scandals that have befallen other legislators.

In a fitting development, it turns out that the FBI questioned folks on the junket to Israel not because of any skinny dipping, but due to the fact that another congressman on the trip was being investigated, perhaps because he failed to properly file paperwork disclosing another foreign trip.

Put another way, the Politico story was very misleading.

But that hasn't stopped various other journalists from beclowning themselves by mindlessly following it, there being nudity involved. Wolf Blitzer is perhaps the most prominent. On his Twitter feed Tuesday, he sent this out to his followers:

sea of galilee fullness.png

Yes, that's right, CNN touted international reporting so that they could broadcast images of a lake where, one year ago, a legislator swam without any clothing on. This led Glenn Greenwald to write, "If I created a fake Wolf Blitzer account to show why he & CNN are worthless, I'd never have come up w/ something so good." I wouldn't go so far as to call either worthless, but it doesn't speak well of them that they looked at the skinny-dipping story and whatever else they could've assigned a camera crew to cover that day ... and decided on footage of a lake. 

I joined in the criticism of Blitzer without realizing  that CNN had already covered the story. I'm sure Jake Sherman has been responsible for some fine journalism, but this is not his finest moment:


There are several amazing moments in that segment, and I'm trying to decide which is my favorite. Perhaps you can help me.

1) The part where the CNN anchor says, "I mean, the Sea of Galilee is where Jesus walked on water," as if that is the crucial context needed. Perhaps everyone in Israel should just refrain from getting naked anywhere given all the religious figures who once performed notable acts within its borders, and the implicit CNN presumption that nudity in the same place thousands of years later is offensive.

2) When Sherman says, "Obviously when a member of Congress, Mr. Yoder of Kansas, is nude in a foreign body of water, that would raise some eyebrows in some quarters, one would think." Beyond the histrionics about skinny-dipping, that amuses me because the Politico reporter speaks as if there's this obvious consensus that swimming naked in a "foreign" body of water is particularly scandalous -- it's not wholesome like the American water that graces our shores.

The passive phrasing is funny too, and segues perfectly into...

3) When Sherman is asked if this story has legs and says, apropos the whole controversy, that "these things take on a life of themselves sometimes," as if the Politico staffer who helped break the story, the Politico publicist that touted it in a blast email, and the CNN anchor disseminating it on national TV are mere observers, explaining to the audience a story that just materialized. "Why is this coming to light now?" Sherman is asked, and replies, "Unclear to me." I'd say part of it involved you and your colleague pressing dozens of people to recount the story and then reporting it in a widely read publication with a misleading tease about an FBI investigation!

The other reason? Matthew Boyle reports that Politico got used:

Three different high-ranking Republican staffers on Capitol Hill have told The Daily Caller of a growing consensus that at least part of a Sunday article by Politico's Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan was planted by Arizona Republican Rep. David Schweikert in order to damage his primary opponent, Rep. Ben Quayle.

Watching this Situation Room segment, where Rep. Schweikert is interviewed, that seems plausible. (In it CNN refers to Rep. Yoder as "the skinny-dipper" and uses the phrase "the perception of debauchery in the Holy Land," though the people who perceive that seem to be mostly at Politico and CNN.)  

You'd think Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would just stay away from this silliness. Instead they commented as if trying to confirm every hackneyed stereotype of stodgy, Puritanical Republicans:

Mitt Romney said he thinks a congressman's late-night skinny-dipping episode in Israel last year was "reprehensible." News surfaced late Sunday that freshman Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder went skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galillee in Israel after a late night of drinking with other members of congress and their families. Today both members of the GOP tickets strongly rebuked them for their behavior.

"I think it's reprehensible," Romney said in an interview with ABC News' New Hampshire affiliate WMUR. 

"I think it's another terrible mistake by individuals." Rep. Paul Ryan agreed with his running mate, saying what Yoder did was "unbecoming of a member of Congress."

George W. Bush has prisoners, some of whom turned out to be innocent, stripped naked, hooded, their wrists hung from pipes, their heads slammed into walls, and Romney and Ryan are cool with it. But a congressman doing some spur of the moment skinny-dipping? "Reprehensible."

Over at The New York Times, Eric Lichtblau and Jodi Rudoren part ways with the CNN approach to journalism, foregoing asides about Jesus walking on water in favor of different context:

Since 2000, the American Israel Education Foundation has been more prolific than any other in sponsoring overseas trips for members of Congress and their staffs, organizing 733 trips for both Republicans and Democrats at a cost of more than $7 million. Last year, it spent $2 million to sponsor 146 trips, far outpacing a Turkish coalition that ranked second, sponsoring 32 trips.

Last summer, there were so many members of Congress traveling -- about 80 -- that the education fund sponsored two separate trips. Israeli officials who met with the Congressional delegation that included the swim party said it seemed to include many first-time visitors, who knew little about Israel and appeared a bit naïve about its policies and traditions. Many of them were newcomers in Congress who were elected in 2010 with Tea Party support.

"What was remarkable about that group was most of them were freshmen; it was their first visit in Israel, and they did not know much, but they were very interested," said one senior Israeli official who met with the delegation and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I'm used to meeting members of Congress, and usually they've been here, we know them from the past."

That is very interesting. The average legislator must be more inclined to vote in ways favorable to countries where they've been sent on free trips. The people there are no longer abstractions. And it never hurts to be wined, dined, and housed in luxurious lodgings with family or staff in tow.

Bizarrely, that is the one aspect of the story that most media outlets are totally ignoring. For a concluding example, see this surreal interrogation of Rep. Ben Quayle on Fox News, which includes the interviewer phrase, "I'm just trying to establish a timeline," as if that makes it perfectly reasonable to ascertain the details of a man's fully clothed swim in a lake while traveling with his pregnant wife.

What are these anchors thinking?

I leave you with a video from the Sea of Galilee, contextualized on CNN as the sacred holy site where Jesus walked on water:

SurfHouse Supercross Kiteboarding Tour 2009 from Snow R. Shai on Vimeo.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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