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

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:

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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.)  

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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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