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Daily Howler: At the Post, Romano and Milbank teach us the science of image
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THE SCIENCE OF IMAGE! At the Post, Romano and Milbank teach us the science of image: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 11, 2007

THE NEW FINEMAN: It’s perfectly appropriate to quote Fineman now, as Josh Marshall does in this post from last evening. We’d only suggest that we all recall how hard Fineman worked, in 1999 and 2000, to put George W. Bush where he is. Few pundits matched his scripted inanity—and considering the era under discussion, that’s really saying a mouthful. In October 1999, for example, his discussions with Brian Williams about Gore’s polo shirts helped define the public insanity which had gripped that “press corps” of the era. (See HOWLER HISTORY, below.) Today, the brilliant seer goes on TV and panders to current public opinion, noting how unconvincing Bush seems. In late 2001, of course, he was clownishly praising this brilliant new Caesar for his own wondrous wardrobe selections. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/11/01.

Fineman pandered and clowned for years to put George W. Bush where he is. Bush was on TV last night because of Howard Fineman.

THE SCIENCE OF IMAGE: Future anthropologists will dig up Dana Milbank. But first, two cheers for Lois Romano, who corrects herself in this morning’s Post. Last week, Romano used an unfortunate locution while discussing Nancy Pelosi in her “In the Loop” column. Today, she cops to bad judgment:
ROMANO (1/11/07): We heard a number of complaints last week because we used the word "catfight" to describe a disagreement between two distinguished members of Congress—Pelosi and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). To those who civilly articulated reasons why the term is inappropriate, we say: Point taken.
To her credit, Romano relents. She has always struck us as a fair person. But the fact that “catfight” came to her mind helps us see the benighted way her cohort instinctively “reasons.”

For the record, other pundits at the Post are having their troubles discussing Pelosi. For example, does Pelosi suffer from an “image as shrill San Francisco Democrat?” If you listen to Rush or Sean, she may suffer from that image; their gang loves the use of terms like “San Francisco Democrat”—surely, everyone knows what this has long implied—and yes, they’re eager to make you think that Pelosi is also “shrill” (another loaded term in our current spin wars).

But that would be people who take script from Sean. At present, most people have no particular image of Pelosi at all, which made Ruth Marcus’ column surprising. Marcus discussed the way Pelosi let members’ children and grandchildren join her at the House podium last week:
MARCUS (1/10/07): As a journalist, I understand the calculations at work here: This plays to Pelosi's advantages, humanizes her image as shrill San Francisco Democrat. As a woman and a mother, especially as a mother of daughters, I was quietly thrilled. About the marble ceiling cracking, yes, but also about the way Pelosi cracked it—reveling in, not minimizing, her mother- and grandmother-hood.
According to Marcus, Pelosi does have that image. According to Marcus, people think of Pelosi as “shrill”—and as a “San Francisco Democrat.” One obvious note on the science of image: If readers didn’t already think of Pelosi this way, they may do so after Marcus’ column.

But surely, the Post’s most pitiful player has to be—alas—poor Milbank. In Milbank’s cohort, you never admit and you never relent—and you never stop pimping preferred spin and image. Try to believe that “Olbermann’s idiot” writes this, in this morning’s Post:
MILBANK (1/11/07): Usually, official Washington chews over a president's speech after he has delivered it. But yesterday, virtually everything in the speech was disclosed, disputed and defended—hours before the lights went on in the White House library for Bush's address to the nation.

The culprit? The "prebuttal," the act of rebutting an opponent's speech before the speech is delivered, which has been around for years. The term, like the Internet, was apparently invented by Vice President Al Gore, who was quoted by The Washington Post's Dan Balz as using it during the 1996 presidential campaign.

Good God! Without any questions, future anthropologists are going to dig this gang up.

A bit of background. In July, the Post’s Michael Grunwald finally copped to the fact that Gore never said he invented the Internet (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/06). At the time, we noted that Grunwald skipped past an obvious question—if Gore never said he invented the Internet, why did Grunwald’s colleagues keep saying otherwise all through Campaign 2000? And this morning, there they go again! Almost eight years after this spin-point was hatched, Grunwald should perhaps have a chat today with this one hapless colleague.

But readers, it’s part of the science of image! You never relent—and you always recite. In the future, anthropologists will surely pay Milbank’s heirs for the right to dig him up and examine his (presumed) DNA. What makes his cohort’s minds work this way? In the future, science may tell.

For more on the science of image RE Gore, see HOWLER HISTORY, below.

ALAS, POOR RUTENBERG: On occasion, they try to deal with the science of image—but when they do, they often fail. Yesterday, the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg examined our latest semantic dispute. Has Bush proposed an “escalation” or a “surge?” Here’s how the gentleman started:
RUTENBERG (1/10/07): ''Cut and run'' versus ''stay the course'' is so 2006.

This week has ushered in a new political battle over the language of the war: ''Surge,'' meet ''escalation.''

The Democrats introduced the latter word to portray President Bush's expected proposal for a troop increase in Iraq in a negative light.

''An escalation, whether it is called a surge or any other name, is still an escalation, and I believe it will be an immense new mistake,'' Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Tuesday in a speech critiquing Mr. Bush's as-yet-unannounced Iraq plan.

Should the significance of the word be lost on those too young to remember its loaded usage during the Vietnam War, Senator Kennedy added: ''The Department of Defense kept assuring us that each new escalation in Vietnam would be the last. Instead, each one led only to the next.''

We’ll even assume that was done in good faith. But good God, that was awful!

Take the opening paragraph, where Rutenberg makes his lesser error. Did Rutenberg realize that both phrases he quotes from 2006 are examples of Republican framing? “Cut and run” was the GOP’s term for the Democratic stance toward Iraq. Meanwhile, “stay the course” was the term the GOP used during most of the year to describe its own stance. No, this doesn’t make a massive difference—unless you want to avoid confusing readers in your opening pair of grafs. But “surge versus escalation” is a battle between the parties. The example cited from 2006 isn’t really a parallel construct.

In this way, Rutenberg got off to a shaky start. But from that point on, he totally floundered. Alas! He says that the Democrats introduced the term escalation “to portray Bush's expected proposal in a negative light.” But he fails to note an obvious parallel—Republicans introduced the term surge to portray Bush’s plan in a positive manner! Go ahead, read the whole piece. Rutenberg explains various aspects of the Democrats’ “loaded” term—without ever noting that the Republicans’ term is “loaded” too. By the way, what was the headline on Rutenberg’s piece? “Democrats Rush to Frame Political Debate Over Troops.” Good God! That’s truly pathetic.

By the way, should reporters call it a “surge” or an “escalation?”They should follow Rutenberg in paragraph 3: They should call it a “troop increase.”

FOR SPECIALISTS ONLY—HOWLER HISTORY: Was the press corps insane by the late Clinton years? In some ways, that may be simplest way to conceive it. Yesterday, for example, we discussed Melinda Sidak, a third-tier kooky-con to whom Chris Matthews was whispering his weird, troubled thoughts about Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/07).

Sidak may have been third-tier, but at the Washington Times, they had come to adore her. In June 2000, John McCaslin quoted one of her essays from Women’s Quarterly, an underworld kooky-con journal. Believe it or not, what follows is the full quoted passage. Under the heading “AL’S HOTEL UPBRINGING,” this actually appeared in the Washington Times, attributed to Matthews’ kooky confidante:
SIDAK (as excerpted in the Washington Times, 6/16/00):

AL’S HOTEL UPBRINGING

The cascade of Oedipal analyses leaves one wondering about the perhaps greater impact that Barbara Bush and Pauline Gore have had on their sons...

Al Gore's upbringing was very weird. He was raised at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington surrounded by hotel employees and elderly co-residents. Supposedly, Pauline Gore tried to make the hotel more like home by baking her own bread and preparing breakfast for little Al.

The question no one seems to ask, however, is why the senior Gores chose to raise young children in a hotel instead of a house. Senators and congressmen who bring their families with them to Washington do not generally live in hotels.

Why did Pauline never insist on her own home in Washington? Did she not worry about the relative isolation from other children and families the hotel created for her son?

Or was that the point? A hotel is a kind of fantasy world, a place many people associate with escaping real life. Might the world of the Fairfax provide a clue to Al's apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, whether his starring role in the book "Love Story" or his invention of the Internet?
Yes, that lunacy appeared in the Washington Times, attributed to Matthews’ borderline buddy. But that’s the kind of thinking which was widely displayed by the “press corps” of this era.

For the record, many people had already “asked” why the senior Gores “chose to raise young children in a hotel instead of a house.” The answer had been widely reported. They did so because the hotel in question—the Fairfax Apartment Hotel, known as “Washington’s family hotel”—was owned by a distant cousin who gave them a break on the rent. Al Gore senior was not a man of means at the time that he served in the senate. In Washington, the family lived a small, two-bedroom apartment in the not-very-fancy apartment hotel.

In a saner world, that would have ended this discussion. But by the late Clinton years, the Washington “press corps” had entered a state which can best be compared to a group nervous breakdown. They printed screaming nonsense like this for years, without a word of criticism, comment or challenge from even the cohort’s most “liberal” elements. (Dionne/Hunt/Shields/Cohen/Raspberry kept their yaps shut. In Gotham, Dowd/Rich exulted.) And Chris Matthews—a thigh-rubbing but sadly influential fellow—lurked among these perfect kooks, reciting dark tales about Gore.

Yes, this is the actual story of how George Bush reached the White House. Important people and crackpots merged. Today, we’re in Iraq.