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JUST THE FACTS! We will get full facts about Bush’s plan? At THE HOWLER, we begin a great study:

MONDAY, JANUARY 13, 2003

GOING BOLDLY: On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer was reciting the spin-points. Here he was, discussing the Bush tax cuts with John Breaux (D-LA):

SCHIEFFER: Senator Breaux, one of the, sort of what’s become the Democratic mantra is this—this class warfare. Do you think this—this is class warfare that’s going on here?
Weep for a nation which has such men heading up its discourse. It’s impossible to know what Schieffer is asking, but every GOP spinner in town has yelled “class warfare” about Dem critiques, and Schieffer also seemed to say that Dems were conducting that “warfare.” (Breaux’s answer makes it clear that he took Schieffer’s question that way.) Later, discussing the Bush plan with Joe Klein and Dan Balz, Schieffer offered this shopworn point:
SCHIEFFER: Well, as you heard John Breaux say—and I must say I agree with him—I think at this point, they don’t have the votes to pass any component of this plan. But you have to say it is a bold stroke, and this president is about bold strokes.
You “have to say” that the plan is bold! But why on earth do you have to say that? As we’ve seen, the notion that Bush put out a “bold plan” is a prime White House spin-point (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/03). Every good GOP spinner has said it. And, although the statement added nothing whatever to the discussion, Schieffer—hosting Face the Nation—somehow felt that it had to be said.

Is your press corps spilling with “liberal bias?” In this morning’s Post, Howard Kurtz offers an intriguing portrait of Schieffer:

SCHIEFFER: During the ’90s, Schieffer also struck up a friendship with George W. Bush when his brother Tom—now the U.S. ambassador to Australia—became partners with the future president in the Texas Rangers. Bob and W. went to ballgames together, played golf, attended spring training. “He’s a great guy—that doesn’t mean I agree with him,” says Schieffer, adding that the situation became “a little awkward” when Bush ran for the White House but that he’s never gotten favorable treatment.
Should major journalists “strike up friendships” with pols? Obviously, no—they should not. From Kurtz’s piece, the timeline of the Schieffer-Bush friendship isn’t clear. But one thing is clear; the claim that Schieffer has never given Bush “favorable treatment” is absurdly inaccurate. One of the most striking performances of Campaign 2000 occurred on July 8, 2000 when Schieffer and Gloria Borger (then co-host on Face the Nation) guested on CNBC’s Russert program. Schieffer and Borger battered Gore from stem to stern over various matters (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00). Then, Russert mentioned Candidate Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University. Readers, can you say “pander bears?”
RUSSERT: When a lot of the revelations came out about Bob Jones University, and some of the things they had said at Bob Jones University even about his father, George W. Bush seemed genuinely startled and unaware.

BORGER: Yeah, he was. I think he was very startled by it. It was pretty bad staff work for him. I think he got himself in a situation he couldn’t believe. I mean, the notion that George W. Bush is a Bible-thumping conservative Republican of that ilk is something that’s sort of hard to believe.

According to Russert and Borger, Bush just didn’t know about Bob Jones University! He was a victim of “bad staff work,” Borger said. As the conversation continued, Schieffer’s statements were simply amazing:
SCHIEFFER: In fact, were you [Russert] not the one who asked him the question, did he know what they had said about his father at Bob Jones? I think you were. And I believe that’s the first time he had heard that.

RUSSERT: We went to a commercial break, he said, I had never heard that before.

SCHIEFER: And I take his word on that. I to this day cannot figure out why George W. Bush went to Bob Jones.

Surely, Schieffer was the only sentient American adult who couldn’t “figure out why Bush went to Bob Jones.” Here at THE HOWLER, we defended Bush against press attacks, noting that no previous GOP hopeful had ever been criticized for visiting the school. (Why did the press hammer Bush for this conduct? Dudes! It was a John McCain spin-point!) But Schieffer did a Full Grovel this day—pretending that he couldn’t even figure out why Bush ever went to Bob Jones. Why did Bush go to Bob Jones? Duh! To court an important South Carolina constituency, as a string of major Republicans had done before him. Schieffer couldn’t have faked it more fully. His performance this day was utterly foolish—one of the great panders of a pander-strewn campaign.

Schieffer and Borger embarrassed themselves with their ludicrous outing on Russert. Now we learn that Schieffer and Bush are friends—and that you just “have to say” how bold Bush’s plan is. Is there something wrong with Schieffer’s overall coverage of Bush? That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But Schieffer’s performance on Russert helps you see how thoroughly Campaign 2000 was actually spun.

THOSE STUBBORN FACTS: Facts are malleable things. Last Thursday, President Bush visited a flag factory in Alexandria, VA, to promote the merits of his budget proposals. Early in his speech, he said this:

BUSH: You hear a lot of talk in Washington, of course, about, you know, “This benefits so-and-so” or “This benefits this”—the kind of, the class warfare of politics. Let me just give you the facts; that under this plan, a family of four with an income of $40,000 will receive a 96 percent reduction in federal income taxes. Now, that may not mean a lot of money to some of the big shots. It means a lot of money for the family of four making $40,000. The income taxes would drop from $1,178 a year to $45 a year. That’s real significant money for this family.
“Let me just give you the facts,” Bush said—and then he gave an absurdly selective fact, one designed to mislead, not illuminate. That family of four may reap those big savings, but most middle-income people aren’t families of four, and won’t gain anything like that amount. What “facts” did Bush forget to mention? In 2003, tax-payers earning $29,000-46,000—the middle fifth of all earners—gain an average of $289 under his plan. In truth, Bush wasn’t really giving “the facts.” He was giving a fact which he likes.

Do voters deserve a full set of facts? And are journalists committed to that objective? In the coming weeks, we’ll critique the way the press corps presents basic facts about Bush’s plan. For now, though, scribes don’t seem to be breaking their backs to get basic facts on the record. For example, here’s how Bush’s talking-point was treated on Saturday’s Beltway Boys:

MORT KONDRACKE: Well, and we’ve got some, we’ve got some film here to demonstrate what the two sides are saying. Let’s watch it.

FRED BARNES: Right, starting with Daschle and then Bush.

KONDRACKE: Yes, right.

TOM DASCHLE (on tape): This plan is obscene. It is wrong in how it is directed to the wealthy. It is wrong in how it is timed to benefit the rich not this year but years beyond this year. It is wrong in that it doesn’t target stimulus at all. This is the wrong plan, and I think the president really ought to be embarrassed.

GEORGE W. BUSH (on tape): You hear a lot of talk in Washington, of course, about, you know, “This benefits so-and-so” or “This benefits this”—the kind of, the class warfare of politics. Let me just give you the facts; that under this plan, a family of four with an income of $40,000 will receive a 96 percent reduction in federal income taxes. Now, that may not mean a lot of money to some of the big shots. It means a lot of money for the family of four making $40,000.

KONDRACKE: Yes, well, you know, people making $200,000 will make out, will, will, will feel pretty good too—or a million dollars.

BARNES: And then there are big shots like you—

KONDRACKE: Who get even more. Anyway—

BARNES: Yes.

At that point, we’re all supposed to enjoy a good laugh at how much money Mort will be saving.

Was something wrong with that presentation? That is a matter of judgment. On tape, Bush presents a highly selective fact—and little attempt is made to put it into a larger perspective. Is Bush’s plan a good idea? That too is a matter of judgment. But surely, voters deserve a full set of facts. In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll check out the “press corps’” performance.

THE FACTS—JUST FINAGLE THE FACTS: Don’t miss Peter Kilborn’s oddball outing in this morning’s New York Times. Kilborn attempts to describe the way Bush’s plan will affect four American families. What makes his presentation so odd? One of the families—the Taylors of Atlanta—wouldn’t tell him how much they earn! But no matter. Despite that discouraging lack of information, Deloitte & Touche somehow told the Times how much the Taylors would save under Bush! The Taylors “could save about $2300 this year,” Kilborn somehow managed to tell us.

Kilborn’s piece is badly damaged by the argumentative frame he hangs on it. The headline? “Judging the Tax Plan, Four Families Shrug/Cuts Not Expected to Have Much Effect.” The Times often frames this type of story this way—its families often say that the tax cuts won’t have much effect, and that the money should be spent on the less fortunate. (“Stephen and Lisa Ducharme, with two of their children, say the tax cut money should go to those worse off than they are.”) We learn nothing at all from this anecdotal “information,” and we’re distracted from the actual facts which Kilborn actually provides. Here at THE HOWLER, we were especially intrigued by the Villas of Helena. More on their story tomorrow (we hope).

TOUGH TUESDAY: We may not be able to publish tomorrow. If we can’t, we’ll be back the next day.