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SPINNING KERRY (PART 1)! When David Brooks spun Kerry’s dough, he offered a piece of—gulp!—fiction:


GULP! FICTION: Increasingly your “news” is—gulp!—fiction. Simply put, our major news orgs let their scribes make it up. Important scribes pick a tale they find pleasing. If the story isn’t true, they just go ahead and make the tale up.

Consider the problem facing David Brooks as he neared the end of last week. He wanted to write a piece that trashed Kerry—a piece that would please his pseudo-con base. But he needed a hook to make his tale work. And then he had it! Brooks typed a fake fact:

BROOKS (pgh 1): We’re so full of it. We pretend to be a middle-class, democratic nation, but in reality we love our blue bloods. We love our Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes, Deans and Gores…

(pgh 3) So you have one party, the Republican Party, the so-called party of the heartland, which won’t nominate a guy unless he has a ranch the size of Oklahoma. Republicans don’t think you’re fit to govern unless you’re on the north 40 every summer clearing brush. And then you have the Democrats, the so-called party of the people, who won’t nominate a guy unless his family had an upper-deck berth on the Mayflower.

“We’re so full of it,” Brooks began, giving fair notice of what was to come. And by the end of paragraph 3, we had proof—Brooks announced that Democrats just won’t select a White House nominee “unless his family had an upper-deck berth on the Mayflower.” This gave him his hook for some long, goony clowning about all the money John Kerry possesses. We heard that Kerry grew up with a fake, “plummy” accent. Kerry’s haircuts? Too expensive, Brooks said.

Just the sort of clown-like clowning half-wits like Brooks love to hand you. But no, the story wouldn’t have flown unless Brooks had accomplished that lead-in. He really couldn’t have started his piece by saying: “Now I’m going to tell you that Kerry’s too rich.” So instead, he began by inventing a fact—by pretending the Dems always pick these rich dudes. In fact, by the time Brooks’ piece was done, he had invented some more, typing this:

BROOKS: The Democrats even have a campaign consultant, Bob Shrum, who has made a large fortune taking multizillionaires like Al Gore, John Kerry and others and making sure that they run for office as born-again proletarians.
Gore and Kerry are big phony fakes. They’re “multizillionaires”—and don’t want you to know it.

But so it goes when fakers like Brooks decide to invent pleasing stories. And so it goes when the New York Times lets its columnists lie in your face. Oh, how Gotham’s Times fretted and stewed when that awful boy, Blair, made up all those stories! Luckily, David Brooks is clean and presentable. He can lie in your face all he likes.

Because readers, is it even vaguely true? Is it even vaguely true that Dems “won’t nominate a guy unless his family had an upper-deck berth on the Mayflower?” Here are Dem nominees for the past forty years. Which family sailed on the big boat?

1960: John Kennedy
1964: Lyndon Johnson
1968: Hubert Humphrey
1972: George McGovern
1976, 1980: Jimmy Carter
1984: Walter Mondale
1988: Michael Dukakis
1992, 1996: Bill Clinton
2000: Al Gore
At least John Kennedy came from cash, but no, the blood wasn’t really that “blue.” In Boston, he and his siblings still grew up with signs that were saying: “No Irish need apply.” In fact, in our own Boston Irish family, our grandmother loved the looked-down-upon Kennedys, because they were the ones who fought back.

And by the way, was the rest of Brooks’ tale true? Was Gore, the previous Dem nominee, really a “blue blood” “multizillionaire”—a “multizillionaire” who faked those proletarian values so you wouldn’t know it? No, Brooks had made that part up too. As every journalist surely knows—including Brooks’ inexcusable “editors”—both Gore’s parents grew up poor. During Campaign 2000, the Times even mentioned this fact once or twice, although they spent the great bulk of their time inventing fake and phony tales to convince you that Gore was a liar. And was Gore a “multizillionaire” by the time he won the Dem nomination? Sorry. In May 1999, the Washington Post’s Susan Glasser limned the net worth of the two Dem hopefuls. Bill Bradley? His net worth “now stands at a minimum of $5.1 million,” Glasser wrote. Gore? The last of those Dem “multizillionaires” was worth a good deal less:

GLASSER (5/18/99): Gore, who has been on the government payroll since 1977, reported income of just more than $300,000 [in 1998], including his $175,400 salary…Gore listed assets totaling a minimum of $1.4 million and liabilities of $600,000, leaving the vice president with a minimum $800,000 net worth. Gore’s assets are dominated by an Arlington house valued at $482,800.
For the record, that was the very same, mid-level Arlington house in which Tipper Gore had grown up.

No, Democrats haven’t picked “blue bloods” from the Mayflower, or “multizillionaires.” But David wanted to tell you a tale. He wanted to lie in your face once again. It set up good fun at John Kerry’s expense. And his editors—inexcusable—let him do it.

TOMORROW: Spinning Kerry, part 2! David Halbfinger spins Kerry’s flip-flops.

MOST LIKELY, BROOKS WAS JUST JOKING: Does it matter if Brooks makes up these facts? Only if the truth really matters—and clearly, at the Times, it does not. Indeed, Brooks’ statements weren’t just false—they were laughably false—and surely, every journalist knows it. Why then is Brooks allowed to lie? Increasingly, your national “news” is—gulp!—fiction. Writers like Brooks invent tales they like. And plummy-accented editors pretend it’s good sport. The last time Brooks made up a huge whopper—that neocon thing—they later told us he was just joking! And so they make a joke of your interests, and turn your news into—gulp—fiction.

HOW INANE IS DAVID BROOKS: How inane is David Brooks? Here we go again, dear readers! He was itchin’ to type some vacuous facts. For example, did you know about John Kerry’s haircuts?

BROOKS: Most Democrats have trouble affording one home, so when they search for a leader who shares their values, of course they nominate a guy who is running for his sixth. Of course they nominate a guy whose 42-foot powerboat, the Scaramouche, sells for upward of $700,000. Of course they choose a guy famous for his Christophe haircuts and his Turnbull & Asser shirts. Of course they choose a couple who paid to have an unsightly fire hydrant moved from the front of their Boston house, and who sought to divert huge amounts of river water to supply their sprawling Idaho lawn.
Pathetic, isn’t it? When thigh-rubbing boys like David Brooks let you gaze on the soul of your “press corps?” Of course, he says, again and again. Dems always pick a rich guy like this, he says, getting Kerry’s wealth into play. “Of course they nominate [such] a guy,” Brooks says—knowing that Dems almost never do so. Here at THE HOWLER, for example, we voted for Kerry just last week—and like you, we never had heard of the Scaramouche! But David Brooks had some bullroar to spread, so he pretended we always do that.

ANOTHER RICH MESS? We’ve received several e-mails about Frank Rich’s column, much like the e-mail we got this morning. Our reader mentioned a brief TV clip from The Passion. Then she said this:

E-MAIL: This shot leaped to mind when I read Frank Rich’s column in the 3/6 New York Times entitled “Mel Gibson Forgives Us For His Sins.” I’m sure you’re aware that the back and forth between columnist and director over this movie has been going on for months now. Rich writes colorfully always, and his emotions are, unsurprisingly, engaged, yet I believe it’s not an unbalanced column overall and I recommend it to you.
She then quoted a passage from Rich. In it, Rich said that Christopher Hitchens “nailed [the film’s] artistic vision more precisely” than any other critic.

We wrote this e-mailer back with a question, much as we’ve done with others. Has it been your experience, we asked our friend, that Hitch and Rich have been hugely straight and reliable about various issues in the past? On balance, that hasn’t been our experience, and we carry a general air of skepticism when we read the work of our great Pundit Corps. That’s why we went to see The Passion for ourselves, two times, instead of just taking Rich’s word for it.

Is Rich’s column “balanced overall?” It’s hard to know how to judge that. But his column was one of several which caught our eye this weekend. Many writers, Rich included, have continued to allege that The Passion is anti-Semitic. But as we read their arguments, we often saw the scripted hyperbole that almost defines the modern press. Many readers sent us e-mails swearing that Rich and Hitch surely have the film right. But you haven’t seen the film yourselves, you say. Readers! Whatever the truth about this film may be, why on earth are you still so eager to accept your pundit corps’ good intentions?

We have long described the MO of your current “press.” Once they agree on a judgment, we have noted, they spin, distort, invent and hyperbolize to convince you to share their assessment. (In December 1997, for example, Rich and Maureen Dowd invented the Love Story canard. It led to Bush’s election.) Whatever the truth about Gibson’s film, we couldn’t help thinking of that standard MO when we read this passage from Rich’s column—a passage in which the pundit makes a new-classic Standard Assertion:

RICH: As if that weren’t enough, the Jewish high priests are also depicted as grim sadists with bad noses and teeth—Shylocks and Fagins from 19th-century stock. (The only Jew with a pretty nose in this Judea is Jesus.) Yet in those early screenings that Mr. Gibson famously threw for conservative politicos in Washington last summer and fall, not a person in attendance, from Robert Novak to Peggy Noonan, seems to have recognized these obvious stereotypes, let alone spoken up about them in their profuse encomiums to the film.
This claim—that the Jewish priests all have stereotypically “bad noses”—has been widely repeated. In her review for Salon, for example, Stephanie Zacharek said that, when “we see the Pharisees agitating for Jesus’ blood,” “it’s not hard to notice that all of them have conveniently Semitic hooked or bulbous noses straight out of central casting.” Readers have sent us such remarks all weekend, asking why we’re too stupid to see this is true. But part of the reason for our demurral is obvious—unlike our readers, we went to the movie, two times, and didn’t find the alleged noses there! As we noted last week, we thought one of the Jewish priests—the apparent second-in-command—looked like the winner of a Shylock Look-Alike Contest, and we said we’d like to see Gibson asked why this actor was cast for the film. But do all the priests look like that? “Hooked noses” are apparently in the eye of the beholder, but we went to the film again this Saturday, in part to re-assess this very point, and again, we simply don’t agree with this new Standard Assessment. Indeed, how easily can the physical stereotyping in this film be overstated? Just before her remark about the hooked, bulbous noses from central casting, Zacharek offered this synopsis of the film’s early action:
ZACHAREK: Jesus (played with grim, beleaguered resignation by Jim Caviezel) has been praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, where a hissing, effeminate Satan, pinched and cloaked and looking like a refugee from a Pilobolus-knockoff troupe, has tried unsuccessfully to tempt him over to the dark side. Jesus resists Satan, only to be arrested by a bunch of Roman-soldier thugs.
But alas! Those aren’t Roman soldiers who arrest Jesus; according to the Gospels and according to the film’s obvious logic (and according to descriptions by other reviewers), they are Jewish agents, sent by the very same Pharisees who are said to be so stereotypical in appearance. (David Anson, in Newsweek: “Jesus is arrested by the Jewish high priest Caiaphas’s men.” David Denby, in The New Yorker: “Jewish temple guards show up bearing torches.”) We’re happy to be corrected on this if logic—and such reviewers—are wrong.

But how strong can the film’s physical stereotyping really be? If logic and these reviewers are right, the first time the film’s bad-guy Jews appeared, Zacharek mistakenly thought they were Romans! For ourselves, we wouldn’t swear, after two viewings, whether these agents were Romans or Jews. But then, that uncertainty exists because the stereotyping isn’t what your brilliant celebrity pundits have told you. And has anyone overstated this point more than Rich? The only Jew with a pretty nose is Jesus? There they go again, dear readers! Since many of you haven’t attended, let us report what Rich knows, but you don’t: Mary, Mary Magdalene and Veronica are all played by gorgeous movie actors! In fact, Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene) is a gorgeous international star. Their noses could hardly be much more pretty. Meanwhile, James, who is on the screen for much of the film, is a handsome young actor himself. Is the stereotyping restricted, then, to the priests? Although “pretty noses” are a matter of judgment, press corps spinners seem to have spun you on this matter too, as they have done so many times in the past. Major film critics—who operate outside the world of insider pundit spin-shops—have offered few comments about this phenomenon. Indeed, at the Boston Globe, Ty Burr lodged the same complaint we did. “The Passion is not in itself anti-Semitic,” he judged, “although I personally might have cast someone other than the sneering nasty who plays Caiaphas’s second banana.” Caiaphas himself? We looked and looked, but we just couldn’t see that he fits our notion of “Jewish stereotyping.” Indeed, Chris Matthews has several times referred to the “the Lee J. Cobb guy, the look-alike of Lee J. Cobb who plays Caiaphas.” But was Lee J. Cobb “stereotypically Jewish?” Jewish at all? We don’t know, but this look-alike didn’t look “stereotypically Jewish” to us. More specifically, he didn’t seem to have a “hooked” or “bulbous” nose. As noted, even critics who hated the film failed to mention this alleged point. At the Los Angeles Times, for example, The Passion left Kenneth Turan “in the grip of a profound despair.” He only gave the film one star. But even Turan only complains that Caiaphas is “richly dressed, obviously well-fed.” The ubiquitous bad noses which insider pundits describe are largely absent from the reviews. For ourselves, we have gone to the film two times, and no, we can’t exactly spot them. Meanwhile, Jews from the Pharisees march on the screen, and one critic thinks they are Romans!

[A. O. Scott, in the New York Times: “Is ‘The Passion of the Christ’ anti-Semitic? I thought you’d never ask. To my eyes it did not seem to traffic explicitly or egregiously in the toxic iconography of historical Jew hatred, but more sensitive viewers may disagree.” Others will be so sensitive to the iconography that they’ll see it without attending the film!]

So yes: We were troubled by that “second banana,” but remain puzzled by the now-routine claims that all of the Jewish priests had those “bad noses.” But what to make of Rich’s statement—that only Jesus had a pretty nose—and what to make of his attack on two pundits for failing to note this stereotyping, stereotyping that most major critics didn’t seem to note either? Here’s one thing we think about that: We think we’ve seen it many times in the past. As we’ve seen for the past six years, pundit culture is built on scripted overstatement—but now, HOWLER readers insist that we affirm such statements! No, they haven’t seen the film, they say, but they assure us that Rich must be right! Meanwhile, they wonder, with mounting fury, why we won’t go along with the pundit’s great judgments.

For the record, we were struck by other critiques this weekend—by Charles Krauthammer’s complaint in the Post, for example. On Friday, Krauthammer said that Gibson’s film “us[es] every possible technique of cinematic exaggeration” and gives its story “the most invidious, pre-Vatican II treatment possible.” Speaking of exaggeration, here is Chuck’s idea of the film’s “most revolting” deviation from the Gospels:

KRAUTHAMMER: The most subtle, and most revolting, of these [deviations from the Gospels] has to my knowledge not been commented upon. In Gibson’s movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found—where? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibson’s camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirs—merging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satan’s own people.
Krauthammer lodges a stunning charge; Gibson has used the Satan figure to define the Jews as “Satan’s own people.” But readers who are mathematically gifted will note a small hole in the scribe’s brief. If Satan appears two times among Jewish crowds (out of four), he apparently appears somewhere else as well. Indeed, Satan’s longest appearance comes early on, in a one-on-one encounter with Jesus. And in his second longest appearance on screen, he stands in solidarity behind the Roman commander as he leeringly oversees the scourging of Jesus. Does this identify the Romans as “Satan’s own people?” Readers of the Post won’t have to wonder. Of course, you’ve seen Krauthammer “reason” this way a thousand times in the past, on all sorts of matters, large and small. Here, you see his foolish method again, applied to a very serious topic.

No, Jesus doesn’t have the only good nose, and Satan doesn’t just hang with the Jews. And yes, some of those Gibson quotes in Rich’s past pieces have been rather skillfully “edited.” But why on earth should this be surprising? You’ve seen this a thousand times in the past, from Rich and the pundit corps’ other spinners. But this time, some readers just wanted to believe. They knew—just knew—they were holier than Mel, and Rich (and others) helped them believe it. We haven’t seen the film, they said. And then they told us that we were fools for refusing to parrot back what scribes said. (We agree that others spin more than Rich. But then, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/02 for a tangy take on what can occur when the scribe gets a bee in his bonnet.)

Last week, we commented on some critiques we found odd. We thought it was odd to say that this film offended the sensitivities of ordinary people when such people were packing theaters to see it. We thought it was odd to say that the film couldn’t affect a viewer’s understanding of the Jesus story when a decent person like Roger Ebert was quoted saying it did so for him. But many readers got very upset, and ran to affirm the spin-points they liked. No, they wouldn’t see the film themselves; why should they, when pundits could tell them what they should think? Why don’t we agree, they endlessly said. Answer: We had gone to the movie.

GROUP GROPE: Let’s send to all what we’ve sent to some. What was our general view of the film? On first viewing, we just didn’t think it was heavily based in Group Identity. (Many reviewers, but few pundits, have voiced that general judgment.) We went back a second time to re-assess that point. Our basic reaction the second time? If you view this film in terms of Group Identity, the Romans—leering sadists throughout—make the Jews look like pipsqueaks. Others, of course, will see something else. But no, we wouldn’t spout off real loud without having seen it ourselves.

VISIT THEIR INDEFENSIBLE ARCHIVES: You don’t have to see the film to opine at the Post! For some “thought experiments” from Gertrude Himmelfarb, you know what to do: Just click here.