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350 WAYS TO FOOL A VOTER (PART 1)! The Bush camp is pushing a phony claim. How should the press corps react?


350 WAYS TO FOOL A VOTER (PART 1): A few Big Scribes have begun to complain about Bush’s endless dissembling. Take Al Hunt’s piece in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. Headline: Bush’s Credibility Canyon. (Yes—Canyon!) Here’s how the scribe began:

HUNT: “Credibility gap,” the dictionary defines in political terms as “perceived discrepancy between statements and actual performance.” The Bush White House qualifies.
You’re right—this opening was a bit understated. But as he continued, Hunt hammered Bush hard. Increasingly, no one believes the things Bush says, the scribe suggested as he began. But: “What it lacks in credibility, this crowd compensates for in cleverness,” he said archly. Terrorism and Iraq? “The administration…resorts to hyperbole and sometimes downright duplicity.” And Hunt smacked the Bush camp because it recently chose to slime Richard Clarke’s character “rather than focus on the substance of his charges.” He complained about Condoleezza Rice’s “numerous contradictory assertions” about past terrorism policy. And he noted the way the Bushies fake facts to bollix domestic debates:
HUNT: On the domestic front, the greatest deception was what almost certainly was a White House-engineered plot to prevent the Medicare actuary from giving Congress honest estimates of the cost of a prescription drug bill.
Hunt mellowed his rhetoric as he closed. But it’s clear that the scribe is deeply troubled by this president’s problem with the truth:
HUNT: All politicians, including presidents, spin or frame matters to their benefit, and sometimes out-and-out lie on personal matters, as Bill Clinton did about Monica Lewinsky. But terrorism, the Iraqi war and Medicare are big items, and this president hasn’t leveled with the American people.
Sigh! Even now, Hunt can’t resist mentioning Monica when he talks about Bush’s dishonesty. But this piquant column—and others like it—suggest that pundits are becoming disturbed by the Bush camp’s habitual liberties.

But how will your “press corps” deal with the Bush camp’s fake facts? As the Bush camp dissembles about Candidate Kerry, the answer is far from clear.

For example, take CNN’s Judy Woodruff, confronted by scripted Bush shill Zell Miller on a recent Inside Politics. At the end of his interview, Miller uncorked a Standard Whopper, one the Bush camp is widely promoting. We discussed this incident when it occurred (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/26/04). Here’s the exchange which misled Woodruff’s viewers:

WOODRUFF: Let’s talk about fiscal issues…Aren’t there questions, I guess I’m asking, for both of these candidates about how they would fill out?

MILLER: Well, that’s what we’ll sort out during this campaign. That’s why we have campaigns. I know this, though, that John Kerry has voted to increase taxes 350 times since he’s been in the United States Senate. That to me looks pretty much like a tax-increaser…

WOODRUFF: Georgia Democratic Senator Zell Miller, endorsing President Bush.

“I know this,” Miller said, just before mouthing a blatant falsehood. And Woodruff didn’t bat an eye. She only said that Ol’ Zell now backs Bush.

Miller recited a standard Bush claim. Woodruff let it pass without comment. But was it true? Has Kerry “voted to increase taxes 350 times?” As a matter of fact, he has not. It’s a “phony statistic”—“simply ridiculous”—Michael Kinsley has written in the Washington Post. And Brooks Jackson, Woodruff’s former colleague, has voiced the same judgment for Annenberg’s “Fact Check.” “Bush campaign falsely accuses Kerry of voting 350 times for tax increases,” his headline says. “Bush’s own words mislead reporters.” Meanwhile, the Concord Coalition, a non-partisan budget group, has voiced the same unambiguous judgment. Bush’s claim “does not pass the straight-face test for credibility,” the group’s executive director, Robert Bixby, told the Los Angeles Times. So why can Miller go on CNN and mislead voters by making this claim? And how should the national press corps react when Bush shills keeps mouthing these howlers?

In fact, the Bush camp has issued a string of howlers, misstating the facts about Kerry. No, the solon doesn’t lead all senators in accepting special interest money. No, his 1995 budget proposal wouldn’t have “gutted” intelligence. But the claim that Kerry “voted for higher taxes 350 times” is a Whopp-a-palooza even by Bush’s standards—and it’s now being voiced all over the land. Will the national “press corps” dare to react when confronted with such a “phony statistic?” If they don’t, American voters will fall in that “canyon” with Bush.

TOMORROW: Part 2—A phony statistic

THE WILD BOYS OF M STREET: We took a pass on Sasha Issenberg’s piece when it appeared in Philadelphia magazine (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/04). Yes, the scribe seemed to find that David Brooks invented facts for an Atlantic piece. And yes, Brooks seemed to confirm this claim when Issenberg phoned him up. But Brooks’ piece was several years old, and bigger issues confront the press. We thought the Issenberg piece was intriguing, but couldn’t see bringing it up.

But Noam Scheiber’s trashing of Issenberg really did take the cake. Let’s review the facts of the case. Brooks wrote a famous cover story, in which he simply invented some facts. Issenberg went out on the road, retraced Brooks’ steps, and discovered that Brooks had been lying. So what did Scheiber do at TNR? Of course! He defended Brooks (the scribe who was wrong); ridiculed Issenberg (the scribe who was right); and most important, obscured the facts which Issenberg had reported. Where do our “Wild Boys of M Street” learn these ways? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But if you want to see your “press corps” in action, be sure to savor Scheiber’s work, in which he tries to punish Issenberg for daring to get this tale right.

Scheiber bats Issenberg all around town as he defends our abused Mr. Brooks. In truth, Issy is far too kind to Brooks in his Philadelphia article. “The basic premises of Brooks’s articles aren’t necessarily wrong,” he writes. But the basic premise of Brooks’ Atlantic piece was fatuous to the point of inanity. Everyone knows that upscale, suburban America is “culturally” different, in various ways, from its exurban/rural counterparts. Readers, Merle Haggard recorded Okie from Muskogee in 1967! But Issenberg, struggling to be fair, pretends to find merit in Brooks’ oeuvre (it “isn’t necessarily wrong”). The Philly scribe would get no such mercy when Scheiber got his Dell fired up.

What’s the highlight of Issenberg’s piece? Duh! He finds that Brooks simply made up facts about his trip to Franklin County, Pennsylvania—the utterly pointless fact-finding trip which anchored that Atlantic cover story. Issenberg retraced Brooks’ steps to Franklin County, and he offered an eye-catching judgment: “As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home.” Why would Issenberg say such a thing? Because he found that some of Brooks’ specific claims about Franklin County just didn’t seem to be accurate! Indeed, when Issenberg later telephoned Brooks, he asked about these bogus claims first. And Brooks acknowledged that he had invented these “facts”—had misreported the facts on the ground to make his silly thesis seem stronger.

Yep! Brooks went to Franklin—and made up some facts. Issenberg went to Franklin County too—and learned that Brooks’ claims were bogus. But you never learn about any of this as Scheiber bats poor Issy around! He never mentions Brooks’ trip; only mentions Issenberg’s journey in passing; and completely obscures the basic finding that formed the heart of Issenberg’s piece. This seems to be what our “wild boys” are willing do to fawn to ruling press corps power. Issenberg’s right, and Brooks is wrong. But Brooks is important. Brooks wins.

How barefoot-and-pregnant does Scheiber keep readers? Here is the only reference he makes to Franklin County:

SCHEIBER: To Brooks’s claim that only people in Blue states know or care that Woody Allen isn’t so funny any more, Issenberg recalls a trip to a Blockbuster video store in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, where the store’s only copy of Annie Hall was checked out and where an interview with the clerk produced the following quote: “What’s the funny one? Yeah, Annie Hall, that’s the one where he dates everyone—it’s funny.” You’ll pardon me if I don’t confuse Scott the clerk for a Woody Allen filmographer. And to Brooks’s claim that only Blue states are littered with Thai restaurants, Issenberg cites a single Thai restaurant in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania—that closed “a few years back.” (Rest assured, the owner continues to work the odd catering job.)
Scheiber cites two ironic, anecdotal observations which Issenberg made in Franklin County (Chambersburg is part of the county). But he never says why Issenberg went there, and never says that Brooks went there first. Most important, he never mentions the specific Brooks claims which Issenberg found to be false. He never mentions the phone call to Brooks; never says that Brooks acknowledged his conduct. Intent on mocking the guy who was right, Scheiber suggests that Issenberg made a weird reference to some Thai restaurant in Pennsylvania somewhere. But he never says why Issy was there—and he passes over the damning news: Brooks admits making up facts.

Meanwhile, inanity is right up Scheiber’s alley, as long as it comes from a powerful scribe. This is one of our favorite parts of his attack on the guy who was right:

SCHIEBER: Brooks does tend to be a little careless, and that he takes frequent liberties with his descriptions. But you see where I’m headed: Issenberg is guilty of the exact same thing—ignoring the broader point that Brooks is basically right. Yes, there are pockets of Blue in Red states, and pockets of Red in Blue states. But, by and large, there do seem to be some stark cultural differences between the kinds of people you find in one type of state versus the other.
“Brooks is basically right,” Scheiber says, aping Issenberg’s charitable assessment. “[B]y and large, there do seem to be some stark cultural differences between the kinds of people you find in one type of state versus the other.” But Brooks’ Atlantic piece showed no such thing, except in ways that are totally fatuous. Indeed, if Brooks’ descriptions are taken as accurate, there also seem to be “some stark cultural differences between the kinds of people you find” in one blue state (Pennsylvania) versus another blue state (Maryland). And there seem to be “some stark cultural differences between the kinds of people you find” in one part of a blue state (Franklin County) versus another part of that state (Philly’s Main Line, for example). By the way: Are the “kinds of people you find” in Iowa (blue) “starkly different” from those you find in Missouri (red)? Everyone has always known that American “culture” differs by region, even county to county. But Scheiber pretends that our Mr. Brooks has “basically” drawn back the scales from our eyes (if things are as they “seem,” of course).. And he pretends that Brooks showed “stark differences” between red and blue states. For all of his hard work, he didn’t.

Here at THE HOWLER, we hadn’t mentioned Issenberg’s piece, and we probably wouldn’t have done so. Yes, Brooks admits to making up facts, but his invention of facts was fairly minor (compared to TNR’s more famous fact-fakers), and more important issues are bubbling through our challenged press corps (see “350 WAYS,” above). But Scheiber’s piece really does deserve comment. Remember the values these wild boys observe as they scratch for their own future millions. Brooks is important—so he’s defended. Issy’s a peon—so he gets mocked. Did Brooks do the very same thing that almost killed the New Republic? So what? Stephen Glass was out for success. Other wild boys seek it too.

Readers, why did TNR sit on its hands while Big Scribes made a joke of your last election? In individual cases, we simply can’t say, but the general pattern is abundantly clear. Wild young “journalists” will put themselves first; they’ll put their fortunes ahead of your interests. They’ll look away when Big Scribes misbehave, as they did during Campaign 2000. And yes, they’ll even mock a young scribe—because that scribe dared get it right.

Brooks admits he invented some facts. Sasha Issenberg found that was so. But Brooks is important, and Issenberg isn’t. All the rest follows from there.

LIKE RUSH, HE’S JUST AN ENTERTAINER: If you read Scheiber, emit mordant chuckles when you reach that old saw—David was just telling jokes.

Annals of sound instruction

EASY TO BE SCRIPTED: We agree with the tone of Brent Staples’ piece in today’s Times, although we don’t know enough about New York City schools to assess his take on their recent history. But be careful! It’s all too easy for Major Scribes to offer up pabulum like this:

STAPLES: [T]he notion that young children fail academically because they are lazy passed out of fashion with platform shoes. In recent years, even Congress has grasped the idea that all but a few children can learn successfully if schools provide them with sound instruction. That concept is the cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind education act, which requires school districts to dramatically improve the quality of instruction for all children.
Based on our experience in Baltimore’s schools (1969-1982), we do agree with Staples’ first point; as a general matter, America’s urban kids aren’t lagging because they’re lazy or disinterested. (Our students were always delightful.) But it’s easy to move from that key point to a bit of pleasing pabulum. “[A]ll but a few children can learn successfully if schools provide them with sound instruction,” Staples says. We’ll say two things about that statement. It’s pleasing—and amazingly vague.

But never mind how vague it is. For decades, Big Scribes have recited this nostrum. What they almost never do is say what that “sound instruction” might look like. If we’re teaching a group of sixth-grade kids who are reading on second- or third-grade level, what “sound instruction” should we provide them? Urban classrooms are full of such kids. What sort of “sound instruction” should their teachers give them? If school districts plan to “dramatically improve the quality of education for all children,” how will it do so for these?

Nothing—nothing—in No Child Left Behind begins to address this key question. What kinds of textbooks should these children get? Do such textbooks exist today? If so, can Gotham teachers obtain them? It’s easy to say that all kids can learn, and to say that we must give sound instruction. But it’s harder to say what “sound instruction” will look like. Major Scribes almost never know, even caring scribes like Staples.

Here’s the headline on this piece: Schools Fail Children, Not the Other Way Around. It’s easy to be hard on our urban schools. And easy to be pleasingly scripted.