TUESDAY, APRIL 6, 2004
350 WAYS TO FOOL A VOTER (PART 1): A few Big Scribes have begun to complain about Bushs endless dissembling. Take Al Hunts piece in last Thursdays Wall Street Journal. Headline: Bushs Credibility Canyon. (YesCanyon!) Heres 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.Youre rightthis 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 Clarkes character rather than focus on the substance of his charges. He complained about Condoleezza Rices 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 its clear that the scribe is deeply troubled by this presidents 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 hasnt leveled with the American people.Sigh! Even now, Hunt cant resist mentioning Monica when he talks about Bushs dishonesty. But this piquant columnand others like itsuggest that pundits are becoming disturbed by the Bush camps habitual liberties.
But how will your press corps deal with the Bush camps fake facts? As the Bush camp dissembles about Candidate Kerry, the answer is far from clear.
For example, take CNNs 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). Heres the exchange which misled Woodruffs viewers:
WOODRUFF: Lets talk about fiscal issues Arent there questions, I guess Im asking, for both of these candidates about how they would fill out?I know this, Miller said, just before mouthing a blatant falsehood. And Woodruff didnt 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. Its a phony statisticsimply ridiculousMichael Kinsley has written in the Washington Post. And Brooks Jackson, Woodruffs former colleague, has voiced the same judgment for Annenbergs Fact Check. Bush campaign falsely accuses Kerry of voting 350 times for tax increases, his headline says. Bushs own words mislead reporters. Meanwhile, the Concord Coalition, a non-partisan budget group, has voiced the same unambiguous judgment. Bushs claim does not pass the straight-face test for credibility, the groups 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 doesnt lead all senators in accepting special interest money. No, his 1995 budget proposal wouldnt have gutted intelligence. But the claim that Kerry voted for higher taxes 350 times is a Whopp-a-palooza even by Bushs standardsand its now being voiced all over the land. Will the national press corps dare to react when confronted with such a phony statistic? If they dont, American voters will fall in that canyon with Bush.
TOMORROW: Part 2A phony statistic
THE WILD BOYS OF M STREET: We took a pass on Sasha Issenbergs 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 couldnt see bringing it up.
But Noam Scheibers trashing of Issenberg really did take the cake. Lets 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 dont have a clue. But if you want to see your press corps in action, be sure to savor Scheibers 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 Brookss articles arent 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 isnt necessarily wrong). The Philly scribe would get no such mercy when Scheiber got his Dell fired up.
Whats the highlight of Issenbergs piece? Duh! He finds that Brooks simply made up facts about his trip to Franklin County, Pennsylvaniathe 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 didnt 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 factshad misreported the facts on the ground to make his silly thesis seem stronger.
Yep! Brooks went to Franklinand made up some facts. Issenberg went to Franklin County tooand 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 Issenbergs journey in passing; and completely obscures the basic finding that formed the heart of Issenbergs piece. This seems to be what our wild boys are willing do to fawn to ruling press corps power. Issenbergs 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 Brookss claim that only people in Blue states know or care that Woody Allen isnt so funny any more, Issenberg recalls a trip to a Blockbuster video store in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, where the stores only copy of Annie Hall was checked out and where an interview with the clerk produced the following quote: Whats the funny one? Yeah, Annie Hall, thats the one where he dates everyoneits funny. Youll pardon me if I dont confuse Scott the clerk for a Woody Allen filmographer. And to Brookss claim that only Blue states are littered with Thai restaurants, Issenberg cites a single Thai restaurant in Chambersburg, Pennsylvaniathat 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 thereand he passes over the damning news: Brooks admits making up facts.
Meanwhile, inanity is right up Scheibers 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 Im headed: Issenberg is guilty of the exact same thingignoring 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 Issenbergs 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 (Phillys 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 didnt.
Here at THE HOWLER, we hadnt mentioned Issenbergs piece, and we probably wouldnt have done so. Yes, Brooks admits to making up facts, but his invention of facts was fairly minor (compared to TNRs more famous fact-fakers), and more important issues are bubbling through our challenged press corps (see 350 WAYS, above). But Scheibers piece really does deserve comment. Remember the values these wild boys observe as they scratch for their own future millions. Brooks is importantso hes defended. Issys a peonso 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 cant say, but the general pattern is abundantly clear. Wild young journalists will put themselves first; theyll put their fortunes ahead of your interests. Theyll look away when Big Scribes misbehave, as they did during Campaign 2000. And yes, theyll even mock a young scribebecause that scribe dared get it right.
Brooks admits he invented some facts. Sasha Issenberg found that was so. But Brooks is important, and Issenberg isnt. All the rest follows from there.
LIKE RUSH, HES JUST AN ENTERTAINER: If you read Scheiber, emit mordant chuckles when you reach that old sawDavid was just telling jokes.
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 Baltimores schools (1969-1982), we do agree with Staples first point; as a general matter, Americas urban kids arent lagging because theyre lazy or disinterested. (Our students were always delightful.) But its 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. Well say two things about that statement. Its pleasingand 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 were 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?
Nothingnothingin 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? Its easy to say that all kids can learn, and to say that we must give sound instruction. But its harder to say what sound instruction will look like. Major Scribes almost never know, even caring scribes like Staples.
Heres the headline on this piece: Schools Fail Children, Not the Other Way Around. Its easy to be hard on our urban schools. And easy to be pleasingly scripted.