ONLY KRUGMAN GOES THERE: Just yesterday, speaking with a friend, we marveled about the way the press corps dropped the late Trina Bachtels storyafter her story stopped serving their interests. Bachtel is the young Ohio woman who died, a few years ago, in another insurance horror story. Last week, the press corps was all over her storyand then, it was dropped like a rock.
This morning, the Times Paul Krugman re-explores Bachtels story. But then, Krugman is the only person at our biggest news orgs who will go where this story leads us.
In his column, Krugman runs through the basic facts of Bachtels death, explaining what this story shows about our health care system. Then, he goes where his colleagues will not. Uh-oh! He discusses the journalism!
KRUGMAN (4/11/08): Some readers may already have recognized the story of Trina Bachtel. While campaigning in Ohio, Hillary Clinton was told this story, and she took to repeating it, without naming the victim, on the campaign trail. She used it as an illustration of what's wrong with American health care and why we need universal coverage.
Then The Washington Post identified Ms. Bachtel, the hospital where she died claimed that the story was falseand the news media went to town, accusing Mrs. Clinton of making stuff up. Instead of being a story about health care, it became a story about the candidate's supposed problems with the truth.
Last week, we felt we knew why the Post had fact-checked this story; almost surely, they were hoping theyd find a mistake, to be used as a club against Clinton. (This pattern has been plain for years.) But uh-oh! As things turned out, the Post and some other big papers had semi-bungled their own fact-checking; they thundered that Clintons story was wrong, then discovered her story was basically right. In fact, Mrs. Clinton was accurately repeating the story as it was told to her, Krugman continues, and it turns out that while some of the details were slightly off, the essentials of her story were correct. Yes, Clintons story turned out to be basically accurate. And when big pundits saw that was true, they dropped Bachtel like a rock.
Having created interest in the story, it would have been normal to follow up, in the way Krugman does today. But in truth, most pundits didnt care about Bachtel herself, or about what her story might tell us. They had wanted to beat up on Clinton. Bachtels story lost its interest when that cause was denied.
[T]his was a disgraceful episode, Krugman writes, largely describing the press corps behavior. We wouldnt go quite that far ourselves; for what its worth, the candidate-trashing here was fairly mild compared to such episodes in the past. Beyond that, well say again what weve said before: Largely because shes an obvious press corps target, Clinton was unwise to repeat this story without professionally fact-checking first. When youre a target of press corps wrath, you will be fact-checked, as others are not. The press corps will leap at the chance to condemn youeven before they themselves have completed fact-checking your tale for themselves.
[Gore made the same mistake at the first Bush-Gore debate, concerning that school desk in Florida. In Gores case, he was taking his facts straight from a major newspaper report about overcrowding in a Florida high schoolbut a few completely trivial facts had changed since the story appeared. The storys essence was completely unchanged. But the press corps was waging its war against Gore, and he was savaged for his latest vile taleoften by journos who grossly misstated the facts of the actual story. This happened just a few weeks before an election which changed the worlds history.]
Why did it fall to Krugman to take us back through this story? Thats because only Krugman, at this high level, discussed the work of the press. We all can think of other journalists who would understand Bachtels story as a matter of policy. But press corps conduct is also tied up in this tale, and few big journos are willing to go there. On this high level, only Krugman does.
Lets go back to Krugmans piece. Lets consider both parts of this story:
KRUGMAN: In fact, Mrs. Clinton was accurately repeating the story as it was told to herand it turns out that while some of the details were slightly off, the essentials of her story were correct. After all the fuss, The Washington Post eventually conceded that ''Bachtel's medical tragedy began with circumstances very close to the essence'' of Mrs. Clinton's account.
And even more important, Mrs. Clinton was making a valid point about the state of health care in this country.
Clinton was making a valid point about the state of health care, Krugman says. But as a general matter, the press corps doesnt much care about health care, as has been shown many times in the past. They do care about the demon tales they like to hang around some big pols heads. Krugman is right about health care todayand hes clearly in the ball park about the work of the press.
Bachtels story should be discussed. Isnt it obvious why big pundits suddenly lost all interest?
Special report: Profiling Matthews!
PART 1WHATS THERE: Weve long demanded a profile of Hardballs Chris Matthews. And there he is, being profiled this Sunday on the cover of the New York Times magazine.
Is this the profile youve dreamed of, some asked. Well actually, no. It is not.
Make no mistakeMark Liebovich makes Matthews look buffoonish in his entertaining piece, which is already available. In fairness, though, its always easy to be hard when doing celebrity profiles. Was Matthews kidding, for example, when he made that remark to Leibovich about getting a chair from his alma mater? We dont know, but it actually matters; there are lots of ways a writer can cheat if he wants to make someone seem foolish. For example, we thought Leibovich might have his thumb on the scale just a tad when we read the following passage, concerning the people Matthews staff directed him to speak to:
LEIBOVICH (4/13/08): As I began researching this article, Jeremy Gaines, an MSNBC spokesman, gave me the names of about a dozen people that Matthews recommended I speak to, all famouseveryone from Nancy Pelosi to Marvin Hamlisch.
But gatekeepers for more than one of these people expressed confusion as to why Matthews would refer me to them. Please keep us out of this, pleaded a spokesperson for one prominent politician whom Matthews had recommended via Gaines.
Leibovich was referred to about twelve peoplebut gatekeepers for more than one of these people didnt seem to know why. Well assume this means that two of these people reacted that waythat ten of these twelve folk did not. On the other hand, the serial boorishness described in this piece does seem like Vintage Matthews.
Consider Hillary Clinton, for instance. According to Leibovich, Matthews notes that he and the former first lady like to kid around when they see each other. If recollection serves, this was Matthews interpretation in January when he interrupted a Clinton event to ask a loud, insistent question. In fact, Clintons distaste for Matthews seemed clear that day. But so what! When Clinton told Matthews he seemed obsessed, he just thought she was kidding around!
Late in the piece, Leibovich captures more of this cluelessness. To his credit, Leibovich makes Matthews and his wife discuss an unpleasant factMatthews has often behaved quite boorishly toward women on his cable show. The conversation produces this end:
LEIBOVICH: He bemoaned political correctness. Well, were just going to have to survive this era, Matthews said, sighing.
Poor Chris! Like other Bunker types, he seems to think that hes caught in an anomalous eraan era driven by all that political correctness. Soon, well return to the older ways, this big, boorish baboon sighs.
At any rate, Leibovich makes Matthews look foolish throughoutthough its never entirely clear in such profiles how much of whats published is fair. (In our experience, Matthews can also be completely personable and appropriate, as is true of most people.) But Leibovich also omits a great dealincluding the most disturbing aspects of Matthews work in the past dozen years. On Monday, well consider what isnt found in this profilethe omissions which make this a bit of a surface treatment. Today, though, lets consider four things which can be found in this piecefour parts of this profile that grabbed us:
Something true: In one part of his profile, Leibovich quotes the Politicos Roger Simon saying something thats true and important. In press circles, this guys a big deal, Simon says. Sad but important and true:
LEIBOVICH: Matthews is clearly an acquired taste, and some of his most devoted followers are Washington media figures and politicians. The things people complain about I actually like, says Roger Simon, the chief political columnist for the Politico news Web site and an occasional guest on Hardball. His interruptions are invariably a reaction to something you just said, which indicates that he is, in fact, listening. Simon calls Matthews a major political force whose shows are closely monitored by campaigns and journalists. I know when I go on the show, I get comments, I get e-mails, Simon told me. He drives conversations.
Matthews doesnt have big ratings; for that reason, liberal observers sometimes wonder why they should care about what he does. But Simon makes an important point here. Hardball is a breeding ground for the dim-witted narratives which drive modern politics. In effect, Matthews is the current mayor of a major branch of the mainstream press corps. He and his cohort invent the tales that lesser spear-chuckers send airborne.
Something pathetic: Yep! Matthews cohorthis social circleinvent the narratives driving our discourse. And its clear that these are folk who spend their time discussing people, not ideas. At one point, Matthews gives us a gruesome picture of how his circle functions:
LEIBOVICH: After we finished eating, I placed a tape recorder on the table, which would later yield many sequences of indecipherable cross talk, along with long, loud monologues from guess who. We all talk about the Clintons, Matthews said at the conclusion of a diatribe about the national obsession with Bill and Hillary. I have never been at a party where it doesnt become a topic. Who are we gonna talk about? Bob Dole? John Kerry? Al Gore?
Good God! Matthews has never been at a party where the Clintons werent discussed? Beyond that, he cant seem to imagine discussing Gore, whose Oscar-winning film changed the world conversation, and who currently holds the Nobel Peace Prize. In the past year or so, the whole freaking world has discussed Al Gorebut Matthews still cant seem to imagine such a thing. These are deeply provincial people, a fact they dont seem to grasp.
Something comical: Matthews cohort is deeply provincialbut they show few signs of knowing it. We emitted low chuckles when producer Nancy Nathan explained their view of his Sunday programthe repetitive, nattering Chris Matthews Show, which ought to be called Groundhog Morning:
LEIBOVICH: Matthews takes great pride in The Chris Matthews Show, as if its select Sunday morning time slot, just before Meet the Press, confers him a spot on the coveted first team. We envision viewers watching up on the West Side of New York, Nathan told me. Theyve been to Zabars. They have their bagel, juice, coffee. These are smart people who want smart analysis. We like to think were a complement to Meet the Press.
Astoundingly, Nathan and Matthews seem to think that The Chris Matthews Show offers smart analysis, the type of talk smart people crave. But then, Nathan also tells Leibovich that the picture of Matthews as a cable loudmouth is not fair or accurate. Leibovich pushes the point a bit further. When I asked Matthews about the bloviator stigma, he dismissed it as jealousy or at the very least ignorance among those who dont know him or who dont regularly watch his Sunday show. If Leibovich is reporting fairly, these folk are profoundly unaware.
Something troubling: At every party, they discuss the Clintons. They cant imagine discussing Gore. They seem to think his programs are smartand Matthews thinks that Hillary Clinton like to kid around with him. Once again, these people border on delusional. And for that reason, the passage which follows should fill us with dread. Of course, in large part, the dream expressed here has already been actualized:
LEIBOVICH: Matthews envisions his role in this presidential campaign to that of Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite in 1968. Your job is to illuminate, illuminate the game, Matthews says. He faces a nightly challenge to bring to life the unfurling of history. Matthews says he wants to be synonymous with this campaign, like Howard Cosell was with Muhammad Ali.
Readers, try to ignore the sheer absurdity of that last comparison. Given this loud, rude mans blunt dumbness, Americans should be disturbed to think that he pictures this campaign this way. Matthews wants to be synonymous with this campaign? Well guess that Sevareid and Cronkite, whatever their faults, may have been a bit more modest in their ambitions. But Matthews, a frequently boorish Bunker, has, in far too many ways, already achieved this ambition.
Lets return to sad-but-true: In many ways, Matthews and his NBC partners, Tim Russert and Brian Williams, have already put their indelible stamp on the current campaign. In the case of Russert and Williams, their appalling work in one debate plainly changed the shape of the Dem campaign. Meanwhile, from last years first debate forward, all three of these men have distinguished themselves by their ludicrous debate conduct. And Matthews insulting behavior toward Clinton has set new standards for journalistic misconduct. It isnt like he hasnt done this before. But hes quite clearly done it again.
Indeed, Matthews has put an indelible stamp on the politics of the past dozen yearsthough Leibovich barely touches that fact in this entertaining piece. The Timesman entertains well on the surface, letting us laugh at Matthews loud flounders. But, like many journos before him, Leibovich is inclined to bury the history of the past dozen years. He offers hints, and a very broad outline. But the heart of this story is AWOL.
Thats why this isnt the profile we asked for. On Monday, well return to this pieceand well examine whats missing.