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THE GOOD SHIPWRECK WILGOREN! The Times is our most dysfunctional paper. Here—let their scribes convince you:


WILGOREN’S FOLLY: We ought to be happy about one thing; New York Times writers know everything! On Monday, Jodi Wilgoren showcased her range when she reported Kerry’s struggles on Sunday’s Meet the Press:

WILGOREN: The most awkward moment came after the Vietnam-era videotape [from 1971], Mr. Kerry’s “Meet the Press” debut, with the candidate watching his younger self use grave and graphic words to describe the Vietnam War.

“Where did all the dark hair go, Tim?” Mr. Kerry tried, wearing an odd grin. “That’s a big question for me.”

Times reporters are filled with insight; they can even tell when a grin is “odd.” No, Wilgoren didn’t restrict herself to reporting the things that Kerry had said. She was even able to say which moment in the hour was “most awkward.”

But so it goes at the Good Shipwreck New York Times, America’s most clownish major paper. How laughable is election coverage at the Times? Again, we invite you to compare Wilgoren’s report with Stephen Dinan’s piece in the Washington Times. Dinan writes for a much-maligned “Moonie” paper, a paper which wears its ideology on its sleeve. But anyone who reads the two Monday reports can see the truth about Gotham’s Times. Dinan’s piece is much more professional (and much less spin-drenched) than Wilgoren’s hopeless effort. At no other rag do reporters clown like they do at the great New York Times.

How foolish does Times reporting get? As noted, Wilgoren hit her low point before she reported the hopeful’s odd grin. Her nadir came when she scolded Kerry for his endless evasions (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/04). The scribe typed scripts from an RNC dream—scripts which Dinan refused to recite. In this passage, Wilgoren let Established Spin rule her report:

WILGOREN: The interview did provide new fodder for Republican attacks on Mr. Kerry for avoiding direct questions. Three times, on questions about troop deployment, troop financing and whether he would pledge not to run for re-election if he failed to fulfill promises to create 10 million jobs and cut the deficit in half, Mr. Kerry said “it depends” on the circumstances or the situation.

Asked at the beginning of the show for a yes or no answer on whether the war in Iraq was a mistake, Mr. Kerry responded, “I think the way the president went to war was a mistake.”

Pushed to reconcile his description of Cuba policy four years ago as counterproductive with his current support for the embargo, he said, “I think in the year 2000, the politics are very different from where they are in 2004.”

There he went again, dear readers! You just can’t pin Kerry down! He refused to give a “yes or no” answer when asked to judge the war in Iraq. He said that politics regarding Cuba is different from four years ago. And worst of all, he used the troubling phrase “it depends”—indeed, he used the phrase three times! According to Wilgoren, this troubling conduct “did provide new fodder for Republican attacks.” There he went again, dear readers! Kerry was “avoiding direct questions.”

How daft has Times reporting become? Let’s take a look at the troubling cases where Kerry dared say “it depends.”

Kerry’s first use of the troubling phrase came near the start of the interview. Believe it or not, Wilgoren thinks that Kerry’s answer was somehow worthy of note:

RUSSERT: If you were elected one year from now, will there be 100,000 American troops in Iraq?

KERRY: It depends on what the situation is you find on the ground on January 20th of 2005.

Kerry went on to say that, upon inauguration, he would “immediately reach out to other nations in a very different way from this administration.” But how could anyone sensibly prescribe troop levels for “one year from now?” Only a fool would find fault with that answer. But then, did we mention that Wilgoren writes for our most clownish paper, the Times?

But Wilgoren had a script to type, and she seemed determined to type it. The second answer which had her nonplussed concerned Kerry’s vote against that $87 billion:

RUSSERT: If there’s another bill to provide money for the troops, you’ll vote against it again?

KERRY: It depends entirely on what the situation is, Tim. I’m not going to say that.

Duh! Kerry went on to offer some thoughts about his original vote. But let’s state the obvious—Russert’s question was truly silly. How can someone possibly say how he will vote on unknown future bills? Dinan, at the Washington Times, didn’t waste his time with such drivel. But Wilgoren, at our most addled paper, was troubled by what Kerry said.

Yes, Kerry said “it depends” one more time, responding to one of the day’s oddest questions. Russert was typing familiar scripts too—including a script about “candor and clarity:”

RUSSERT: Senator, again, in the interest of candor and clarity, you have promised to create 10 million jobs and cut the deficit in half in your first four years. If you don’t achieve those goals, would you pledge that you would not seek re-election?

KERRY: Well, it would depend on the circumstances. If I don’t because there’s a war or something terrible happens, of course I’m not going to make that pledge. But if I walked away from my promise, which I won’t do, I wouldn’t deserve to be re-elected.

According to Russert, this was a matter of “candor and clarity.” But readers, when was this odd standard established? In Campaign 2000, for example, did Candidate Bush ever say he wouldn’t seek re-election if he failed to meet one of his pledges? Did anyone ask for such a strange pledge? Indeed, has Bush—or any White House hopeful—ever been asked so silly a question? Almost surely, the answer is no, and there’s an obvious reason for that. Russert’s question (and Wilgoren’s article) had nothing to do with “candor and clarity.” Russert and Wilgoren were just mouthing scripts—the scripts that now rule this campaign.

Wilgoren’s piece was deeply silly. But sometimes, intelligent comments do appear in the Times. In this morning’s letters section, a reader discusses such scripts:

To the Editor:

David Brooks (column, April 17) says, “To his enormous credit, the president has been ruthlessly flexible.” Yet when John Kerry demonstrates this quality, it is defined as “wavering” and “indecisive.”

A curious contradiction.

Santa Rosa, Calif., April 17, 2004

Glaser calls attention to one of the scripts which rule the Times’ disordered minds. According to that pleasing script, John Kerry just won’t give a straight answer. Every scribe has heard that script; the RNC is reciting it daily. And if you’re a flyweight like Jodi Wilgoren, you’ll apply it to everything that moves.

Where do they find the empty minds which type these scripts for Gotham’s Times? Wilgoren’s piece was an utter embarrassment. If you doubt it, read Dinan’s report in the Washington Times—a paper which wasn’t willing to stoop to the levels of the Good Shipwreck Wilgoren.

THE GOOD SHIPWRECK BUMILLER: Meanwhile, right next to Wilgoren’s report, Elisabeth Bumiller was offering another “White House letter.” This time, she helped us see how totally normal it is when President Bush avoids press conferences. Yes, this is how she began:

BUMILLER: As Iraq continued to fall into chaos on the Thursday before Easter, the vacationing President Bush decided he would have to submit to an event he hates: a live prime-time news conference in the classical grandeur of the East Room of the White House.
Mr. Bush, like most modern presidents, views big news conferences with dread. He has held evening extravaganzas in the historic room where Abraham Lincoln lay in state only when he is at an international crisis point of his presidency.
“Mr. Bush has so far had 12 solo news conferences,” Bumiller noted, “far fewer than any other president.” But why does Bush regard such events with dread? Could it reflect his weak grasp of policy matters? Could this explain why Bush would only meet the 9/11 commission with his trusted vice president, Tonto, at his side? Not in Bumiller’s work, it couldn’t! Instead, Bumiller instantly says that “most modern presidents” feel as Bush does. And she finds a wise sage to support her:
BUMILLER: [A] news conference is considered news, and, [David] Gergen said, it is the best way for the president to reach a large prime-time audience, however unpleasant the setting for him.

“I’ve never met a president who looked forward to a press conference with great enthusiasm,” Mr. Gergen said. “Reagan used to say he got butterflies when he went out there.”

Surely, Bumiller could have found another pundit willing to offer a less Bush-friendly, balancing view. Instead, she just kept driving home her point—everyone feels the way Bush does! She reminded us that “Mr. Bush’s aides, like all White House aides,” regard a prime-time conference as “a highly risky hour.” Everyone sees this the way Bush does! The lettrist was shilling again.

In truth, Bumiller’s piece was somewhat less fawning than the recent raft of “White House letters” in which she has spotlessly pandered to Bush (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/04). But Times readers have begun to complain about Bumiller’s serial grovels, and the magisterial Times has begun to explain why these fatuous pieces appear. Indeed, several of our own HOWLER readers have sent us a note from Arthur Bovino, an assistant to Times public editor Daniel Okrent. Why do Bumiller’s pieces appear? Bovino has raised this with Okrent:

Several readers have voiced concerns about the White House Letter.

I include Mr. Okrent’s response below:

“As for the White House Letter, it’s part of a longstanding Times practice of trying to provide a glimpse into the personal side of newsmakers’ lives. I do think the paper could do a better job of labeling these pieces and making clear that they are not about, nor meant to be about, life-and-death issues.”

Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

Apparently, Okrent issues his statements to Bovino. Bovino then passes the statements along to the unwashed who wrote in.

But note the problem with Okrent’s response. As one reader told us, “Okrent is of the opinion that merely labeling these pieces as insubstantial should ameliorate the problem.” But this “makes no sense,” the reader notes. “If Mr. Okrent can’t see the obvious bias in Ms. Bumiller’s writing, there’s very little point in him holding the position he does. Naturally, they ignored my question as to when John Kerry receives similarly adulatory treatment.”

When does Kerry receive such treatment? The answer to that question is obvious: At the dysfunctional New York Times, Kerry doesn’t receive such treatment. Instead, his wife is asked how many times she’s used Botox. Kerry is pestered about his religion. And he’s trashed for his troubling 12-word answers—answers in which he “avoids direct questions.” Readers, no other paper was more Bush-friendly in its coverage of Campaign 2000. And this paper seems determined to stage its great shipwreck again.

Yes, our reader specifically asked Okrent to comment on Bumiller’s fawning to Bush. And no, he didn’t get an answer. But Daniel Okrent draws a good wage—and seems to know where that fine wage comes from. We’d guess that there is little chance he will ever answer this question. Maybe Okrent understandably dreads this great task, the same way the president does.

SCHEDULE: We’ll be AWOL on Thursday and Friday. We’ll get to several topics tomorrow, including Woodward-on-Bush’s-religion and Chris Wallace’s coddling of Condi.