MONDAY, MAY 3, 2004
THE THREE AMIGOS: Wow! Here at THE HOWLER, we are always on the prowl for fresh new journalistic talentthe kind of hot new blood which might shake up our disordered, script-reading press corps. Thats why our analysts all perked up when they saw Howard Kurtz column this morning. Fresh on The Page And Hot On the Trail, the headline said on his weekly piece. Early on, the Post scribe promised to give us just what weve been seeking:
KURTZ: Every presidential contest produces a crop of younger journalists who grab the attention of the media establishment through dogged reporting, sparkling writing or provocative analysisoften in multiple forums these days.Wow! And Kurtz had found three such stars, he said. Our analysts settled back in their seats, prepared to enjoy the talented trios dogged reporting and provocative analysis.
But their smiles quickly faded away when they saw what Kurtz was actually pimping. One of his stars is Liz Marlantes, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She profiled the much-profiled [John] Kerry in November, Kurtz enthused. But heres the kind of provocative analysis this brilliant new star gave her readers:
KURTZ: Marlantes rendered Kerry as a product of exclusive schools and a relatively blue-blooded lineage, with a somewhat mannered style and anchormans head of hair. But rather than echo the conventional wisdom that Kerry was a political corpse, she wrote: Under the glare and strain of a hard-fought campaign, some say, Kerrys preparedness may start to pay off.Low, mordant chuckles filled our great halls. Yikes! Marlantes provocative analysis included hackneyed notes about Kerrys hair and mannered style. Quickly, Kurtz acknowledged the truth. The 30-year-old writer has caused a stir not for her Monitor articles but for her appearanceand smooth performanceon a spate of television programs, he admitted. She doesnt deny that being an attractive young woman helps. In short, Marlantes hasnt grabbed the attention of the media establishment because of any provocative analyses. Marlantes has caught the press corps eye because she is young and good-looking.
But then, when we checked out the rest of the Talented Three, we found other puzzling problems. According to Kurtz, the New Republics Ryan Lizza has also caught the press corps eye. But here was one example of the fresh new scribes brilliant analyses:
KURTZ: Lizzas writing doesnt always endear him to his subjects. After writing Free Fall last summera piece likening the Kerry campaign to a 1990s tech stockLizza says he got an expletive-filled e-mail from a Kerry staffer telling him never to call again. (Theyve since made amends.)Oops! Since Kerry went on to win the Democratic nomination, Lizzas analysis only had one small flawit had been completely inaccurate! On the plus side, when Lizza predicted the Kerry demise, he was saying what the rest of the press corps was saying. Does the press corps really love scribes who provoke? Or does the press corps love scribes who conform?
Finally, Kurtz gave us Slates Will Saletan. Frankly, if the quoted analyses had been more provocative, we would have put in a coma:
KURTZ: William Saletan specializes in what he calls spin analysis. As Slate magazines chief political correspondent, Saletan posts witty, attitude-filled dispatches that critique, and often skewer, the candidates. After the presidents last news conference, Saletan wrote that Bush just says the same thing today that he said yesterday and is blind to external reality.When it comes to Bush and Kerry, Kurtz finds Saletan reciting pure conventional wisdom. How provocative is the Slate scribe? By his own account, he feels at liberty to say out loud what other reporters are already thinking! Oh, freedom! Are you really surprised when the corps loves a guy who says what they already think?
For the record, we were struck by Kurtzs piece because we were going there anyway. All this week, were going to offer an overview of the way this election is now being covered. More specifically, were going to look at the New York Timesat the odd coverage it seems to be offering. Yes, were going to watch as the paper of record seems to shout and cheerlead for Bush. And were going to ask a question youll rarely see asked by provocative scribes of the type Kurtz describes. Were going to ask why the New York Times has now done this for two straight elections.
Readers, you may know the background. Four years ago, the press corps made a sick joke of your White House election, trashing Gore for twenty straight months and thereby putting Bush in the White House. And while this happened, the provocative types Kurtz praises today sat around and said nothing about it! The New Republic never opened its mouth; Saletan (and Slate) barely offered a peep. These provocative fellows sat on their hands while the press made a joke of your interests. Were going to ask you why that occurredand why it seems to be happening again.
Yes, its time to take a searching look at the work of younger journalists like theseto look at the provocative young scribes who are grabbing the attention of the media establishment. We were repulsed by their cowardice four years ago, and we cant help but notice them drifting again. So read Kurtzs column and tell us the truth: Do you really see three brave young reporters? Or might you see three self-serving scribes, looking ahead to Millionaire Pundit Days, selling you straight down the river?
GOOD PUNDITS BELIEVED ALL THAT STUFF: Why does the press corps love Ryan Lizza? Because he offered a provocative prediction about Kerrys campaignwhich turned out to be completely inaccurate! But so what! This press corps doesnt care if youre right. As weve seen again and again, the Washington press corps only cares if you repeat their conventional wisdom.
For the record, when it comes to bungled predictions, Saletan can play the game too. In fact, he totally bungled the 2000 race as late as October 2000:
KURTZ: Saletan says he isnt trying to break news and rarely hits the campaign trail: My excuse is Ive got a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. I plead guilty to armchair quarterbacking.Yes, Saletan wrote that Bush is toast with weeks to go in Campaign 2000. (Well examine the reasons later this week.) But then, to judge from the passage above, Saletan doesnt just bungle elections. He also believed all the stuff about WMD, the provocative analyst sheepishly says. Meanwhile, Saletan seems to think he was taking a risk about WMD when he said what every insider said! Can you start to see why the mainstream press just loves the scribes dogged reporting?
Go ahead and read Kurtzs piece. But ask yourselves this: Are you reading about three provocative scribes? Or is Kurtz describing compliant script-readers? All week, well examine the way the coverage of Campaign 04 is unfolding. And well wonder why provocative analysts of this type never seem to say one word about it.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE NON-IDIOT: Lets face it: Bob Woodward could do a thousand shows and no TV pundit would ever dare ask about his books most puzzling narrative. No one would ever dare to ask about that weird scene from December 2002the scene in which Strong Leader Bush challenges hapless George Tenet. Everyone knows how to play the scene. They play it the way Tim Russert did when Woodward did an hour-long turn on his eponymous CNBC program:
RUSSERT (4/24/04): The book, Plan of Attack, the author, Bob Woodward, and he is here talking to us about it. December 21, 2002: George Tenet and his top deputy briefing the president, in effect, a slide show, if you will, on the weapons of mass destruction, in the Oval Office, and the president at the conclusion says, quote, Nice try, but that isnt going to sell Joe Public. This is the best we got?Bush was a real skeptic, Russert saidshowing that he, Tim Russert, isnt. After all, by the time this ballyhooed briefing was held, Woodwards book quite clearly states that Bush and Cheney had been overstating the intel on WMD for four solid months, driving the nation to war in the process! If Bush was such a masterful skeptic, why wasnt this briefing held before Decemberbefore he misstated the intel for months? The question here is perfectly obviousbut every pundit knows not to ask it. Indeed, Russert carried the clowning further only a few moments later:
RUSSERT: You think heBob, you take it even further.But thats the problem with Woodwards book! When Bush tells Tenet not to stretch, he himself has been stretching for months! But Russert knows not to notice this point, or to ask Woodward how to explain it. Everyone knows how this script has been blocked. Everyone knows to admire the way Strong Leader Bush challenged Tenet.
No, no TV pundit ever asks Woodward about this part of his book. And then, late Thursday night, e-mail flooded our Advanced Message Center. Someone had asked him about it:
E-MAIL: On Monday you pointed out that neither Woodward, nor anyone else, picked up on the fact that while Bush was [allegedly] skeptical about WMDs when Tenet briefed him in December hed already been selling the idea for months.As in Lear, it took a fool, a comediana village non-idiot! Several readers noted the ironythat only Stewart, a working comedian, was willing to ask the key question:
E-MAIL Dont know if you watch The Daily Show, but Jon Stewart got it right about Bob Woodwards book. In his interview with Woodward tonight he mentioned the December WMD briefing and pointed out that Bush and Cheney had already been flogging the issue for months. Perhaps he reads your site (or maybe hes intelligent enough to know these things without it), but at least maybe Stewart gets it. At least theres a semi-sane voiceon the made-up comedy news! That says something about the press corps, doesnt it?Yes, it does say something about the press corps! We dont know if Stewart reads THE HOWLER, and were sure he is intelligent enough to ask this question on his own. (So is every Washington pundit.) But heres what this says about the press corps. It says that your press corps will stick to Approved Pundit Scripts, ignoring even the most obvious questions. Many readers wrote to say how f*cking pathetic this is:
E-MAIL Did you see The Daily Show last night? It was (sadly) the first real interview with Woodward about his book. Stewart is the first guy who didnt just sat there mesmerized with awe while Woodward cooed about Bush saying that John Q. Public wouldnt buy the story about WMD and telling people not to stretch anything to make the case. Instead, Stewart sat through that and asked, Yeah, but that was in December, right? Werent they pushing this intelligence for months before that?Our reader is absolutely correct. Big Pundit Russert played the fool. Stewart asked the obvious question.
But theres an obvious downside to having comedians handle your public discourse. Comedians tend to interject jokes. When Stewart asked Woodward this obvious question, he didnt force the scribe to answer. The chance for full discussion was lost.
For the record, lets establish what was said. Coming back from a break, Stewart asked Woodward to describe that ballyhooed briefing. Woodward recited the Official Script about the instinct of Wise Leader Bush:
WOODWARD: Tenets deputy made a detailed presentation It was quite long and at the end there was this silence, and the president, President Bush, said, Nice try, but it doesnt sell. Joe Public will not buy it. And so he turned over to Tenet, who was sitting on one of the couches, and said, What have you got, George? I thought this was good stuff! And Tenet twice said, Oh dont worry, its a slam-dunk. Now Bushs snifferhis instincttold him something didnt add up here. Tenet said a slam-dunk. Ideally, they should have gone back to Square One and said, Lets really look at this intelligence, because this was the basis for war. This was not just what sort of bill they were going to send up to the Senate.Of course, many things dont quite add up in this Official Story. Stewart teased out one such problem with his next pair of questions:
STEWART (continuing directly): Right. What I think was even so interesting about it was the timing. Because when did this briefing take place?Things were starting to move along. Then, the inevitable occurred. Stewart broke in with a joke:
STEWART: No, he isand again, I dont know if you interviewed him on thisa mindless cyborg. He is not man but machine.The audience laughed, Woodward did too, and Jon-and-Bob never got back on track about Plan of Attacks puzzling story.
Ideally, many questions should have followed that first pair of queries by Stewart. Here are a few obvious questions ignored by Woodwards book:
ALL WEEK: We continue to look at the oddball ways Woodwards strange book has been spun.