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CONTEMPTIBLE CHARACTER! Kerry went back and saved Rassmann's life. Can you guess what the crewman said next?

MONDAY, MAY 10, 2004

REVIEW LESSON—WHAT DO SCRIPTS LOOK LIKE: What does it look like when scribes use a “script?” Given the way our press corps works, the point can’t be explained enough. So let’s engage in a quick review. Let’s consider three unremarkable Q-and-A’s from Kerry’s 4/18 Meet the Press. Then, let’s recall the way his statements were played in two big publications.

First, consider the program’s initial Q-and-A. Tim Russert had a Q on Iraq:

RUSSERT: [I]n the interest of candor and clarity, I want to give you a chance to answer a question right up top, and I promise we’ll talk about the nuance later on. But the American people, I think, would like a yes or no answer: Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake?

KERRY: I think the way the president went to war is a mistake.

Russert went on to ask if Kerry has “a plan to deal with Iraq.”

Next, consider what happened when Russert asked a speculative question:

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. I will tell you this, Tim. I will immediately reach out to other nations in a very different way from this administration…

Kerry said he couldn’t give a number. It would depend on the situation one year hence.

Finally, consider a two-part Q-and-A. Russert asked about Kerry’s claim that foreign leaders have told him they hope he wins the November election:

RUSSERT: Let me see if I can clean up a comment that you made in March that created an awful lot of controversy and stir. “I have met more leaders who can’t go out and say it publicly but, boy, they look at you and say, ‘You gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy, we need a new policy’—things like that. So there is enormous energy out there. Tell them, wherever they can find an American abroad, they can contribute.”

The Washington Times added this: “Although Mr. Kerry indicated that he had met in person with foreign leaders who privately endorsed him, he has made no official trips abroad in the past two years. Within the United States, he has had the chance to meet with only one foreign leader since the beginning of last year, according to a review of his travel schedule.”

Specifically, which foreign leaders have you met with who told you that you should beat George Bush?

KERRY: Tim, first of all, that is an inaccurate assessment of how I might or where I might be able to meet or talk to a foreign leader, number one.

RUSSERT: But you have talked to foreign leaders who told you—

KERRY: Tim, what I said is true. I mean, you can go to New York City and you can be in a restaurant and you can meet a foreign leader. There are plenty of places to meet people without traveling abroad. Number two, I’m under no obligation—I would be stupid if I were to sit here and start saying, “Well, so-and-so told me this,” because they have dealings with this administration. This administration doesn’t talk about its private conversations, and nor will I...

In all three cases, Kerry’s answers were unremarkable—and were quite direct. His answer on the war in Iraq took twelve words total. When asked about future troop levels, he stated the obvious—it will depend on circumstances. When asked to name foreign leaders with whom he has spoken, he said he wouldn’t—for fairly obvious reasons—and noted that you don’t have to leave the country to meet such people. In two of these cases, Russert went on to ask more questions. But Kerry’s initial statements were hardly remarkable. And it would be hard to be much more direct.

But so what? Your Washington “press corps” has a hard script—Kerry is nuanced, evasive and rambling. Result? Two major scribes pretended that these answers were troubling. They had their script—and they made the facts fit it. Their work is well worth a review.

On April 19, Jodi Wilgoren highlighted Answer 1 in her New York Times report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/04). Her problem? She was troubled that Kerry—asked for one word—had spoken as many as twelve! In the same article, Wilgoren complained because Kerry said “it depends”—although Donald Rumsfeld had given the same obvious answer to the same fuzzy question only two weeks before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/04). And last week, Karen Tumulty worked the script too (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/04). In Time, she quoted Kerry’s remark about where you can meet a foreign leader, and pretended that this was his reply to the question of who he had met. Having thereby misled readers, she complained that this “gaffe” had been “lame.”

No, there was nothing remarkable about Kerry’s answers—but the way they were reported was striking. Wilgoren and Tumulty had a hard script, and they hammered the facts to make them fit. But then, reporters played this game throughout Campaign 2000. What does it look like when scribes use a script? Wilgoren, then Tumulty, let us know. Will we ever have an election where reporters just tell us what happened?

SOMETIMES REPORTERS REPORT: For the record, sometimes reporters just tell you what happened. For a good example, read Elisabeth Bumiller’s spare report in yesterday’s New York Times. Throughout the piece, Bumiller quotes a major official, by name, about Don Rumsfeld’s job status. She quotes the official again and again, with barely a hint of “analysis” or comment. We are simply told what this person said. There isn’t a hint of an external “script,” as we often see in reporting on Kerry.

Why was Bumiller so restrained, so professional? Because she was quoting Condi Rice! When Wilgoren “reported” Kerry’s Meet the Press session, she was full of criticism, analysis and scripts. But Rice is an Official Press Darling, and that’s exactly how Bumiller treated her. You got to learn what Rice said (as is appropriate). Bumiller kept her own spin-points out of it.

So if you had come to believe that major scribes are addicted to spin, read this report from yesterday’s Times. Reporters do know how to report. But especially at the disordered Times, they can be extremely selective when it comes to dispensing such courtesies.

MORE TALES OF CONTEMPTIBLE CHARACTER: We were amazed when several readers dissented about that snowboarding incident (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/04). (Yes, this includes you, David!) Of course Kerry’s “SOB” comment was important, they said. And yes, it did show his “contemptible character.” Here was one line of reasoning:

E-MAIL: Was it a joke or not? If not (and…it seems highly likely that it was not), then it IS news. The bottom line is that such a comment shows a contemptible side, i.e., a penchant for taking a shot at someone who cannot fight back. Like a guy who embarrasses a waiter or some poor sap just trying to do his job. It is a very nasty character trait, and character IS important.

I wonder if John Kerry apologized to the guy.

Good God! Readers, this is the voter for whom sophists pray! And yes, their number is legion.

Readers, it’s known as “misdirection.” It’s the intentional effort to get you to think about things that are trivial and unverifiable. No, it wouldn’t really tell you much if Kerry had called that agent a bad, naughty name. But was Kerry serious when he made his remark? As almost everyone surely knows, people use the term “SOB” in an off-handed way all the time. Let’s consider a recent report about Kerry-in-Vietnam.

On May 2, the Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes described the way Kerry saved a crewman’s life during a Vietnam firefight. But guess what? Apparently, the crewman, Jim Rassmann, has a “contemptible character” too, just like Kerry! Here is Mapes’ account of the incident:

MAPES: An explosion rocked the swift boat to their left, and gunfire erupted from both banks. Another mine exploded near PCF-94, sending Kerry into a bulkhead, smashing his right arm.

Rassmann was flung into the river.

Fearing he would be sliced by a boat propeller, Rassmann dove to the river bottom. By the time he surfaced for air, the boats were out of sight. Alone, he became the target of enemy fire.

Rassmann kept diving. He said it wasn’t until he broke the surface for the fifth or sixth time that he saw Kerry returning for him. When PCF-94 moved close, Rassmann grabbed a cargo net on the bow and hung on.

“John came up to the bow,” Rassmann recalled, “and I thought he was going to get killed because he was so exposed.”

With his good arm, Kerry hauled Rassmann over the bow, and the two scrambled for cover. Sandusky, the driver, remembered being thanked by Rassmann with gallows humor: “You dumb S.O.B., you almost ran me over.”

Kerry received the Bronze Star for rescuing Rassmann and got his third Purple Heart.

Earlier this year, Rassmann told the Boston Globe that Kerry should have gotten a Silver Star, not the Bronze, for this daring behavior.

But readers, how “contemptible” can Jim Rassmann be? Kerry and Sandusky risked their lives to save his—and as soon as he was dragged on board, he called Sandusky a “dumb SOB!” And don’t worry. If Rassmann were running for office as a Dem, “Republican operatives” would send out this item, saying it shows his “contemptible character,” just as they have done with Kerry. Our view? If it’s “contemptible character” you want, we think we know where you can find it.

Readers, uncover your ears and meet the real world! Tough-talking men of a certain generation often call each other “SOBs.” It tells you nothing about their character. It does say something about “Republican operatives” when they “circulate” these pointless stories, as Patrick Healy described in the Globe. It says they want to treat you like rubes—and make a joke of your White House election. There’s only one thing here we don’t understand. We don’t understand why you let them.

WHAT DO SCRIPTS LOOK LIKE, PART TWO: While we’re at it, let’s consider the script-peddling scribe who put this snowboard event into play. That would be David Halbfinger of (what else?) the New York Times, one of only two reporters who witnessed this meaningless incident.

Kerry uttered his troubling imprecation while snowboarding on March 18. The next day, Halbfinger described the event:

HALBFINGER: On his first full day off, though, Mr. Kerry awoke determined to hit the slopes of Mount Baldy.

The image-conscious candidate and his aides prevailed upon reporters and photographers to let him have a first run down the mountain solo, except for two agents and Marvin Nicholson, his omnipresent right-hand man.

His next trip down, a reporter and a camera crew were allowed to follow along on skis—just in time to see Mr. Kerry taken out by one of the Secret Service men, who had inadvertently moved into his path, sending him into the snow.

When asked about the mishap a moment later, he said sharply, “I don’t fall down,” then used an expletive to describe the agent who “knocked me over.”

Those who feign concern about Kerry’s remark have pointed to that single word, “sharply.” The Kerry camp said Kerry was joking. But this single word “sharply” became the evidence offered by the troubled dissenters—by those who said that Kerry was upset at the agent, and showcased his troubling character.

But how reliable is David Halbfinger? This incident was observed by two reporters, Halbfinger and ABC’s Ed O’Keefe. For the record, the two reporters didn’t even agree on what Kerry said when he got flattened. (For O’Keefe’s account, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/04). Meanwhile, how much confidence do you have in Halbfinger? Here at THE HOWLER, we have very little. For example, here’s the spin-drenched way he began the report which included the snowboarding incident:

HALBFINGER (pgh 1): John Kerry was in the air, approaching the Continental Divide, and the candidate often ridiculed as straddling both sides of political divides was wrestling with the big matter at hand.

(2) Should he ski, or snowboard? Or maybe both? He gave no clue where he stood. But that was Wednesday night.

(3) A longtime adviser recently suggested that there were two John Kerrys: “indoor John and outdoor John”—one who agonizes over decisions, and another who acts boldly on them.

(4) It was outdoor John, decidedly so, who emerged from an armored S.U.V. at the foot of Bald Mountain here on Thursday morning, outfitted in blue ski gear and swigging from a bottle of vitamin-fortified water. From the rear of the vehicle he pulled a weathered old snowboard, and for most of the day proceeded to zigzag down what locals affectionately call Mount Baldy.

Is Kerry “often ridiculed” as a big straddler? Showing off his masterful wit, Halbfinger ridiculed Kerry on the theme once again, right at the start of this “news report!” Indeed, he even jammed the Continental Divide into his piece as a way to use the amusing script—a script he continued as he mocked Kerry’s attempt to choose between snowboards and skis (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/19/04). Is this simply bad judgment, or does it show a partisan animus? Here at THE HOWLER, we really can’t say. But at any rate, are you prepared to trust this hapless scribe when he says how “sharply” Kerry spoke? In our view, there’s only one thing you can trust about Halbfinger—you can trust his relentless bad judgment.

At any rate, there you have it. Kerry’s camp said he was joking. Halbfinger said the downed solon spoke “sharply.” But the scribe mocked Kerry throughout his report, typing up familiar scripts about the “image-conscious candidate.” Yes, the Times is our most disordered paper, and this report helps show why we say that. Are you on the prowl for “contemptible character?” If so, Kerry’s deeply troubling remark may not be the best place to look.

From the annals of seeing-no-evil

BUT WHO WILL TEST THE JOURNALISTS: We’ve written about this matter before, but nothing stops the press corps’ cluelessness when it comes to standardized testing. On page one of Sunday’s New York Times, Diana Jean Schemo penned a report about “performance bonuses” for public school teachers. Should teachers get a boost in pay if their students get good test scores? Schemo offers a lengthy, two-photo report about this ongoing issue.

Schemo’s piece is more than 1500 words long. It stretches over 31 paragraphs. But nowhere does she mention an obvious problem with this idea—the possibility that bonus pay will encourage teachers to cheat on their standardized testing. All over the country, for the past three decades, cheating scandals have been reported. Everyone understands a basic problem—as pressure builds around student test scores, teachers have an increased incentive to cheat. But as we’ve told you again and again, education reporters refuse to acknowledge this well-known problem. For obvious reasons, educators like to duck this topic. Education scribes like to duck too.

Yes, Virginia, teachers (and principals) cheat all the time. They cheat in every way you can think of. But the press corps always plays it dumb on the subject. Yesterday, they did it again.

NOTE: Teacher cheating could be greatly reduced if certain security measures were introduced—if tests were administered by outside agents, or if teachers were unaware of the specific content of specific tests. But no one ever discusses that, either. Your education establishment likes you clueless. Your “press corps” is up to the task.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: How widespread have cheating scandals been—and how clueless does the press tend to act? For one detailed report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/01. For other reports on such subjects, enter “TAAS or Cannell or KIPP or NAEP or Lake Wobegon” in our whirring search engines.