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THEY SURF DURING ADS (PART 4)! What’s the truth about Bush’s ad? There’s no way for voters to tell:

FRIDAY, MAY 14, 2004

A CHANGE IN THE WEATHER: Many readers wrote about Jim VandeHei’s report in yesterday’s Washington Post. We certainly understood their surprise. Here was one of their e-mails:

E-MAIL: Did you read [Thursday’s] Washington Post article on John Kerry’s criticism of the Iraq War? The reporter actually exposed the Republican spin as the lie that it is. Great job by Jim VandeHei.
That L-word is always tangy, but it’s pretty much the word that applies. Amazingly, VandeHei challenged RNC chairman Marc Racicot. Here’s the passage to which our mailer referred:
VANDEHEI (5/13/04): The Bush campaign has repeatedly accused the senator of “politicizing” Iraq. Bush-Cheney chairman Marc Racicot told reporters Wednesday that Kerry is relentlessly “playing politics” and exploiting tragedy for political gain.

Racicot, for instance, told reporters that Kerry suggested that 150,000 or so U.S. troops are “somehow universally responsible” for the misdeeds of a small number of American soldiers and contractors. Racicot made several variations of this charge. But Kerry never said this, or anything like it.

Say what? VandeHei continued, quoting a statement by Kerry which Racicot had ignored. “I know that what happened over there is not the behavior of 99.9 percent of our troops,” Kerry had said at a Tuesday fundraiser—the very appearance Racicot was criticizing. Despite this rather blatant statement by Kerry, Racicot claimed that Kerry said that our troops are “somehow universally responsible” for the misconduct in Iraq. That’s right—according to VandeHei, it’s precisely the opposite of what Kerry said. Racicot made the charge anyway.

Of course, Dems are accustomed to RNC heads making such bogus statements. What’s startling here is the novel idea that a reporter would challenge such claims! Let’s face it: During Campaign 2000, Jim Nicholson couldn’t make a statement so bogus that any reporter would ever correct it. (Trust us—he tried. It couldn’t be done.) He dissembled wildly throughout the campaign; the nation’s reporters agreed not to notice. How utterly foolish could Nicholson get? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/8/02, to see why some readers were so amazed when Racicot found himself challenged. (This is Nicholson’s tour of the fancy hotel, one of the most absurd events in recent press corps history.)

For the record, VandeHei wasn’t alone in his conduct. In yesterday’s New York Times, Jodi Wilgoren offered a piece which also challenged Racicot’s spinning. Readers may ask why we’re suddenly seeing such a surprising change in the weather. But like our readers, we were quite struck by this pair of (encouraging) reports.

During Campaign 2000, Nicholson was able to clown at will; reporters, conducting a War Against Gore, agreed to clown along with him. But what will happen if some change in the weather leads to more reports of this type? Here’s what will happen: Racicot might be forced to raise real critiques of real things Kerry actually said. Why, we might even have a sensible discourse—if reporters start doing their jobs.

Readers were surprised by VandeHei’s piece, and we were quite surprised by it too. It’s been a long time since statements like this were challenged. Don’t believe us? Just keep reading! Read Part 4 of our current report.

Our current series: They surf during ads!

ENJOY EACH EXCITING INSTALLMENT: Spending records are being shattered as Candidate Bush airs slashing TV ads. But the national press has made little effort to examine the contents of these commercials. Maybe the press corps just surf during ads! Enjoy each exciting installment:

PART 1: The Times says Bush’s ad is unfair—but reporters doesn’t care to find out. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/04

PART 2: Rutenberg critiqued Bush’s ad—but he told a much softer story. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/04

PART 3: Wilgoren took on another Bush ads. Maybe she shouldn’t have bothered. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/13/04

And now, for our thoughtful conclusion:

THEY SURF DURING ADS (PART 4): Jodi Wilgoren critiqued a key Bush ad—but maybe she shouldn’t have bothered (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/13/04). Did John Kerry’s “inartful explanation” really mean that he was a flipper? Did it really mean he was “soft on defense?” In fact, Kerry’s comment referred to two different spending bills—one he had favored and one he’d opposed. But did that make the solon a flipper? In fact, George Bush had also opposed one of the bills and supported the other, a point which escaped Wilgoren’s notice. If this stance made Kerry a flipper, it would seem it made Bush a flipper too. Meanwhile, did Kerry’s vote against one bill mean that he was “soft on defense?” In fact, Bush had said that he would veto the spending bill which he disfavored. To all appearances, Bush’s ad accused Kerry of sins for conduct Bush engaged in himself.

But then, what else is new when Bush and Cheney flay Kerry for his troubling conduct? This takes us back to that other Bush ad—the ad which a New York Times editorial said was “particularly cynical” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/04). According to Bush’s hard-hitting ad—an ad which is still in heavy circulation—Kerry has “repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror.” But uh-oh! According to the Times editorial, Dick Cheney opposed some of the very same weapon systems when he served as Secretary of Defense! Amazing, isn’t it? If the editorial was right, the widely-played Bush/Cheney commercial was hammering Kerry—slamming him hard—for stands he had shared with Dick Cheney! That’s right—Bush was slamming Kerry around for things which Dick Cheney had done!

But was the Times right when it made its claims? Because your press corps slumbers and snores as our White House election moves forward, it’s almost impossible for voters to judge the claims in this important Bush ad. Everyone knows that Bush’s ads are driving up John Kerry’s “negatives.” But so what? To all appearances, your press corps simply doesn’t care if the Bush camp’s claims are true or false. It doesn’t care if these claims are fair—and it doesn’t give a flying fig about the conduct of your White House election. To all appearances, the press corps surfs around during ads. They don’t care if these ads are on target.

Yes, information is quite hard to find about this influential ad. Here at THE HOWLER, we have Nexis, and we’re willing to use it, but it’s still hard to find out what’s true. Despite that, we have assembled some partial info, garnered from the fleeting reports the nation’s news orgs have deigned to provide. So how about it? Is Kerry soft on defense? Let’s consider a few of the systems the solon is slammed for opposing.

As we’ve noted, the text of the national Bush-Cheney ad lists a few such systems. Here is the standard text which plays in most parts of the country:

BUSH-CHENEY AD—NATIONAL TEXT: As our troops defend America in the war on terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror: Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Patriot missiles, B-2 Stealth bombers, F-18 fighter jets and more.
This national ad lists four weapon systems which Kerry has “repeatedly opposed.” But local versions of the ad are playing in certain regional markets—ads in which the Bush campaign plays the pork-barrel card. Here, for example, is the text of the ad which has been playing in Florida:
BUSH-CHENEY AD—FLORIDA TEXT: As our troops defend America in the war on terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the War on Terror: Apache helicopters, C-130 Hercules and F-16 fighter jets, components of which are all built here in Florida.
This text adds the Apache helicopter and the F-16 to the list of opposed weapon systems. For the record, here’s the text which has played in Arizona:
BUSH-CHENEY AD—ARIZONA TEXT: As our troops defend America in the war on terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the War on Terror: Apache Helicopters, Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, and components of F-18 Fighter Jets, all built here in Arizona.
Localized versions have also been playing in Missouri, Arkansas and Ohio. All of them stress the troubling way Kerry has opposed weapons systems which are vital to your nation’s defense.

But what’s the truth about these systems—the systems Kerry has opposed? According to the New York Times editorial, Dick Cheney cancelled the M-1 tank in 1990—a system Kerry is slammed for opposing! And according to Brooks Jackson at, Cheney “also proposed canceling the Apache helicopter program” in 1989. Jackson provides some congressional testimony from August 13 of that year:

CHENEY: The Army, as I indicated in my earlier testimony, recommended to me that we keep a robust Apache helicopter program going forward, AH-64…I forced the Army to make choices. I said, “You can’t have all three. We don’t have the money for all three.” So I recommended that we cancel the AH-64 program two years out.
Also according to Jackson’s site, Cheney called for canceling the Bradley fighting vehicle in 1991. And he called for canceling the F-16 fighter in that same year, too. In short, if the Times and Brooks Jackson have their facts straight, Cheney quite aggressively “opposed” at least four of the weapon systems Kerry is being slammed for opposing. All over the country, citizens are hearing that Kerry endangered the War on Terror when he opposed these weapon systems. The ad is running in Bush-Cheney’s name—and Brother Cheney, Bush’s mate, opposed the same systems too.

Do the Times and Jackson have their facts straight? For most citizens, there’s really no way to find out; the press corps has taken a total pass on fact-checking this puzzling ad. Indeed, even after the Times editorial attacking this ad as “particularly cynical,” your lazy, inept and slumbering press corps continues to doze in its chairs. The nation’s newspapers have generally taken a total pass on examining this ad. And how have TV news programs performed? They have gone wildly AWOL too. At the NewsHour, just to cite one example, Jim Lehrer and Terence Smith have slumbered and loudly snored at their desks. Example: On May 4—two days after that Times editorial—Smith played one of Kerry’s new biographical ads. Then he continued, as follows:
SMITH: The commercials, unusual this early in a presidential campaign, are designed in part to counter a $60 million advertising barrage by President Bush. Those ads, currently airing in the same battleground states, depict Kerry as weak on defense and devoted to higher taxes:

BUSH/CHENEY AD (videotape): As our troops defend America in the war on terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror: Bradley fighting vehicles, Patriot missiles, B-2 Stealth bombers, F-18 fighter jets, and more. Kerry even voted against body armor for our troops on the front line of the war on terror. John Kerry’s record on national security: Troubling.

SMITH: Meanwhile, the president continued his two-day bus tour through Michigan and Ohio. This morning he told a crowd outside Toledo that he and his opponent are far apart on foreign policy.

Two days after the New York Times said this ad was “particularly cynical,” Smith played its text for viewers—and made no attempt to critique it. Can someone tell us why PBS is still paying fat salaries to Lehrer and Smith? These slumbering dandies just couldn’t be lazier—or more contemptuous of your right to a discourse.

What’s the truth about Bush’s ad? American voters have no way to know. The press corps knows what Terence Smith knows—they know that $60 million in ads have hammered away at Kerry’s reputation. But they have dozed and burbled as these ads run—and they seem to have no intention of checking them out.

Obvious questions go ignored as the “press corps” slumps before its TVs. For example, why did Kerry oppose those three annual defense appropriations—the critical votes which have formed the basis for many of the Bush campaign’s shaky charges? We haven’t seen a single newspaper which has tried to address this question. Like McCain, did he vote them down due to pork? Your press corps is too lazy to tell you. Meanwhile, why are Bush/Cheney slamming Kerry for stands which Cheney seems to have taken? We haven’t seen that question raised either. Readers, we’ve tried to tell you this for years—you no longer have a press corps. Bush can say what he wants in his ads. There’s no chance your “press corps” will notice.

JOE SCAROROUGH’S RUBIFICATION PROGRAM: Does anyone play his viewers for fools quite the way Joe Scarborough does? In truth, the cable host is really quite sharp. On other shows, he can be impressively fair. But man, does he play his viewers for fools when they show up in Scarborough Country! On Wednesday night, he extended his rubification program to the question of Nicholas Berg’s ugly murder. Joe’s complaint? The New York Times hadn’t given the story sufficient play in that morning’s edition:

SCARBOROUGH (5/12/04): You know, while the rest of America focused on the savage execution of a young American citizen, the New York Times today chose instead to deliver its 23rd editorial on the Iraqi prison abuse scandal. Much like the Baghdad art museum scandal a year ago, the Times editorial page seems strangely obsessed with any story that can cause the most harm to America’s war efforts.

We are, after all, a nation that’s been fighting for the future of our civilization since the last plane fell on 9/11. Now, in a bizarre omission, the New York Times failed to utter a single word on its editorial page today about our sworn enemies carving off the head of Nick Berg. This from a newspaper who supposedly cares about human rights and prisoners so much that they’ve been beating the hell out of the Abu Ghraib story for a week and a half now…

Not only did the editorial page of the New York Times ignore the beheading, but the front page actually ran a picture below the fold—and let me show you this. Here’s the front page of the New York Times. You have to go below the fold to actually see the picture over here. And you’ll notice that actually a picture of the trumpeter [sic] on the front page of the New York Times gets bigger play than this unbelievably important story of the execution.

Joe built an entire segment around this complaint. Scarborough viewers got a chance to shake their fists at the troubling “elite media.” It was “media bias at its worst,” their irate host movingly said.

But readers, how about Wednesday’s Washington Times? By our lights, the Washington Times gave Berg’s death less play than its counterpart up in New York. For example, the New York Times played the Berg killing as its front-page lead story (top right on page one). At the Washington Times, it was clearly the number-two story, with only the headline above the fold. (The story of General Taguba’s testimony dominated the top half of page one.) As for photos, the New York Times photo was slightly larger. It did run completely beneath the fold, but the Washington Times photo only straddled the fold. And the New York Times played the scarier photo, the one showing Berg with his killers. Meanwhile, about that missing editorial: The Washington Times hadn’t run an editorial about Berg on Wednesday, either! At the New York Times, this was “a bizarre omission.” Over at the Washington Times, it was something for Joe to ignore.

Last night, Scarborough continued to clown on the topic. He made blatant misstatements about the New York Times coverage, even as he attacked the paper for its “purposeful distortion:”

SCARBOROUGH (5/13/04): You know, last night I called it bias, but tonight it’s looking more like purposeful distortion. Take my favorite daily read, the New York Times…You know, the Times never even bothered to tell loyal readers like me that the U.S. government told Berg to get out of Iraq immediately and even offered to fly him to safety? I had to read an Associated Press story later to learn that Berg got that offer, turned it down, and said he’d rather make the dangerous drive himself to Kuwait.
Sorry. In yesterday’s New York Times, the page-one story by Richard Lezin Jones raised that point two separate times:
JONES (5/13/04): Apparently in a response to the accusations that the actions of the military in Iraq exposed their son to worsening danger, the F.B.I. released a statement saying that Nicholas Berg had not heeded warnings and that he had declined assistance in leaving Iraq.
That was paragraph 5, right there on page one. Later, Jones amplified the point:
JONES (5/13/04): To the family, the oversight question is paramount because they say not only that his detention was unlawful, but also that it further threatened his safety. The Bergs have said the detention prevented him from leaving Iraq before the violence grew in Baghdad and Falluja.

The F.B.I. statement, though, said that coalition authorities had offered “to facilitate his safe passage out of Iraq,” but that Mr. Berg refused their help.

Jeez! How often does the Times have to make a point before “loyal readers” will notice?

At any rate, travelers surely need to be warned. A ruthless rubification program is under way in Scarborough Country. And your strongman, Joe Scarborough, will play you for fools. In the process, he’ll take dead aim on your challenged American democracy.

Oh yes, one final point: On Wednesday, Scarborough said that “the New York Times today chose to deliver its 23rd editorial on the Iraqi prison abuse scandal” (see above). Apparently, Joe dont cownt reel guud. The actual number was 7.

By the way: The Washington Times ran an editorial about Abu Ghraib prison in its Wednesday edition, too.

From the annals of instant classics

SCOTT’S MOVEMENT: How “hip” are we at THE DAILY HOWLER? We even know a movie hall where they still show In America! (On weekends.) And yes, we’re headed off this weekend for the latest of our serial viewings. Comedian Neal Graham hasn’t seen the film, and we know his sensibility well enough to see this as an obvious match. Meanwhile, lifelong friend Bart, also late to the project, wants to rack up his fourth viewing. For ourselves, we think there are things at the heart of this film that will never again go on the screen.

We know: We’ve pushed this film so much by now that no HOWLER reader could possibly see it without a major letdown. But because we promised, we want to offer a viewer’s guide for those who may buy the DVD. As we’ve said, it will never happen again: No film will ever put child life on the screen in the way In America does. It just isn’t possible mathematically—that a writer/director of Jim Sheridan’s sensibility will ever meet up with two child performers like Sarah Bolger and Emma Bolger, In America’s supernal child players. Frankly, after repeated viewings, we agree with Ann Hornaday’s daring appraisal; we think then-6-year-old Emma Bolger’s performance is the one that’s a bit more “amazing.” Surely, no 6-year-old child has ever come close to performing the scenes she does in this film. But that hardly makes her 10-year-old sister, Sarah Bolger, a slacker; in one review of this film (which he called the year’s best), Richard Roeper credited Sarah Bolger with “the best performance by a child since Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.” Gifted with this pair of “astonishing juvenile performers” (Michael Sragow’s pleasing turn of phrase in the Baltimore Sun), Sheridan fills the screen with child life (and with family life) in a way that won’t ever happen again.

But In America offers more than the gorgeous portrait brought to life by its two child performers. For those of you who are drawn to this film, we can only say this—we have never seen a film that goes so much deeper with repeat viewings. Sheridan worked ten years on its mysterious story. With that in mind, we recommend In America: A Portrait of the Film (go to Amazon), which gives you the screenplay and a set of essays in which, among other things, Sheridan offers a handful of hints about how he crafted his tale:

SHERIDAN: When I get an idea for a film, I will run it through in my head and compare it to then stories of James Joyce. For me, Joyce is like a litmus test. His stories are like an X-ray of Irish society viewed through the lens of the man who, after Shakespeare, knew more about world myth than any other writer. And he knew about myths the way a writer knows, not as something given and academic, but as something that could be changed like the dial on a radio…
Sheridan gets more specific. But the gentleman works on a different level than most of the people who produce today’s films. For those of you who enjoyed his film once, we suggest you may like it again.

Frankly, we’ve been hoping that In America would start to move toward “instant classic” status. Yes, there are flaws with the film, which employs an ambitious aesthetic which Sheridan doesn’t perfectly master. But to us, the film really seems to be one of a kind, and we think we’ve seen signs that major critics have begun dialing up their appraisals. For example, when A. O. Scott reviewed the film for the New York Times in November, we thought we detected a slight note of condescension toward “[t]his modest, touching film.” (Critics on the higher end tended to slightly temper their praise.) But when a capsule review appeared three months later, we wondered if Scott wasn’t showing some movement. His reactions tracked ours to a T:

SCOTT: The film, which Mr. Sheridan wrote with two of his daughters, is unabashedly personal, but he is too modest a filmmaker to turn his own experience into a lesson or a parable. From moment to moment, as it follows Johnny and Sarah Sullivan (Mr. Considine and Ms. Morton, both quietly terrific) through their daily struggles, the story feels small, almost anecdotal. But just as its tactful realism is adorned with a dusting of magic, its unassuming clarity hides an unexpected grandeur. It is the kind of movie that keeps growing in your mind long after you’ve seen it, and its characters are so radiantly particular that they come, after a while, to seem like people you know.
This film has “kept growing in our mind” too. We’re glad we went the second time—and a number of times after that.

We promise not to discuss this again. But many people missed In Am the first time around. We wanted to give you the word.

For the record, how they ranked it: At the Associated Press, both reviewers, David Germain and Christy Lemire, put In America number 3 on last year’s ten-best list. At Salon, both mainstream reviewers, Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor, brought it in at number 2. At Slate, David Edelstein ranked it at 4. Ebert and Roeper: 10 and 1. We think you see the point we’re making. Readers! It isn’t just us!

And then we’ll be done: The first question we’d ask Sheridan (out of t’ousands): Assuming no writer could write that well, what was the source of the language in the first half of “Christy’s prayer?”

No monsters, no ghosts,
No nightmares, no witches;
No people coming in the kitchen and smashing the dishes—
No devils coming out of the mirror;
No dolls that come alive…
Phew! Maybe you just have to be there…