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IF ASKED, DON’T TELL! Howard Kurtz asked a good question. Sadly, though, Simon won’t tell: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 16, 2008

SPECULATIONS WERE MADE: We’ve been meaning to cite an amusing presentation by New York Times sports writer Greg Bishop. Bishop found a convoluted way to describe his cohort’s recent bungling:

BISHOP (5/8/08): A former New England Patriots employee has sent the N.F.L. eight videotapes showing the team recorded play-calling signals by coaches of five opponents in six games between the 2000 and 2002 seasons, in violation of league rules.

But the group of tapes does not include video of the St. Louis Rams' walk-through practice the day before the 2002 Super Bowl. The employee, Matt Walsh, had been linked to such a tape by news media speculation.

Speculations were made, the scribe seemed to say. It sounded better than saying this: We made sh*t up—and sh*t was wrong.

WHAT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT: We rarely watch the network news shows, but last night, we watched NBC Nightly News. At the start, an unassuming Target/Price Club shopper tossed to correspondent John Yang—and we’d have to say Yang bungled Obama. In a lengthy report, Yang never defined Obama’s position about diplomacy: Yes to diplomacy with Iran (and other states), no to diplomacy with Hamas. But he played tape of Colin Powell saying, “Hamas has to be engaged.” Given the entire presentation, a viewer might well have gotten the impression that Obama holds that stance too.

It was a very weak report—inexcusably weak, we’d have to say. But then, Williams instantly limned McCain in a way we thought was a bit unfair too--and Kelly O’Donnell dropped a silly framework around her report on McCain’s speech. Of course, no one is bungling McCain today quite like the Washington Post’s Michael Shear (though this construction seems to be going around). This is Shear’s third paragraph, in the Post’s front-page lead story:

SHEAR (5/16/08): [McCain's] Iraq comments appeared designed to blunt the political toll of the presumptive GOP nominee's unwavering support for the unpopular war. Democrats have spent months pillorying McCain for saying that U.S. troops could remain in Iraq for as long as 100 years—a reference the candidate later said was intended to describe an American presence like those in Germany or South Korea.

The candidate “later said” that? You mean, ten seconds later? Shear’s construction is simply absurd—and it sits at the top of page one.

In the Times, Elisabeth Bumiller fumbles about with what she calls a “semantic” conundrum. Late in her report, she says that McCain “predicted,” “projected” and “forecast” a departure from Iraq by 2013. But as she opened, she used “declared.” We’d say this is bungled too:

BUMILLER (5/16/08): Senator John McCain declared on Thursday that most American troops would be home from Iraq by 2013 and that the nation would be a functioning democracy with only ''spasmodic'' episodes of violence. The comments were a striking departure from his usual refusal to set a date for American withdrawal.

You can defend that highlighted formulation as “technically accurate.” But later in her report, McCain is quoted telling Bumiller, “with exasperation,” that he isn’t setting a date for withdrawal—“that he was simply projecting victory.” But that’s where Bumiller got flummoxed and bollixed by all the tremendous semantic confusion. If you want to be fair about this—and of course, many won’t—you might be exasperated with Bumiller too.

But this is part of what we meant when we suggested, in yesterday’s HOWLER, that the press corps won’t go after Obama in the way they’ve gone after some Dems in the past. Yes, Maureen Dowd has gone over the top and around the bend—but we’d guess this has taken her to a place where many friends and colleagues won’t follow. The strongest example of that last night was Chris Matthews’ pummeling of the hapless talk-show host who was taking Bush’s position against Obama. Having booked an utterly hapless guest, Matthews beat him up for roughly five minutes. But this was Matthews, Dowd’s good friend, asserting Obama’s position.

Matthews later said that the guest was “pathetic.” Well actually, he said it about ten seconds later, while the segment was still dragging on.

IF ASKED, DON’T TELL: Incomparably, we e-mailed our old pal Howard Mortman as soon as we spotted the error. Back in his Hotline salad days, “H-Mo” developed a web-era specialty: He collected mis-transcriptions of pundit remarks on cable news programs. And sure enough! This past Sunday morning, it happened again! Howard Kurtz asked a very good question during his Reliable Sources program. But, completely understandably, some poor shlub out in CNN Typistry Land misunderstood what Kurtz had said, producing this comical transcript:

KURTZ (5/11/08): You all seem to be acknowledging, without quite saying it, that there is something to the notion that Hillary Clinton has not been treated with exactly the greatest respect by the press. And let's face it, I mean, there have been many times in this campaign...when, you know, to use one example of it, when journalists said, as Chris Matthews once did, that they've got to throw up their leg when Barack Obama speaks.

They've got to throw up their leg when Obama speaks? We’ll guess that Kurtz said something different. We’ll guess that he really said this: “When journalists said, as Chris Matthews once did, that they’ve got a thrill up their leg when Obama speaks.” Of course, given the weirdness of Matthews’ statement, you can’t really blame a transcriber-of-pundits for misunderstanding what Kurtz later said. But we did enjoy CNN’s mis-transcription. Not improbably, we pictured Chris marking his desk with his scent whenever his favorite pol speaks.

“Take it easy,” Olbermann said at the time. Perhaps from bitter experience.

At any rate, Kurtz asked several good questions during this part of Sunday’s program. Uh-oh! As usual, he was asking a trio of major journalists to help him evaluate the work of major journalists. Others would see a conflict there—but Kurtz popped his first good question all the same. He asked savvy Roger Simon:

KURTZ: Roger, I think Hillary got some grudging respect in recent weeks for being a fighter and maybe, you know, finding her voice, to use another journalistic cliche. But basically, journalists seem to have had very little sympathy for her in this campaign compared to what some would describe as the swooning over Barack Obama.

Say what? Kurtz was breaking every rule in the Pundit Book; he was suggesting that the press corps had chosen a favorite during Campaign 08! According to Kurtz, it seemed that they had swooned for Obama–and that they’d shown HRC little love! But did we mention that Simon is savvy? He engaged in a move that might be called Standard Pundit Refusal to Answer:

SIMON (continuing directly): Well, that's how she and her supporters certainly see the race. And I find that if you go into Hillary crowds, the anger you find on the part of her supporters, especially women supporters, is directed not against Barack Obama, but against the media.

There is a real deep hatred for how the media has treated Hillary Clinton. We've treated her unfairly, they say. We've been sexist. The debates of male-dominated media have beaten her up, have given her tougher questions. She complains she got the first question. This actually makes it easier for Obama to unify the party. They're not angry at him. They're angry at the media.

Slick! Instead of saying what he himself thought, Simon told us what Clinton fans think! But then, Simon has been ducking questions like this for a very long time, as we’ll recall at the end of this post. To her credit, the New York Times’ Kate Zernike isn’t quite that slick. Good lord! Where are standards? When Zernike was asked, she answered:

KURTZ (continuing directly): And Kate Zernike, have you have found that as well? And do you think there is some justification among those who passionately support Hillary Clinton's candidacy that she just simply hasn't gotten a fair break from the press?

ZERNIKE: Yes. I mean, I think what people were reacting to this week wasn't so much the media declaring the race over, as it was this kind of “Ding-dong, the witch is dead” quality about that tone to the comments. And I do think people are angry. And I think when you look at, you know, the percentages of Hillary Clinton supporters who say they won't support Obama, I think Roger is right. They're mad at–they're mad at the media.

Zernike needs a lot of work! When Kurtz asked her if she thought the corps had played favorites, she seemed to answer his question: “Yes!” And she even churned an unflattering portrait of the “ding-dong” things colleagues had said.

Zernike! Journos don’t do this! By law, they’re supposed to play it dumb when asked to explain their group’s misconduct. Indeed, this skill has been on display down through the years right there on Kurtz’s CNN program (links below). To her credit, Zernike overthrew Hard Pundit Law with this bad wrong thing she said.

But soon, the pundits regrouped–even Zernike. After a passing comment by our pal Karen Tumulty, Kurtz pushed onward, wondering why the press corps had disfavored Clinton. And now, we saw the old skills re-emerge. Even Zernike showcased this skill, offering a fairly silly “explanation” for the group preference she had described:

KURTZ: So you all seem to be acknowledging, without quite saying it, that there is something to the notion that Hillary Clinton has not been treated with exactly the greatest respect by the press. And let's face it, I mean, there have been many times in this campaign–not in the last few weeks during the whole Jeremiah Wright controversy, for example–when, you know, to use one example of it, when journalists said, as Chris Matthews once did, that they've got a thrill up their leg when Barack Obama speaks.

ZERNIKE: Yes. I think one thing that's happening here, an interesting point, is that what I heard a lot of people saying is that the media is more sensitive to race than they are to gender, to racial biases than we are to gender biases. And I think that's a little bit what people are reacting to as well.

That’s more like it! In fairness, Zernike’s point may even be accurate—although here again, she reverted to the practice of reporting what others have said. Our complaint? Zernike didn’t seem to be going anywhere near the largest reason for the corps’ conduct. But to our taste, no one else was spilling with frankness this day. Watch as Tumulty puzzles with Simon about this odd thing that occurred:

TUMULTY: I might say, though, that the great irony here is that Hillary Clinton campaign, having traveled with both of them, I can tell you, is by far, especially after she started losing, by far the more media-friendly. She comes back on the plane much more often than Barack Obama does. She talks to the media a lot more. And, so, you know, there is some double irony here, too.

SIMON: That's the sign of a loser. They talk to the media because they need the exposure.

Karen seemed a bit puzzled by the irony here. Even though Clinton had been more open, she got the sh*t end of the stick! And Simon, slickest of them all, now tossed in a puzzling new theory. As we all know, his cohort has spent the past ten years praising McCain for “talking to the media.” When John McCain “talks to the media” a lot, it proves he’s the moral sun god. But uh-oh! Told that Clinton had done the same thing, he now pronounced it the sign of a loser!

Truly, Simon had offered some cosmic nonsense—and at this point, Kurtz quit and moved on. He had heard two explanations for the press corps’ favoritism. The press corps is more attuned to racism than to sexism. And then too, the hapless Clinton had “talked to the media” too much!

But so it always has gone on Reliable Sources when journalist panels are asked to explain their cohort’s manifest favoritism. In the fall of 1999, Kurtz asked two different panels a very good question: Why was the press corps fawning to Bradley and kicking the daylights out of Gore? Surely, everyone knew the answer; indeed, Roger Simon, who sat on the first of those two panels, had told Kurtz the answer the previous June. But on both panels, everyone stumbled and fumbled about, deeply puzzled by the conundrum. Everyone seemed to agree with the premise: Gore was getting the shaft from their cohort. But try though they might—and they struggled quite hard--no one could say why that was.

For our real-time account of Simon’s first flim-flam, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/30/99. No one plays this game better than Simon. When Simon’s asked, Simon won’t tell.