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Daily Howler: Good Lord! Kevin Drum says the New York Times is ''state of the art'' in perfection
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BLOGGER PANGLOSS! Good Lord! Kevin Drum says the New York Times is “state of the art” in perfection: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 20, 2005

TWOFER: Our whirring engines went down on Thursday, so we were unable to post. If you want to read Thursday’s HOWLER, you know what to do—just click here.

YOUR U.S. TAX DOLLARS AT WORK: Today’s New York Times details the treatment of a 22-year-old prisoner at Bagram. Given recent, mainly irrelevant food-fights about the Guantanamo toilet allegation, it’s worth recalling the kinds of conduct which have been fully documented at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Tim Golden is the Times reporter:

GOLDEN (5/20/05): The interpreter who was present, Ahmad Ahmadzai, recalled the encounter differently to investigators.

The interrogators, Mr. Ahmadzai said, accused Mr. Dilawar of launching the rockets that had hit the American base. He denied that. While kneeling on the ground, he was unable to hold his cuffed hands above his head as instructed, prompting Sergeant Salcedo to slap them back up whenever they began to drop.

''Selena berated him for being weak and questioned him about being a man, which was very insulting because of his heritage,'' Mr. Ahmadzai said.

When Mr. Dilawar was unable to sit in the chair position against the wall because of his battered legs, the two interrogators grabbed him by the shirt and repeatedly shoved him back against the wall.

''This went on for 10 or 15 minutes,'' the interpreter said. ''He was so tired he couldn't get up.''

''They stood him up, and at one point Selena stepped on his bare foot with her boot and grabbed him by his beard and pulled him towards her,'' he went on. ''Once Selena kicked Dilawar in the groin, private areas, with her right foot. She was standing some distance from him, and she stepped back and kicked him.

''About the first 10 minutes, I think, they were actually questioning him, after that it was pushing, shoving, kicking and shouting at him,'' Mr. Ahmadzai said. ''There was no interrogation going on.''

The session ended, he said, with Sergeant Salcedo instructing the M.P.'s to keep Mr. Dilawar chained to the ceiling until the next shift came on.

Dilawar died a day or two later; the army has listed his death as a homicide. According to Golden, “It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.”

The recent food-fight over Newsweek’s reporting exists in the context of such reports. The larger story of detainee abuse has been clear for a good while now. There was no need for Newsweek to rush into print with an uncertain extra detail, and there’s no reason why sensible critics should want to insist that Newsweek’s story is “probably true” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/05). Indeed, when uncertain claims are rushed into print— when critics want such claims to be true— the Scott McClellans of the world use them to cast doubt on the wider story, a story which is widely documented. Needless to say, Golden’s report is a detailed must-read. It recalls the context for the largely pointless dispute about Newsweek’s latest bungle.

BLOGGER PANGLOSS: As we have often noted, we read Kevin Drum every day, and we do so for a very good reason— we visit his site expecting to learn things, and we’re rarely disappointed. But we do think Drum has an odd perspective on the functioning of the mainstream press. Yesterday, he penned a piece you ought to read, in which he cautions lefty bloggers against bashing the New York Times too hard. The right wing is trying to destroy the mainstream media, he warns. And then, he offers his nuggets:

DRUM (5/19/05): Given all this, liberals should think very hard before joining the media bashing crusade too eagerly. Sure, the New York Times employs Judith Miller, and the pressure of daily deadlines promotes too much lazy he-said/she-said reporting on their pages, but guess what? It's still the best newspaper in the world, bar none. If you really believe the Times is a piece of crap, your problem is not with the Times, it's with the current state of the art in human perfectibility.

None of this means newspapers shouldn't be criticized. But endless broad brush howling does nothing except enable the right wing's agenda, regardless of what the howling is aimed at. If liberal bloggers were wiser, we'd spend a little more time praising our big national newspapers and a little less time shaking our fists over the fact that sometimes they aren't on our side. Our real opposition is the right wing press destruction machine, not the press itself.

Yes, we agree— it’s nice to be nice. But as a general view of the state of the media, this strikes us as screaming nonsense. Indeed, we think this view is so odd, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s personalize this as much as possible. If Drum really means what he says, we at THE HOWLER have only been “enabling the right wing’s agenda” by our foolish “broad brush howling” over the past seven years. The years of time we devoted to detailing the coverage of Clinton and Gore? Crazy! In fact, when we developed the detailed information about what we’ve called The War Against Gore, we were actually “doing nothing except enabling the right wing’s agenda!” And presumably, others have made the same dumb mistake; for example, when Gene Lyons wrote Fools for Scandal, he was surely doing the work of the right-wing destruction machine as well. Yep! When Lyons presented the startling details about the way the New York Times invented the Whitewater hoax, he was making a big mistake. Instead, he should have “spent a little more time praising the Times” for its marvelous work— perhaps for spelling the word “Whitewater” right, or for failing to run with the claim that Clinton was behind all those murders. When Lyons showed Whitewater was a big hoax, he was doing the right wing’s work for it.

Indeed, check the view of Blogger Pangloss when it comes to the overall work of the Times. According to Drum, here’s the profile of the New York Times’ recent imperfections:

DRUM: Sure, the New York Times employs Judith Miller, and the pressure of daily deadlines promotes too much lazy he-said/she-said reporting on their pages, but guess what? It's still the best newspaper in the world, bar none.
But can that be all that comes to mind when a liberal reviews the work of the Times? The second worst thing Drum can cite is the paper’s “he said/she said” reporting? In truth, it would be hard for a conservative hack to create a better whitewash of the Times’ past decade— a decade in which the Times was deeply involved in a press corps war which did put George Bush in the White House.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have the slightest idea what drove the Times’ strange coverage of Bill Clinton, then Al Gore. But we will suggest this— the thing which “enables the right wing’s agenda” is the astounding refusal of people like Drum to tell the truth about the press corps’ conduct over the past dozen years. But then, all across the “career liberal” web, we do in fact find writers like Drum— people who produce superlative policy work and simply refuse to tell the truth about the mainstream press corps. In the case of an individual like Drum, we don’t know why that occurs. But we’ll ask you, one more time, to recall what Jack Shafer said:

SHAFER (4/8/05): I started writing press criticism at Washington City Paper back in 1986, because as editor I couldn't get anybody else to do it. Writers were frightened that if they penned something scathing about the Washington Post or the New York Times they'd screw themselves out of a future job.
We have no idea where Drum’s ideas come from. But if you think Shafer’s statement doesn’t explain why so many “career liberal” writers say so little about the Times, we’d suggest that you might adopt the middle name “Pangloss” too.

“Sometimes the Times isn’t on our side?” The New York Times is a big, complex paper; within it, there seem to be many agendas. Sometimes it does superlative m work; we think the paper does flyweight work an amazing percentage of the time. But during the 1990s, the Times invented the Whitewater hoax— and then it conducted a War Against Gore. And people like Drum refuse to discuss this. Indeed: According to Drum, the New York Times represents the “state of the art in human perfectibility.” Good God! That statement is a work of madness— and Kevin Drum is far from mad. But so what? Kissing up and kicking down, statements like that do grease the skids the next time op-eds are submitted.

Let’s say it again, and let’s say it loud— Drum does superlative policy work. We learn from reading his site every day. In fact, on a wide range of topics, his policy work is much more informative than that of the newspaper he so adores. But can he possibly believe the odd things he published in yesterday’s post? If so, we’ll beg him to stick to policy matter and stop discussing the mainstream press— that group of news orgs who represent the nearest thing to human perfection.

IN PRAISE OF PERFECTION: How does it work when scribes like Drum assume the best about mainstream media? For a relatively trivial but current example, here is Drum’s most recent post about the Newsweek matter:

QUESTION FOR THE PENTAGON....Regarding Newsweek's Koran desecration story, editor Mark Whitaker says that “before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment.” Neither of these officials disputed the report.

Who were these officials? And if the Koran story was false, why weren't they willing to say so? That seems like odd behavior when presented with a story that everyone is now claiming was obviously irresponsible and incendiary.

Has anyone asked the Pentagon about this?

They key word in that credulous post is “says”— Newsweek’s editor says the magazine approached two Defense officials. Of course, behaving in standard “kiss-up, kick-down” fashion, Drum assumes the truth of Whitaker’s presentation, while failing to note the credibility problems Newsweek has displayed in this matter. And he fails to note the “odd behavior” in which Newsweek seems to have engaged. “Has anyone asked the Pentagon about this?” We don’t know, but who would they ask? After all, those “two separate Defense Department officials” are anonymous Defense officials, just like Newsweek’s original alleged source. For all we can really know, the magazine checked with General Ima Fake and his assistant, Commander Nott A. Reelperson. Drum doesn’t have the slightest idea what sort of checking the magazine did. But he assumes the truth of Whitaker’s presentation, then suggests the Pentagon has major splainin’ to do. He has a “question for the Pentagon.” But uh-oh! He has no questions for Newsweek itselfeven though the magazine’s account of its alleged fact-checking makes little obvious sense.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t assume that Newsweek is still dissembling, as it plainly did in its original report, which said it had multiple “sources.” But note the way a career liberal writer will instinctively take the side of the perfect mainstream press. To Drum, the Pentagon behaved oddly here, not the dissembling magazine— a magazine owned by the Washington Post (which published an excellent op-ed column by Drum on January 31). While Drum suggests “odd behavior” on the part of the Pentagon, it doesn’t occur to him to ask the obvious question about Newsweek’s odd behavior: If they checked their story with the Pentagon, why didn’t they get an official reaction, an official reaction on the record? (At least we know who to ask about this— Whitaker. Needless to say, no one has. Howard Kurtz forgot to ask in his puff profile of boss-man.) Meanwhile, for more of the “kiss up, kick down” behavior at which the career liberal press corps excels, check Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris as he praises “the admirable efforts of the magazine’s editor-in-chief Mark Whitaker to deal with the issue honestly while standing up to the White House's intimidation tactics.” Gag us! We’ve met Glastris, and he seems like a very nice person— and he does excellent policy work. But all across the career liberal press corps, career liberal writers are rushing to praise Whitaker, Isikoff and everyone else who produced this relatively trivial but unfortunate error. And yes— these are the same people who refuse to discuss what the press corps did to Clinton, then Gore. But then, let’s be fair; to these Panglossian beings, the news orgs in question are “the current state of the art in human perfectibility.” And as Shafer noted, they’re a perfect source of future jobs.

WHERE IT ENDS: Where does it end when career liberal writers refuse to discuss the press corps’ real conduct? It ends with our American history lost, stolen and strayed— airbrushed, in the best Stalinist manner. Where does it end? Consider this excellent post by Lance Mannion, which Atrios linked to yesterday. Mannion makes an excellent argument about some recent bloviation. But when he thumb-nailed the New York Times, we were struck by his listing of errors:

MANNION: Susie Madrak and a lot of other people have dealt with the hilarity of someone who works for the paper that gave us Whitewater, Wen Ho Lee, Jayson Blair, and Judy Miller— not to mention David Brooks, who doesn’t read his own paper, John Tierney, who doesn’t understand how the government comes up with a budget, and the new Style section— lecturing us on the art of fact checking.
Incomparably, Mannion links to THE HOWLER on the Whitewater matter (our understanding of that tracks to Lyons). And for the record, we did do some of the early work about the Times’ weird treatment of Wen Ho Lee, work for which we were fulsomely praised in the early Brill’s Content. (Now, of course, we see that we were only helping the right-wing machine when we developed this work.) But we thought Mannion’s listing of horribles was quite instructive. In fact, Wen Ho Lee and Jayson Blair are extremely puny stuff compared to the Times’ two-year War Against Gore— a war which put George Bush in the White House and changed the course of American history. But that war was run by big mainstream orgs— and career liberal writers have refused to discuss it. For that reason, this amazing part of our recent history has been airbrushed from public view. It’s understandable that Mannion doesn’t list it. For the most part, career liberals have disappeared this matter so well that people wouldn’t know what he meant if it showed up on his list.

Stalin airbrushed major episodes— but then, so have your fiery career liberal writers as they praise their future employers for being the next thing to perfect.