Companion site:


Google search...


Daily Howler: The New York Times does ID Moyers. So why did Dan Okrent say different?
Daily Howler logo
EXIT OKRENT (PART 2)! The New York Times does ID Moyers. So why did Dan Okrent say different? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2005

MAYBE NOT THE BEST IN THE WORLD: No, the Washington Post hasn’t bothered describing your recent history—the recent history of judicial nominations (our series on the topic continues below). But the Post does want you to know about Finland! In this morning’s paper, we get the good news about a new series: “Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser and staff photographer Lucian Perkins are traveling around Finland for three weeks to examine what might be the world's most interesting country that Americans know least about.” Indeed, how exciting is little-known Finland? The Post precis starts to gush:
WASHINGTON POST: Finland has the best school system in the world, some of the most liberated women (the president is female), more cell phones per capita than anyone else, one of the world's best high-tech companies (Nokia), remarkable information technology of many kinds, great music from rock and jazz to classical. The Finns are proud of their generous welfare state, which provides, among much else, free health care and free education at every level.
We’ll let others complain, with Swedish-style angst, about that “generous welfare state” reference. At THE HOWLER, we were most surprised by the claim that Finland has “the best school system in the world.” In Kaiser’s actual piece, of course, he only claims that the Finnish system is “very likely the best on Earth.” But how on Earth did the Post decide that? Today’s full-page dispatch from Finland focuses on that nation’s schools. Here is the apparent basis for Kaiser’s lavish judgment:
KAISER: Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world's industrial democracies.
So there you have it. Because Finland scores best on a certain test, it either “has the best school system in the world” or is “very likely the best.”

Readers, do you see why we keep discussing the intellectual standards of your Big Mainstream Press? As almost everyone but the Post would know, any school (or school system) can get high scores, depending on the make-up of its students. After hearing about those high Finnish scores, almost anyone but the Post would wonder—what is the composition of this small nation’s student population? In other nations, average scores get driven down by “second language” immigrant groups; in the U.S., average scores also get driven down by the legacy of slavery and racism. (The U.S. spent centuries driving down literacy in the black population; the legacy of this historical tragedy still affects average achievement today.) So what is Finland’s student population like? Eventually, as he visits a high-scoring school, Kaiser starts laying it out:

KAISER: The student body at Arabia consists primarily of the children of college graduates and professionals, said the principal, [Kaisu] Karkkainen. But a visitor who asks if the school's successes can be attributed to this fact is quickly put straight.

"My last school," Karkkainen said, "was much different"—in a poor neighborhood, "nearly a slum." (There are no slums in Finland that Americans would recognize as such.) It had a student body consisting of one-third "refugees," meaning immigrants, of which Finland has relatively few, and one-third students needing special education. The city supported that school, she said: It had a fine new building and extra social workers on staff. There were lots of problems with students and parents. "But still, the results were very good," she said. "The teachers are trained to deal with problematic children."

In this passage, we learn that Finland has relatively few immigrants; little poverty; and teachers who rush to praise their own brilliance. In the U.S., by contrast, we have many immigrants; a good deal of poverty; and many teachers who understand that certain populations of deserving kids are harder to achieve with than others. By the way, were results “very good” in Karkkainen’s prior school? Kaiser doesn’t seem to have checked. The principal told a pleasing tale, and that was good enough for the Post.

Does Finland have “the best school system in the world?” The claim is silly, and it’s amazing that the Post doesn’t know this. But then, let’s look for the good news here. If this is the best our Big Press can do, maybe we’re better served when they tour the world and stay away from our own recent history—the recent history the Post has known to avoid. Finland’s schools may not be “best in the world.” But ditto for our own challenged press.

A MINOR TIC: We enjoyed a minor semantic point. In America, we have many “problem children.” In exciting Finland (see above), the kids are at worst “problematic.”

Special report: Exit Okrent!

PART 2—SPAWN OF BERNIE: Dan Okrent’s parting cheap-shot at Krugman should be sent straight to the Smithsonian (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/23/05). Krugman’s a serious bum, Okrent said; he’s “ideological” and he’s “unfair,” and his columns are full of fake, phony numbers—numbers he has “shaped, sliced and selectively cited in a fashion that pleases his acolytes.” But uh-oh! Absent-mindedly, Okrent forgot to give any examples, and his remarkably nasty claims come in his last “public editor” column. This leaves Krugman with the perfect dilemma—nothing to respond to, and nowhere to do it! Tailgunner Joe must be shaking his head at Okrent’s slick demagogue touch.

What explains Okrent’s odd behavior? We don’t know, but the gentleman seems well-disposed to rants from the “angry male” right. In his column, Okrent examines “13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did.” Is Daniel Okrent an Angry White Male? The scribe’s familiar Topic 5 sent our analysts straight to their consoles, where they did an odd thing—research:

OKRENT (5/22/05):
Reader Steven L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., asks, If ''Tucker Carlson is identified as a conservative'' in The Times, then why is ''Bill Moyers just, well, plain old Bill Moyers''? Good question.
That was Okrent’s total analysis. “Good question,” the editor typed, implying a familiar judgment—the Times is showing its liberal bias in the way it IDs Bill and Tucker. But as it turns out, Okrent’s reader didn’t present a “good question;” in fact, his question was a complete, total clunker. Sadly but typically, Carter’s implied claims about the Times turn out to be impressively bogus. Is it true? Does the Times ID Carlson as a conservative but give a pass to “plain old Moyers?” A Nexis search of the past year shows this claim to be totally false—a fever dream straight from Bernie Goldberg’s old swamps. Okrent, wading through the mire, buys the claim hook, line and sinker.

Let’s start with news reports from this year’s Times about PBS “liberal bias” disputes. Three such reports have named Carlson and Moyers. The first discussed the resignation of PBS chief exec Pat Mitchell. Leslie Wayne did the honors—and played it right down the middle:

WAYNE (2/16/05): Ms. Mitchell was instrumental in running ''Now'' with Bill Moyers, a free-ranging liberal talk show that conservatives have criticized. Since then, Ms. Mitchell has added conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot to the PBS lineup.
In Wayne’s report, Carlson was a “conservative commentator” and Moyers was host of a “liberal talk show.” But then, in the most recent report citing Carlson and Moyers, Stephen Labaton was also fair-and-balanced. As noted, Labaton mentioned both men—but he didn’t ID either one:
LABATAON (5/16/05): The corporation's chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, has also blocked NPR from broadcasting its programs on a station in Berlin owned by the United States government.

Mr. Tomlinson denied several requests last week to discuss the relationship between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NPR, but he issued a one-sentence statement saying that he looked forward to ''working through any differences that may exist between our institutions.'' In a column last week in The Washington Times and in an appearance on Tucker Carlson's talk show on PBS, he repeated his belief that public broadcasting's reputation of being left-leaning was a problem.

Mr. Tomlinson has been waging a campaign to correct what he and other conservatives see as a liberal bias in public television programming. That effort has been criticized by leaders of public television who say it poses a threat to their editorial independence. At the request of two senior Democratic members of Congress, the inspector general at the corporation is examining whether Mr. Tomlinson's decision to monitor only one television program, ''Now,'' with Bill Moyers, and his decision to retain a White House official who helped create guidelines for the two ombudsmen may have violated a law that is supposed to insulate public broadcasting from politics.

In this case, you could even argue that Labaton IDed Moyers but not Carlson. (Moyers is being probed for “liberal bias.” Carlson’s just a guy with a talk show.) Meanwhile, in the other report which names both men, it’s clear who’s liberal and who’s the con. Writing about “a struggling PBS,” John Tierney reported that Republicans in Washington have been “criticiz[ing] its programming as elitist and liberal.” Moyers had hosted such a program:
TIERNEY (2/17/05): Conservatives have complained about Bill Moyers's news program (he has since retired from it) and about a recent children's program featuring a rabbit named Buster who visited a pair of lesbian parents.

After Education Secretary Margaret Spellings threatened to retract financing for that program—a controversy that some called Bustergate—Ms. Mitchell decided not to distribute it.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Mitchell, 62, said she had felt no pressure, either from inside her board or outside of PBS, to step aside.

She also said she had not been personally pressured to change programming by Republicans at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides federal money to the system. But she said her programmers had worked with their counterparts at the corporation, which is led by White House appointees, in developing several new shows, including a talk show for the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson.

In Tierney’s piece, Carlson was “a conservative commentator” and Moyers had hosted a show which was slammed as too liberal. No doubt Stephen L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., can torture cruel liberal bias from that. Others will perhaps begin to see that his “good question” was just the latest howler from Goldberg’s well-scripted swamp.

For the record, Moyers has been named in nine news reports or editorials in the past year in which the word “liberal” also appears. The first such report appeared last December when the gentleman won an award. Here’s David Carr’s second paragraph:

CARR (12/17/04): The gospel of Mr. Moyers—an unreconstructed progressive—warns against the danger of media consolidation, the growing links between conservative government and conservative media and the threat of information control by government.
Having described Moyers as “an unreconstructed progressive,” Carr soon called him a big “liberal” too—and seemed to chide him for it:
CARR: To many people with allegiances to liberal causes, he has been a kind of patron saint, a journalist-activist who never let notions of objectivity get in the way of taking a stand.
So Carr didn’t just ID Moyers as a big lib—he seem to criticize him for it. But so did religion writer Peter Steinfels, who mentioned Moyers in January. Steinfels described the “shock and awe” at Manhattan holiday parties “at the dubious findings about the role of moral values in the presidential election.” Here’s what he said about Moyers:
STEINFELS (1/29/05): But don't suppose that the fixation on Christian fundamentalists is limited to giddy holiday revelers in Manhattan. Here is Bill Moyers, liberal sage par excellence, accepting an award last month from the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School:

''One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.''

Again, the Timesman openly called Moyers liberal. And then, calling Moyers a “liberal” again, he chided his “ideological” scholarship:
STEINFELS: [Moyers’] acceptance speech drew more from two online articles that he cited and recommended to his audience than from the up-close and personal interviewing for which he is known. There seemed to be something more ideological—and maybe even apocalyptical—going on in his argument. In this he was probably representative of a much wider swath of liberal opinion.
Again, a Times writer not only IDed Moyers—he criticized him for his liberalism. Carter implied that the Times just won’t do this. But as it turns out, the gentleman’s “good question” was just a big load of hot bunk.

For the record, Moyers isn’t always IDed as a “liberal.” In the past year, he has been named in eleven Times pieces in which the word “liberal” doesn’t appear. No doubt, Okrent’s blood begins to boil at the thought of such data, just like that of patron saint Bernie. But here’s the most recent such mention of Moyers, on April 26. It comes from a fact-filled report entitled “WHAT’S ON TONIGHT:”

9 P.M. (13, 49) WHITE SMOKE—Bill Moyers is host of a "Wide Angle" special about the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Specific discussions touch on the advantages of a pope from a developing country, the pedophilia scandal in the American church and the former Cardinal Ratzinger's global reputation.
Should the writer, Anita Gates, have IDed the liberal in this blurb? And should Louise Tutelian have IDed Bill in her piece about weekend “escape” homes?
TUTELIAN (7/30/04): Jacqueline Taffe Myers, an associate director at ABC News who lives in the East Village section of Manhattan, uses her mountain retreat in Roxbury as an escape from a grueling workweek that can top 60 hours. ''You can sit back and look at the views, hike or do nothing,'' said Ms. Myers, who bought the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on 15 acres for about $150,000 in 1999 with her husband, Bryan, a producer for ''Now With Bill Moyers'' on PBS.
No doubt, Carter is furious to see Tutelian covering up for Moyers’ liberal ways. But overwhelmingly, the Times’ ID-free mentions are trivial asides—just like the thirteen mentions of Carlson in which “conservative” doesn’t appear. Here, for example, is Frank Rich, failing to ID Vile Carlson:
RICH (3/27/05): The president was not about to be outpreached by these saps. The same Mr. Bush who couldn't be bothered to interrupt his vacation during the darkening summer of 2001, not even when he received a briefing titled ''Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,'' flew from his Crawford ranch to Washington to sign Congress's Schiavo bill into law. The bill could have been flown to him in Texas, but his ceremonial arrival and departure by helicopter on the White House lawn allowed him to showboat as if he had just landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Within hours he turned Ms. Schiavo into a slick applause line at a Social Security rally. ''It is wise to always err on the side of life,'' he said, wisdom that apparently had not occurred to him in 1999, when he mocked the failed pleas for clemency of Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again Texas death-row inmate, in a magazine interview with Tucker Carlson.
For the record, there are eleven reports which name Tucker Carlson in which “conservative” also appears. And then again, there are thirteen such reports in which the word is missing. These numbers are almost identical to those for Moyers. So are the items themselves—if you bother to check them.

Yes, if Okrent had done a speck of research, he would have learned a disappointing fact; Stephen L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., had sent him a dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks “question.” It’s simply not true that the New York Times IDs Carlson more than Moyers, Which leaves us with an obvious question—why in the world does the New York Times have a honcho so reflexively out-to-lunch? Why does the Times first public ed come across like a spawn of Berrnie?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: In the best “angry white male” tradition, Goldberg didn’t bother with research either. Enter his name in our whirring search engines and settle in for a long, hopeless ride.

TOMORROW: The public ed’s finest hour

Special report—A passion for up-or-down votes!

PART 2—TAMING A LYONS: Last night, saintly Bill Frist was at it again, blathering on about “precedents:”

FRIST (5/23/05): I will continue to work with everything in my power to see that these judicial nominees also receive that fair or up-or-down vote that they deserve. But it is not in this agreement.

But in this agreement is other good news. It's significant that the signers give up using the filibuster as it was deployed in the last Congress in the last two years. The filibuster was abused in the last Congress.

Ten nominees were blocked on 18 different occasions, 18 different filibusters in the last two years alone, with a leadership-led minority party obstruction threatening filibusters on six others. That was wrong. It was not in keeping with our precedents over the past 214 years.

From that, you might even think that Senate precedent would afford nominees an up-or-down vote. But that, of course, is not the way the Senate has worked in our own recent past. Yesterday, we saw the Senate eliminate Tait—fail to grant that “up-or-down vote” to one of Clinton’s early nominees (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/23/05). This morning, we’ll start to se how our precedents worked once Republicans took control of the Senate in the 1994 elections.

For one easy starter case, let’s skip ahead to September 1999. In the Denver Post, Mike McPhee reported an impending nomination:

MCPHEE (9/18/99): Jim Lyons, a prominent, politically connected Denver lawyer, is expected to be nominated to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals next week by President Clinton.

Sources told The Denver Post that Lyons could be nominated as early as next week to fill the seat of Judge John C. Porfilio, who will assume senior status on Oct. 1. Porfilio is one of three active Colorado judges on the 12-judge circuit bench. The court hears all appeals from U.S. district courts in Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas and Utah.

“Jim Lyons is an excellent choice. He's a great lawyer,” Denver attorney Gary Lozow said. “He's a lawyer who still has a majestic concept of what the law is and should be. This is the chance to extend that ilk into the public sector.”

Two days later, Colorado Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell said he’d support the Lyons nomination. And sure enough, Clinton made the nomination on September 22. Given the Senate’s inspiring precedents—and given the GOP’s passion for up-or-down votes—surely those high-minded Senate Republicans moved to make sure Lyons got one. But uh-oh! On September 19, the Denver Post’s Bill McAllister reported on Lyons’ prospects. It seemed there might be trouble:
MCALLISTER (9/22/99): Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a group that monitors judicial nominations, said [Senator] Campbell's support would be “very significant and extremely helpful at this stage in the process.” A number of Clinton's judicial nominations are stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a showdown over the issue is likely in the Senate today. Aron and others said it was too soon to know whether Lyons' prospective nomination would be delayed, but she noted the chances of any Clinton nominee who fails to win approval this year will drop dramatically next year.

That's because it will be Clinton's final year in office and he had little success with judicial nominees during the final year of his first term. He then got only 16 nominees approved compared with 66 that George Bush got in the final year of his presidency, Aron said.

“There is little doubt that the GOP will try to keep that number as low as possible,” Aron said. The liberal People for the American Way noted Monday that a slowdown may have begun, saying that the Senate has approved “a scant 17" judicial nominees this year, compared with 39 the same time last year.

Say what? Surely Aron was dreaming. Everyone knows that Republican senators have a passion for up-or-down votes! But sure enough, the Lyons nod was soon in the soup. Senator Campbell had said A-OK. But one other solon would not:
MCPHEE (11/13/99): The nomination of attorney Jim Lyons to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals appears to be hung up by Sen. Wayne Allard, who hasn't taken any action on President Clinton's choice for the federal appeals bench.

Clinton nominated Lyons, a Denver-area resident and longtime friend who represented the Clintons during portions of the Whitewater investigation, on Sept. 22. To be appointed to the bench, Lyons must receive the support of the two home-state senators—Allard and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—and be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and then confirmed by the full U.S. Senate.

The committee gives each home-state senator a “blue slip,” a form on which the senator either approves or disapproves of the nomination. A third option is to not return the blue slip at all, which would effectively kill a nomination.

Campbell returned his blue slip to the committee, supporting Lyons' nomination. Allard has not returned his.

Uh-oh! McPhee described a well-known Senate “precedent”—one that cowering American newspapers have known to ignore in recent months. That’s right; under precedents still in effect when Clinton named Lyons, home-state senators could kill a nomination by refusing to turn in that “blue slip!” All that bullsh*t Frist has been spewing? It’s just the latest Stalinist episode—the latest airbrushing of our own history, an airbrushing that cowering American newspapers know they must avoiding challenging. Would Lyons get his up-or-down vote, in accord with those great Senate precedents? Sorry. One month later, a headline in the Rocky Mountain News said there would be no such vote:
The report was written by Michael Romano. Allard had killed the Lyons nod. There would be no up-or-down vote:
ROMANO (12/11/99): Sen. Wayne Allard said Thursday he will oppose Denver lawyer Jim Lyons' nomination to the federal bench, a decision that effectively dooms his shot at a lifetime appointment to the judgeship.

Allard said his opposition stems from Lyons' involvement in what the Republican senator describes as a 1992 ''whitewash'' of President Clinton's role in the Whitewater land scandal in Arkansas.

He called Lyons, one of Clinton's closest friends in Colorado, a ''political operative'' whose ties to that 7-year-old report link him indirectly to the president's impeachment this year.

''I'm interested in keeping the judiciary relatively free of politics,'' said Allard. ''If Nixon had a close political operative, and he was going to put him in the judiciary, I think there would be a lot of concerns about this. I think we need to look at Jim Lyons in that same vein—as a political operative.''

Lyons, who expressed dismay about Allard's decision when he first heard the news from a reporter, said his work on the Whitewater report as Clinton's lawyer was supported by an independent panel two years later.

Struggling nobly to keep the judiciary relatively free of partisan politics, Allard said he was taming Lyons because of that 1992 report—the report he had authored about Whitewater. Of course, Lyons’ conclusions had been supported in 1995, when Republican operative Jay Stephens gave the Clintons a clean bill of health in his Whitewater probe for the RTC (the so-called “Pillsbury report”). And Ken Starr himself had cleared the Clintons during the 1996 trial of Jim McDougal. But so what? Allard spilled with noble principles; he wanted the courts to be free of politics, so he killed the Lyons bid. And nominee Lyons, suitably tamed, never got his sacred up-or-down vote.

Would Lyons have been a good federal judge? Should he have gotten an up-or-down vote? Those, of course, are matters of judgment. But in this short tale, we see your real history—the real recent history of judicial nominations. In recent weeks, Republican senators have blathered, dissembled, spun and lied about our great precedents and their own sacred feelings. And your big, brave newspapers have known to keep still about your actual recent history—about the procedures which have actually shaped your actual American lives.

TOMORROW: Blue slips and black guys

THE ACTUAL SHAPE OF YOUR RECENT HISTORY: For the record, the Denver Post lamented Allard’s action; the Rocky Mountain News applauded. But in its editorial, the News stepped up and told the obvious truth about the way your system worked:

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS (12/15/99): Denver lawyer James Lyons may be disappointed but he can hardly be surprised that Sen. Wayne Allard has effectively nixed his nomination for a federal judgeship.

Lyons plays serious inside politics, and he knows very well that's a high-risk activity. You can win big—but you can also lose big, and very publicly.

Judgeships are especially tricky when the president, who makes the nominations, belongs to one party and the Senate, which handles the confirmations, is controlled by the other. There were, at last report, 35 nominees slowly turning in the wind at the Senate Judiciary Committee, and most of them are likely to hang in that position until after the 2000 election.

The Republicans hope to win the presidency as well as keep control of the Senate next year, enabling them to install an entirely different slate of judges. The only hope for the current nominees lies in the Democrats keeping the presidency and taking the Senate.

Huh! As it turns out, many others were being tamed; according to the News, there were 35 Clinton nominees who wouldn’t likely get up-or-down votes, the type of vote Bill Frist finds sacred. Republicans wanted to fill those seats. Why afford votes to mere Democrats?

Today, perfumed Republicans dissemble and lie about their deep feelings and about Senate precedents. And as they do so, your big brilliant newspapers—the closest things we have to perfection—know they should keep their big traps shut about this recent history. Instead, they send their sleuths to the Finland station, where they file dumb reports on the state of the world. Tomorrow, we’ll continue to describe our real Senate precedents—the story the public isn’t going to hear from scared rabbits at the Post and the Times.