TUESDAY, MAY 25, 2004
TAKING ON TIM: It really is a different day when major scribes start to challenge Tim Russertbut its happened several times this past week! First, Nicholas Lemann mocked Russerts new book in a mordant profile in The New Yorker. Then, Howard Kurtz even took on Tim in a cover piece for the Posts Sunday magazine!
Well take a look at the Russert-roasts in a set of reports this week. Yes, we think both scribes do pull a few punches in the course of their critiques. But Russert has been immune to criticism in the past several yearsand his work has suffered accordingly. Tim seems to believe thatbeing from Buffalohe is immune to misstatement or error. But then, fawning treatment tends to produce such beliefs. Its clearly time for the fawning to stop. Lemann and Kurtz start that process.
BUT WHO WILL WATCH THE AD-WATCHERS: Frankly, we were puzzled by Brooks Jacksons statement. The Annenberg ace has done good work critiquing this years Bush/Kerry ads. But in this mornings New York Times, Jim Rutenberg tackles the crucial subject again. And yes, we were a bit surprised when we saw Jackson search for a word:
RUTENBERG: Even people who dont think there is much information in these ads and say they dont learn anything from them tell us they believe factoids they could only have gotten from these ads, and theyre wrong, said Brooks Jackson...Its beyond subliminalits something I havent come up with a name for.Luckily, we have come up with a namedisinformation. And yes, theres been a lot of disinformation spread in this years campaign ads. Given the record amounts being spent on such ads, major papers like the Times should be spending more time on this subject. Major papers should be aggressively limning the claims that are made in these ads.
Unfortunately, Rutenberg doesnt seem up to this challenge. In this mornings page-one report, he focuses on several ads that are hugely insignificantand on some ads that seem to be accurate. For example, consider the third ad the worried scribe cites. The ad isnt being aired by Kerry or Bush. The ad is aired by an outside groupand frankly, it seems to be accurate:
RUTENBERG (pgh 5): Outside groups are getting into the act as well.Even in Rutenbergs own critique, this ad would seem to be accurate. But it isnt clear that the scribe even knows what this ad is really about. Last week, when the ad hit the air, it was analyzed in the Tampa Tribune. Heres what Garrett Therolf wrote:
THEROLF: In the advertisement, the narrator tells viewers, President Bush opened up Floridas coast to offshore oil drilling. The group is referring to a period early in the Bush administration when he supported drilling in a region known as Area 181, which is within 30 miles of the Florida Panhandle and 300 miles from Tampa.Does Rutenberg know what this ad is about? Here at THE HOWLER, we cant really tell. But he gives it high billing in this mornings story. Ads which have played a much greater role in the process Jackson cites dont get mentioned at all.
Rutenberg doesnt tell us who has sinned more in this years disinformation wars. But his text tilts slightly in a pro-Bush direction; it critiques three ads by Bush, three ads by Kerry, with this Florida ad as a tie-breaker. At times, he seems to downplay the problems with certain ads. Consider his critique of a widely-aired Bush commercial which says that Kerry has supported higher taxes more than 350 times:
RUTENBERG: While Bush campaign aides say the claim is accurate and have made public a list of instances to which it refers, they acknowledge that in several of these cases Mr. Kerry had in fact either voted to maintain tax rates or even to cut them, but not by as much as Republicans had proposed.According to Rutenberg, Bush officials admit that, in several of the 350 cases, Kerry actually voted to maintain or even to lower taxes. But a graphic which accompanies this mornings report seems to say something more strenuous:
NEW YORK TIMES GRAPHIC: The votes include many in which Mr. Kerry either moved to maintain a tax in the face of a proposal to cut it or, in at least 71 cases cited by Mr. Kerrys campaign, supported a tax cut that was simply smaller than another on the table.If you read Rutenbergs textbut skipped the graphicyou were plainly misled by the word several. If the graphic is accurate, at least 20 percent of the votes in question were actually votes to lower taxes! Beyond that, there were many more votes in which Kerry voted to leave existing taxes the same. How odd it isthat a Times report on misleading ads seems to be misleading itself. But this is precisely the type of work Rutenberg has displayed all through the campaign.
Rutenbergs greatest problem remains his failure to separate wheat from chaff. He worries today about trivial alleged errors; see his complaint about Kerrys claims on job losses under Bush, or his complaint about Kerrys reference to his vote for the Clinton budget. Then too, he worries about insignificant ads which almost no one will see or hear (see Bushs ad on No Child Left Behind). But as he has done in the past, he fails to mention significant, widely-aired Bush campaign adsads which have pushed that subliminal disinformation process which Jackson failed to name. For example, Bush has aired a major series of ads which attack Kerry for allegedly opposing certain weapon systemsincluding many weapon systems which Vice President Cheney also opposed. Rutenberg skips these ads completely. Meanwhile, other Bush adson the $87 billion spending bill, or on Kerrys alleged attempt to gut intelligence spendinghave been far more significant than the ads he critiques. But these ads go down the memory hole, too. Instead, right on page one of the Times, were asked to worry about an anti-Bush ad by an outside group which would seem to be perfectly accurate.
Jackson has done good work this yearand a lot of disinformation is moving. But Rutenberg never seems up to the task of dealing with this difficult subject. Todays campaigns are very slick. Their disinformation is skillfully packaged, and its therefore hard to critique. If hes really trying his best, Rutenberg seems to be over his head with this important subject.