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MASSING ON WAR! Michael Massing looks like a seer as the Times downplays Ashcroft’s refusal:


MASSING ON WAR: Yesterday afternoon, our entire staff cooled their heels on a jury duty-related assignment. As we sat, we used our time well; we read Michael Massing’s latest critique of the New York Times’ coverage of Iraq. “The Times does show flashes of independent reporting,” he says. But in general—well, let Massing tell it:

MASSING: In general, however, the Times has seemed cautious and complacent. With few exceptions, its editors have purged the front page of any signs of blood or death; reports of US casualties are usually relegated to inside pages, and photos seem selected more for their visual appeal than for what they might reveal about the terrible realities of war.
“The leisureliness of the Times’s coverage is especially apparent when compared to that of its top competitor,” Massing writes. And yes, he means the Washington Post. “When it comes to Iraq,” the scribe judges, “the rivalry between the Times and the Post has become ‘A Tale of Two Papers,’ the one late and lethargic, the other astute and aggressive.”

For what it’s worth, this morning’s editions of the Post and the Times make Massing look like a genius. In particular, we refer to the dueling Post/Times accounts of John Ashcroft’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Post has the story on page one, above the fold—and the headline challenges Ashcroft’s conduct. “Ashcroft Denies Senators ’02 Memo,” it says. “Document Details Suffering Allowed In Interrogations.” Susan Schmidt’s article focuses on that “2002 policy memo on the degree of pain and suffering legally permitted during enemy interrogations.” She stresses Ashcroft’s refusal to release the controversial memo, and the bitter complaints lodged by major Dems:

SCHMIDT (pgh 2): Angry Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee called on Ashcroft to provide the document. They said portions that have appeared in news reports suggest the Bush administration is reinterpreting U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions prohibiting torture.

(3) Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the memo on interrogation techniques permissible for the CIA to use on suspected al Qaeda operatives “appears to be an effort to redefine torture and narrow prohibitions against it.” The document was prepared by the Justice Department's office of legal counsel for the CIA and addressed to White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales.

But over at the New York Times? Well, you could almost say that “its editors have purged the front page of any signs of” potential Administration misconduct. And you could almost say that today’s photos “seem selected more for their visual appeal than for what they might reveal about the terrible realities” of the day’s major news. Alas! The Times front page is dominated by four color photos in which citizens “watch Venus slip across the Sun” in yesterday’s biggest astronomical event. By contrast, the Ashcroft story is pushed to page 10, and neither the headline nor the picture caption mention the Attorney General’s refusal to provide this controversial document. Indeed, you have to read down to paragraph three to read a “late and lethargic” account of the matter which tops the Post’s page one:
LEWIS (3): In heated exchanges with Democrats on the committee, Mr. Ashcroft refused to provide several of the memorandums, saying they amounted to confidential legal advice given to the president and did not have to be shared with Congress.
In this morning’s Times, the front page hasn’t just been purged of blood or death. It has also been purged of any signs of stonewalling about Admin conduct.

There is, of course, no journalistic formula which says which stories belong on page one. But don’t worry: Even as the Times continues its “lethargic” coverage, pseudo-con talk will pulse and hop with terrible tales of the paper’s “liberal bias.” Forty years of consummate clowning have been invested in that potent spin-point. Rush and Sean will keep churning it out—even as they encourage their audience not to peruse the real Times.

THE JETS AND THE SNARKS: Then, of course, there’s David Halbfinger, with his latest snarky report on John Kerry. Think of him as this campaign’s “Kit” Seelye. Every time Kerry moves, Halbfinger spots the bad faith:

HALBFINGER (pgh 1): On his way to pay his respects to Ronald Reagan, Senator John Kerry, his campaign otherwise suspended until the former president's funeral, nonetheless managed to take a swipe at President Bush for marginalizing Democrats in Congress and to highlight his own role in Mr. Reagan's history.
When he finally gets to the Reagan Library, Kerry “briefly” pays his respects. And Halbfinger is shocked to learn that major pols don’t stand in line with the proles:
HALBFINGER: Mr. Kerry, who came to Los Angeles to see his daughter Alexandra, 30, graduate from the American Film Institute on Wednesday, briefly paid his respects to Mr. Reagan at the presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., Tuesday afternoon. Momentarily cutting through a cordon of mourners, he saluted Mr. Reagan’s coffin with his hand over his heart, bowed his head, crossed himself, saluted again and left—all in the space of a minute.
Where do they find these fuzzy-faced fawns, so shocked by the troubling ways of the world? As Seelye found (or invented) the fake/phony seam running through everything Gore said and did, so too Halbfinger is always there, exposing the fake/phony Kerry.

The Times became an utter joke with its coverage of Campaign 2000. (Not that most professional scribes will tell you.) And now, for reasons only they can explain, the liberal bete noir of pseudo-con fantasy seems to be trying to help Bush again. By the way: See if you can find fakeness/phoniness of any kind as Elisabeth Bumiller bows and scrapes in today’s report on the Bushes and Reagans. “George H. W. Bush has been generous this week in his praise for Ronald Reagan,” she marvels, in her opening sentence. As in 2000, so too this year; Bumiller is fawning and respectful toward Bush, Halbfinger picks and prods at Kerry. Is this year’s coverage “a tale of two papers?” This year, as in Campaign 2K, there often seem to be two different papers inside the Times itself.

From the annals of under-limned ads

GOOD LUCK, COLUMBUS: Also in this morning’s Times, Jim Rutenberg takes the latest look at the role being played by the year’s campaign ads. The scribe reports from Columbus, Ohio. Like others before him, he judges that the record onslaught of ads is shaping voter perceptions:

RUTENBERG: Random interviews this week with dozens of Columbus-area residents from an array of backgrounds found what many recent polls have also found: The commercials seem to have greatly influenced perceptions of the candidates, especially among those who remain undecided. So engaged in the campaign are voters here that very few expressed the traditional complaints about the volume of spots. Some people even said they welcomed them as learning tools.
Yikes! Voters are using the ads as “learning tools?” Despite this observation, Rutenberg makes a shaky and heavily nuanced judgment; “the heavy dose of commercials seems to have largely failed to change the minds of the vast majority of those who say they have settled on a candidate.” But it’s hard to know what determines the way people vote, and Rutenberg describes at least one voter whose preference has been affected:
RUTENBERG: Jim Harlor, 51, a bagger at the Hilltop Place Market who called himself an independent, said commercials showing shifts in Mr. Kerry's positions had soured him on the candidate, a “flip-flopper” for whom he initially planned to vote and now may not.

“The more I find out, it seems to me he doesn't know what he wants to do,” Mr. Harlor said during a smoking break Thursday afternoon outside the market, in the Hilltop section of town.

Have Bush’s ads changed Jim Harlor’s vote? How many votes are being changed by the record-shattering onslaught of ads? In truth, there is no way to know. Which helps explain why our major news orgs should be devoting more time to these ads.

As we’ve noted again and again, most major orgs, including the Times, have taken a “late and lethargic” approach to the claims in these TV ads. They have tried to critique them on the cheap, offering stories and broadcasts which don’t begin to unpack the claims being made. And they insist on playing the fair-and-balanced card; rather than following the truth where it takes then, they have pretended that All Campaigns Just Must Be Equal in their amount of dissembling. It’s the law! If they find a misstatement in a Bush ad, they must pretend that they’ve found a corresponding misstatement in an ad by Kerry.

Rutenberg’s article helps us recall the potential importance of these ads. But your press corps has taken a “leisurely” approach to a topic that doesn’t seem to interest them much. Potomac Potemkins pretend to report about the claims being made in these ads. But are the ads on the money? Has Jim Harlor been played? There’s little sign that your major press organs intend to help Harlor to find out.