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Caveat lector

THE STEPFORD SCRIBES! Paxiled or Xanaxed beyond recognition, Wilgoren resumed Kerry coverage:

MONDAY, JUNE 14, 2004

GO TO THE BOTTOM: Our Stepford Scribes will be found down below. First, consider the way Tim Russert behaved when confronted with a strange ten-month year:

THE TEN-MONTH YEAR: Let’s at least give them their due. At this point, when the Bush Admin sets out to deceive, they don’t even bother to fake it. On April 29, for example, the State Department issued a 181-page annual report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism.” According to the report, there were 190 acts of international terrorism in 2003, the lowest figure in 34 years. When the report was issued, State Department officials said it showed the brilliance of Bush Admin policies. Said deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, “You will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight” against terrorism.

But oops! Last week, the State Department—under pressure from Congressman Henry Waxman—was force to say its report had been bogus. In fact, international incidents of terrorism had risen sharply in 2003. How in the world did State get it so wrong? In last Thursday’s Washington Post, Jeffrey Smith gave part of the answer:

SMITH: [T]he report omitted acts of terrorism after Nov. 11, 2003. The department attributed this to a cutoff date for printing the report in time for its release on April 29. At a result, a Nov. 15 suicide bombing in Istanbul that killed 61 people and injured more than 300 was omitted.
Say what? Did you read that correctly? Well yes, as a matter of fact, you did. In a report which pretended to compare terrorists acts from one year to the next, the State Department only included events which occurred before November 11 last year! They lopped off the last fifty days of the year, then they showered themselves with praise for the diminishing number of incidents! And they passed this garbage to the world’s media. Readers, can’t you hear them? Hey, rubes!

No, readers—no one in the State Department is really that brainless or stupid. No one thinks you can file an “annual report” if you stop counting after October. To all appearances, this is the latest sign that the Bush Admin no longer bothers trying to spin you. They don’t even try to hide their deceptions. They believe they can hand the media complete, total crap—and the media will swallow it whole.
But then, that’s roughly what occurred on yesterday’s Meet the Press. Here’s what Powell laughably said when Tim Russert brought up State’s retraction of its laughable “report:”

POWELL: The data in our report is incorrect. If you read the narrative of the report, it makes it clear that the war on terror is a difficult one, and that we’re pursuing it with all of the means at our disposal. But something happened in the data collection, and we’re getting to the bottom of it. Teams have been working for the last several days and all weekend long. I'll be having a meeting in the department tomorrow with CIA, other contributing agencies, the Terrorist Threat Information Center, and my own staff to find out how these numbers got into the report. Some cutoff dates were shifted from the way it was done in the past. There’s nothing political about it. It was a data collection and reporting error, and we'll get to the bottom of it and we'll issue a corrected report. And I’ve talked to Congressman Waxman.
Go ahead and enjoy a good laugh at the way Powell glossed his department’s apparent clowning. “Some cutoff dates were shifted from the way it was done in the past,” he said, in passing. Translation: In the past, we measured through December 31. This year, we stopped two months early.

But don’t worry: Very few people in Russert’s audience would realize how comical Powell’s point was. You’d think that any serious journalist would ask about that “cutoff date”—would ask about the ten-month year the State Department had measured. And Russert, of course, is a famous bear, always eager to challenge his guests. We all recall how he scolded Howard Dean when he couldn’t answer a question on data. “No, no, no, no, no,” Russert said, two times, helping us see how clueless Dean was. But today, the famous bear slumbered and dozed. His toothless questions gave Powell a chance to continue his apparent obfuscation:

RUSSERT (continuing directly): Was it CIA data?

POWELL: It’s a combination of data that flows in, and some of it is CIA. The Terrorist Threat Information Center compiles data, provides it to us. But when you look at it in hindsight now, and you look at the analysis given to me by Congressman Waxman and these two congressmen, all sorts of alarm bells should have gone off. All sorts of, as I say to my staff, circuit breakers should have dropped when we saw this data, and they didn't. But I don't think there was anything political or policy driven about it. It was just data that was incorrect, or it wasn't properly measured compared to the way it was measured in previous years.

Readers, resume your mordant chuckles! “It was just data that...wasn’t properly measured compared to the way it was measured in previous years!” Translation: In previous years, they measured the entire twelve months. Last year, they knocked off two months early.

Yes, Powell offered clowning “explanations”—but Russert pretended not to notice. No, the ferocious host never asked Powell about that laughable ten-month year. And of course, we know this didn’t occur because the host was unprepared. In his new book, Big Russ and Me, Russert tells us many times that he’s always prepared for his interviews. “[O]ne mistake I have never made is to show up unprepared for an interview,” he gushes on page 147. To state the obvious, Russert knew that State clowningly shortened the year. He just didn’t bother to tell you.

Here at THE HOWLER, we puzzled hard at Russert’s failure to bring out this fact. What had become of the scolding scourge who battered Dean so bravely and boldly? And then we thought of another passage from Big Russ and Me. In it, Russert describes a lesson he drew from the death of President Kennedy:

RUSSERT (page 136): I still have that issue [of his junior-high newspaper], in which I described Kennedy as “that rare and perfect combination of Christian, father, statesman, peace-maker, author, politician, and last but not least, a friend of the common man.” It’s a telling sentence, full of the innocence and awe of that era, and it pains me that young people today have fewer opportunities to experience that kind of idealism. When children are concerned , there is such a thing as too much information.
There is such a thing as too much information. And who knows? Maybe when certain people appear on his show, adults can get too much info too. Yesterday, viewers got to retain their innocence as Russert lobbed imprecise softballs at Powell. Why did State short-sheet the year? Russert failed to ask, and Powell failed to tell. As the week proceeds, let’s hope someone sets aside his awe for Powell and asks him this obvious question.

THEY TOO FAILED TO SERVE: On This Week, George Stephanopoulos also failed to clarify this comical, groaning problem. “The numbers that were in the report were in error,” Powell said, “and we are analyzing where the error crept in.” We’re not sure why it’s hard to grasp that November 11 is not New Year’s Eve. But Powell swore he was working the problem, and Stephanopoulos failed to press him about it. At one point he did say this, as part of a longer statement:

STEPHANOPOULOS: When you look at the report, it did things like cut off at November 11, even though there were significant terrorist incidents as late as four days later...
But Stephanopoulos never asked how an “annual report” could “cut off” seven weeks early like that, and Powell never volunteered. Given the lackadaisy involved in this fleeting remark, we’d guess that few viewers actually grasped what was involved in this odd situation.

Meanwhile, on Fox News Sunday, the obvious occurred. Chris Wallace never asked about State’s retracted report. Had State completely played you for fools? At Fox, it didn’t seem all that odd.

From the annals of Stepford reporters

SPEAKING OF HAMSTERS: Maybe they’ve simply been Xanaxed and Paxiled. Maybe chips have been placed in their brains. But as dreams of Reagan began to fade, the “press” resumed its coverage of Kerry. Here is Jim VandeHei in this morning’s Post, offering the latest world-class example of Inane Press Corps Character Analysis:

VANDEHEI: Kerry may never stir Democrats passionately, but he may not need to. Since his earliest days in politics, Kerry has appeared somewhat detached from the people and voters who helped elect him. He is cerebral, and his interests—such as windsurfing—and his wealth separate him from the general public. Despite Kerry’s two decades in the Senate, not many Democrats consider themselves “Kerry Democrats” or ardent loyalists, or even close friends.
Honest to God, they just can’t be human! For some reason, your pundits agreed, two years ago, that they’d pretend to be troubled by Kerry’s hobbies (link below). Today, VandeHei resumes the puzzling script, serving up the ludicrous claim that Kerry’s windsurfing “separates him from the general public.” But then, as readers may recall, they also agreed that they’d be troubled by Kerry’s very elite guitar-strumming. And so, in yesterday’s New York Times, Jodi Wilgoren sang that old song too:
WILGOREN: His formal statements are filled with multisyllabic upper-crust phrasing—his campaign had an intern whose main responsibility was to look up all the unfamiliar words Mr. Kerry uttered—but one on one, he calls strangers “man”or “brother.” He is careful to use people’s names—he has interrupted himself more than once to introduce sign-language interpretations [sic]—yet he rarely remembers them.

And where former President Bill Clinton plays cards and President Bush turns to the treadmill, Senator Kerry strums his Spanish classical guitar in a kind of musical meditation. Lately, in the private front cabin of his campaign plane, he has been learning a new (old) song, “This Land Is Your Land.”

Perhaps you can read the hidden language. Kerry plays a Spanish guitar, in a kind of (suspicious) meditation. And the fact that he is said to be “learning” Woody’s anthem means he’s an “upper-crust” phony. As you’ll recall, Wilgoren and her editor recently conspired to tell you, on page one, that Kerry is traveling with a “butler.” For some reason, Wilgoren is troubled by “upper-crust” John—and seems to hope that her readers are too. (Presumably, Wilgoren meant that Kerry has introduced sign-language interpreters. Remember: None of this has to make any sense, as long as it spreads Approved Messages.)

To see how inane a “character profile” can be, you have to read Wilgoren’s full report, which appeared on page one of yesterday’s paper. Readers would have been better served if the Times had just left a large blank space—in effect, a “profile” of its Paxiled reporter. But one part of this profile demands specific mention. Try to grasp the insolence and contempt involved in this opening simile:

WILGOREN (pgh 1): Like a caged hamster, Senator John Kerry is restless on the road. He pokes at the perimeter of the campaign bubble that envelops him, constantly trying to break out for a walk around the block, a restaurant dinner, the latest movie.
Like a caged hamster! Wilgoren, of course, is empty and dazed—a Stepford Scribe, well-chipped or well-drugged. But no—reporters (and editors) don’t compare major public figures to hamsters unless their twitching minds are quite troubled. We’ve seen an e-mail Wilgoren wrote in which it’s clear that she don’t care for Kerry. Yesterday morning, on page one, Wilgoren—with her hamster-like brain—was eager to let readers know it.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Candidate Kerry really has some weird hobbies! The theme was laid out by Michael Crowley in the egregious New Republic. As you’ll recall, Crowley was troubled by Kerry’s guitar—and that wind-surfing bothered him too! To see a Stepford Scribe lay down a great script, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/02.