WHAT A COUNTRY! This was quite a week for press-watchers. We finish up several threads: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JUNE 20, 2008
A PLACE FOR THE RUBES: Its stunning to see the way Keith Olbermann now panders to our own liberal rubes. Just consider last nights bungled report about Obamas fund-raising.
Should Obama have accepted federal funding for the general election? Did he break his previous word with yesterdays decision? We dont care a great deal about those questions. But right out the gate last night, Olbermann helped our liberal rubes feel better by misstating elementary facts. He opened with tape of Demon McCainthen moved to blatant error:
Maybe this was just a mistake. But by legal definition, the general campaign (for fund-raising purposes) doesnt start until after the conventions. By legal definition, this is still the primary season, even thought the nominations have both been (presumptively) decided. McCain has indeed been running his campaign on private funding since the day Mike Huckabee dropped out. But by definition, it has remained his primary campaign. Obamas decision only concerned funding for after the conventions.
Maybe this was just a mistake. If so, the mistake was huge and amazingly basic, and it continued into Countdowns fifth story. (Weve made basic mistakes ourselves.) But long ago, Olbermanns show turned into pure propaganda. It gives a troubling picture of where news orgs may be headedof what future news shows may look like.
As far as we know, Russert was as decent a person, within the group, as friends and colleagues all say he was. But:
He pretty much got it wrong, in the past sixteen years, about who the phonieswere. (He chased around after both Clintons and Goreand largely knuckled to Cheney and Bush.)
He pretty much got it wrong about Social Security, his adopted pet issue. (He constantly cited irrelevant data while forcing the issue into every discussion. To see him trashing Candidate Gore for daring oppose partial privatization, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/02.)
And Russert pretty much got it wrong on Iraq, the policy challenge of his time. For all his fairness, civility and Jesuitical brilliance, Russert produced nothing of value in the year leading up to the war. And he embarrassed himselfwe all do so at some pointwhen Bill Moyers asked him about this matter in an interview last year (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/19/08). This was such a god-awful moment, its worth presenting again:
Russert could have gotten anyone on the planet to take his phone calls about Iraq. But he didnt make those calls; if were to believe what he told Moyers, he simply sat in his office and prayed that his phone would ring. That doesnt mean that he was a bad person. In fairness, though, it does mean this: He wasnt the journalistic god his shameless colleagues ran around inventing for the rubes all week. In fairness, Russert got almost everything wrong. Almost surely, this helps explain why his colleagues all loved him so much.
By now, many liberals have described a basic law of Modern Insider Press Corps Culture: If you get it right, you have to leave. If youre wrong, you get to stayand youre even promoted. In the past week, major pundits stood in line to insist that Russert was the greatest journalist ever. In fact, he pretty much got it wrong about his eras biggest stories.
That said, this week has produced an astonishing outflow of commentary from insider pundits. In their shock and emotion over Russerts death, they have revealed much more about their values and thinking than is their norm. This was especially true inside NBC News, the deeply peculiar, influential news org which has produced so much of our eras broken journalism. It would take a month of lengthy posts to explore all the themes that have surfaced this week. Well try to touch on a few basic themes as we close out the week:
Ambition: A person who wanted to be cruel would note an unfortunate fact about Tim. No, he didnt make those phone calls about Iraqbut his phone lines were busy all the same. In December 2002, Russert was failing to make those calls. But USA Todays Peter Johnson described something Russert was doing:
Unkind? Perhaps. But its not like all outgoing calls had ceased from Russerts offices. That same day, the New York Posts Keith Kelly reported that the deal was done:
The frenzied bidding came at an unusual time for the book industry, which generally goes into snooze mode in terms of acquiring big books after Thanksgiving, Kelly wrote. To appearances, some of the bidding in that wild auction had been conducted in the press; during the previous week, Russert had given interviews to various newspapers about the plans for the bookand about the offers he was getting. Theres nothing evil or wrong about that. But its very typical of modern press culture than those phone calls were being made, even as our most influential journalist was failing to call around to learn more about Iraq.
By the way: Why was Russert making calls about one subject, but failing to pursue the other? Johnson was the rare TV writer who didnt pander and fawn to Russert. In November 2001, he gave us a hint of Russerts possible thinking about journalism and Iraq:
"We are at war, and all of us must come together as never before," Johnson quoted Russert saying. Other big journalists, most notably Dan Rather, said similar things after 9/11. Is this why Russert seemed to defer to the Bush Admin in the move toward Iraq? There is no way to know that. But last Friday night, Chris Matthews described a conversation with Russert about Iraqand he pictured Russert as a mark. Speaking of the Bush Admins embellished arguments about Iraqi nukes, Matthews said this: The guys who wanted the war used that one thing that would sell the patriot in Tim Russert.
None of this makes Russert some sort of bad person. It does make a farce of the pundit corps claims about his superlative work.
And yes, Tim Russert was supremely ambitious. It was obscene that, even when speaking with Moyers about all those deaths, he wouldnt stop peddling that silly story about his superior Buffalo childhood. By the way: What was Walter Cronikes father like? You dont know, because people like Cronkite didnt think that building a cult of personality was part of the task of being a journalist. Russert had very bad judgment on such mattersand no one at NBC told him to stop. In one of his profiles, Johnson described the massive ambition which drove Russert to create this cult:
Not that theres anything (necessarily) wrong with it! But silly, saccharine, story-book tales about what a country this is are exceptionally bad for real journalism. Russert was in love with such saccharine storiesperhaps because he actually thought that way, perhaps because they were good for business. At any rate, major journalists have sat around reciting those tales all week long, making a joke of your discourseagain. Its the one thing they do really well.
Politics. Russert chased around after both Clintonsand after Candidate Gore. He adopted a conservative take on Social Security, his semi-obsessive pet issue. And he punted when it came to Iraq. A cynic could think he saw politics there. But what was Tim Russerts politics?
You might see Tim as a Reagan Democrat, the description he pretty much put on his dad in Big Russ & Me. What kind of Democrats were the two Russerts, long before one became a journalist? On page 199, Russert described Robert Kennedys appeal when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1968. In the 1970s and 80s, many working-class whites concluded that the Democratic Party had abandoned them, he wrote, but Robert Kennedy was a unifier and a coalition builder. Was Russerts father one of those Democrats who felt abandoned by his party? On page 238, Russert suggested an answer. Why did Russert the Younger favor Pat Moynihan for the 1976 Senate nomination, as opposed to more liberal rivals? I was convinced that, for a Democrat to win [in New York] in 1976, it would take a centrist who could appeal to mainstream Democrats like Dad, who felt the party had drifted away from them, Russert wrote. He then stated the obvious: In 1980, many of these Democrats would return the favor by voting for Reagan. Was Big Russ one of those Reagan Dems? Russert never said. But when he discussed Robert Kennedy, he revealed his own views about the party of his birth. [W]ith Kennedy, unlike some of the liberals who followed him, the message was never about blaming America, he wrote. Russert never said which liberal Democrats had blamed America in the period in question. Was it George McGovern? Was it Jimmy Carter? Russert forgot to say.
Was Tim Russert a Reagan Democrat? We dont have the slightest idea, but he referred to Moynihan as his intellectual fatherand by May 2000, Moynihan was being quoted on the front page of the New York Times criticizing Candidate Gore for using a scare wordprivatizationto describe Bushs Social Security plan. Did Russert pretty much get everything wrong? By this time, his intellectual father had pretty much joined the parade.
You might think Tim was a Reagan Demor you might be somewhat less charitable. In 1984, he was taken under the wing of Jack Welch, the near-billionaire, conservative Republican CEO of General Electric. We have no view of Welch ourselves, as a person or as a businessman. Last weekend, Welch said his heart was broken by Russerts deathand we believe what he said. But Welch made Russert amazingly wealthyand Tim was soon summering with Neutron Jack among the famous swells of Nantucket. When Tim went on to get pretty much everything wrongto chase both Clintons and Gore aroundwas he simply adopting poses that were good for NBCs bottom line? Might he even have been pushing Welchs political line? We dont have the slightest ideaand major pundits, reciting those saccharine narratives, understand that they must never ask.
Revelations. That said, there were amazing moments this week, as major pundits copped to things that had never been said before in public. After Wednesdays memorial service, Gene Robinson even said this, on-site, on Hardball. He responded to Chris Matthews blather:
Oh. Our. God. Russert had a house on Nantucket! According to a Nexis search, no one had ever stated this fact before on NBC or MSNBC before (before this past weekend, that is). In the networks marketing plan, Russert was indeed the guy from Buffalothe truck driver, the plumber, the garbage truck guy, the cop...you know, like where we came from. (Similarly, Brian Williams is the NASCAR-loving, Price Club shopper who loves the rough working class.) As Peter King said, with Matthews agreement: That was the impression. Indeed, He looked like the guy. He sounded like the guy. From Buffalo, King/Matthews said
But oh our god! In the rushing emotions of the past week, people went on TV and blabbed things outthings which had never been blabbed. This included many things about the soul and culture of NBC News, the news network which did much more than any other to put George Bush where he is. Why did NBC chase both Clintons around? More remarkably, why did NBC and its cable arms conduct such a vicious wilding of Gore? (The wilding good liberals must never discuss.) We dont knowbut we were struck by the story Maria Shriver told in various settings this week. Here she is, on the Today show:
The sheer absurdity of that story (from 1987) almost defies comprehension. In the past week, weve seen a lot of multimillionaire celebrities crying, blubbering and boo-hoo-hooing about how tough they had it starting outabout the continuing lack of respect they feel from the wider culture. But in that story, were somehow supposed to semi-believe that a high-profile daughter of the Kennedy family needed the help of an ethnic home-boy if she hoped to proceed in the business! After the memorial service, honorary Irishman Howard Fineman rolled his eyes at the silly taleand oh. Our. God. Like Robinson before him, Fineman blurted something out that normally never gets tattled:
Oh. Our. God. Fineman even blurted the part about Welch and Wright and Holy Cross. (And Russert. And Matthews. And Williams. And Buchanan. And Barnicle. And ODonnell, ODonnell, ODonnell. And Doris Kearns Goodwin, of course.) Under Welch, for whatever reason, NBC News increasingly became an East Coast Irish Catholic boys cluband the perils of building a news org that way became apparent as NBC and its cable arm chased both Clintons around, and then, most consequentially, chased Candidate Gore. Last weekend, Joe Klein alluded to something many people have noted; it was the Irish Catholic branch of the insider press corps which most completely lost its mind about Bill Clintons disturbing ten blow jobs. Leading the way was NBC Newsright up to that astounding debate last October 30, the first turning-point in the Democratic race. We read through the questions again last weekthe questions asked by Russert and Williams. In all candor, its still shockingit almost takes the breath awayto read through the list of accusations they were drumming at Clinton by mid-way through that debate.
No moderator has ever behaved the way Russert and Williams did that night. Meanwhile, the networks twenty-month conduct toward Candidate Gore is still quite stunning to behold.
Did this happen because a gang of kooks were dragooned into an ethnic news org? A news org where their cultural tendencies were endlessly reinforcednot challenged or enhanced? Theres no way to know that, but as emotions roiled NBC this week, pundits opened up their soulsand endless odd thoughts about being Irish came pouring out into the sunlight. Even we were stunned to see the obsessiveness of their ethnic/religious culture. Right after the memorial service, for instance, Matthews called wife Kathleen overand soon, we were pondering this:
We had no idea that anyone in America was still so tormented by ethnic nightmares about (in this case) the dark side of our Irishness. As you can possibly see, its an exceptionally bad idea to throw a gang of such perfect crackpots together in a highly ethnic news org. By the way: On May 25, Tim helped people transport themselves with what the conversation needs to be by assembling a six-member pundit panel to sit around trashing Hillary Clintons claims about sexismnot permitting a single voice to describe what his network had actually done during the long Democratic campaign. But thats what happens when big news divisions are turned into ethnic boys clubs.
On Monday night, Chris, Mike and Patrick had talked on and on about We Irishabout our superior kind. We showed you highlights in Tuesdays post. Near the end, they turned to the following thoughtsthoughts which almost surely help define the mind-set driving NBC News when people like Russert and nut-case Matthews chased down the likes of both Clintons and Gore:
To this pair of perfect kooks, Tim was a prosecutor, with a missionary zeal for the truth. Semi-comically, they think this great proclivity among our people comes from learning the catechism. (By the way, here are the answers to Barnicles questions: God is the creator of heaven and earth and of all things/God made me because he loves me.) I remember every single word, Buchanan soon said. And then, he semi-jokingly sketched the world view of these exceptionally ethnic throwbacks:
Good grief! The Fordham guys are graduated to keep on eye on Harvard guys...You know, all the traitors are up at Harvard and these good Catholic FBI agents Yes, Patrick was joking here, as he often does. (Hes the sane one of these three.) But it was tortured East Coast Irish Catholic prosecutor Louis Freeh who was still chasing Candidate Gore around in the summer of 2000, inspiring Russert to tell the candidate, on Meet the Press, that Freeh thought Gore might have committed crimes, or perhaps had engaged in perjury. And what did East Coast Irish Catholic Margaret Carlson tell the world after Russert finished chasing Gore around that day? Russert was a prosecutor, she told Don Imus. Russert was like a prosecutor, she repeated, and he did a very good job.
Jack Welch created a ticking time bomb when he lured these self-pitying nuts into an ethnic news division. Did he realize what he was doing? There is no way to tell.
Respectful and obedient. Inevitably, the pander bears lined up to praise Russert, who may have been a superlative person but pretty much got everything wrong. They found every way to praise his brillianceand to avoid discussing the truth. We thought David Remnicks New Yorker piece especially stood out for its clownish examples of Russerts vast brilliance as an interrogator. When do you think life begins! In a political setting, it was the perfect irrelevant question. Meanwhile, in posting this example, Remnick breaks into the middle of the discussion so you cant see whats really going on.
But then, its much as Buchanan said about Russert. Tim was a certain type of individual, Pat opined. He was respectful, obedient:
Tim was respectful and obedient, Pat said. But didnt it perhaps occasionally seem that Tima good Irish Catholic kid from the wardwas perhaps a tiny bit too respectful of authority? Too obedient, one might imagine, to those who were in charge? Meanwhile, if Pat thinks those traits no longer exist, he clearly hasnt watched the boys and girls at our fiery liberal journals in the past sixteen years. Like Russert, they have been respectful/obedientand, most often, exceptionally silent. Lets face it: Theyre out for the $3 million book deal themselves! And so, hooray for the boys in Iraq! Our side kept its mouths shut very tight when Tim chased Gore around for the hourwhen Matthews wilded Gore for two years, before flying off to summer with Jack, a benefactor and supporter of Bush. Indeed, right to this day, our side has never yet tattled on Matthews! For that reason, he felt very free to mock Gore again this Tuesday night. (Gore weighs too much, it seems. It seems he's the "jowly green giant.")
Truly, the order is turned upside down. This gang of kooks and nincompoops mocks the nations Nobel Prize winners. Respectful tools in the liberal world all know they must stare into air.