FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 2004
THE ILLOGIC OF LINKS, TIES AND CONTACTS: Good God! Last week, we said the discussion of Iraq and al Qaeda would turn on the logic of links, ties and contacts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/18/04). The 9/11 Commission had said two things: There had been contacts between the two orgs. But as far as the commission could tell, they hadnt engaged in a collaborative relationship. So whats true? Have the orgs ever worked together? Have they ever formed a partnership? That is, of course, an empirical question. But the public discussion of this topic has drowned in the logic of links, ties and contacts. Consider what happened when Brit Humes all-stars tried discussing Gores speech just last night.
Brit played one short clip from the speech. Then he and Fred started discussin:
HUME: Panel, thats Al Gore today on President Bush. He asserts this on the basis of what he said the 9/11 Commission found, and therefore, made clear that there is no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. What about it?But what exactly did Fred mean by ties? Did he mean contacts—or did he mean something more? The simple word ties can be quite hard to limn. Bravely, Juan Williams threw in his ten cents. But when he did, Brit shut him down, and the gang seemed to play Whos On First:
WILLIAMS: But what Al Gore is saying is there was no collaborative relationship.And yes, it was just that bad if you actually watched. After endless confusion about what the commission had said, Mara tried to clear things up. Her comment made absolute perfect sense. So naturally, Brit jumped on her too:
LIASSON: The argument is about what kind of ties—The argument is about what kind of ties. Mara, of course, was perfectly right. But the endless illogic of links, ties and contacts overcame these Fox all-stars last night. Can you imagine the chaos wed hear if they ever brought in minor-leaguers?
What did Gore actually claim in his speech? We havent read the whole speech yet. But Michael Janofsky is quite coherent in todays New York Times:
JANOFSKY: Mr. Gore referred several times to the report last week by the staff of the Sept. 11 commission that cited contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda but said there was no collaborative relationship between them. Yet he said Mr. Bush and other administration officials continued to assert aggressively and brazenly that a stronger link existed.Was there a partnership between Iraq and al Qaeda? And has the Bush Admin suggested same—that such a stronger link existed? Janofsky makes a coherent presentation. So does Gore, in the passage quoted. The facts, of course, remain to be scanned. But last night, the all-stars never got to that point. Instead, they played a game of Whos On First as they drowned in the logic of links, ties and contacts. And yes: This is very much the way our modern press discourse often works.
Our current series: All in the family
ENJOY EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT:
PART 1: Tim Russerts father deserves your respect. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04.Now, for todays third installment:
DUDES NEVER WRONG (PART 3): Why should we care if scribes get paid north of $5 million a year, or if they try to build a brand name out of pleasing if semi-implausible tales? The problem lies with human nature. When people become too rich and too famous, they really do tend to bloat with pride—and as our elites have fawned to Russert, the signs of decay have been evident. Indeed, in Russerts own mind, he is now never wrong. Consider what happened when Howard Kurtz dared to challenge his work as a pundit.
Lets look at your punditry record, Kurtz pleasantly said during his recent session with Russert. The scribe was stepping on dangerous soil. But he quickly got down to brass tacks:
KURTZ: January 6, 2004, on the Today show, Matt Lauer asked you whether Dean was, quote, unstoppable. You said: Right now something would have to interfere with Howard Deans movement towards the nomination. He clearly is on his way to it unless something untoward happens.Two weeks later, Dean was trounced in Iowa. Were you wrong?Almost anyone else would consider saying that yes, he might have been somewhat wrong. Not Russert! As is his current wont when challenged, the squire of Nantucket started parsing:
RUSSERT: Was I wrong? I think he was on his way to the nomination. I think the intervening event was the extraordinary negativity that erupted between Gephardt and Dean. And then, ultimately, in the scream, which I thought was kind of a striking event. But at that stage, do I think that he was the front-runner? Absolutely, yes.Hmm. Just like that, Slick changed the question to front-runner. (He had been asked about unstoppable.) As if you read the whole exchange, youll see that Kurtz continued chronicling Russerts imperfect predictions about Dean. But clearly, Russert is never wrong. How far will he go to maintain his record? He let us see in these last Q-and-As:
KURTZ: On January 19, 2004, the day of the Iowa caucuses, Matt Lauer asked you, Which candidates can survive a setback in Iowa? And you said: Howard Dean. He has a revenue source on the Internet; he has an organization in the states and a future. Did you miss the boat on that one?Oh, no! Russert instinctively said. Indeed, to prove that hed been right all along, he even cited the early reporting on many of the cable outlets—early reporting that turned out to be wrong! As we learned when the actual votes came in, Dean had not run better than expected in New Hampshire. But Howard Kurtz had dared to ask if the squire had missed the boat in New Hampshire. Because the squire is never wrong, he quickly cited some bogus evidence. This is the way politicians react—politicians who cant take a punch.
But thats what happens to human beings—even to decent people like Russert—when their heads get filled with fake, phony praise from minions who fawn, pimp and pander. All that praise can go to their heads. They start hearing themselves described as saviors even when theyve been lightly chided (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04), and any suggestion that they might have erred is met with instant denial. Continuing bravely, Kurtz asked Russert if he overstepped at a famous Campaign 2000 debate. The reaction again: Quick denial:
KURTZ: One controversial moment in your career was in September 2000, when you moderated the debate in the Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Congressman Rick Lazio. You asked if she would apologize for branding her husbands accusers as part of a right-wing conspiracy. You asked, Do you regret misleading the American people? That caused quite a stir. Did you go too far on that?Did Tim go too far in his questions to Hillary? In the question Kurtz quotes, Russert implied that she deliberately misstated the facts—an insinuation for which he offered no evidence—and as his string of questions continued, he absurdly suggested, two separate times, that she had meant to tar anyone who ever criticized her husband as part of that right-wing conspiracy. (Absurdly, Russert even mentioned Joe Lieberman, asking if she would apologize to him.) As a result, some observers came down on Tim hard. Indeed, Kurtz cited one scribe by name. Note: The text about the clarification was inserted by Kurtz, not by us:
KURTZ: On the [questions to Hillary Clinton], Mark Sommer, a Buffalo News columnist, said you were like a bull in a china shop. He said you chose sensationalism over substance. He said Russert embarrassed himself and his profession. Pretty tough stuff.Actually, many people could imagine a debate in which Clintons comments werent absurdly mischaracterized. But having mischaracterized what Clinton said, Russert mischaracterized Sommers critique, too. As Kurtz noted, the Buffalo News had issued a clarification (full text below) in which the paper acknowledged one minor mistake by Sommer, and in which it recorded Russerts objection to one of Sommers interpretations (an interpretation Sommer did not retract). Did Sommer get his facts wrong in a big way? That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But one claim by Russert was just flat-out wrong. On Monday, Kurtz reported the error:
KURTZ (6/21/04): Tim Russert has told the Buffalo News he regrets an error he made in a recent Washington Post Magazine interview.I just plain didnt remember it, Russert told Kurtz. But he didnt deny what Sommer had said—that he actually called Sommer two times.
Yes, human nature being what it is, its dangerous when our biggest journalists lollygag on their decks in Nantucket typing up tales of their Buffalo souls. When we humans are pandered and fawned to, we tend to nurture imperial dreams, in which our conduct and instincts are always correct. And we start repeating worthless tropes to prove how fair we really are. Indeed, as we see in his session with Kurtz, Russert likes to offer the silliest proof of his fairness. When Kurtz dared ask if hes harder on Dems, Russert dragged out an old chestnut:
KURTZ: I get a lot of e-mail from liberals saying youre much tougher on Democratic candidates than you are on Bush administration officials. Im sure youve heard this.As readers of his book can see, Russert adopts this worthless posture almost by reflex. As long as hes criticized from both sides, Russert assumes that his work must be fair. Indeed, when Kurtz challenged Russerts questions to Hillary, he dragged out the chestnut again:
RUSSERT: I mean, you have to be evenhanded in these things, and to this day Im amazed, well, when you say cause a stir, it was largely amongst party activists supporting Hillary Clinton. And I fully expected that ...You get it from the left and the right, and I think that kind of confirms youre doing a pretty good job.In short, until Republicans complain that hes too hard on Hill, Tim will assume that hes been a good boy. In fairness, almost all scribes use this empty escape. But Russert recites it while sleeping.
Of course, its not as if Russert has never been wrong. In Big Russ & Me, he bravely describes the time he went bad—by beating up on a Nazi, David Duke! On Dateline, he confessed to Stone Phillips:
RUSSERT: In fact, after that interview someone from NBC said, You know, you got to be careful not to cross the line from moderator or questioner to prosecutor. So I called Big Russ, the way I always do after the show, and he picked up the phone and said, That was great. You were pounding that guy. And I said, Well, Dad, I said, I got to be careful. Theyre suggesting I may have made a mistake this time. Long pause, he said, Ill tell you what, you make a mistake, make a mistake with a Nazi.In Russert World, hes even the good guy when he goes bad! His biggest mistake? Beating up on Nazi too hard! This is like the apocryphal pol whos asked to name his biggest character flaw. I would have to say Im too honest, he admits.
Yes, important scribes can swell with pride when theyre over-paid and over-praised. But its odd to see Russert puffed with pride, because hes been warned all about it. Dad was wary of people whose heads were too big for the doorway, he writes in Big Russ & Me (page 157). Earlier, on page 43, its another valuable lesson learned: Dont get too big for your britches, Dad would say, and Dont get a swelled head. But even decent people—people like Russert—can bloat when showered with fake, phony praise, and lessons learned in the snows off the lake can be lost in the winds of Nantucket.
MONDAY: Our lesson-laden, hard-hitting conclusion! You have to be man enough to go to that person and tell him, to his face, what you have done.
TEXT OF THAT CLARIFICATION: Heres the clarification which appeared in the Buffalo News after Russert complained about Sommer (no relation):
CLARIFICATION: In a Sept. 18 commentary after the first debate between U.S. Senate candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick A. Lazio, News Arts Editor Mark Sommer criticized debate moderator Tim Russert for asking Clinton if she regretted misleading the American people in a 1998 television interview. In that interview, she blamed criticism of her husband over the Monica S. Lewinsky affair on a vast right-wing conspiracy. Sommers commentary asserted that Clinton had already answered similar questions before. In fact, Clinton had not been asked that question previously. But she has addressed the issue generally, including making a press statement that she was misled about her husbands affair. The News commentary also stated that Russert has belittled the idea of a vast right-wing conspiracy on his NBC Meet the Press program. That observation was based on Sommers impression and interpretation after watching many of those programs. Russert, however, asserts that is not the case and that he never belittled the idea in any way.Did Russert ever belittle the idea of a vast right-wing conspiracy? (In his column, Sommer said he did so on more than one occasion.) Its hard to know how to judge that claim. Belittlement is in the eye of the beholder; based on an imperfect search of Meet the Press transcripts, we would say that Russert did not belittle the notion on a regular basis—perhaps not at all. But did he belittle it more than once? It was a minor claim in a longer column—and theres no real way we can judge it.