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RICHARD COHEN’S RANT-ATTACK! If it’s “utterly stupid” you want, you won’t have to go to Moore’s movie:

FRIDAY, JULY 2, 2004

POOR RICHARD’S RANT-ATTACK: Modest to the point of fault, we almost never quote ourselves. But today we’ll start with incomparable words penned in these pages just three days ago. “Is there anything more depressing than watching the ‘press corps’ critique a film?” we asked. Regarding Fahrenheit 9/11, we added this keeper: “[S]tandard propaganda campaigns have been launched in which outraged, phony critiques of the film go well beyond the faults of the film-maker.” Which brings us to Richard Cohen’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Cohen found himself “defeated by the utter stupidity” of Michael Moore’s film. But for sheer dumbness, you’d really have to search far and wide to top Cohen’s column. Here is his opening paragraph:

COHEN (pgh 1): I brought a notebook with me when I went to see Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and in the dark made notes before I gave up, defeated by the utter stupidity of the movie. One of my notes says “John Ellis,” who is a cousin of George W. Bush and the fellow who called the election for Fox News that dark and infamous night when the presidency—or so the myth goes—was stolen from Al Gore, delivering the nation to Halliburton, the Carlyle Group and Saudi Arabia, and plunging it into war. A better synopsis of the movie you’re not likely to read.
In fact, the nation has engaged in a war, so that can’t be the stupid part. But readers, if it’s stupid you want, how about Cohen’s flogging of Cousin John Ellis? He devotes about a third of his column to Bush’s cuz. Here is the tone of his mockery:
COHEN (2): Ellis appears early in the film, which is not only appropriate but inevitable. He is the personification of the Moore method, which combines guilt by association with the stunning revelation of a stunning fact that has already been revealed countless times before. If, for instance, you did a Lexis-Nexis database search for “John Ellis” and “election,” you would be told: “This search has been interrupted because it will return more than 1,000 documents.” The Ellis story is no secret.
Of course, Moore never says the story is a secret. In fact, Moore says little about Ellis at all; despite Cohen’s odd fixation, Ellis is barely mentioned in Fahrenheit 9/11. Indeed, in this transcript, which seems to be accurate, Ellis is mentioned in exactly one sentence, roughly one minute into the film. There is no claim of a “stunning revelation,” and there is no claim of a “secret story.” Simply put, Ellis ain’t what the film is about. If you blink during Moore’s film, you’ll miss his one mention of Cuz.

But Cohen thunders about Moore’s single sentence—a sentence which is perfectly accurate. In paragraph 3, he almost seems to reverse his field. Suddenly, it almost seems that we don’t know enough about Bush’s Cousin John:

COHEN (3): But more than that, what does it mean? Ellis is a Bush cousin, Moore tells us. A close cousin? We are not told. A cousin from the side of the family that did not get invited to Aunt Rivka’s wedding? Could be. A cousin who has not forgiven his relative for a slight at a family gathering—the cheap gift, the tardy entrance, the seat next to a deaf uncle? No info. And even if Ellis loved Bush truly and passionately, as a cousin should, how did he manage to change the election results? To quote the King of Siam, is a puzzlement.
Alas! Moore doesn’t claim that Ellis “changed the election results,” although many analysts said his premature call for Bush created an uphill battle for Gore (see below). Indeed, critics have said this in Cohen’s own paper, although you’ll never get a clue of this from reading his puzzling column.

Does Cohen mean to say, in paragraph 3, that he doesn’t know if Ellis is a close cousin? It’s hard to tell from his lazy prose; he may just be saying that Moore should have given more info about this subject. But next time, Cohen should be more clear. Presumably, the columnist knows all about Cousin John, because his paper’s readers were told all about him during the Battle For Florida. Today, Moore’s film is “utterly stupid” for its one sentence about the Bush cousin. But is the Post utterly stupid too? Back in the fall of 2000, Post scribes wrote, in great detail, about the topic Moore fleetingly mentions. No one called them “utterly stupid,” the tag that is dumped now on Moore.

Was it “utterly stupid” for Moore to cite Ellis? Back on November 14, 2000, the flap about Cuz was just getting started. But Howard Kurtz laid out the facts in a lengthy report. Here’s part of what he wrote, right there in Cohen’s own paper:

KURTZ (11/14/00): Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said: “The notion that you’d have the cousin of one presidential a position to call a state is unthinkable. Fox’s call precipitated all the other networks’ calls. That call—wrong, unnecessary, misguided, foolish—has helped create a sense that this election went to Bush, was pulled back and he is waiting to be restored.”
There’s the “utterly stupid” thought that Ellis did affect the election. But then, Marvin Kalb found the matter worth mentioning too:
KURTZ (11/14/00): Marvin Kalb, Washington executive director of Harvard's Shorenstein press center, calls Ellis “a fine writer and columnist, and he's always sensitive about his relationship with his first cousin. His mother is very, very close with former president Bush. Therefore I am puzzled as to why he’d put himself in a position where he would seem to be the one making the call for his cousin. It clearly conveys the wrong impression.”
Kalb was utterly stupid too. By the way, how close a cousin is Cousin Ellis? If Cohen actually read those “more than 1000 [Nexis] documents,” he’d have learned that Ellis is a very close cousin to Bush. Indeed, on December 11, 2000, Kurtz wrote a long piece about this affair. Here’s how he began:
KURTZ (12/11/00): On the afternoon of [Election Day], George W. Bush called his cousin John Ellis, head of the decision desk at Fox News.

“Ellis, Bush here,” he drawled. “Here we go again...Looks tight, huh?”

“I wouldn’t worry about your early numbers,” Ellis said. “Your dad had bad early numbers in '88 and he wound up winning by 7 [percentage points]. So who knows?”

“Okay, call me back when you can,” Bush said.

Close! In fact, Ellis was on the phone with his cousin, the candidate, all through Election Day. According to Kurtz, a new magazine piece was “remarkable because it shows just how deeply involved the Fox analyst was with both the Republican candidate and his other first cousin, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while simultaneously working for a major news organization.” But even back on November 14, Kurtz had expressed his own stupid view about the Ellis matter. “Whatever the Yale graduate's job description, it remains unclear why a television network allowed him to call the election for his cousin,” Kurtz wrote. Two days later, the Post’s Lisa de Moraes reported that Ellis had offered his resignation at Fox; she said he had “embarrass[ed] the network by talking about exit poll information that night with Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, even while playing a critical role in projecting Bush the winner.” According to de Moraes, Fox had “launched an internal investigation of Ellis’s role, which has been criticized even by Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly.” Why, even Mr. O had been “utterly stupid,” to judge from the Post scribe’s report!

Did Ellis’ conduct “change the election results?” No, almost surely, it did not. But then, nothing in Moore’s film—nada; zilch—says or implies that it did. Has the Ellis story been a big secret? Moore doesn’t say or imply that. Nor does Moore say or imply that he is making a “stunning revelation of a stunning fact.” That’s all nothing but silly clowning—clowning performed by Cohen himself. But Cohen—inventing nonsense about total trivia—trashes Moore for his vast misconduct! Readers, if you’re in the market for “utterly stupid,” you won’t have to go to Moore’s film.

Why is Cohen so inept, so daft, so empty? About those questions, we have no real clue. As we said at the start of the week, there are various problems with Moore’s film, problems that are well worth discussing. Meanwhile, we agree with the point Cohen makes in the second part of his column; we agree that, when Dems show disrespect to Bush, they are flirting with a political “backlash” that could cost them Kerry’s election. But don’t expect to get real discussion from the gang that fills space in your morning newspaper. They’re lazy, inept—and they don’t seem to care; they mainly seem to like typing easy columns. Moore’s film does have some major flaws. But if it’s major flaws you like, just drink in Richard Cohen’s clowning column.

TYPISTS EXPRESSING THE VIEW OF THEIR CLASS: For the record, many typists of the High Pundit Class have done what Cohen does in this piece; weirdly, they’ve called Moore a kook for making points which mainstream observers have endlessly raised. Those Saudi flights are the perfect example. As recently as a few weeks ago, the 9/11 Commission was still working hard to find out why those flights left the country. But for some reason, Moore has been dismissed as a loon for daring to raise the same topic. And of course, it isn’t Moore who questions the flights in the film; on camera, he interviews Senator Byron Dorgan, best-selling author Craig Unger, and former FBI honcho Jack Cloonan. They are the ones who question the flights—but somehow, that makes Moore a loon! Ditto for Cohen, calling Moore “loony” for his accurate, one-sentence reference to a matter widely discussed in real time. But then, that’s the nature of propaganda. Propaganda doesn’t have to make sense.

Yes, there are problems with Moore’s film; Paul Krugman mentions a few this morning. And yes, the public would be well served if journalists clarified some of Moore’s topics and claims. But why won’t people like Cohen get serious? About individual scribes we simply can’t say, but as a group, we think the answer is obvious. Krugman touches on it:

KRUGMAN: Mr. Moore’s greatest strength is a real empathy with working-class Americans that most journalists lack. Having stripped away Mr. Bush’s common-man mask, he uses his film to make the case, in a way statistics never could, that Mr. Bush’s policies favor a narrow elite at the expense of less fortunate Americans—sometimes, indeed, at the cost of their lives.
Yes, privilege is a main theme of Moore’s film—one from which your millionaire press corps recoils. At the end of the film, Moore offers a short soliloquy, one we can’t find on-line. But it goes pretty much like this: “I’m always amazed,” he says, at the way working-class Americans step up to serve whenever the nation is in danger. “They serve so that we don’t have to,” Moore says. And that is the message your press corps hates, the message they don’t plan to let you hear. Pampered, overpaid, perfumed and privileged, they simply don’t care about those dead soldiers, or about their grieving families, and they tend to lash out hard at those who suggest that they should. Cohen, duped in the run-up to war, expresses his love for authority:
COHEN: The case against Bush need not and should not rest on guilt by association or half-baked conspiracy theories, which collapse at the first double take but reinforce the fervor of those already convinced. The success of Moore's movie, though, suggests this is happening—a dialogue in which anti-Bush forces talk to themselves and do so in a way that puts off others. I found that happening to me in the run-up to the war, when I spent more time and energy arguing with those who said the war was about oil (no!) or Israel (no!) or something just as silly than I did questioning the stated reasons for invading Iraq—weapons of mass destruction and Hussein's links to Osama bin Laden. This was stupid of me, but human nature nonetheless.

Some of that old feeling returned while watching Moore's assault on the documentary form. It is so juvenile in its approach, so awful in its journalism, such an inside joke for people who already hate Bush, that I found myself feeling a bit sorry for a president who is depicted mostly as a befuddled dope.

Stupid then, drawn back to stupid now. Cohen was duped about a war—but the thing that has him really troubled is Moore’s one accurate sentence on Ellis. By the way, note the way your press corps reasons. Cohen’s “stupidity?” That’s human nature. But Moore’s stupidity—one accurate sentence—is a cause for ranting attacks. It’s hard to believe, but this is the “press corps” which currently stewards your democracy. Cohen—distracted in the run-up to war—finds that old feeling returning.

RUBIFICATION ACTIVITIES: Yes, and sometimes they simply lie. Last week, for example, Christopher Hitchens was all het up about Moore’s deeply troubling claims. He began to list his “astonishing falsifications:”

HITCHENS (6/21/04): That this—his pro-American moment—was the worst Moore could possibly say of Saddam's depravity is further suggested by some astonishing falsifications. Moore asserts that Iraq under Saddam had never attacked or killed or even threatened (his words) any American. I never quite know whether Moore is as ignorant as he looks, or even if that would be humanly possible.
“His words!” A comical touch. Yes, those would be ignorant words, and, for better or worse, Moore doesn’t speak them. Here’s what he actually says in the film:
MOORE: On March 19, 2003, George W. Bush and the United States military invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq. A nation that had never attacked the United States. A nation that had never threatened to attack the United States. A nation that had never murdered a single American citizen.
That last sentence is melodramatic, parsed and semi-silly, but apparently not silly enough for Hitch, who decided he’d better embellish it. (Nothing much new about that.) Why does Hitch rearrange “his words?” Easy! Moore’s claim may be silly, but it’s accurate. The claim which Hitch invents is just wrong. But then, the critiques of Moore have been filled of this garbage—filled with moments when spouters like Hitchens simply lie in the face of their audience, troubled by Moore’s vast misstatements.

Who knows—maybe Hitch even believed his characterization when he penned it for Slate two weeks back. By this week, of course, he’d had time to check, and we saw him make this same claim Monday night. The following night, there was James Hirsen, pimping in Scarborough Country:

HIRSEN (6/29/04): On this new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, I think he had it fact-checked by Al-Jazeera. I mean, it’s so filled with wrong statements, you have to bring a shovel into the theater to watch it. It was excruciating for me to watch it. He said that Saddam Hussein in Iraq never threatened to attack or kill any Americans. I mean, that is something he said, in his postnasal drip narration.
Perfect, isn’t it? Moore’s film was “so filled with wrong statements” that Hirsen began with one he’d invented! But then, fake, phony claims have been Scarborough’s meat as he’s discussed Moore’s film this week. Here’s a hopeless segment from that same Tuesday program. Scarborough speaks with Margie Omero, a “Democratic pollster” who seems to know even less about Moore’s film than her dissembling host does:
SCARBOROUGH: What about his charge that George Bush’s first business was started by Osama bin Laden’s family? Did you think that’s accurate?

OMERO: Well, I think there’s a lot of stuff—what this is showing, that there are details, is—because the Bush administration is notoriously secretive, people are craving information. And that‘s breeding wanting to come and grasping at whatever facts are available and trying to make a story out of what’s available, because the Bush administration is not being very forthcoming.

SCARBOROUGH: Do you believe that?

OMERO: I do believe it.

SCARBOROUGH: I just need facts. So you believe that Osama bin Laden‘s family started George W. Bush‘s first business?

OMERO: I believe, you know, from what I have understood to be true, that there have been a lot of investors from all over the world that have invested in a lot of Bush’s companies.

SCARBOROUGH: So do you believe that Osama bin Laden’s family started George W. Bush’s first business? That is such an outrageous claim. I know you don’t believe that. Do you believe that?

OMERO: You know, I don’t know how I stand on that. I mean, I don’t—you know, I have heard that’s true. Why don’t you tell me something—show me why you think that that’s not true.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, show me why you don’t think that Bill Clinton was an alien that came from Mars! I mean, I can’t prove a negative here.

If the quality of our discourse matters at all, neither one of those people should be allowed within a hundred miles of a TV studio. And by the way: Moore’s film doesn’t “charge that George Bush’s first business was started by Osama bin Laden’s family;” that’s just another clowning embellishment of what Moore actually says in his film (check the transcript). But Scarborough—who’s been treating his viewers like fools all week long—has contempt for you, your discourse and your culture, and his performances help us see the puzzling—and dangerous—media world in which we now live.