THURSDAY, JULY 3, 2003
THERE THEY GO AGAIN: How will Campaign 04 be covered? Lets consider Richard Cohens column in this mornings Washington Post.
There are occasional hints of standard press problems in the Cohen piece. Cohen starts by reciting the Standard View of Howard Deans performance on Meet the Press. Later, he indulges himself in a bit of light M-POT (Mandatory Praise of Tim Russert). And midway through, the word apparently suggests a lack of pundit due diligence. But on the whole, Cohen offers a perfectly reasonable, intelligent critique of Deans position on capital punishment. Dean is quoted at some lengthreaders get to see what he actually said!and Cohens arguments make perfect sense. Meanwhile, Cohen presents an original view! You havent seen thirty-five other pundits say precisely the same thing this week. By the standards of contemporary punditry, therefore, this is a startling piece of work. You may or may not agree with Cohen. But if this were the way our elections were covered, THE DAILY HOWLER wouldnt exist. Neither, of course, would the Bush White House.
Because this is certainly not the way Campaign 2000 was covered. As ombudsman E. R. Shipp wrote in the Washington Post, the press corps essentially typecast that race, creating a mindless, hackneyed drama in which each candidate was assigned a role (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00). Once the various roles were assigned, facts were persistently rearranged to fit the corps preferred scripts. As a result of this approach, Shipp wrote, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass. Sadly, that is how the press covered Campaign 2000. And, to judge by the coverage of Deans recent session, theyre ready to do it again.
Familiar figures are hard at work, banging out pleasing new scripts. For example, the morning after Deans appearance, Katharine Seelye got busy spinning in the New York Times. According to Seelye, Dean had equivocated, sidestepped and guessed his way through the Meet the Press performance. Most strikingly, Seelye pretended that Dean had sidestepped issues where he actually gave quite detailed replies. But readers would have no way to know that. Readers werent told what Dean had said, only what Seelye thought of his answers. This was reporting at its worstthe same type of crabbed reporting Seelye presented throughout Campaign 2000. In August 2000, the Financial Times nailed the Times spinner, saying she was hostile to the [Gore] campaign, doing little to hide [her] contempt for the candidate. Its bad, bad news for American politics if Seelye is out there again.
And Seelyes ur-text did seem to script coverage of that Meet the Press interview. By the night of her report, deeply troubled Washington pundits were reciting variants of her complaints. And remember: Sheer stupidity wont faze this crew. Gaze on this nonsense again (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/03):
BARABAK: [B]y most accounts, Dean performed miserably. He bickered with the host, Tim Russert, evaded some questions and equivocated in response to others. Most egregiously, in the eyes of critics, he could only guess at how many U.S. troops were on active duty around the world and incorrectly estimated the number in Iraq.Amazingly, Barabak recited Seelyes complaint about Deans incorrect estimate of troops in Iraq. It was egregious, the troubled scribe said! But how far off was Deans incorrect estimate? Dean said the number of troops was in the neighborhood of 135,000; according to Seelye, the actual number was 146,000. In fact, Deans estimate had been highly accurate. But readers of the Los Angeles Times couldnt know that. Barabak said Dean had made an egregious errorbut he didnt include any actual numbers! In a word, L. A. Times readers were baldly deceived. But Barabak stuck to the script.
In our view, there was plenty to criticize in the Dean session. This morning, Cohen offers a perfectly reasonable critique. But your press corps is a dysfunctional elite; theyre prepared to spin you blue again. Make no mistakethe Seelyes and Barabaks do plan to go there. Are Americans willing to let them?
SELECTIVE SERVICE, CONTINUED: Amazing, isnt it? Dean gives a perfectly accurate estimate of the number of troops in Iraq. Nine days later, readers of the Los Angeles Times are told that he made an egregious errorand strangely, they arent provided the numbers! But thats the way your scripted press corps made a joke out of Campaign 2000. And, as Howard Kurtz explained in Tuesdays Post, the media elite have now made a decisionthey just dont like Howard Dean. He hasnt given them any free doughnuts, and he doesnt keep saying how smart they all are. The wages of this have come clear.
We strongly recommend Kurtzs report. During their coverage of John McCains race, the press corps made no bones about it. If you give them free foodand say how brilliant they arethey will give you excellent coverage. During that race, McCain kept saying how smart pundits were (proving he was willing to say anything to get to the White House). Dean, alas, has been less polite. Readers, they turned on Bradley for this reason too. Dean should go buy bags of doughnuts.
QUESTION: On weapons of mass destruction; is it fair to say now after a few months of looking for them that there is a discrepancy between what the intelligence community and you and your top officials described as the threat from Saddam Hussein and what was actually there on the ground?What a remarkable answer! How did Bush know that Saddam had WMD? Because he had used themin 1988! And how did he know that Saddam was a major threat? Because of intelligence reportsfrom 1998! Can this possibly mean that the Bush Admin was working off five-year-old information? Here at THE HOWLER, we dont have a clue. But pundits will know not to ask.
Was the Bush Admin using dated info? We dont know, but it surely would matter. On the June 15 Meet the Press, Wesley Clark offered an intriguing thought about those AWOL WMD:
RUSSERT: Was there an intelligence failure? Was the intelligence hyped, as Senator Joe Biden said? Was the president misled, or did he mislead the American people?Did those 98 raids set back Iraqs programs? Here at THE HOWLER, we dont have the foggiest. (Predictably, Clarks comment provoked no discussion.) But yesterday, Bush referred to intelligence reports which would have predated those 98 raids. Maybe his answer was simply lazybut his answer was remarkably weak. But dont worry. The press corps wont notice.