Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler Banner Graphic
Caveat lector

GETTING STOOPID! Bush’s reply was remarkably weak. But pundits will know not to notice:


THERE THEY GO AGAIN: How will Campaign 04 be covered? Let’s consider Richard Cohen’s column in this morning’s Washington Post.

There are occasional hints of standard press problems in the Cohen piece. Cohen starts by reciting the Standard View of Howard Dean’s 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 Dean’s position on capital punishment. Dean is quoted at some length—readers get to see what he actually said!—and Cohen’s arguments make perfect sense. Meanwhile, Cohen presents an original view! You haven’t 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 wouldn’t 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 Dean’s recent session, they’re ready to do it again.

Familiar figures are hard at work, banging out pleasing new scripts. For example, the morning after Dean’s 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 weren’t told what Dean had said, only what Seelye thought of his answers. This was “reporting” at its worst—the 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.” It’s bad, bad news for American politics if Seelye is out there again.

And Seelye’s 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 won’t 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 Seelye’s complaint about Dean’s “incorrect estimate” of troops in Iraq. It was “egregious,” the troubled scribe said! But how far off was Dean’s “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, Dean’s estimate had been highly accurate. But readers of the Los Angeles Times couldn’t know that. Barabak said Dean had made an “egregious” error—but he didn’t 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; they’re prepared to spin you blue again. Make no mistake—the Seelyes and Barabaks do plan to go there. Are Americans willing to let them?

SELECTIVE SERVICE, CONTINUED: Amazing, isn’t 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” error—and strangely, they aren’t provided the numbers! But that’s the way your scripted press corps made a joke out of Campaign 2000. And, as Howard Kurtz explained in Tuesday’s Post, the media elite have now made a decision—they just don’t like Howard Dean. He hasn’t given them any free doughnuts, and he doesn’t keep saying how smart they all are. The wages of this have come clear.

We strongly recommend Kurtz’s report. During their coverage of John McCain’s race, the press corps made no bones about it. If you give them free food—and say how brilliant they are—they 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.

The Daily update

KINDERGARTEN COMMANDER: Yep. The Washington press corps was deeply troubled by Dean’s disturbing lack of prep. It was a “commander-in-chief issue,” said Gloria Borger, echoing the Seelye report. But how about another “commander-in-chief issue?” Yesterday, President Bush took a question on WMD. We thought his reply was astounding:

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?

BUSH: Saddam Hussein had a weapons program. Remember he used them—he used chemical weapons on his own people. Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to the United States because we removed him, but he was a threat. Such a threat that my predecessor, using the same intelligence in 1998, ordered a bombing of Iraq. I mean, so—he was a threat. He’s not a threat now. And the world is more peaceful by virtue of the fact that he is not in power.

What a remarkable answer! How did Bush know that Saddam had WMD? Because he had used them—in 1988! And how did he know that Saddam was a major threat? Because of intelligence reports—from 1998! Can this possibly mean that the Bush Admin was working off five-year-old information? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But pundits will know not to ask.

Was the Bush Admin using dated info? We don’t 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?

CLARK: Well, several things. First of all, all of us in the community who read intelligence believe that Saddam wanted these capabilities and he had some. We struck very hard in December of ’98, did everything we knew, all of his facilities. I think it was an effective set of strikes. Tony Zinni commanded that, called Operation Desert Fox, and I think that set them back a long ways.

Did those ’98 raids set back Iraq’s programs? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have the foggiest. (Predictably, Clark’s comment provoked no discussion.) But yesterday, Bush referred to intelligence reports which would have predated those ’98 raids. Maybe his answer was simply lazy—but his answer was remarkably weak. But don’t worry. The press corps won’t notice.