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Caveat lector

WE'RE BA-A-A-CK! Two pundits spoke on the NEA flap. But big pundits knew to stay silent.


THE DAILY GRUMBLER: As Hank Williams put it:

You clap hands, and I’ll start howlin’.
We’ll do all the law’s allowin’.
Tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin’.
We’re settin’ the woods on fire.
Tomorrow is here, but we aren’t happy plowers. Our niece’s public health pals are so full of life that extended exposure to their energy and decency makes us resent the oodles of time spent cleaning up behind the press corps. There is so much good to be done in the world, and so much time wasted on such utter slackers! But let us put aside petty things. Grumbling and complaining every step of the day, we resume our small work in the garden.

THE DOGS THAT DIDN’T BARK: All praise to Cathy Young of the Boston Globe and Richard Rothstein of the New York Times; in the past week, they let readers of their papers know about the repulsive sliming of the NEA. (Rothstein is a truly outstanding education writer; his weekly column is always worth reading.) But for us, their work highlighted the way the major pundits ran and hid from this story. In this nasty slander attack, the Washington Times hit a new low; clearly, the paper no longer feels that it even has to pretend to be truthful when it launches its page-one attacks. And of course, the paper’s ugly claims exploded all through the world of talk radio in the past few weeks. For many Americans, it is now a part of the permanent record—the NEA “blamed America first” when it came to September 11.

Many Americans heard these attacks on talk radio—having no idea that they were being baldly deceived. And why were these citizens so deceived? In major part, they were deceived because of the reprehensible conduct of the Washington Times. The paper surely deserves to be scalded for its inexcusable conduct. But these citizens were also deceived because the nation’s “good guy” pundits simply don’t care about these kinds of slanders. In the overall scheme of things, Young and Rothstein are minor players, speaking from limited stages. Others speak from larger platforms—and had nothing to say about this affair. Have you seen a single major pundit scold the Times for its ugly conduct? Pundits are fly-specking the New York Times for errors of emphasis about Henry Kissinger. By contrast, the Washington Times generated a major, howling slander, and the Washington Generals stayed silent.

Remember, two teams are currently out on the floor, but only one is actually playing. In the succession of stories about the NEA, the Globetrotters unveiled their latest routine, and the major pundits knew their role—they pretended to be fooled by the antics. In the process, our discourse was again dragged through a sewer to which these pundits increasingly assent.

ABJECT FEAR: Thank God for Rothstein’s work in the Times, because out on page one, Kate Zernike was misinforming her readers about the NEA flap. On August 31, Zernike wrote a front-page story, “Lesson Plans for Sept. 11 Offer a Study in Discord.” Her piece covered more than the NEA matter. But here is the remarkable paragraph in which she described that dispute:

ZERNIKE: The N.E.A. Web site also included a link that urged teachers to avoid blaming Muslims for the attacks. Some conservatives mocked this as excessive political correctness; the union said they had taken quotes out of context. In the ensuing controversy, the competing union, the American Federation of Teachers, issued a statement saying that anything that seemed to blame America was “wrong.” (The group added, however, that it did not think the N.E.A. was unpatriotic.)
That remarkable paragraph baldly misstates what happened to the NEA. According to Zernike, the NEA “urged teachers to avoid blaming Muslims for the attacks,” and some conservatives “mocked this as excessive political correctness.” But that is not what happened at all; Zernike—knees knocking in fear of the hard-charging right—misstates what was actually said. In fact, the Washington Times and its numerous script-readers said something totally different; they said that the NEA was urging teaches to avoid blaming al Qaeda for the September 11 attacks. It was this ugly, stupid claim that was broadcast all over the nation’s talk radio; the NEA said its quotes were taken out of context because this paraphrase was being widely offered. But Zernike’s readers have no way of knowing what was actually said in this matter. Fearful of the hard-charging right—but not afraid to mislead readers—Zernike tidied up the dispute, hiding what “some conservatives” actually said. Zernike’s readers won’t have to know what is actually going on in their country. She seems to be trying out for the Generals now, too.

One team competes, and one team won’t. Zernike’s paper is being trashed for errors in emphasis about Henry Kissinger. Meanwhile, the Washington Times can create a great slander—and the New York Times will hide what they’ve done.

For the record, slanders like these drove Election 2000. “Good guy” pundits kept quiet then too. Almost surely, that decided the outcome.

PLOWSHARES: After a hiatus, we want to return to work on our book about the coverage of Campaign 2000. Citizens need to be informed about the press corps’ remarkable conduct in that race. Trust us—even our more cynical readers don’t know how astounding the corps’ conduct was. Citizens need to be informed about the extent of their press corps’ dysfunction.

For that reason, our HOWLERS may be more pithy (we hope). The plowing will be underway elsewhere.