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STRAIGHT OUTTA WELLFLEET! Good grief! Daniel Okrent, Times public ed, seems to be straight outta Dickens: // link //

EVERYTHING CHANGED—EXCEPT THAT: Everything changed on September 11—except, of course, for the cosmic stupidity of our political discourse. In our current White House election, we are debating trivial details concerning things Bush did (or didn’t do) thirty-two years ago. A person would have to be out of his mind to base his vote on matters like this. But we continue to run our White House elections as if we’re collectively out of our minds. Everything changed on September 11. Except, of course, for that.

STRAIGHT OUTTA WELLFLEET: Try to believe—just try to believe—the lightweight quality of your “press corps!” More specifically, consider the column in yesterday’s Times by that paper’s public editor, Daniel Okrent.

Good news! Okrent is back from a six-week vacance—a sojourn he tells us was “wonderful.” (His last column appeared on July 25.) That’s right, readers! Midway through his 18-month tenure, with a White House election picking up steam, Okrent decamped for the outer Cape, where he enjoyed a lengthy sabbatical that “almost made me feel like a real person.” Exhausted from the inordinate strain of writing two columns a month for eight months, Okrent returned to reading the Times the way he normally does:

OKRENT (9/12/04): [I] found myself once again able to read The Times like a civilian, instead of like an auditor from the inspector general's office or the presiding official at an auto-da-fé. As in my innocent, pre-P.E. days, I would turn first to the obits and then the sports section, and not to the corrections on A2. I read the book reviews as if I were interested in the books under discussion, not in the motivations, inclinations or parentage of the discussants. I gobbled up the extensive coverage the Arts section gave to the downtown Fringe Festival. I didn't read World Business, or the fashion supplement to the Sunday magazine.
It must have been great! The obits, then the sports page, and then the Fringe Festival! At any rate, Okrent passed August in this manner, vacantly gazing into salt air. He lounged in his deck chair, just as he vowed he would do in his pre-vacance column. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/26/04, for our report on that last hapless piece.)

But how thorough a lightweight is the Times’ public ed? Try to believe—just try to believe—the way he followed political news during his well-earned vacation. In yesterday’s column, he asks-and-answers this obvious question. Permit yourself to be amazed by this first part of his statement:

OKRENT: Q. What about the political coverage?

A. Sure, I read it. In fact, the day I hit my deck chair, I decided to spend August getting all my news only from The Times. I wanted to see whether total reliance on the paper would enable me to emerge into September with a view of the campaigns that accorded with reality.

What a trooper! Like Thoreau (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”), Okrent decided that, on his retreat, he would learn what the Times had to teach—nothing else. He wished to see if the Times, by itself, could keep him abreast of the news in the country. Of course, exhausted bus-boys at Wellfleet crab shacks could spot the flaw in Okrent’s logic. Duh! If he only gets his news from the Times, how can he know if he’s getting “a view of the campaigns that accord[s] with reality?” If he has no other source of news, how can he know if something is missing? Surely, Okrent must have mis-typed himself when he composed this account of his plan. But no! He explains his method in more detail, giving a specific example. How did he follow the Swift boat debate? We present his full account. Try to believe that he wrote it:
OKRENT (continuing directly): Take, for instance, the Swift Boat dust-up. Instead of considering the hundreds of messages from irate readers that accumulated while I was gone, instead of interviewing editors and writers involved in the story, I simply read what was in the paper. I didn't read every word of the voluminous coverage (who reads every word, except a public editor chained to his desk or a Times hater looking for desecrations?), but I read about as much as any normal human might.

Here's what I learned: In a series of ads, a group of Vietnam veterans who served with or near John Kerry in the Mekong Delta charged him with several deceptions about his war service. The ads were financed and produced by a number of people, many of them Texas Republicans, with a connection to President Bush or his associates. One key figure, however, was a political independent who voted for Al Gore in 2000 and has been challenging Senator Kerry's post-service condemnations of certain American practices in Vietnam for three decades.

From what The Times's news coverage told me, official records contradict the central charges leveled in the ads. However, it is not accurate to say, as Senator Kerry has, that he spent Christmas 1968 in Cambodia.

If my summary is wrong, The Times erred. If it's accurate, the paper did a fine job. If my description offends you because you dislike Kerry, or because you think the extent of The Times's Swift Boat coverage lent credence to false charges, this tells me more about you than it does about The Times.

“If my summary is wrong, the Times erred,” the ed says. But of course, Okrent can’t know if the Times got it wrong, because he brags about the way he avoided all other news sources! Nor is he even up to the task of reporting what the Times itself wrote. For example, did John O’Neill really vote for Al Gore? We don’t know, and neither does Okrent. The Times has addressed that question only once. And here’s what Ralph Blumenthal wrote:
BLUMENTHAL (8/28/04): But while enemies portray him as a one-dimensional partisan, Mr. O'Neill is man of intriguing contradictions. He has extensive ties to prominent Texas Republicans, but he has told friends he considers Mr. Bush an “empty suit” who is unfit to lead the country, and says he voted for Al Gore in 2000, and for Ross Perot in 1996 and 1992.
Good grief! Blumenthal doesn’t say that O’Neill voted for Gore—how could he possibly know?—only that he says he did. Try to believe that the Times public editor is bollixed by such a basic distinction.

In closing, let’s note the part of this piece that has come to define Okrent’s work for the Times. That is the open tone of derision he takes toward readers who bother him with their e-mails. As usual, Okrent takes sidelong shots at these “irate readers” and their reasons for disputing his judgments (see below). Okrent began displaying this tone in his fourth column (1/18/04), and the tone has been present from that day to this. By the way: Was there something he might have learned from the “hundreds of messages” he received about the Swift Vets? There is, of course, no way to know—Okrent brags that he has ignored them! Indeed, he hasn’t even read “every word” of the coverage in the Times! Nobody does that, he says.

Dickens invented characters like Okrent, as he strove to describe a world in which idle, privileged, insolent people felt unvarnished contempt for their social inferiors. Okrent strolls straight outta those novels. But make no mistake—powdered people like Daniel Okrent are now in control of American discourse. Lazy, pampered, self-indulgent and stupid, they’ve made a sick joke of your interests for years. At some point, the public will have to find ways to end their control of our discourse.

THE METHOD: Let’s adopt Okrent’s self-interview, Q-and-A style to further the morning’s discussion.

Q. How stupid is Okrent?

A. Exceptionally stupid. For example, consider his truncated account of the Swift Boat Vets’ claims. “From what The Times's news coverage told me, official records contradict the central charges leveled in the ads,” he writes. But duh! The Swift Boat Vets say these records are wrong; they even try to say how those errors occurred. Okrent, dozing, shows no sign of grasping the nature of their complaint. Millions of people believe these complaints; this belief has changed their opinion of Kerry. Straight outta his deck chair, Okrent seems only dimly aware of the structure of this crucial debate—a debate which transformed this election.

Q. Why is Okrent so exceptionally lazy?

A. Most likely, because he doesn’t much care. Okrent goes to the Cape every summer; it doesn’t really matter to him who wins or loses this election. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more indolent attitude toward the campaign. Try to believe that he wrote it:

OKRENT: My colleague Arthur Bovino tells me that while I was away, many readers urged me to write about election coverage sooner rather than later, “while it still might make a difference,” as several put it. My take is just the opposite: actor friends tell me that knowing the critics are in the audience will bring out their best performances, whereas the review that finally gets published is often just something to disagree with.
For some reason, Okrent seems to assume that he can address election coverage only once. Of course, when you only write two columns a month, and you take six-week vacations, your opportunities to function are few.

Q. What’s the dumbest part of the passage about the Swift boat “dust-up?”

A. Almost surely, the closing passage, where the public editor pre-trashes readers who might disagree with his account of the matter. “If my description offends you because you dislike Kerry, or because you think the extent of The Times's Swift Boat coverage lent credence to false charges, this tells me more about you than it does about The Times,” he thunders. But what if Okrent’s description “offends you” because you think he’s a blithering idiot? Because you think he’s straight outta Dickens? Such possibilities don’t intrude on his realm. You could always send him an e-mail about this. But why on God’s earth would you bother?

Q. Why doesn’t your transcript jibe with the transcript now on-line at the Times?

A. As usual, the Times has adjusted its on-line material. The on-line text of Okrent’s column differs from the text in our paper. Meanwhile, at Nexis, a third version appears. The indolent Times does what it pleases. Given that part of the paper’s culture, it hired the right public ed.

FOR THE RECORD: For the record, one more Q-and-A:

Q. Did John O’Neill really vote for Perot in 1992 and 1996, as he told the Times’ Ralph Blumenthal?

A. Hard to say. In 1992, O’Neill donated $1000 to Perot’s opponent, George Bush. Of course, Okrent, dozing, wouldn’t know that. This fact has never appeared in the Times, and Okrent spent the last six weeks being careful to read nothing else.

Smile-a-while: Changing fashions

CHANGING FASHIONS: We agree with Joan Vennochi on one thing—we think Kerry has been an awful candidate. And we think that Bush is pretty good on the stump, if you ignore the merits of what he is saying. In a recent column for the Boston Globe, Vennochi admired The Dub’s stump stylings:

VENNOCHI (9/9/04): Part of his success is due to issue framing. "Am I safe or not?" is a more compelling question, than "Will I have a job or not?”...

But like it or not, part of it is also due to Bush's ease with voters, as viewed in snippets on the evening news. There's one guy in a blue oxford shirt, with his sleeves rolled up, as he presses the flesh and tells voters over and over that Iraq is a critical piece of the war on terror.

Bush’s casual dress on the stump has been noted and praised by many. But you might even say that a fashion has changed, because a Nexis search shows that Vennochi took a different view of casual clothing during Campaign 2000. During Campaign 2000, Al Gore’s casual wardrobe was a sure sign of his character problems. Every pundit knew she must say it. And say it. And say it again:
VENNOCHI (7/20/01): The Gore team worked for a candidate who wore earth tones and melted in the heat of the presidential debates.
That was Vennochi in July 01, still disturbed by Gore’s casual duds. Her first direct reference had come seventeen months earlier, the morning after the New Hampshire primary:
VENNOCHI (2/2/00): [I]f Clinton is perceived as overly political, poll-driven, and calculating, so is Vice President Al Gore...No matter what the pundits said, Gore seemed no different in khakis or jeans than he did in a suit.
No matter what the pundits said? The pundits all said that Gore was a phony, and that you could tell from his casual clothing (links below). Indeed, Vennochi repeated the scripted message during the Dem Convention:
VENNOCHI (8/15/00): Too many voters still don't know who Gore is or what he represents. What they do know is confusing. In the campaign so far, Gore changed his message as often as he switched from suits to casual garb.
On the morning of the first Bush-Gore debate, Vennochi pushed the button again:
VENNOCHI (10/3/00): This presidential campaign is already a haze of allegedly defining moments. They include Al Gore in earth tones, passionately kissing Tipper and choosing as his running mate the first Jew to run simultaneously for vice president and US senator.
One week from election, she was still worried:
VENNOCHI (10/27/00): The vice president wanted us to take him as his own man. And then he refused to be one. He should have spent less time pondering his wardrobe—new age khakis or aging boomer dungarees?—and more time pondering his principles, if he truly has any.
And then, in the midst of the Florida mess, she socked it to us one more time:
VENNOCHI (12/5/00): Think of scenes from Crawford, Texas, where visitors to Bush's ranch attempt to look as casual as their host, with some ridiculous-looking results: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in blue jeans. To be bipartisan about it, the Gore camp also looks silly as it switches from khakis and jeans to suits and ties, all in a concerted effort to convey a certain image at a certain point in time.
We don’t know what Vennochi was talking about by this point, but she clearly knew the last campaign’s fashion. Candidates have stumped in casual clothes for decades. But during Campaign 2000, Vennochi’s vacuous, indolent crowd reinvented it as a strike against Gore. In December 2000, Vennochi was still disturbed when Gore-folk appeared in business dress, then in casual clothes. Now, a man in shirt-sleeves stumps the nation—and Vennochi drops this crackpot theme. When Bush appears in rolled-up sleeves, it officially shows his “ease with voters.” How long will Americans let the Vennochis make a joke of their interests and their lives?

YES, SHE EVEN SAID THAT: Yes, Vennochi even typed this—the classic slime-spin of Campaign 2000:

VENNOCHI (2/1/00):Vice President Al Gore actually hired a female consultant to help him find his inner “alpha” man...
Al Gore hired a woman to teach him how to be a man! It was the classic slime-spin of Campaign 2000, and Vennochi put it in the regionally influential Globe on the morning New Hampshire voted.

Gore’s wardrobe, like Bush’s, was never worth mentioning. But Vennochi has a strong fashion sense. She knew the spin-fashions of Campaign 2000, and she knows they’ve been tossed away now.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: The endless spinning of Al Gore’s clothes was a two-year classic of Pundit Corps Clowning. For a five-part series on the spinning of Naomi Wolf, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/03. To see Brian Williams obsess about Gore’s polo shirts, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/11/02. To review the corps’ take on Gore’s troubling boots, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/4/03. To recall more recent fashion clowning, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/12/04. We’ve told you for years now—these life-forms aren’t human. See if you don’t agree with us after reading these incomparable reports—reports straight outta science fiction.