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Daily Howler: CBS pundits said Bush was just great! And they said the same thing in 2000
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IN SEARCH OF CBS’ LIBERAL BIAS! CBS pundits said Bush was just great! And they said the same thing in 2000: // link // print //

DEBATE WATCH: Today, we’re doing an hour on the Marc Steiner Show (WYPR Baltimore; 1 PM Eastern). To listen along, just click here.

IMPERFECT RICE EVERY TIME: As usual, Rice didn’t know. On yesterday’s Late Edition, Wolf Blitzer asked Darling Condi about an unpleasant, detailed report in that morning’s New York Times:

BLITZER (10/3/04): Let's get to one final thing. It's in The New York Times today. On this program, almost exactly two years ago [on 9/8/02], we were talking about those aluminum tubes that the Iraqis were getting, and you said this on Late Edition. Listen to this:

RICE (videotape): We do know that there have been shipments going into Iran, for instance—into Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to—high-quality aluminum tubes that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.

BLITZER: Now, in the New York Times today, they say that, at that time, for a year you already knew the Department of Energy and others in the U.S. government were suggesting they probably were being used for small artillery rockets or other purposes, that it was a debate that was ongoing.

We’ve discussed this topic for the past sixteen months. In September 2002, in the lead-up to war, Rice told Blitzer that those aluminum tubes could “only” be used for nuclear weapons. But that wasn’t that actual state of the intelligence, as the New Republic reported, in a detailed study, all the way back in June 2003 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/03). Why, then, had Condi said otherwise? Yesterday, finally, Blitzer asked. And he got her usual answer. As usual, Rice didn’t know:
RICE (continuing directly): Well, at that time, when I came on your show, I knew there was some debate out there. But I tell you, I did not know the nature of the debate. We learned later, as we were going through the NIE, the Department of Energy's objections.
Of course, that’s not what yesterday’s Times report says. And it’s not what experts told TNR way back in June 2003.

But then, does Condi Rice ever know anything? According to the White House, she didn’t know about objections to the uranium-from-Africa story because she hadn’t read the whole National Intelligence Estimate! And in May 2002, she said she hadn’t known that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles—even though intelligence agencies has issued such warnings for years. Now, she says she didn’t know something else—she didn’t know the state of a critical, year-long discussion about those aluminum tubes. I didn’t know, Rice told Blitzer. And she was singing a sweet old refrain. Does Condi Rice ever know anything?

More striking than Rice’s claim of ignorance was the tardiness of this Times report. When Judis and Ackerman published that New Republic report, they quoted unnamed authorities flatly saying that Rice had “lied” when she made that statement on Late Edition back in September 2002. The tubes could only be used for nukes? Sixteen months ago, in June 2003, Judis and Ackerman quoted experts saying that Condi had “lied.”

Result? The press corps did what it does so well—it crawled beneath its desks and died. Only now, sixteen months later, does the New York Times follow up on this story. And only now do two Sunday hosts dare to ask Rice why she said what she did. (George Stephanopoulos also asked.) And darlings, what did Condi say? The usual: I didn’t know.

But the Times seems to say that Rice did know. And the New Republic had said the same thing. And finally, sixteen months after that first report, two Sunday hosts dared to ask her about it. But alas, they got a standard reply. As always, Condi Rice just didn’t know. But then, does Rice ever know anything?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Then, of course, there was Rice’s appearance before the 9/11 Commission. Which part of “tell the whole truth” doesn’t Rice understand? Oh, sorry! To all appearances, when Rice was questioned by Richard Ben-Veniste, she didn’t know she had to honor her oath! To see Rice repeatedly refuse to tell the truth, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/17/04. Of course, you probably remember the outcome . The press praised Condi for breaking her oath. They trashed Ben-Veniste for asking Rice questions.

IN SEARCH OF CBS’ LIBERAL BIAS: How did the nets cover Thursday’s debate? On Saturday’s Fox NewsWatch, Cal Thomas made an interesting observation about the instant punditry. According to Thomas, CBS pundits went easy on Bush in the aftermath of the debate. And Thomas even offered a bit of mind-reading—CBS pundits had pulled their punches because of the Rather-gate flap:

THOMAS (10/2/04): I thought in light of all that has happened with Dan Rather and CBS, Rather really pulled his punches [after the debate]. And not only Rather but John Roberts, who got on right—right off the bat and said it was close to a draw. There was virtually no spin.

Byron Pitts, who had covered the Kerry campaign and according to some media observers has been in the tank for Kerry for a long time, was remarkably balanced in his almost clinical observations.

Thomas, a conservative, expressed a predictable view. Since CBS is drenched in liberal bias, its pundits would normally tee off on Bush. When they held their tongues on Thursday night, it meant they had been intimidated. Soon after, Jane Hall described what happened on Fox, where she said the pundits went harder on Bush. “A lot of people have commented after the debate that Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes, who are known as conservative columnists on Fox, said that Kerry had done well,” Hall observed.

Weird! On Fox, the pundits were praising Kerry. But on CBS, pundits were quite fair to Bush! In fact, Thomas and Hall correctly observed the shape of the commentary on these two networks. But Thomas was wrong when he did his mind-reading. He was wrong when he suggested that excessive fairness to Bush was something new over at “liberal” CBS.

How did the two networks read this debate? On Fox, the pundits were plainly underwhelmed by the president’s outing. Moments after the session ended, Fred Barnes was first to comment. His nugget statement? “I'll have to say John Kerry did better than I expected.” Then Mort Kondracke got his go. And Mort wasn’t high on Bush either:

KONDRACKE (9/30/04): I thought that the president started off very strong, making the point that the world changed on 9/11 and that you have to be resolute and you have to fight the enemy out there. You can't wait to be attacked and you have to go out.

Now, for those who stayed around and watched, I think that the tide began to turn. And Kerry stopped being nervous and became quite forceful on issues like, "I have a plan for Iraq and the president doesn't."

I was surprised. The president did not come back and say, "What do you mean I don't have a plan, here is my plan, bang, bang, bang, bang."

Bill Kristol also seemed to favor Kerry’s performance. And soon, the pundits were batting Bush around for his off-putting “body language.” “The president was sighing,” Kondracke said. “The president sighed a lot in this, in this debate, and he looked tired, frankly.” It would be hard to mistake the overall judgment; on Fox, the night belonged to Kerry. “I think, if you're a Kerry supporter, you are heartened now,” Kristol said.

But at “liberal” CBS, things were different. Just as Thomas said, CBS pundits were much less critical of Bush’s performance. But was that because of the Rather-gate incident? Careful! Four years ago, CBS pundits were also Bush-friendly after the first Bush-Gore debate. Four years later, nothing had changed. CBS pundits were Bush-friendly then—and they were Bush-friendly now.

Again, Thomas was right about Thursday’s outing—CBS honchos were kind to Bush when his debate with Kerry ended. Quickly, Rather threw to Bob Schieffer for comment. And despite the problems Bush had plainly had, Schieffer played it right down the middle. What follows is his full comment:

SCHIEFFER (9/30/04): I think the president's strongest points came at the end, Dan, when he said that he'll fight the terrorists around the world so we don't have to fight them here at home. That seems to be the core of the president's message. That's what he's been talking about throughout this campaign. I think the headline that they'll write about Senator Kerry tomorrow is what you just said, that he accused the president of making a “colossal error in judgment” in deciding to fight this war in Iraq rather than to go after Osama bin Laden. That was Kerry's argument here tonight. I thought it was a good debate. It seemed to me the president was somewhat defensive in the beginning. I thought Kerry got off to a very good start. As I say, I think the president's best arguments came at the end.
Who had done better? Who had done worse? At Fox, pundits plainly favored Kerry—but at CBS, Schieffer wouldn’t say. But then, neither would CBS honcho John Roberts. By the time Roberts got his go, polls were flooding into the nets saying that Kerry had massively won. (CBS had already released an “insta-poll” of uncommitted voters. It favored Kerry, 44-26.) But that wasn’t what Roberts was saying. “Well, Dan, I thought that tonight's debate or its joint appearance was as close to a draw as you could possibly come,” he began. “Both candidates showed that they understood the issues very well.” Indeed, as Roberts finished his remarks, he even had a few kind words for the president’s pleasing comportment:
ROBERTS (9/30/04): The president did seem to pretty much, I think, comport himself the way that he was looking for, though perhaps not as strongly as some people would have liked. It will be interesting to see how he does next week, the town hall meeting, a wide range of issues. That's a format that the president's very comfortable with. Dan.
Good grief! Whatever bias Roberts was showing, it certainly wasn’t the liberal variety. Bush comported himself well, he judged. And he’ll likely do better next week!

So Thomas was right about one thing—CBS pundits were quite kind to Bush, kinder than their counterparts at Fox. But was this a reaction to the Rather-gate episode, a momentary lapse in the net’s liberal bias? Thomas’ assessment was predictable, but it flew in the face of the net’s recent history. Indeed, four years ago, when Bush battled Gore, these very same CBS pundits seemed Bush-friendly too. On that crucial night, just as on this one, “liberal bias” was MIA among those CBS pundits.

Ah yes, October 3, 2000! Bush and Gore had just finished their first debate; when the CBS overnight poll came in, a substantial majority of TV viewers thought Gore had won the debate. (In the CBS poll, 56 percent favored Gore; 42 percent picked Bush.) But despite all their troubling liberal bias, that wasn’t how CBS pundits viewed it. First, Rather complained about how “pedantic, dull, unimaginative, lackluster, humdrum” the whole affair had been. (“You pick the word,” he then said, having offered only five to select from.) Then he turned to his main man, Schieffer—and Schieffer gave the evening to Bush:

SCHIEFFER (10/3/00): Well, I agree with you, Dan, that this did not get off to a very exciting start, but I do believe something significant happened here tonight...I think clearly tonight, if anyone gained from this debate, it was George Bush because he showed that people will argue back and forth over the positions they took, but, clearly, he seemed to have as much of a grasp of the issues as—as Al Gore did tonight. So in that sense, I think Bush gained a lot.
Bush had baldly misstated his own budget plan. He had completely misstated his prescription drug plan. But Schieffer was taken with how much he knew! And he said that Bush took the day:
RATHER (continuing directly): Let's cut to the quick. Do you call it a draw? Victory for Bush?

SCHIEFFER: I think the one who gained the most tonight was George Bush because I think he really had the most to lose.

Bush gained the most, Schieffer said. Moments later, Gloria Borger was somewhat less sure when Rather asked her for a stand:
RATHER (10/3/00): Well do you agree with Bob that—“Advantage Bush” in this?

BORGER: I think Bush did gain. I'm not sure anybody actually won this debate, Dan. I do think that Bush managed to help himself, and Gore did, too, to a certain extent by not going on the attack.

According to Borger, Bush did gain. Gore too—to a certain extent.

Later, Roberts got his turn. Last Thursday, he called George Bush’s debacle a draw, praising the president for his deportment. But how did he score the Bush-Gore debate? Go ahead, readers—take your best shot. Can you spot the famed “liberal bias?”

ROBERTS (10/3/00): Well, Dan, the vice president had come here to Boston tonight with one goal in mind, and that was to take his convention acceptance speech back in August and cut it up into little bite-sized pieces, each two minutes long, and get on issues, issues, issues, talk policy in extreme detail and specifics all night long. And that's what he tried to do, sometimes to the detriment of the question that was asked. He sometimes avoided the question. But it's definitely a sense here tonight that Governor Bush probably did better than most people expected to and, in fact, held his own against the vice president.
Whatever bias Roberts showed, it wasn’t the “liberal” variety.

Let’s make sure we understand the context of those comments. Bush and Gore had just staged a crucial debate. By large margins, voters who actually watched the debate were telling pollsters that Gore had won. But did CBS pundits show their famed “liberal bias” by telling the world how great Gore had been? Hardly. Instead, Schieffer and Roberts adopted the familiar, pre-spun Bush campaign points—Bush had “done better than expected” and had “held his own against Gore.” It was “Advantage Bush,” Rather said. No, that wasn’t what average viewers thought, those real Americans out in the heartland. But that’s what TV viewers heard from CBS’ famed liberal pundits—from the disturbing gang whom Bernie Goldberg would later describe as “Dan’s bitches.”

Yes, Thomas voiced a stale, predictable view. When he saw CBS pundits spinning for Bush, he felt they had momentarily chosen to hide their fearsome “liberal bias.” But CBS pundits had bent over backwards to be Bush-friendly four years ago, too. If this is the shape of “liberal bias,” Bush has a request—bring it on.

FOLLOW-UP—DOWD’S FAKE QUOTE: Yes, Maureen Dowd invented another fake quote, and four other Timesmen pimped the “quote” too. No, John Kerry never made the “pretentious” statement for which he was roundly pummeled by Dowd. But so what? Dowd went ahead and pummeled him anyhoo, and Stolberg/Tierney/Egan/Rich followed suit. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/2/04, for all the gruesome details.

After that, it gets more delish. No, this phony quote wasn’t widely adopted, except, of course, at the vacuous Times. But Melinda Henneberger did pick it up, using it in her September 27 on-line column for Newsweek. What makes this so wonderfully delish? Henneberger used to work at the Times, where she joined fellow fake-quoters Dowd and Rich in inventing the Love Story foolishness! Apparently, transplanted Timesmen don’t lose their taste for an old-fashioned Times phony tale.

But then, someone else used the phony quote too. Egad! It was Karen Tumulty over at Time! In a boxed feature in last week’s edition, Tumulty had some good solid fun. She had things for Kerry to remember:



1) Positions should fit on a bumper sticker (just one side)

2) Don't use "who among us" and "NASCAR" in the same sentence

3) No saluting

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Of course, there’s an irony working here. It was Tumulty who finally lowered the boom on the fake Dowd-Rich Love Story creation, saying she was “sort of appalled” at the way the story was played in the press. Surely, Tumulty should have known to be cautious about these scribes’ funnin’. But the Washington press corps just loves a good tale! The fake quote went into Time too.

FOLLOW-UP—FINEMAN’S FAUX BRILLIANCE: Yes, we went back and checked all the tapes. And no, Howard Fineman never made that heroic statement, the statement he put in his own brilliant mouth (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/04). Here was the Newsweek ace in his on-line column last week, admitting that he was a genius:

FINEMAN (9/30/04): Pivotal moments [in White House debates] aren't usually apparent at first glance. They are like an old-fashioned photographic print in a chemical bath; they take time to emerge...In 2000, at UMass in Boston, I went on MSNBC after the first Gore-Bush debate and said I thought that Bush had “won” it by not losing it. I was right, as it turned out, but I did not get the real news—which, it became clear after a day or two, was all about The Gore Sigh.
What a genius! “I was right,” Fineman modestly said—after inventing another fake quote, a quote he himself never said.

No, Fineman never said that Bush won the first Bush-Gore debate by not losing it. In fact, he never really said anything like that. Over the weekend, we replayed all the post-debate tape from MSNBC; the statement we quoted in last Friday’s HOWLER was the only thing Fineman ever made. And we reviewed the tape from his Imus appearance the next morning. Here’s the first thing Fineman said there:

IMUS (10/4/00): What did you think?

FINEMAN: I think Bush survived.

“I think Bush survived,” Fineman actually said. Then he did what many pundits were doing that day; he began to cast about for ways to puff up Bush’s performance. “If you were scoring on debating points, it was clear that Gore won,” he actually said. But why use a measure where Gore had done well? “Bush didn’t look scared,” Fineman cooed at one point. “I didn’t think there was really a moment when Bush looked scared.” Indeed, he and Imus enjoyed a good laugh about those low pundit expectations:
IMUS: Charles and I watched it and we kept saying to each other that we were surprised that he was able to answer the questions or that he even was able to—

FINEMAN: Well, he was relying on that. [Laughter]

But then, all over the media, pundits were looking for ways to jack up Bush and take Gore down. Finally, they settled on sighs-and-lies, and the spinning took on a sharp focus.

At any rate, what did Fineman say in real time? In real time, he said that Bush had “survived.” But the years have played tricks with the great pundit’s memory. He now thinks he said that Bush “won” the debate. “I was right,” Fineman modestly says.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Of course, no one has reinvented his view of that first debate in quite the way Chris Matthews has. In real time, he said that Gore “cleaned Bush’s clock.” He even scolded other scribes—scribes who were refusing to admit how massively Gore had won. But eventually, Chris saw he had to reinvent too. To see a first-class fake in action, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/15/02.