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THAT INVISIBLE HAND! When Kurtz makes a minor mistake, he's "trusted." But Krugman gets the back of a hand: // link // print // previous // next //

THAT CRAZY AUNT: Newspapers tend to avoid such reports—but in today’s Post, Howard Kurtz gives it up. How much do Americans know about Campaign 08? Our buddy at the bagel joint said he just couldn’t believe this:
KURTZ (10/24/07): In a poll released by the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of those surveyed could name a Democratic contender without prompting, while 59 percent could conjure up a White House wannabe from the GOP side. Overall, 78 percent volunteered Hillary Clinton's name, and 45 percent came up with Rudy Giuliani.
As usual, Pew’s reporting of its methods and results is a bit unclear. (Were respondents asked to name only one candidate in each party—or as many as they could? Interpretation of some of Pew’s data would turn on that distinction.) But let’s focus on what seems unambiguous: at present, only 59 percent of Americans can name a Republican candidate for president.

In some ways, that figure is less staggering than it might seem. We have a low turn-out rate in presidential elections. Many of these know-nobody respondents will sit out next November’s election; even fewer will vote in the primaries. But any way you want to slice it, that Republican figure is remarkable—until you read the Pew report, which notes that 59 percent is quite typical for this stage in a White House campaign. (“In September 1999, 63% of Americans could name a Republican candidate and four years earlier, 56% were able to do so.”) According to Pew, the Democratic figure is unusually high, fueled by the unusual celebrity of Candidates Clinton and Obama.

Newspapers rarely report such awkward data, although they’re constantly gathered. In some ways, our clueless voters are like Ross Perot’s “crazy aunt,” the one he said “we keep in the basement.” (In this case, the uncles are equally daft.) In fact, the American public is always clueless, about all manner of politics and public policy. It helps to keep this fact in mind when you read opinion polls—or when you see how easily the public’s mind can sometimes be changed on important, emotional issues.

CHIEF COOK AND DEMOCRAT BASHER: On balance, we tend to disagree with Digby about last evening’s Hardball. We thought Rahm Emmanuel kept making a semi-reasonable point, and Matthews kept playing the fool about it. We thought Paul Krugman was mind-reading a bit—and we think his endless brilliance on policy matters doesn’t always carry over to political assessments. And we tended to agree with Matthews/Cook/Todd about that poll—the poll which showed public opinion about The Wisdom of War swinging back in Bush’s direction. (It isn’t clear that Digby disagrees with the trio’s assessment, although she seems to do so.)

For ourselves, we were most struck by the way Chris pimped that other poll—the one about Clinton and Giuliani.

Poor Chris! Rocket-fueled by his Diet Cokes, he started pimping it right from the top, as he previewed the coming hour:
MATTHEWS (10/23/07): And a hot new poll number tonight showing the close race between Hillary Clinton and front-runner Rudy Giuliani, should they go together. Plus, we’ll have the latest on the wild fires raging across California from the California lieutenant governor.
Wow! A hot new poll number! In fact, it was so hot, Chris saved it for last. Though he pimped it again, midway through:
MATTHEWS: Up next, the round table will join us...Plus, a brand new number on the 2008 general election match-up between Hillary and Rudy. It is very close. We’re going to see that number for the first time tonight! Hillary versus Rudy in the latest polling.
Wow! The excitement was building! But when Chris finally gave us that hot new number, it was just like the past four months of poll numbers. Luckily, Chris seemed to have guzzled more Diets during the breaks, and so he was even more effusive:
MATTHEWS: If you love politics, you’re going to love this number! It’s a brand new number released by Charlie Cook tonight. It shows Hillary Clinton ahead of Rudy Giuliani by four points right now, with a three percent margin of error, both directions. Charlie, interpret that number. You’re a great poll interpreter. What does that really tell you?
Really and truly, could anyone be dumber? At any rate, when Cook interpreted that number, he started out by saying the obvious; it’s pretty much the same result we’ve had for the past four or five months, he disclosed. But then, of course, we got what we came for! Charlie pleased his rocket-fueled host with the requisite Democrat-bashing:
COOK (continuing directly): Well, it was very interesting. You look at the first four months of this year and Clinton was behind all the—well, behind Giuliani in every single poll, behind McCain, who was already dropping, half the time. Now, it’s been July since she has been behind Giuliani, mid-June since she was behind McCain. And I think what’s happening is that Hillary Clinton is not becoming more likable. I think she’s getting less unacceptable, that she’s sort of wearing down the opposition. There’s almost like a resignation that this is happening.
On this program, it’s Hard Pundit Law; Big Major Democrats must be denigrated. Cook did this to Gore all through Campaign 2000 (often partnered with Stu Rothenberg), and he kept it up last night. He quickly told us—citing no evidence—that Clinton isn’t getting more likable. No, she’s getting less unacceptable! There’s almost like a resignation out there, the great poll interpreter said.

No evidence was offered for these jibes. But on Hardball, this is sheer faith-based work.

Give him credit. At least Chris was willing to tell the world that Clinton has led Darling Rudy for months (by margins that run as high as eight points). (Rudy did lead in a few July polls. In Cook’s poll, Clinton was already ahead in June.) On Meet the Press, by contrast, Tim Russert has simply refused to let people hear this—after basically lying, on two July programs, about the state of the polls (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/07).

Clinton leads by four in Cook’s new poll. She leads by six in the new L.A. Times/Bloomberg. But Matthews was eager to showcase the nonsense that defines his loony program. He endlessly pimped a hot new poll—a hot new poll which was perfectly typical. And, of course, his trained little dog knew where to aim his stream of insults. Charlie knew this during Campaign 2K—and seems to know it now.

That said, we were even more struck, on Monday’s Hardball, by the way Matthews pimp-rides the two parties’ candidates. Many liberals and Dems don’t favor Clinton, and are therefore willing to let this sh*t slide. (We do not refer to Digby here.) In this manner, we liberals find yet another way to ignore discussing the troubling shape of the modern “mainstream press corps.” Our liberal leaders throw us bones, permitting us to rail against Fox—and we overlook the forces that may give us President Rudy next year, just as they gave us President Dubya seven and eight years ago.

Special report: Book whirl!

PART 2—THAT INVISIBLE HAND: On Friday, we’ll return to Naomi Klein’s important new book—more specifically, to the way it’s been reviewed (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/22/07). But this has been a big week for reviews. Consider the way Marvin Kalb kissed, smooched and fawned in reviewing his pal, Howard Kurtz.

Good God! Marvin! Go get a room! Kalb had been asked by the Washington Post to review their media reporter’s new book. Kalb, of course, is a man of The Village—and wouldn’t you know it? Kurtz is too! And so, the smooching started early. Reader, if you’re a values voter, please send the kids from the room:
KALB (10/21/07): Howard Kurtz, I am now certain, has a secret. Either he no longer sleeps, or he has found a way to expand the 24-hour day. How else can one explain his exceptional output?

For the past 17 years, Kurtz has been the media reporter for The Washington Post, writing a column every Monday and covering breaking news many other days. Enough? Not for Kurtz. He also writes a long, sometimes numbingly long, media blog for the paper's Web site, a basket for every item that doesn't make his column. On weekends, he anchors CNN's "Reliable Sources," the longest-running weekly media criticism show on television. On radio, he is heard regularly offering his opinions on the media and politics. And in his "spare time," he has written five books, including the 1998 bestseller Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine. In the Soviet Union, he'd have been praised as a "Stakhanovite" journalist, fulfilling and then overfulfilling his quota.
Good grief, people! How does Kurtz do it? How does he write one column a week, then sit for a whole extra hour on Sunday, lobbing softballs about the mainstream press corps at members of the mainstream press corps? If any other industry staged such a show, we would call it an infomercial. But Kalb is a member of this high, refined cohort. Therefore, Kurtz’s low-prep hour is treated as some sort of miracle.

Kalb is a member of this high cohort. But so are Charlie, Katie and Brian, about whom he also must slobber:
KALB (continuing directly): His newest book, Reality Show, takes you inside the minds and the newsrooms of the three major evening news anchors—a 464-page, sound-bite-by-sound-bite report on ABC's Charles Gibson, CBS's Katie Couric and NBC's Brian Williams during a time of political crisis at home and war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a period of "daunting transition," Kurtz writes, not only because these anchors replaced the Tom-Peter-and-Dan troika that dominated the airwaves for a quarter of a century but also because they are battling technological and economic challenges that are transforming the industry. It is a fascinating, richly detailed story—little of it new, however, if you have read Kurtz's newspaper reports. But if you haven't read them, I suspect you will benefit greatly from this tale of three remarkable reporters, who have the capacity every evening to influence 25 million viewers who still watch their presentation of the news.
Uh-oh! How does Kurtz do it? In part, by recycling his newspaper columns! At any rate, this produces a “fascinating, richly detailed story” about “three remarkable reporters.” Indeed, “each anchor is, in his or her own way, an interesting and important person,” Kalb soon assures us. That’s Kalb, not Kurtz, kissing up to these stars—stars who won’t have “criticism as constant companions” when bunkmates like this are reviewing their magic. Kalb, for example, tosses this off about Brian Williams without a discouraging word:
KALB: Even though Williams sharply criticized the administration's botched handling of the New Orleans disaster, he had become "the president's favorite anchor." Whenever they met, Bush peppered him with questions. According to Dan Bartlett, a former presidential adviser, Bush said, "I can do business with him." The president and the anchor discussed their reading habits, among other things—Bush, believe it or not, telling the anchor that he had been reading Camus' The Stranger, and Williams recommending that he read a new LBJ biography.
Any chance that Williams became Bush’s favorite anchor when he shamelessly pandered to him—and savaged Gore—all through Campaign 2000? Such matters, of course, can’t be discussed by Kalb; within the scripts of Village life, these things Simply Didn’t Occur. In our view, it ain’t necessarily a shock if one of Jack Welch’s famous “Lost Boys” becomes this president’s favorite anchor. Does Kurtz attempt to explain this preference? If so, Kalb lets it pass. After all, we’re all in the family. Kalb’s brother, Bernard Kalb, was Kurtz’s co-host on Reliable Sources for years.

(For the record, Kurtz challenged the press corps’ trashing of Gore on two Reliable Sources programs in the fall of 1999. He didn’t do enough on this topic, but stood out among his peers.)

Kurtz and Kalb are all in the family. As such, Kurtz is extended the types of courtesy that troubling outsiders, like Paul Krugman, don’t get. Uh-oh! Krugman is not a man of the Village; he often pokes at the Village’s ways. And so, as if by the work of some invisible hand, when Krugman’s book is reviewed by the Times, we’re handed sheer nonsense. Like this:
KENNEDY (10/21/07): The bulk of this book consists of a historical explanation for how this sorry state of affairs came to be. It's a story that is as factually shaky as it is narratively simplified. (Kansas, whatever its other crimes and misdemeanors, is not customarily regarded as the birthplace of Prohibition; the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, not 1964.)
If that’s the extent of Krugman’s factual shakes, his narrative must be rather complex. By now, many observers have ridiculed Stanford’s David M. Kennedy for this inane treatment of Krugman’s facticity. And yet, Kennedy’s opening conceit is equally baffling: “maybe Krugman is not really an economist,” the reviewer weirdly muses, “at least not according to the definition offered more than a century ago by Francis Amasa Walker.” We wondered—still do—if that was meant as a joke. Meanwhile, others have noted that Francis Amasa Walker didn’t say the thing the reviewer alleges. Our analysts came to us with a bright question: Who’s factually shaky now?

But make no mistake: This is the politics of reviewing as it’s often played at these papers. If you color inside the lines in your book (using colors found in the Box of Eight), it’s almost like an invisible hand presents you with a fawning reviewer. But if you work outside the lines, reviewers will sneer at your “factual errors”—or, at such “errors” as they can contrive. Or as in the case of Naomi Klein, you simply won’t get reviewed at all. That was the fate that met Gene Lyons when he tattled on the Village so badly in Fools for Scandal.

Yes, two different standards seem to obtain, depending on whether you’ve pleased the Village. Example: How does Kalb treat Kurtz’s factual muffs? Much as a sane person might:
KALB: Though Reality Show in places has the feel of a novel, it is nonfiction written by a trusted reporter, who has earned his stripes in this craft now so widely distrusted. (But even a trusted reporter can make a mistake: Tzipi Livni is not Israel's defense minister, as he states on p. 277. She's foreign minister.)
Omigod! When a Villager makes a minor mistake, we’re actually told something sensible! And oh yes—one paragraph earlier, we’re simply told that it’s “interesting” when Kurtz doesn’t bother to source his work. That’s how the moving hand seems to write when a reporter is “trusted.”

The Village has ways to deal with its own—and it has ways to deal with the others. One of their own is Sally Bedell Smith—and man alive, talk about groaning mistakes! But groaning mistakes don’t matter much—if such mistakes got their start in the Village. If it’s mistakes you want, just check back tomorrow! Tomorrow, we’ll take a quick, intimate look at the shaping of plutocrat narrative.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Homegrown error.

FRIDAY: Name-calling Klein.