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THOSE STUBBORN FACTS! Will the press be troubled by Newt’s misstatement? Recent history says they won’t care:


TRY TO BELIEVE THAT HE WROTE IT: In yesterday’s column, Paul Krugman calls attention to Senator Grassley’s “misleading letter” in last Friday’s Times. Once again, The Krug is too kind. Grassley declaimed on the Bush tax cuts. Try to believe that he wrote it:

To the Editor:

Re “Springtime for Hitler,” by Paul Krugman (column, Oct. 18): I stand by my call for unbiased tax data in policy debates. Some observers claim that 40 percent of last year’s tax cuts went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’s official, unbiased source, says the top 1 percent will receive 27 percent of the income tax cuts in 2006, the latest projection available. Taxpayers with incomes of $200,000 and less will receive the majority of the tax-cut benefits, with 67 percent.

The real story is that despite those cuts, the top 1 percent of taxpayers will still pay 33 percent of federal income taxes. They will receive a lower share of the income tax cut, 27 percent, than their burden, 33 percent.

The joint committee says the taxpayers who will receive the greatest reduction in their tax burden have incomes between $10,000 and $40,000. Those with incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 will enjoy a reduction of 13.6 percent. Those with incomes of more than $200,000 will see their burden reduced by 6.1 percent. Intellectual honesty demands putting tax data in context.

Washington, Oct. 24, 2002

What an astonishing letter! “Some” observers claim that 40 percent of the cuts went to the top 1 percent? Readers, which observers don’t make this claim? Those who are misinformed or lying! Grassley knows this—and hopes that you don’t. His letter offers every misleading construction devised by GOP spin-doctors pushing Bush’s cuts. His letter is a masterwork of spin, bad faith and deception.

And how can such letters still be written, three years after the cuts were proposed? It is possible because—with the exception of Krugman—there are very few scribes who show any sign of giving a fig about fiscal facts. Indeed, in the months after Bush was elected, the administration’s most ludicrous factual presentations were often echoed in our major newspapers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/5/01).

Grassley’s letter wouldn’t be possible if we had a functioning press. Neither would the following letter, which appeared in Monday’s Times:

To the Editor:

Re “Dead Parrot Society” (column, Oct. 25): Paul Krugman is fueling partisanship and class warfare. Comments like “the Bush administration lies a lot” and the president “is as slippery and evasive as any politician in memory” only serve to tear the country apart as it fights terrorism and tries to respond to volatile economic conditions.

If it is true that 40 percent of the Bush tax cut goes to 1 percent of the population, then it is also true that 60 percent goes to people who are not wealthy…

S— B—
New York, Oct. 25, 2002

If it is true? The writer’s construction can be read two ways. But many Americans are still in doubt about such basic facts as this. They’re in doubt because dissemblers like Grassley still work to deceive—and because our press corps is soft on the facts.

In yesterday’s column, Krugman discussed the disinformation which surrounds the estate tax. He discusses a basic way we manage to be misinformed:
KRUGMAN: [T]he estate tax debate illustrates the pervasive hypocrisy of our politics. For repeal of the “death tax” has been cast, incredibly, as a populist issue. Thanks to sustained, lavishly financed propaganda…millions of Americans imagine, wrongly, that the estate tax mainly affects small businesses and farms, and that its repeal will help ordinary people. And who pays for the propaganda? Guess. It’s amazing what money can buy.
But there’s another reason why Americans are misinformed; they’re misinformed because of the press. In contemporary press culture, a three-step dance has routinely been played regarding Bush fiscal matters:
  1. Krugman recites the basic facts.
  2. The rest of the press corps pretends not to notice.
  3. Andrew Sullivan pretends that he’s wrong.
Whatever happened to “stubborn facts?” They play little role in modern press culture. The Grassleys can dissemble as much as they like—and the boys and girls in your press corps don’t care.

Does your press corps care about “stubborn facts?” Let’s see how hard they work to correct Newt Gingrich’s gross misstatement from Sunday. In Josh Marshall’s latest posting, he seems to show that Gingrich was deliberately dissembling on Meet the Press. Does the press corps care about such matters? In recent years, they’ve have shown little concern. To your vacuous Washington press corps, it only counts if you dissemble about your blow jobs, or maybe about where you got your clothes. Result? Dissembling presentations infest our discourse. Grassley ought to be ashamed of his letter. But don’t worry—with the notable exception of Krugman, your “press corps” won’t even say Boo.

THIS FAR AND NO FARTHER: Several readers sent us Eleanor Clift’s current on-line piece, in which she echoes Dana Milbank’s recent line. Clift: “The notion of George W. Bush as bipartisan is a myth. In fact, the president is guilty of crass duplicity.” Readers perused the following passage and thought Clift might be sampling THE HOWLER:

CLIFT: How does he get away with such crass duplicity? The media doesn’t want to disturb the story line. Gore was the prevaricator; Bush was intellectually challenged. So when Bush fiddles with the facts, the media doesn’t see malevolence.
Our readers are too generous to Clift. Like any “iconoclast” in the press corps, she is careful to stay within boundaries. For example, she opens like this:
CLIFT: When Clinton lied about sex, his critics claimed he couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth about anything. When Al Gore bragged about his role in creating the Internet, the Bush camp treated it as evidence of a congenital default in the former vice president’s DNA. Gore could never again be believable.
The Bush camp came after Gore? Sorry. By the time Bush began mentioning the Internet in March 2000, the press corps had been flogging the nonsensical tale for a year. In this passage, Clift offers a standard press construction; she takes the misconduct of her own cohort and lays it off on someone else. (Pundits also love pretending that “late night comedians” have created the corps’ silly slanders.) As press corps regulars routinely do, Clift protects her own breed in this passage. In fact, Clift’s own press corps dissembled about Gore far more—far more—than the Bush campaign ever did. There is, simply put, no comparison.

And how about Clift’s closing passage? To our taste, she tiptoes there too:

CLIFT: How does [Bush] get away with such crass duplicity? The media doesn’t want to disturb the story line. Gore was the prevaricator; Bush was intellectually challenged. So when Bush fiddles with the facts, the media doesn’t see malevolence. They see a man who’s not articulate, who doesn’t speak with lawyerly precision. And they can’t believe how believable he is.
Sorry. Pundits have peddled that excuse since October 2000. We find it profoundly unconvincing.

“The media doesn’t want to disturb the story line,” Clift writes—offering one of the gum-toothed self-critiques permitted inside the media. Media regulars are allowed to chide the corps for wanting to stick to “story lines.” But they are not allowed to ask why these “lines” were preferred to begin with. For example, why did the corps go so easy on Bush budget thrusts—the tax cuts, the estate tax, the private accounts? Could it be because the corps’ opinion leaders are all multimillionaires who benefit from the Bush budget plans? It’s the law: Pundits are allowed to say that their cohort obeys “story lines,” but they mustn’t ask where the story lines come from. In this case, these “story lines” began with the corps’ “Clinton backlash,” and (almost surely) with its changing class interest. You will read many columns by Clift without hearing her wonder about that.

We agree that Bush has received a free ride. But Clift shows little curiosity about why that might be. But for the record, the Bush campaign had little to do with the nonsense known as inventing the Internet. That campaign was made a great cause by the press. Eleanor Clift surely knows that’s true. She also knows that good pundits don’t say it.