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RETURN OF KURTZ (PART 1)! We asked about the old Howard Kurtz. Today, he appears in the Post: // link // print // previous // next //

PALACE PLAY GROUP: Only life in a sumptuous palace can produce a cohort like this one. For starters, we think of Maureen Dowd, whose ears must have been burning last week as Robin Givhan stole her crown as the world’s dumbest human. Today, Dowd fights back hard:

DOWD (12/19/07): Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and John Edwards almost always look good, and pretty much the same, in dark suits or casual wear. Fred Thompson always looks crepuscular and droopy. Often Hillary looks great, and sometimes she looks tired, heavier or puffier.

If there’s a way to get dumber than this cohort is, it will only be found inside a palace, where all the children are given too much and are told that they’re grand and quite glorious. For the record, Dowd spends today’s column on Candidate Clinton—more specifically, on what she describes, in paragraph 3, as “the Old Hag routine.” She attributes this “routine” to “men”—though if we want to be halfway honest, Dowd invented this sick game herself.

But if you want to talk about dumb today, you can’t restrict yourself to Dowd. We also get the Village Dunce Milbank, complaining again, for the ten millionth time, about all that talk—also from Candidate Clinton—about all those boring old policy matters. Please remember: This is the child who spent an entire column in May complaining about all the big words Al Gore has used in discussing his new, best-selling book. Repeatedly, Gore had been “reminding his listeners” that he was “the smartest guy in the room,” Milbank cried. And Milbank certainly had a good point. Indeed, one of the phrases Gore had used was “the marketplace of ideas.” According to Milbank, Gore had also pompously referred to “the exchange of goods and services.”

You’re right. A dunce like that could only be grown inside a smothering palace. But then, Patrick Healy competes for mommy’s attention too, with this blather—about Hillary Clinton—in today’s New York Times. Poor Patrick! He just can’t get the Vile Old Hag to tell us how gruesome she is:

HEALY (12/19/07): Admitting that her own mistakes may have fed unfavorable impressions of her is still not the style of Mrs. Clinton. On Monday night, when asked by someone at the rally why there were people who did not like her, she did not criticize herself or delve into introspection.

''There are people who will never vote for me,'' she said. ''It breaks my heart, but it's true.''

Poor Healy! A slightly younger version of Dowd, he just can’t get the bitch to admit that people dislike her because she’s so bad.

These people are simply astounding—and they constitute a serious national problem. Yesterday, we spoke telephonically with a well-known journo—a name so big it would knock off your socks—and he commented on this strange cohort. We’ll paraphrase, but fairly closely: It’s amazing to think, the gentleman said, that the world’s most powerful nation is in the hands of a group like this. And as you may know, the week’s most remarkable pundit offering came in the astounding column you can read by clicking here. One part of that piece really does say it all. (Readers, can you still say Vince Foster?) It’s very hard to explain the world in which such a startling column appears. Denial crowds in when such conduct presents. We’ll hold our remarks until Friday.

Special report: Return of Kurtz!

PART 1—BACK TO HIS PRIOR REPORTING: Readers, THE HOWLER gets results! In the course of our ongoing series about Howard Kurtz’s fawning Reality Show, we wondered what happened to the old Howard Kurtz—to the guy who once did some pretty sharp work about the press corps’ trashing of Gore. And presto! This morning, that fellow returns, in a quite instructive piece about the coverage of Candidate Clinton.

Kurtz has done this sort of thing before. On at least three occasions in 1999, he raised the question of the “harsh coverage and punditry” being directed at Candidate Gore—even eliciting, on one occasion, several startling explanations for that peculiar coverage. Way back then, Roger Simon told Kurtz that the press corps was “going to make [Gore] jump through the hoops” because “we want to hear him say what a terrible reprobate [Bill Clinton] was.” (“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Simon weirdly added.) Simply put, that statement was astounding—and it has been mentioned by virtually no one on earth, from that day right up to the present.

In that statement, we can now see the future fate of the world. Liberals agree not to say so.

But that was the coverage of Candidate Gore. This morning, Kurtz examines the coverage of Candidate Clinton. He starts by quoting a much-maligned scribe who makes a fairly obvious observation:

KURTZ (12/19/07): Clinton's senior advisers have grown convinced that the media deck is stacked against them, that their candidate is drawing far harsher scrutiny than Barack Obama. And at least some journalists agree.

"She's just held to a different standard in every respect," says Mark Halperin, Time's editor at large. “The press rooted for Obama to go negative, and when he did he was applauded. When she does it, it's treated as this huge violation of propriety." While Clinton's mistakes deserve full coverage, Halperin says, "the press's flaws—wild swings, accentuating the negative—are magnified 50 times when it comes to her. It's not a level playing field."

Newsweek's Howard Fineman says Obama's coverage is the buzz of the presidential campaign. "While they don't say so publicly because it's risky to complain, a lot of operatives from other campaigns say he's getting a free ride, that people aren't tough enough on Obama," Fineman says. "There may be something to that. He's the new guy, an interesting guy, a pathbreaker and trendsetter perhaps."

As usual, Fineman plays dumb in explaining the alleged free ride for Obama—in explaining that tilt in the playing field. Let’s face it: Simon must have been drunk, back in June 1999, when he blurted the truth to Kurtz—when he said the press corps was kicking the tar out of Candidate Gore because they hated Bill Clinton so much. (Jim Warren told Kurtz something similar.) Today, Fineman seems to know the rules better; he knows he must scratch his head, and puzzle hard, about the tilt in the current coverage. But Halperin states a fairly obvious fact—and Fineman doesn’t seem to have disputed it.

Let’s be clear: Different people have different views about the merits of the Major Dem hopefuls. For ourselves, we don’t know how we’ll end up voting; our inclination has shifted many times in the past six months. (We’ve contemplated four or five different votes.) But in our view, it would be hard to disagree with the premise of Kurtz’s piece—a piece which critiques the work of the press, not the merits of the various Dem candidates. For example, let’s go back to the first observation made in Halperin’s quote:

KURTZ: "She's just held to a different standard in every respect," says Mark Halperin, Time's editor at large. “The press rooted for Obama to go negative, and when he did he was applauded. When she does it, it's treated as this huge violation of propriety." While Clinton's mistakes deserve full coverage, Halperin says, "the press's flaws—wild swings, accentuating the negative—are magnified 50 times when it comes to her. It's not a level playing field."

Could anyone fail to see the merit of Halperin’s observation? In the weeks before the crucial October 30 Democratic debate, at least one Clinton/Gore-hating cable talker begged Obama, night after night, to take off the gloves and go after Clinton. (More on this fellow in Parts 2 and 3.) And then, in the crucial debate itself, two of Jack Welch’s most worthless Lost Boys kept inviting Obama and Edwards to go after Clinton, all through the evening’s two hours. (More tomorrow.) But while it’s deeply OK to criticize Clinton, criticism of Obama produces Scripted Group Opprobrium—the only kind of opprobrium these trained seals really know. Later on, Kurtz gives a good example of this tilt in the field:

KURTZ: The Illinois senator's fundraising receives far less press attention than Clinton's. When The Washington Post reported last month that Obama used a political action committee to hand more than $180,000 to Democratic groups and candidates in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the suggestion that he might be buying support received no attention on the network newscasts. The Clinton team is convinced that would have been a bigger story had it involved the former first lady.

There was also a lack of media pickup when the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported that an Obama aide had sat down next to him and "wanted to know when reporters would begin to look into Bill Clinton's post-presidential sex life."

Just last week, Billy Shaheen’s suggestions about Obama’s youthful (and meaningless) drug use created a storm in the mainstream press; pundits were deeply group-outraged. But the earlier suggestion recorded by Ambinder passed with barely a word of comment. There are no perfect parallels in the real world, permitting perfect claims about “double standards.” But in that passage, Kurtz records a strong example of the tilt in the current playing field. In this passage, he records yet another:

KURTZ: In an online posting Monday, ABC reported that an Obama volunteer wearing a press pass asked the candidate a friendly question about tax policy at an Iowa event. But several of the assembled reporters huddled and concluded that it was not a story, one of them said. Clinton faced a storm of media criticism over a similar planted question.

In our view, it would have been stupid to make a big deal out of Monday’s “friendly question.” But back in November, the press corps stupidly fired its Scandalgate engines when a similar event involved Clinton. They pretended it was a very Big Deal; poor Patrick Healy was very upset. But then when the press corps feigns outrage in recent months, stupid seems to run just one way.

Kurtz cites a few examples which aren’t especially convincing. But then too, he cites a recent event which is hugely worth noting:

KURTZ: When NBC’s David Gregory interviewed Hillary Clinton Monday during her round of morning-show appearances, he briefly noted her endorsement by the Des Moines Register before asking what had happened to her momentum. He pressed six times for a reaction to her husband's telling PBS's Charlie Rose that the country would "roll the dice" if it elected Obama. "So you're choosing not to answer that question," Gregory finally said.

Moments later, when Meredith Vieira interviewed John McCain, who had also won the Register's endorsement, most of the questions revolved around how he could win the Republican nomination despite trailing in the polls, with one query about his temper.

When Obama appeared on "Today" last month, Matt Lauer asked whether Clinton was playing the "gender card" against him, about his pledge to meet with hostile foreign leaders, and whether he thought the country was heading for a recession.

When Gregory interviewed Clinton on Monday, you gazed on pure press corps propaganda. Good boy! Raising a silly, tortured complaint about (what else?) the intolerable criticism of Obama, Gregory challenged Clinton on the same point six times (the industry standard is two), then announced at the end, with a bit of open disgust: "So you're choosing not to answer that question.” Trust us: When journos interject that opinion in a setting like this, they’re breaking from their normal practice—and they’re telling you to distrust this candidate. But then, Gregory had been crying real tears in an earlier part of that interview. Careful! He was touching on the year’s biggest example of press corps misconduct—one Kurtz avoids altogether:

GREGORY (12/17/07): Senator, if people look at the last six weeks, they might question how Hillary Clinton responds to a crisis or how she handles pressure, and they might point to the fact that you complained about the all boys' network of presidential politics in the wake of the Philadelphia debate—

CLINTON: [Laughter]

GREGORY: They would see your husband complaining about media coverage of you. They'd see your campaign raise the past drug issue and use by Barack Obama or question him for his ambition. And they might say, "Well, this is really what we don't like about politics." Is that fair?

Once again, we see the point that Halperin raised—the way the boo-hooing boys of the press corps complain when Clinton criticizes Obama. Why, she had questioned Obama for his ambition! In fact, it isn’t entirely clear that she had—but without question, Obama had questioned Clinton for her ambition, for weeks, in the silly comments about her “twenty-year plan” which eventually led to Clinton’s rebuttal. But as of Monday, Gregory was still crying real tears about the Clinton campaign’s loathsome conduct—while failing to cite the identical conduct which had launched it. And Gregory cried about the Clinton campaign’s greatest outrage—the troubling way they dared to complain about that Philadelphia debate.

Careful! Gregory didn’t mention the names of the people who conducted that debate—the debate which changed the shape of the Democratic campaign, the most remarkable press event of the year. Of course, Gregory is paid several million dollars a year by his owners, and he knows that he must never name the more powerful men who propagandize around him. But then, Kurtz failed to cite that important Philly debate at all—the most striking press corps event of the year, the event which showed, in its most blatant form, the current tilt in the press playing field. Yes, Kurtz raises some very good points today, as he did three times in 1999. But even he won’t go so far as to name the real names that need naming.

Let’s make sure we understand what’s involved in Kurtz’s report:

Ultimately, there is no way to quantify “favorable coverage;” different people will disagree about the merits of the press corps’ conduct. And of course, people will disagree about the virtues of Clinton, Obama and Edwards—and about the other Big Dems who comprise the campaign’s current field.

But the press corps has waged a powerful war over the course of the past fifteen years—a war which liberals have largely agreed not to name, or notice, or criticize. Today, the old Howard Kurtz returns to the Post, and he pokes around in this war once again, as he did three times in 1999. This war has changed the shape of world history. It’s too bad career “liberals” won’t go there.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Watching your leaders accept their 4-F’s.

FRIDAY—PART 3: In Kurtz’s piece, three names are AWOL.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For real-time work on Kurtz and Simon long ago, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/30/99, with links to previous coverage. Prepare to see Simon reverse what he’d said about the press corps’ misconduct.

DON'T MISS BOEHLERT: Don't miss Eric Boehlert, writing about the one great sin--criticizing the press as a Democrat. We'll be mentioning some of these events in the next two days.