4 January 2000
Our current howler (part I): H2K problems
Synopsis: A dead-on piece by the Standards Fred Barnes helps us ring in the Year of the Howler.
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 1/1/00
John McCain, Winging It
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 1/3/00
Commentary by Claire Shipman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 1/3/00
Maybe it's wrong to critique sainted mothers; we have a sainted
mother ourselves. But we couldn't help being struck by Maureen
Dowd's column kicking off the exciting new millenium. Dowd asked
her mom to review the past century. Here was Mom's take on the
1990s (Dowd is quoting her mom):
DOWD (1/1): 1990-2000: "I feel sorry for Clinton. He reminds
me of myself, wanting so much to be liked. I think Monica is very
pretty. And Hillary looks great.
"How does the Web work?"
That was Mom's total take on the decade. It's instructive to
see that Dowd comes by her narrow focus so honestly; indeed, it's
a family tradition. But why does the Times put Dowd's pointless
outlook in print? That's something we'll continue to ponder. (Dowd's
first full column, on January 2, concernedwho elseLinda and
But here at THE HOWLER, we start a new year with words of praise
for a piece by Fred Barnes. Writing in the Weekly Standard
about coverage of the McCain campaign, he painted a portrait that
helped us define our new year's ruminations. You really should
read every word of Barnes' piece to grasp the serious questions
it raises. But to give you a taste of the mess Barnes describes,
here are his opening paragraphs:
BARNES: In the Republican presidential debate on December 13,
George W. Bush asked John McCain why he hadn't proposed a tax
cut for single moms with two kids making $40,000 a year. McCain
responded that his plan to extend the 15 percent income tax bracketall
the way to $70,000would "go a long way in that direction."
After that debate, a reporter asked McCain for his appraisal of
Bush's scheme for reducing the tax burden on single moms with
kids. He reiterated that he, McCain, would help them by boosting
the 15 percent bracket.
At this point, columnist Robert Novak stepped forward, noting
that the single moms in question already paid at the 15 percent
rate. Thus they wouldn't get a tax cut from McCain, but would
from Bush's proposal to drop the rate to 10 percent. Well, McCain
said, he'd ease their taxes by eliminating the marriage penalty.
But we're talking about single moms, not married mothers,
said Novak. Oh, McCain shot back, then I'd cut their taxes by
broadening the earned income tax credit for the working poor.
To Barnes, "McCain was playing fast and loose with tax
policy." But McCain's confusionand the fact that he "sounded
unserious" about the subjectwas ignored by the mainstream
media. "They gave McCain a free ride on taxes, as they have
on virtually every substantive issue," Barnes wrote. Barnes
reviewed recent media pandering to McCain. In the course of his
review, he said this:
BARNES: Normally the agenda of a major candidate like McCain
would be subjected to sharp and relentless scrutiny. Bush and
Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley wouldn't dream of free-lancing
on domestic policy, if only because the press would clobber them
for even minor mistakes. This doesn't happen with McCain.
According to Barnes, McCain "has gotten by with a seat-of-the-pants
policy operation because political writers adore him too much
to mention his shortcomings."
We'll disagree with some of what Barnes said; we can't picture
the press corps subjecting anything to scrutiny that's
"sharp," for example. But Barneswithout stating the
conclusion himselfpaints a picture of a mainstream press corps
that is wholly incompetent and corrupt. They don't tell you when
McCain flunks a pop quiz, for example, because they like the guy
so much. When he flounders on matters of basic policy, the press
corps doesn't report that either. His statements on defense spending
don't make any sense, but you don't see much about that in the
papers. In December, McCain is unable to explain his own health
plan; that finds its way down the memory hole, too.
This is the press corps Barnes describes, a corps in the can
for McCain. Againand we think it should be said twicethe press
corps Barnes describes is, by any normal standard, thoroughly
corrupt and incompetent.
Two questions: How can it be that the mainstream press corps
behaves in the manner described? And how can it be that this sort
of conduct excites so little comment? Again, even Barnes, in describing
the conduct, fails to become fully exercised by it. He barely
bats an eye at conduct that undermines every aspect of democratic
We refuse to spend the coming year as we have spent the year
just pastdetailing here, again and again, the incompetence of
the press corps. It is time to move on to ask larger questions
that are raised by the chaos Barnes describes. How is it possible
that the modern press corps can behave in the ways that Barnes
describes? How can our discourse be in the hands of the fixers
portrayed in this piece? We spent last year showing, again and
again, the puzzling incompetence and corruption Barnes limns.
As we start off on an exciting new year, it's time for some large
Tomorrow: Sorry, Freddywhen Bush unveiled his tax cut
plan, the press bungled that story too.
New millenium. Tired old story: It didn't take long
for a favored story to get re-aired on the News with Brian.
Here was Claire Shipman, long a favorite of ours, discussing yesterday's
speeches by Bradley and Gore:
SHIPMAN: The first contest, the Iowa caucuses, is just three
weeks away...That's why, on a day when Bradley tries to stay above
the fray, his team hands out a flyer to reporters, claiming
Gore's budget breaks the bank by $350 billion...
There is nothing wrong with the Bradley campaign passing out
such a flyer. But the press corps long ago committed to a story:
Bradley, the authentic, who's above mortal conduct, simply refuses
to fight. Shipman continues this silly tale, telling us hereall
in one sentencethat Bradley "stays above the fray"
while "his team" hands out a criticism. There's nothing
wrong with criticizing Gore, but Bradley is clearly not
staying "above the fray" (nor should he be asked to).
Silly stories like this show why we're all better off when scribes
are told not to interpret.