5 January 2000
Our current howler (part II): Cuckoo II
Synopsis: Fred Barnes wasnt the only big scribe describing peculiar press conduct.
John McCain, Winging It
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 1/3/00
Dont Worry, Cut Taxes
Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, 12/27/99
Bush to Offer $483 Billion Tax-Cut Plan
Eric Pianin and Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 12/1/99
Bush tax plan favors the poor
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 12/1/99
Sorry, Freddy. We greatly admired the way you sketched the
press corps' swoon for adored McCain, who rides the pundits around
in his bus and tells them jokes and stories (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/4/00). You painted a picture of a mainstream press corps that
is utterly incompetentand corrupt. But you also said that scribes
would "clobber" Bush "for even minor mistakes"
on domestic policy. Sorry, Freddy. Recent evidence shows the Keystone
Corps in the bag in its Bush coverage too.
Indeed, in a recent article on the Bush tax plan, Jonathan
Chait paints a second startling picture of the way the press corps
functions. Chait says that when Bush released his tax plan last
month, some of the scribes agreed to a deal that was straight
from the cuckoo's nest:
CHAIT (paragraph 1): When George W. Bush's campaign leaked
his economic plan to the press last week, the lucky recipients
were forced to accept a special condition: any reporter who wanted
to see it had to agree not to share the details with other campaigns
or, more importantly, outside analysts. "This is between
you, me, and your typewriter," a Bush aide told one reporter.
In short, reporters were allowed to report on the plan, as
long as they agreed not to determine what was actually in it.
The preview reporting appeared on December 1. Chait described
a predictable outcome:
CHAIT (2): The result of this clever leak strategy was an initial
wave of reviews that dovetailed with Bush's efforts to cast himself
as compassionate. The plan, according to The Washington Post,
would "focus its deepest reductions on the working poor and
middle class" and "mark a clear departure from more
traditional GOP tax policy." Even the most skeptical story,
courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, reported that
Bush was "seeking to steer more benefits to working-poor
There would have been nothing wrong with such reviewsif the
accounts of the plan had been reasonably accurate. But Chait supplied
the bad news:
CHAIT (3): In truth, Bush's tax cut would do nothing of the
sort. More than three-fifths of the cut would accrue to the upper
ten percent of the income spectrum, with barely more than one-tenth
for the lowest 60 percent...
(4) This unflattering little detail did eventually come to
lightonce reporters were able to show the plan to economistsbut
it was reported in small follow-up stories that ran only after
the favorable impression had hardened...
Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing who may have
agreed to the deal Chait describes. But clearly, preview stories
described the Bush plan in ways that are hard to defend. For example,
here is the opening of the Post's December 1 story, the one to
which Chait refers:
ERIC PIANIN AND TERRY NEAL (12/1): Texas Gov. George W. Bush
will propose a $483 billion tax-cut plan today that would focus
its deepest reductions on the working poor and middle class and
become the centerpiece of the Republican front-runner's economic
The article's sub-headline said "Working Poor, Middle
Class Would Get Much of Relief," and the writers said, in
the second paragraph, that "roughly half of the overall relief
would be targeted to middle- and lower-income families, according
to campaign aides." There now seems to be little doubt that
that last assertion was simply wrong, a misunderstanding of a
slippery construction the Bush campaign widely bruited. The Washington
Times took the spin further; its page-one headline said, "Bush
tax plan favors the poor." Here was Donald Lambro's first
LAMBRO (12/1): Texas Gov. George W. Bush will propose an across-the-board
tax cut plan today to cut or eliminate taxes for people in the
lowest income bracket and end the Social Security earnings penalty
for older Americans.
Lambro's story implied that the Bush tax cuts were principally
aimed at "lower-income workers."
Bush formally announced the plan later that day; by December
2, a number of papers were reporting expert analyses. Neal and
Pianin, for example, cited an analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice:
NEAL AND PIANIN (12/2): Two-thirds of the benefits would go
to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, who would receive tax
cuts averaging $8,362 a year...By comparison, taxpayers in the lowest
60 percent of the income scale would get only 11 percent of Bush's
tax cuts, with an average cut of only $249, the study said.
This characterization was hard to reconcile with the writers'
work the day before. As Chait stated, a number of follow-up articles
and op-ed pieces eventually described the distribution of benefits.
But some benighted press corps members never got past the Day
One accounts. On the December 5 This Week, for example,
Cokie Robertshaving already misstated the size of Bush's planwas
also still quoting Bush's claim that his plan was "aimed
at the people with the toughest job in Americathe single mother
with children." "That's where his campaign is different,"
Roberts said. She was apparently no better informed on the distribution
of benefits than on the size of the overall plan. (See THE DAILY
HOWLER, 12/6/99, for Roberts' erroneous comment on the size of
We offer no view about the wisdom of Bush's tax proposal. Voters
can make that appraisal themselvesif they're given accurate information.
But it is hard to square the early descriptions with the analyses
that appeared later on. Indeed, since the working poor often pay
no income taxes, it would be hard to craft a major income tax
cut that would disproportionately "favor" such low-income
workers. And Bush's plan is a hefty cutreturning substantially
more income, over ten years, than the 1999 GOP House proposal.
Did journalists agree, as part of a deal, not to subject the
plan to expert review? At THE HOWLER, we can't really say. But
once again, a major writer ascribes conduct to the press corps
that is straight from the cuckoo's nest. The only apparent reason
to report on a plan is to give one's readers accurate information.
Who would want to "report" on a plan if one isn't allowed
to review it? But Chait assures us, without batting an eye, that
this is a deal to which major writers agreed. To gain a one-day
scoop, he says, they agreed to trade their right to know, and
typed up what the Bush campaign told them.
Let's see now. According to Barnes, the press won't tell you
when McCain is confused. According to Chait, writers describe
major tax plans without knowing what's actually in them. Barnes
and Chait describe a celebrity press corps whose conduct is straight
from the cuckoo's nest. Tomorrow, we scan another fine mess as
our exciting new millennium gets crankin'.
Tomorrow: Richard Stevenson has agreed to forget the
things that he told us last summer.
Hawk this: British physicist Stephen Hawking was the
Barnum of the 20th century. He wrote a book, A Brief History
of Time, purporting to "make Einstein easy." He
sold twenty million copies of the book, although no one on earth
can comprehend a word of it. Then he had the book put on tape,
and some bought the tape for their cars.
But Hawking still wasn't finished. He somehow persuaded the
editors of Time to publish him in their century-end issue,
writing what the editors called "an easy primer" on
Einstein's relativity. Here at THE HOWLER, our analysts chuckled
as they tried to fight their way through it. There were lucid
moments, but all too few; our analysts found no lasting purchase.
Most notably, the colorful "Time graphics" which accompanied
the piece were full of statements that made no sense at all.
Can we point something out to Time's credulous editors?
Einstein cannot be made easy! Indeed, Einstein once tried
to do so himself, in a little book called Relativity. "A
CLEAR EXPLANATION THAT ANYONE CAN UNDERSTAND," the editors
shout from the book's dust jacket. Inside the jacket, their representations
only become more extreme:
DUST JACKET TO "RELATIVITY": It has long been a popular
misconception that only a handful of people in the world can understand
Einstein's theory of Relativity. Here is a book, however, by the
originator of the theory himself explaining the theory in simple
words that anyone with the equivalent of a high school education
We find the book completely impenetrable. At some point, Hawking
saw the chance to take this cruel hoax even further.
We're not quibbling with Time's selection of Albert
Einstein as the person of the century. But isn't it time we called
a halt to Hawking's cruel experiments in "popularization?"
("A brief history of relativity." Stephen Hawking,
Time, 12/31/99. Relativity, Albert Einstein, Bonanza