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5 January 2000

Our current howler (part II): Cuckoo II

Synopsis: Fred Barnes wasn’t the only big scribe describing peculiar press conduct.

John McCain, Winging It
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 1/3/00

Don’t 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 incompetent—and 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 taxpayers."

There would have been nothing wrong with such reviews—if 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 light—once reporters were able to show the plan to economists—but 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 plan.

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 paragraph:

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 Roberts—having already misstated the size of Bush's plan—was also still quoting Bush's claim that his plan was "aimed at the people with the toughest job in America—the 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 the plan.)

We offer no view about the wisdom of Bush's tax proposal. Voters can make that appraisal themselves—if 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 cut—returning 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 can understand.

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 Books, MCMLXI.)