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6 March 2002

Our current howler (part IV): Grunwald gets it right!

Synopsis: Michael Grunwald—getting it right—creates what should be a new standard.

Some Facts Clear In the War of Spin Over Arctic Circle
Michael Grunwald, The Washington Post, 3/6/02

Two Thousand Acres
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 3/1/02

We often wonder why papers don’t do it more often. Michael Grunwald’s piece in this morning’s Post seems to know how the world really works:

Some Facts Clear In the War of Spin Over Arctic Circle

The War of Spin! Everyone knows that our modern discourse is a battle of well-crafted spin-points. But in this article, Grunwald does what few writers do. First, he lists the major spin-points in the battle over ANWR. Then, he tries to say which spin-points are accurate. It ought to be a standard format. In fact, it’s quite rarely done.

Want an example of Grunwald’s method? His first question is: "How much oil is out there?" And here’s the first part of his treatment:

How much oil is out there?
No one knows for sure. But the environmental movement’s favorite statistic is a USGS estimate that the coastal plain contains 3.2 billion barrels of "economically recoverable" oil at the current price of $20 per barrel—about what the nation uses in six months. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), drilling’s top advocate in Congress, has shot back in speeches and a letter to The Post that the USGS actually estimates 10.3 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil. The truth, according to [Kenneth] Bird, who conducted the study, is that Murkowski is wrong and the environmentalists are right.

Grunwald goes on to give more detail. But we aren’t trying to judge Grunwald’s accuracy. Our point is this—he finds the right method. News consumers are constantly met by a war of competing spin-points. It’s amazing how rarely our major papers do what Grunwald does in this piece. It’s amazing how rarely they list those points, and try to say which points are right.

It’s especially surprising because every paper follows this practice with political ads. Every paper runs "Ad Watch" features; they list the claims that are made in the ads, and try to assess if they’re right. But papers simply never do "Spin Watch" reports. Their readers hear spin-points every day of the week. The papers show no sign of knowing.

It’s just another way the modern press corps shows its detachment from actual life. They don’t cover Rush; they don’t cover Bill; they’re too good to go where debate is occurring. Today, Michael Grunwald showed the way our political discourse ought to be covered. Grunwald’s method should set a new standard. Showing signs that he lives in the world, the Post’s Michael Grunwald gets it right!

Next: A series on motive mavens

Visit our incomparable archives: Enjoy every episode in our dormant "x gets it right" series! For last episode—and full prior links—see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00.

Why they sully Krugman: Here’s the fourth question which Grunwald poses: "Will drilling sully the refuge’s wilderness values?" Sully? We wish that Grunwald would stop taking shots at our fellow blogger, Andrew Dotcom. That said, here is part of his answer:

Will drilling sully the refuge’s wilderness values?
The simple answer is yes. The coastal plain will have a massive industrial complex on it. The more complicated questions are: How massive? And to what effect?

Oil technology has progressed dramatically beyond the hulking, sprawling infrastructure of Prudhoe Bay; the newer Alpine field nearby sucks oil from an area as big as the District of Columbia on a pad the size of the Capitol grounds. The ANWR bill that passed the House would limit the "footprint" of oil infrastructure that touches the tundra to 2,000 acres. [emphasis added]

Hay-yo! You may have noted that Grunwald’s answer incorporates a familiar spin-point. On March 1, Paul Krugman’s NYT column said that the point was pure bunk:

KRUGMAN: Last week Interior Secretary Gale Norton repeated the standard response to concerns about extensive oil development in one of America's last wild places: "The impact will be limited to just 2,000 out of 1.9 million acres of the refuge."…It’s a reassuring picture: a tiny enclave of development, practically lost in the Arctic vastness.

But that picture is a fraud. Development won’t be limited to a small enclave: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, oil in ANWR is scattered in many separate pools, so drilling rigs would be spread all across the coastal plain. The roads linking those rigs aren’t part of the 2,000 acres: they’re not "production and support facilities." And "surface acreage covered" is very narrowly defined: if a pipeline snakes across the terrain on a series of posts, only the ground on which those posts rest counts; bare ground under the pipeline isn’t considered "covered."

Krugman called Norton’s spin-point a "fraud." Five days later, Grunwald put it right in his piece (showing no sign of knowing what Krugman had written). We aren’t here to say who’s right on the merits. But anyone who has spent ten minutes watching Crossfire lately knows that this is a crucial matter. The point is repeated, again and again, wherever ANWR spin is sold. This spin-point should have been on Grunwald’s list—examined, not merely assumed.

And why are attack dogs like Andrew Sullivan currently trashing the mild-mannered Krugman? Because Krugman is one of the only pundits willing to ID and critique White House spin-points. Is he right this time? We’d guess that he is. But among current mainstream non-conservative pundits, only Krugman seems to know the way our discourse really works. Only Krugman gnaws on spin-points. And that is why a certain reliable hack tries to "sully" him every chance that he gets.


The Daily update (3/6/02)

To the pander bear goes the spoils: When it came to reporting the 2000 race, no one pandered harder than the NYT’s Frank Bruni. From August through December 1999, he wrote a set of profiles of Bush that set new standards for fawning. Then, when the celebrity press corps swooned for McCain, he suddenly did a total 180, trashing Bush in ways so trivial and absurd that it resembled the coverage of Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00). After McCain was out of the race, he went back to his silly fawning for "W" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/00), which he maintained for the rest of the race. Apologists for the press corps swore it was just because he used to write features.

At any rate, now Bruni has written the Big Campaign Book—and Andrew Sullivan pretends he was some sort of rugged Bush critic. The cattle really do get a meal when they stampede to Sullivan’s site.

Meanwhile, don’t miss the fun with Bruni in our archives. Here’s an example, as he describes Bush’s efforts to kiss up to the corps in April 2000:

BRUNI: [Bush] not only slaps reporters’ backs but also rubs the tops of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches their cheeks. It is the tactile equivalent of the nicknames he doles out to many of them and belongs to a teasing style of interpersonal relationship that undoubtedly harks back to his fraternity days.

For the record, we assume that Bruni meant that Bush was pinching the "cheeks" of their faces.

For a Suddenly Accessible Bush, Everything Is on the Record
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 4/14/00