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5 April 2000

Our current howler (part III): Leaky vessel

Synopsis: Bob Herbert described one principal’s state of mind. He begged the dispute’s central question.

Commentary by Ron Brownstein
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 4/2/00

Elian And the Law
Anthony Lewis, The New York Times, 4/1/00

Lost In the Shouting
Bob Herbert, The New York Times, 4/3/00

Commentary by Wolf Blitzer
Late Edition, CNN, 4/2/00

Why do we often cite Ron Brownstein as one of the brightest mainstream pundits? Maybe it's what he said on Washington Journal this Sunday. Here was Steve Scully's set-up:

SCULLY: Mary McGrory, in the Washington Post, says, "How low can Al go?" [Quoting McGrory]: Just when we needed Solomon in the Elian Gonzalez case, we got Al Gore at his crassest. The president was quite statesmanlike at his Wednesday news conference. The vice president has joined the panderers in supporting a pending bill that would give Elian and his father permanent residency status in the United States.

By the way, how did McGrory know that Clinton was "statesmanlike?" How did she know that he wasn't "pandering?" She knew it, we'll once again hypothesize, because, in the case at hand, Clinton was agreeing with her on the merits. Conservative pundits who often trash Gore's presumed motives were suddenly giving him "the benefit of the doubt" last week. When Gore takes a position with which they agree, they suddenly like the guy's motives as well. So it goes within a press corps which lazily loves to limn state of mind.

Meanwhile, back at the Upright-L Ranch, Brownstein responded to Scully:

BROWNSTEIN: You know, politicians always have to look at the micro and the macro implications of what they do, and I'm not suggesting that Al Gore was—I don't know what was in his head or his heart in coming to this decision. But the fact is I think that what she, Mary McGrory, suggests in this column is how many Americans are likely to view this—as simply a political calculation, trying to reach out to Cuban-American voters in Florida.

Almost surely, many Americans will view the matter this way, after the entire press corps insists that they ought to. But we were struck my Brownstein's statement that he didn't know the vice president's motive. One would think it would be a routine thing, this statement of caution in assessing states of mind. But all over the press corps in the Elian case, scribes ascribed motive without any sense that it's categorically problematic to say why people do things. To read our major pundits proclaim, one would think that saying why a pol acts is as easy as saying what the pol did. Anthony Lewis also hauled out the p-word:

LEWIS: Politics on all sides makes the human situation worse. Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush are vying to see who can pander more cravenly to the Florida Cuban-Americans.

How did Lewis know that Bush and Gore don't actually believe in their proposals? He didn't say, and didn't seem to think that he needs to. Ascription of motive now seems to be viewed as Divine Right of celebrity kings.

It's awfully easy to write a story if you're allowed just to build it on motive. And for many pundits reviewing the Elian case, motive was the first place they turned. The standards of proof were non-existent; pundits simply said what they liked. Bob Herbert offered a striking example. He favored Elian's return to his father. Here's how he started his case:

HERBERT (paragraph 3): Elian is being held by his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who woke one morning to find that the child had made him famous. Delighted by the attention, Mr. Gonzalez...has made it clear to all—and especially to the higher officers of the federal government—that he is not inclined to turn the boy loose.

How did Herbert know the uncle's state of mind? Again, he didn't say. Herbert began telling a story he liked, in which Elian's mother was one of the bad guys:

HERBERT (14): [Elian] was a month shy of his sixth birthday last November when his mother, Elizabet Brotons (who was divorced from his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez) spirited him out of Cuba in the company of a ne'er-do-well named Lazaro Munero.

Herbert's language implies that Elian's father didn't know. Is he certain that that is the case? Munero is a "ne'er-do-well." Are you sure that Herbert knows it? We ask you this because, as the story goes along, the standards of proof become even less exacting. Here is Herbert's account of the way the subsequent drownings came to be:

HERBERT (15, continuing directly): Fourteen people were loaded on a rickety tub of a boat that never should have put out to sea. The boat broke down once and had to return for repairs. At that point one of the passengers decided that the risk was too great for her young daughter. So she left her behind with relatives.

(16) The writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, in an Op-Ed piece in The Times, that "it has been said that Elian also became aware of the dangers of the crossing and screamed to be left behind."

See the standard of evidence? "It has been said." Said by whom? We don't need to know that. Of course, it has also "been said" that the Virgin Mary has been appearing in Elian's mirror in Miami, but that doesn't mean that she necessarily has, or that we should base real-world judgments upon it. Herbert's writing—in the New York Times—is just as fanciful as that of certain others whom he explicitly decries as "the crazies."

We think Herbert is one of our most valuable columnists—a contrarian voice at the Times. But most of our pundits could do much better work than that which the corps' lazy standards draw from them. Herbert thinks Elian should go home to his father; we don't necessarily disagree with that view. But we think the problem with Herbert's argument is lodged in this early passage:

HERBERT (3): [Elian's uncle] has made it clear to all—and especially to the highest officers of the federal government—that he is not inclined to turn the boy loose.

(4) This, of course, is crazy. Elian has a father who both loves and wants him.

But Herbert begs the dispute's central question. The claim made by those who oppose immediate return is this: Elian's father may not be free to speak his actual views. Does Elian's father want him brought back to Cuba? It is claimed that we can't yet be sure. Indeed, that's the whole point of the formal suggestion that Mr. Gonzalez be given permanent residency status. This makes him freer to speak, it is said. Later, Herbert begs the question again, directly addressing VPGore:

HERBERT (12): ...The next thing we heard was the loud and important voice of Al Gore giving aid and comfort not to the rule of law but to the mob, by urging Congress to give Elian the status of a permanent resident of the U.S.

(13) Mr. Vice President, the boy has a father who wants him in Cuba.

How does Herbert know that? Again—he doesn't say. And nowhere in his column does he ever state that this is the case's central point of dispute.

Again, we think that Herbert is a valuable columnist, who raises issues many others ignore. But our pundits all live in a slacker press culture which is ruled by exceptionally lazy standards. All week, pundits felt free to speculate wildly about motive, lazily telling the stories they liked. In the process, it wasn't just Herbert who begged central questions. In general, the press corps failed to do the work that might have enlightened us all on this case.


Tomorrow: What's it actually like in Cuba? No one in the press seemed to care.

Low Noon: We want to make sure that we made our point clear about Peggy Noonan's comic Special Report appearance (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/4/00). Noonan doesn't know what Cuomo said, but she tells us what he must have said anyway. And Noonan has no idea if the Clintons spoke to Cuomo, so she simply "assumes" that they did. And what is the point of all this claptrap? The point is, the Clintons assail their opponents! Again, this standard format—in which critics do the very things they claim to despise—has been standard to the Clinton criticism. We hope short-term history ponders it fully.

Wolf's howler: Meanwhile, back at the WB, Wolf Blitzer had an extremely odd day interviewing Noonan on Sunday's Late Edition. (It was this appearance to which Noonan reeferred the next night on Special Report.) After an opening exchange defining the outlook of the book, Blitzer immediately said this:

BLITZER: You know, your book, as you understand, has been under fire from a lot of sources. Now you'd expect Clinton supporters to hate your book. But George Will, who's a conservative, listen to what he recently wrote about your book, he said this:

As Blitzer read, the text appeared on the screen. We present it here as shown:

BLITZER (reading; text as shown on screen): Noonan's book is not "balanced" and does not contain fresh facts. Noonan is one angry New Yorker. And although anger can bea whetstone for sharp writing, it can subvert judgment.

—George F. Will

The text is exactly as it appeared. The one ellipsis appeared on the screen.

But this was a simply astonishing example of selective clip-and-edit. Here is the full section of Will's column from which this "quote" was drawn. We will highlight the passages which Blitzer omitted:

WILL: Noonan's book is not "balanced" and does not contain fresh facts. But it is no more imbalanced than "Common Sense" or "J'Accuse," and her worthy purpose is to distill the meaning of the acid rain of facts about the Clintons' behavior with which we have been deluged.

"This highly credentialed rube," says Noonan in summing up, is "too corrupt for New York; she is too cynical for the place that gave birth to Tammany Hall." Noonan is one angry New Yorker, and although anger can be, and in this case is, a whetstone for sharp writing, it can subvert judgment. Did Noonan's anger do so? Consider.

In the following paragraphs, Will makes his opinion clear; in his opinion, Noonan's anger did not "subvert judgment."

Blitzer's treatment of Will's column is incredible. He includes Will's statement that the book is "unbalanced." But he then drops out the lengthy, following passage, in which Will compares the book, in its "imbalance," to great, honored texts of the past. The on-screen text doesn't acknowledge this edit; no ellipsis appears at that point. The second, acknowledged, edit is shorter, but again, the text was plainly clipped for a reason. Blitzer has Will saying, "Anger can be a whetstone for sharp writing." He then omits the short following phrase, where Will explicitly says that Noonan's anger has produced sharp writing. A viewer is left thinking that Will has said that Noonan's anger subverted her judgment. In the column, it is perfectly clear that Will says just the opposite.

Blitzer clearly implied that Will, "who's a conservative," was slamming Noonan's book. The quotation was doctored to give that impression. We're not sure if we've ever seen a quotation which was doctored so baldly. (Readers, of course, are free to write in with suggestions from Noonan's book.)

On the fly, Noonan corrected Blitzer as best she could. But Blitzer's presentation was simply astounding. Next Sunday, CNN should explain.