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Caveat lector

26 April 2001

Our current howler (part I): Save the Times!

Synopsis: We rarely defend the New York Times. Gregg Easterbrook drove us to do it.

Health Nut
Gregg Easterbrook, The New Republic, 4/30/01

Douglas Jehl, The New York Times, 4/12/01

Bush Isn’t All Wrong About the Endangered Species Act
Bruce Babbitt, The New York Times, 4/15/01

We couldn’t help chuckling, here at HOWLER World Quarters, as the preening pundits began their reviews of The Dub’s first 100 days. Their work was a bit premature. For example, it was Day 94 when a shouting host began his reviews on the adventure show, Hardball. We can only hope that President Bush doesn’t start a big war on, say, Day 99. A lot of "report cards" will need redoing if we bomb Peru at the end of the week.

Why were the pundits giving grades out so early? Simple—they need something to talk about. Far too bored by talk of basics, they were jumping ahead to the next silly topic which they could hype-n-hump for a week. But what explains this recent statement, rendered in The New Republic? The journal’s Gregg Easterbrook was telling the world what a raw deal The Dub has been getting:

    EASTERBROOK: Consider another act for which Bush has been damned; his request that Congress suspend for one year the filing of lawsuits demanding that more plants and animals be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). On its front page, the New York Times portrayed this as a horrifying step backward.

Awwww! What made it so unfair, the scribe explained, was the fact that Clinton had done pretty much the same thing. Here’s how he finished his thought:

    EASTERBROOK (continuing directly): Yet the Clinton administration did almost exactly the same thing: Last year Clinton suspended the classification of plants and animals as endangered, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the ESA, was so snowed under by frivolous or dilatory lawsuits that it couldn’t get its work done. The Times account was craftily written to depict the Bush decision as an unprecedented departure, not mentioning Clinton’s similar policy until the fourteenth paragraph, and then only obliquely.

A voice inside counseled doubt. And frankly, we were so surprised to hear that the Times might be bangin’ on Bush we decided to check for ourselves. Was it true, what TNR said? Had the Bush-friendly Times really banged on Green George? We decided to take a look at the record—one which, as we came to see, TNR had described a bit strangely.

Had the NYT portrayed Bush’s action as a "horrifying step backward?" Sorry. Here’s the way the report started out, penned by the paper’s Douglas Jehl:

    JEHL (paragraph 1): The Bush administration has asked Congress to set aside, at least for a year, a provision of the Endangered Species Act that has been the main tool used by citizens’ groups to win protection for plants and animals.

    (2) The request, spelled out in a section of the budget document that President Bush sent to Capitol Hill on Monday, would make it much more difficult for citizens to use the courts to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to act on petitions to list a species as endangered.

Maybe that isn’t just how TNR would write it. But how "horrifying" did Jehl make the Bush request seem? In the next three paragraphs, Jehl pretty much let the Bush Admin set out its case:

    JEHL (3): Officials at the Interior Department defended the request today as necessary to let an overburdened agency regain control of a mission that they said has increasingly been driven by the courts, with dozens of cases involving more than 400 species now on the dockets.

    (4) If Congress approves the plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service would devote its available money next year to listing the endangered-species cases it deemed to be top priorities, while being specifically barred from spending any money to carry out new court orders or settlements involving other plants or animals.

    (5) "We want a chance to establish our own priorities, instead of just waiting for another court order to roll across the transom," said Stephanie Hanna, an Interior department spokeswoman. Ms. Hanna said the department would decide next year whether to extend the request beyond the 2002 fiscal year.

Then, the utterly fair-minded scribe gave three paragraphs to Those Who Oppose:

    JEHL (6): The leaders of environmental groups, along with some Congressional Democrats, denounced the plan as one that would take power away from citizens and put it in the hands of an agency that they said had been reluctant to make the hard decisions involved in designating endangered species.

    (7) "If you didn’t have the citizens’ suits, you’d basically have the power brokers determining if you were going to save the salmon or the spotted owl, and that just doesn’t make sense," Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, said today.

    (8) Democrats opposing the move invoked the threat of a filibuster to kill it. Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that "any and all" tactics would be considered to defeat the proposal.

After that, four paragraphs put things in perspective. Sorry—we still can’t find the tone of voice which Easterbrook denounced for his readers:

    JEHL (9): The administration proposal reflects a longstanding battle over how far the government should go in determining what species are deserving of protection, with business and other property owners critical of the reach of the 1973 law.

    (10) Under the administration plan, citizens could still petition the wildlife service with endangered-species requests, and to file suit in attempts to force action. But for next year, at least, the service would not be bound by deadlines requiring a prompt response, a change that would end the leverage citizens use to seek help from the courts.

    (11) The service would honor any court orders or settlements on endangered species in effect at the time the law was passed, a commitment that interior department officials said would consume the majority of this year’s $8.7 million budget for the listings.

    (12) But the prohibition on spending related to new court orders or settlement would be absolute, department officials said, leaving the balance of the funds to support the agency’s own listings efforts.

Let’s face it—only the strivers would read beyond this, looking for details to provide extra credit. So we ask you—in this basic article, as we have given it, does Jehl really portray The Dub’s request as "a horrifying step backward?" Or is TNR’s Easterbrook, for some unknown reason, overstating—yes, "embellishing"—basic facts?

Given the general coverage of the first 100 days, we were a bit surprised when Easterbrook said that the Times was just beating up on Poor George. But then, TNR has become the mag which tells us who’s psychotic and not. Maybe Crazy Andy has been there so long that bullroar and hoohah are proving contagious. Tomorrow, we’ll look at a recent NYT piece where they did muck up all they surveyed.


The occasional update (4/26/01)

Marty’s folly: Andrew Sullivan’s recent goonlike work with the DSM produced some good letters in the 4/23 New Republic. We strongly suggest that you read them. For our part, we are assembling a file on the bricklike Brit which we’ll thumb for your future amusement.

Meanwhile, just how nastily did the Times treat Dub’s assault on the ESA? This nastily—on Sunday, April 15, three days after Jehl’s blindside mugging, the paper ran an op-ed by Bruce Babbitt, interior sec for President Wildman. Babbitt continued the mugging of Bush. Here’s how his column began—check the carnage in paragraph 2, for example:

    BABBITT (1): The Bush administration has again outraged environmentalists, this time by proposing that Congress modify the budget for the Endangered Species Act. The administration wants to place financial restrictions on a process called "designation of critical habitat," which maps areas occupied by endangered species.

    (2) Environmentalists resist any change, fearful of giving opponents of the Endangered Species Act any openings. But on this matter, they are overreacting. Critical habitat is a problem that ought to be fixed, if not in the manner proposed by the administration.

Where does the Gotham rag find these guys? The headline beneath which the op-ed ran: "Bush Isn’t All Wrong About the Endangered Species Act." Charitably, Easterbrook chose not to mention this further strafing of Bush by the Times.