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11 May 2001

Our current howler (part III): Why they flounder

Synopsis: In a back-and-forth mea culpa, Harris panders, not to Bush, but to you.

Facing Reality
Michael Getler, The Washington Post, 5/6/01

Mr. Bush Catches a Washington Break
John Harris, The Washington Post, 5/6/01

Michael Getler’s ombudsman column was truly a sign of the times. On April 29, the Post had published a lengthy piece that was a silly, no-holds-barred pander to Bush (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/8/01 and 5/9/01). And what kind of complaints did poor Getler receive? We’ll let the scribe limn it himself:

GETLER (pgh 1): The mail last week focused on the public face, as presented by The Post, of two key Republican politicians…

(2) Some readers objected to the front-page picture of President Bush last Sunday accompanying an assessment of his stewardship…

(3) The mail was not what you would call heavy. But my experience is that when even a handful of readers register individual and original complaints about something, there is almost always a valuable issue at hand for the newspaper.

Alleged problem? The photo of Bush which adorned Harris’ piece wasn’t sufficiently regal. And, when "even a handful of readers" make such a claim, ombudsmen run now to speak to their grievance. But the comical part was the way all concerned lavished praise on the Post’s brilliant writing:

GETLER (4): The Bush photo is interesting because it raises the question of whether a photograph, perceived by some as politically slanted, can overwhelm a well-done reporting effort, and how that could be allowed to happen.

(5) "Whatever effort [staff writers] Dan Balz and John Harris went to in writing a balanced piece on the first 100 days…was undone by the decision to run a decidedly ‘editorial photo,’" one reader writes. "It’s easy to acknowledge the professionalism and fairness of the reporters, but the impression that lasts to more folks is the one staring out from the front page: Mr. Bush as Alfred E. Newman or worse. It cannot have been done unintentionally. One wonders why the person making that choice should be able to outweigh, in impression, the work of the two who wrote the story."

In fact, the "reporting effort" was an utter embarrassment—one of the most risible pander jobs of the year. But this sort of thing is so common now that readers think they’re scanning works of great balance, and fly into fits if the photo ain’t right. For the record, Getler disagreed with the readers’ complaints—but address them he did, straight-away.

By the way—are we right in thinking that pander jobs are now somewhat common with Bush? One major writer seemed to agree in last Sunday’s Post. It was—get this—that self-same John Harris, now pandering hard to a different clientele, offering up his heartfelt thoughts about why Bush has been covered so gently. As is always the case when he does these Thought Pieces, Harris writes in a back-and-forth, broken-field fashion. But here is his first nugget statement; it follows two lead paragraphs scolding "Clintonites" for their "characteristic" "self-pity" in complaining about Bush’s easy ride:

HARRIS (3): Are the national news media soft on Bush? The instinctive response of any reporter is to deny it. But my rebuttals lately have been wobbly. The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing about those uproars.

Note how quickly Harris attains Full Slick Mode, arranging to Have It Both Ways. In paragraphs 1 and 2, he scolds the "Clintonites" for their "self-pity;" then he turns around, in paragraph 3, seeming to say that their gripes are on target. But is Harris really knocking the press? Please—continuing directly, he praises their valor:

HARRIS (4): The difference is not in journalists’ attitudes toward Bush or their willingness to report aggressively on him. It is that nearly all the political and institutional forces that constitute Washington writ large have aligned to make Bush’s life more pleasant than Clinton’s ever was, even at the start of his presidency.

So it isn’t the journalists’ fault after all! Folks, just remember that one basic law: Whatever dumb*ss thing goes on, it’s never the press corps that did it.

What does Harris actually argue in his back-and-forth piece? According to Harris, scribes are just as eager to tear up Bush as they were to tear up Clinton. So why was Bill hit harder early on? According to Harris, it was because of those wild-eyed conservatives! They made a big deal out of every small thing, carefully speaking all in one voice. And finally, buried deep in the piece, comes Harris’ key mea culpa:

HARRIS (15): Reporters and editors do not work like commentators. There are no newsroom deliberations about how "soft" or "mean" to be on a president. And we aim to make our own judgments about what’s important, rather than respond in Pavlovian fashion to whatever ideologues or interest groups are inveighing about. But there’s no denying that we give more coverage to stories when someone is shouting. For example, the toughest coverage Bush has gotten has been over decisions to suspend environmental rules issued by Clinton, which infuriated liberals.

Harris finally blurts his tale. The shouting made them do it!

We have no doubt that the Washington press is easily stampeded by screamers. But this statement is a trifle odd coming from Harris, just one week after the piece in which he so sillily pandered to Bush. According to Harris, Clinton’s coverage—which Harris says was unbalanced—was caused by all that raucous shouting. This would imply that the coverage of Clinton was overly negative, while the coverage of Bush is pretty much on the mark. What, then, would explain the Full Tilt Pander he himself just wrote, one week earlier? Always flush with convenient excuses, Harris implicitly explains that one too. According to Harris, it had gotten to be so much fun trashing Clinton, today’s scribes are just a little bit rusty:

HARRIS (21): … Clinton’s personal tale was so consuming that, over time, covering him became as much about soap opera as about policy. The Washington press corps collectively may have fallen a bit out of shape at the hard work of examining, exposing, and critiquing public officials as they go about making the decisions that affect national life.

Aawww—poor babies! According to this utterly laughable theory, scribes have been taking it easy on Bush because they’ve "fallen a bit out of shape."

We really thought we had seen it all when we read Harris’ absurd Week I pander. But in our view, this Week II follow-up pseudo-excuse is every bit as drenched in bad faith. Can you really believe the Washington press corps is struggling now because they’re just out of practice? That they’ve forgotten how to write about policy? Hay-yo! According to Harris, Washington’s scribes are eager to fight, but they just need to run through some spring training drills. Once the scribes get a chance to refresh their skills, they’ll be tagging along after Paul O’Neill, endlessly asking Hard Questions.

Somehow we don’t think that this gets at the true state of Washington scribbling. What we do smell in all this is politics. Harris’ article is filled of claims that make little sense, but which do help to balance his one-week-old pander. Having pandered to Bush on April 29, one week later, he pandered to you.

Harris closes with his silliest reversal. He has just explained how the press corps is "out of shape" when it comes to that Real Tough Reporting:

HARRIS (22): The Bush White House makes this task more difficult by being especially disciplined in talking to the news media. Over time, however, it is not possible to control a public message as tightly as Bush believes he can. Good for this White House in avoiding the worst stumbles of the early Clinton administration; good for Washington in giving a new president a break at the start. And those people eager to see this president face scrutiny can rest assured: The opposition is sure to awaken.

In paragraph 21, Harris says the press corps is just a bit out of shape. In paragraph 22, he seems to say something different—until "the opposition" starts to yell, nothing is going to happen. Those who want an independent, fair and competent press—one which doesn’t respond to Them Who Shout Loudest—ought to be a bit disturbed by Harris’ upbeat close.

Over the years, we have noticed one thing—typically, the press corps is at its disingenuous best when it pretends to explain its own behavior and practices. Harris’ oddly back-and-forth piece does give some glimpses into press conduct. But Harris’ April 29 piece was utterly silly—and it was a big, massive pander. Why did Harris pen that piece? One week later, he chose not to tell you.


Smile-a-while (5/11/01)

Son of Susann: We couldn’t help emitting those low, mordant chuckles when Harris said this, early on:

HARRIS: Republicans and Democrats alike seem exhausted from the negativity and scandal of the Clinton era.

Really! This week, one soldier straggled out of the brush, unaware of the new tone in Washington. It was the Washington Times’ overwrought Bill Sammon, with excerpts from his new book on Florida. At one point, describing Gore’s December 13 concession speech, the excitable scribbler said this:

SAMMON: Mr. Gore barely had stepped away from the podium when the media gushing began. ABC’s Peter Jennings actually choked up on the air. So did Chris Matthews, the Democratic host of MSNBC´s "Hardball."

Virtually every journalist in America praised the address as spectacularly gracious, nothing short of "the speech of Gore’s political life." In reality, it had been the speech of Mr. Gore’s political death.

It was as if his seven minutes of magnanimity somehow made up for the previous 36 days of relentless political selfishness. The cad who had tried to disenfranchise GIs serving overseas and civilians living in Florida’s Seminole and Martin counties was celebrated as a perfect gentleman.

The ruthless politician who personally directed a smear-and-destroy campaign against Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris for daring to uphold the law was practically likened to Lincoln at Gettysburg. The Nixon-like figure who had obsessed over enemies, real and imagined, ranging from the Democratic mayor of Miami-Dade to the Republican "rioters" outside the elections office there, was enshrined on the loftiest pedestal of statesmanship.

All was forgiven by an adoring press, which never held Mr. Gore responsible for trying to achieve the outcome that most of them had wanted anyway.

The "cad?" Even writers of Harlequin romance novels are asked to stay away from such prose. But we were especially tickled by the clear implication that poor, "Democratic" talk host Chris Matthews was sufferin’ hard on December 13 because he’d been praying for Gore all along. Indeed, we soon found our thoughts lazily returning to all the nice things the Dem host had said about Gore. About how Gore would "lick the bathroom floor" to become president. About how Gore was just "the bathtub ring." About how he "didn’t have his gender straight." About how he "doesn’t know who he is." And who can forget the magical night when he praised Gore to Jo Ellan Dimitrius:

MATTHEWS (11/12/99): I was watching Al Gore, the vice president of the United States, with his brand-new, handy-dandy personality that seems to have come from central casting. And I was really thinking, what does Jo Ellan Dimitrius think about this character? Jo Ellan, you’re an expert at reading people. That’s the name of your book. How do you square the show that Al Gore has been putting on with this new Bionic Al with the reality we’ve seen over the years?

After playing tape of Gore, Matthews continued to praise him:

MATTHEWS: You got to go pretty far into the Third World to find tribal rituals like that one. All those ringers jumping up and down and clapping their hands, him doing those incredible Clutch Cargo gestures. What kind of—let me ask you a question. If you had Al Gore in the defense box in a trial, and he was the defendant in a serious case—criminal case, would you want women jurors with this guy based upon that latest new, latest new Al?

Incredible, huh? But then, there was nothing the adoring Dem wouldn’t say to boost his obvious favorite. Later, he asked Dimitrius why Gore was wearing three-button suits. At the time, three-button men’s suits had been the fashion norm for years. For example, conservative clothier Brooks Brothers was running display ads of three-button suits in the conservative Wall Street Journal:

MATTHEWS: Quickly, you know, there’s been a lot of talk about the new costuming of Al Gore. You know, he used to wear blue suits like I do, or gray suits. Now he’s wearing these new olive suits. He’s taking up something rather unconventional, the three-button male suit jacket. I always—my joke is, "I’m Albert, I’ll, I’ll be your waiter tonight." I mean, I don’t know anybody who buttons all three buttons, even if they have them. What could that possibly be saying to women voters, three buttons?

DIMITRIUS: Well, I—I think that—

MATTHEWS: Is there some hidden Freudian deal here or what? I don’t know, I mean, Navy guys used to have buttons on their pants. I don’t know what it means. Go ahead.

And Matthews wasn’t kidding. It was the third time that week that he told his "waiter" joke, and he raised the troubling question of the three buttons on Hardball on November 4, 10, 11, 12, and 24. He was determined to know what kind of Freudian signal that third button was sending out to the gals.

No, there was nothing the "Democrat" wasn’t willing to say. And the same now seems true of Bill Sammon.