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Caveat lector

29 May 1998

A Howler postscript: There was no informationtransfer, either...

Synopsis: When Dee Dee Myers tried to spell out the facts on the China allegations, a tabloid talker didn’t much seem to care.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Dee Dee Myers
Hardball, CNBC, 5/20/98

Yesterday, we took a look at some Hardball shows over the course of the past two weeks, and we saw how Chris Matthews has flamboyantly misstated the facts about technology transfer to China.

Well, it isn’t as if the tabloid talker hadn’t been warned he was wandering far afield. Early on in the story--on Wednesday, May 20--Dee Dee Myers appeared as a guest on the CNBC show, and explained to the talker in a lengthy exchange how his representations didn’t square with the facts.

In the process, we got a good look at the limited role that is given to fact when you’re playing some really good Hardball.

The talker was busy conflating aspects of the various China matters with Howard Fineman and Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, when he asked Dee Dee Myers to comment on the day’s House vote to restrict the president’s ability to deal with China. Myers went back to the talker’s claim that technology had been transferred to China. (For a record of what the tabloid talker had said, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/28/98, under the listing “Wednesday, May 20.”) Here’s Myers, quoted in full:

MYERS: Well, I think the whole conversation needs to back up a step. You said earlier, Chris, that technology was transferred in the granting of this waiver that increased China’s capacity for nuclear warfare. What are you talking about? A waiver was granted to allow an American satellite to be launched into space aboard a Chinese rocket. This is something that’s been done since 1988. President Bush granted nine such waivers in four years as president, President Clinton has granted eleven such waivers in five and a half years. You can argue that it was a mistake to issue a waiver to Loral when the company was under investigation, but as Mike McCurry said today, “Innocent until proven guilty is still the rule of the land.”

Matthews threw back a non sequitur:

MATTHEWS: If this was policy, Dee Dee, why did Warren Christopher turn it down?

Are we talking about the Loral waivers? Warren Christopher, of course, had nothing to do with the second Loral launch, being long since gone as Secretary of State. The first Loral launch occurred in February 1996, before control over the granting of waivers was transferred to the Commerce Department. Myers had argued there was no technology transfer in the launches; Matthews seems to be arguing a different matter altogether. (The ability to keep disparate issues separate is not a major strength of Hardball.)Myers responded to Matthews:

MYERS: Warren Christopher didn’t turn it down. I think Warren Christopher had some reservations about transferring authority for waivers to the Commerce Department, but the Department of Defense and the Department of State both have to sign off on waivers, and if they don’t agree with the decision and they’re unsatisfied with the process, they can go to the president. That’s built into the regulations, the way the process works.

Needless to say, over the course of the next seven minutes, the talkers wandered about on a variety of points unrelated to Myers’ original assertion. But doggone it--Myers insisted on returning to her main point, and we got a little glimpse at how the Hardballgang deals with the assertion of unwanted facts:

MYERS: Let’s keep in mind one very important point. When a satellite goes over there for a launch aboard a Chinese rocket, it’s in essentially what they call a “black box.” The Chinese do not have access to the technology encompassed in those satellites, even though they have very few national security implications. And I think that’s a point that’s been overlooked.

Myers was still attempting to argue her initial point--that very little technology transfer had occurred in the missile launches. Is that true? You’ll never find out on a program like Hardball;listen to how a pair of TV tabloid talkers respond to inconvenient assertions of fact:

MATTHEWS: Well, I think I’ll go back to what I said last night, quoting V.I. Lenin, that the capitalists will sell the rope, to the Communists, to hang themselves with.

Myers tried to stay on point:

MYERS: But Chris, if there’s no technology being transferred, what are we talking about here? What technology are we talking about specificallyin these waivers that’s got everybody claiming--

“Specifically”--that’s a fighting word on Hardball.Time for a major subjecttransfer:

MATTHEWS: Well, the Congress voted today to take away the president’s authority to make any more such deals, so I think there’s some impact here.

FITZPATRICK: By over 400 votes, by the way. It’s no close--

MATTHEWS: 400 votes. Be back with more Hardball.

And the Hardballgang breathed a sigh of relief as they headed off to a break. But for people who want to see real analysts developing real information, there was no real thrill in the talker’s pledge to come back with more of this!

Read back through yesterday’s DAILY HOWLER, to see the distorted picture of technology transfer the talker continued to paint after Myers’ appearance. Sadly, you’ll be seeing a part of what we dolove to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”

More reading: For efforts by real journalists to develop real facts about the question Myers attempted to raise, see the following:

China’s space success no major threat
Lisa Hoffman, The Washington Times, 5/26/98
(cited in yesterday’s DAILY HOWLER)

China Missile Gain Questioned
Bradley Graham, The Washington Post, 5/31/98

Read on: Myers’ effort to correct the factual record is the role that ought to be played by mainstream reporters on the Hardballpanel. But, as we described in yesterday’s HOWLER, Time and Newsweek reps typically sit idly by, making no effort whatever to correct or challenge even the most obvious misstatements of fact.

But once in a while, an old-school journalist wanders onto the panel who doesn’t understand how modern Hardballis played. See today’s DAILY HOWLER “Smile-a-while” feature, for an account of the fun when the AP’s Walter Mears joined the gang on May 28.