31 August 1999
Our current howler (part II): Alpha to omerta
Synopsis: A Carl Cannon piece revealed the odd thinking behind the press corps Code of Silence.
Carl Cannon, The Weekly Standard, 2/25/98
What makes us so sure that Kenneth Walsh knew about the farm
chores last spring? In the August 9 edition of U.S. News, Walsh
described Al Gore's youthful experiences on his family's farmthe
very experiences for which Gore was derided for a solid three
months this spring. And we chided Walsh for not speaking out at
the time that this nonsensical tale was unfolding (see THE DAILY HOWLER,
How do we know that Walsh knew last spring? Because a well-informed
Washington writer had to know. For twelve years, the chores had
been described again and again in major profiles of Gore. And
they were described in detail in Bob Zelnick's Gore bio, which
appeared as the flap was unfolding.
But let's suppose Walsh didn't knowthat he learned about the
chores just this summer. A second question immediately arises. In U.S.
News, Walsh describes the chores in a matter-of-fact way;
he doesn't mention the fact that the chores were denied all over
the press corps this spring. But wouldn't it qualify as a significant
news story, to learn that the press corps had so widely misreported
this tale? Wouldn't a writer feel duty-bound to tell readers
about the disinformation the public had been fed?
Forget it. Washington writers never challenge other
writers in public. It seems to be a rule of the tribe that writers
don't dispute one another. One exception: the conservative press,
for thirty years, has made the "liberal bias" complaint.
It exists as a standard part of the Washington dialogue, dragged
out whenever needed.
But one can read the press corps for months without seeing
any other self-critique; within the press corps, it is virtually
impossible to find major writers disputing what other writers
have said. If you're a major Washington writer, it's virtually
impossible to say something so inane that anyone will ever say
one word about it. And trust usthere are major columnists who
test that system as often as three times a week.
It would be unimaginable for a writer like Walsh to point out
the truth about the farm chores debacle. A 1998 article by Carl
Cannon in the Weekly Standard helps to show us why.
Cannon wrote in February 1998, as White House adviser Sidney
Blumenthal was becoming a controversial public figure. Blumenthal's
high profile in the Lewinsky matter was earning him considerable
press attention, little of it favorable. Cannon's profile of Blumenthal
was much more balanced than many other critiques that appeared
at the time. He describes Blumenthal as "a cerebral Brandeis
graduate" who has "written four well-received books,
a play, and hundreds of high-toned political pieces for influential
publications." While criticizing some of Blumenthal's past
work, he points to specific work by Blumenthal that was prescient
and enlightening. He quotes a string of White House officials
on the strengths that Blumenthal brought to the White House. In
our view, Cannon actually deserves high marks for avoiding the
standard demonizing portraits of the time.
But what is so objectionable about Sidney Blumenthal? Cannon
takes us there right off the bat. In his opening paragraph, he
describes Blumenthal's appearance on Nightline in December
1993 to comment on the "Troopergate" stories in the
Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator. Blumenthal
"denounced the reports," Cannon relates, and then we
get to the heart of the problem:
CANNON: It was a curious posture for a journalist: leaping
to defend the White House by taking pot shots at fellow reporters.
But why exactly would that be odd? Why would it be odd for
a reporter to "take pot shots" at fellow reporters if
he thought those reporters were wrong? In every other academic
sector, it would be the absolute norm for, let us say, Biologist
A to criticize Biologist B. Indeed, that's the way biology advances.
Just take a look at biology journals.
But in the world of the press corps, process stands on its
earit's bad taste to criticize other journalists. The Blumenthal
case is complicated somewhat by the nature of Blumenthal's pre-White
House career; Cannon complains that Blumenthal's long-standing
friendship with Hillary Clinton "gave [him] influence inside
the White House even before he went to work there in August 1997."
Cannon describes a 1993 incident, in which Blumenthal advised
Mrs. Clinton to prepare a critique of Susan Schmidt's Whitewater
reporting in the Washington Post. The White House should present
the critique to Schmidt's editor, and then release it publicly,
Blumenthal said. The idea was rejected within the White House,
but Cannon quotes Susan Schmidt on the concept:
CANNON: Susan Schmidt, who has produced scoops on the Whitewater
beat since 1993, says of Blumenthal, "I've never heard of
anyone who purports to be a journalist giving the White House
advice on how to undermine the credibility of other news organizations."
And indeed, we're quite sure that she hasn't. Is it wrong that
a working journalist should advise politicians? We're not quite
clear what is wrong with that if the writer's editors know about
his connections (in his article, Cannon says the New Yorker
felt Blumenthal's White House ties would be helpful to his work).
And indeed, there were apparent problems with Schmidt's
Whitewater reporting, problems that Gene Lyons discussed in Fools
for Scandal (see tomorrow's DAILY HOWLER). Why shouldn't journalists
and politicians feel free to discuss apparent flaws with journalists'
But at any rate, it is quite clear that a hidden rule says
journalists don't critique other journalists. It explains why
no one ever said a word about the remarkable farm chores flap;
it explains why nothing is ever said about even the most egregious
press misconduct. It also explains the gruesome work one routinely
meets in the national press. There is no penalty for press misconduct. The resultspredictable, given human natureare
in plain view every day.
In every other walk of life, gross errors are discussed in
the press. If you're an engineer, and your bridge falls down,
you'll see it described in the press. In the science press, if you're Biologist A, and
you make a mistake, Biologist B will be there to say so. Maybe
Biologist B will be wrong. You'll get the chance to refute him
But when gross errors are committed by the press corps, the
rest of the press corps looks away. This isn't a world where we
discuss our mistakes. That may be why biology keeps moving ahead,
while the press is a nest of confusion.
Tomorrow: To this day, no one has ever felt much of
a need to respond to Fools for Scandal.
Tonight: Gene Lyons joins us and the Hotline's Howard Mortman. The Chip Franklin Show, WMAL, 680-AM, Washington. Listen on the internet at www.wmal.com.
Visit our incomparable archives: Blumenthal himself was the victim
of one of the most egregious episodes in recent press historya
string of patently false stories written about him starting in
November 1998. For our original reporting, see THE DAILY HOWLER,
2/5/99. We reported further as the story appeared in the Nation.
See THE DAILY HOWLER 2/22/99, 2/23/99, and 2/24/99. Finally,
Howard Kurtz soft-soaped this remarkable story. See THE DAILY
Keep on churnin': The farm chores legend was still being churned
on Sunday's Late Edition. The gang was conducting a fact-challenged
account of what Al Gore had said about teaching evolution. Why
hadn't Gore just said he favored same, someone asked the panel.
This was exactly what Gore had said, of course, but Tucker Carlson
started up with some funnin':
CARLSON: Maybe growing up on the farm, plowing the steep hillsides,
he just came into contact with a lot of people who are pro-creationists.
STEVE ROBERTS: Right there in Rock Creek Park. [LAUGHTER]
WOLF BLITZER: Which is a park in Washington.
The scribes got a chance to showcase their masterful witand
to further the farm chores legend. Some repeated points of derision
do affect candidatesask Dan Quayle if you doubt it. Why does
this conversation persist? Because silent observers like Ken Walsh