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1 October 2001

Our current howler: Yes, it actually matters

Synopsis: Does the fate of Politically Incorrect really matter? You bet your sweet bippy it does.

Commentary by Bill Maher
The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News Channel, 9/20/01

Berkeley vs. America…again
Michelle Malkin, The Washington Times, 9/25/01

Berkeley breaks from anti-war past
Thomas Elias, The Washington Times, 10/1/01

Does the fate of Politically Incorrect really matter? You bet your sweet bippy it does. Following remarks by host Bill Maher on September 17, several sponsors withdrew support from the show, and a number of TV stations around the country stopped airing the late-night program. Washington, D.C.’s WJLA (channel 7) has been the most important such station; last Wednesday, the station pulled the show for the second time, not because Maher had done something offensive, but in apparent reaction to statements by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer (text below). By Saturday, station manager Frederick J. Ryan finally deigned to say why he had acted, penning a hopelessly uninformed letter to the Washington Post. In a world where major media can spend a whole summer pondering the love life of Gary Condit, one should hardly be surprised to see lazy reasoning atop our media food chain. But America’s most valuable public possession is its vibrant public discourse; when our discourse is monkeyed with in such hapless ways, the republic’s future is in fact put into danger.

Can the nation survive without PI? Yes, without question, it can. The show is sometimes silly and often as sharp as a tack—but there is no single program on which our future depends. But free nations cannot survive without vibrant discourse, and the silly targeting of PI does put that discourse in jeopardy. Indeed, the attacks on PI do help illustrate an ongoing threat to the national interest—the way we now let our public discourse be run by our least able players.

It’s been clear for at least the past decade; over and over, our dumbest elements set the rules of our discourse. We put our nation’s future at risk if we let this situation devolve further.

  1. Original statement—no one cared. On September 17, Maher made the statement that has landed his program in trouble. A significant number of TV critics wrote about this show in real time, describing the return of late night comedy programming. Absolutely no one said so much as a word about the comments in question. Why did no one make any comment? Perhaps because the remarks in question were a fleeting part of a half-hour program. Perhaps because Maher’s remarks have been made by many others in the past. At any rate, no one seemed to take offense at this fleeting part of the program in question. Critics focused on Maher’s tribute to the late Barbara Olson; on his statement that we still need robust discourse; and on his statement that he was "mad at his country" for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

  2. Enter the irate talk show host. But down in Houston, one viewer was angry—irate talk show host Dan Patrick, who soon was making puzzling statements about what Maher (and a guest) had supposedly said. Patrick is a bit of an ayatollah himself; when stressed, he likes to shut down those whose comments displease him. His brainless statements began almost instantly. "I was just appalled," Patrick said, in the September 19 Houston Chronicle. "When you call these hijackers ‘warriors,’ that should not be tolerated." That should not be tolerated! Of course, a large number of highly distinguished commentators had made this same statement since September 11, stressing the view that we make a mistake when we underestimate our foe (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/01). Sadly, many talk show hosts dont reed reel gud, so Patrick doubtless didn’t know this. But Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Krauthammer had made this statement five days earlier; many others had said it, too. No matter. To an irate talker like the fist-waving Patrick, Americans presumably shouldn’t "tolerate" Krauthammer either. It’s just that, since Maher’s on TV and Krauthammer is in print, there’s little chance that Patrick would ever get wind of what the latter (and others) had said. These days, our public discourse is largely shaped by knuckle-dragging talk hosts like Patrick—screamers who get their news while surfing around during ads on their beloved Cartoon Network.
  3. Up steps hapless Ari Fleischer. By September 26, the flap was dying, so up stepped Ol’ Reliable, Les Kinsolving, another talk show host. Kinsolving has been asking smarmy questions at White House briefings for years; this day, he asked Fleischer what he thought of Maher’s comment, offering a paraphrase of what Maher had said that bore the dimmest relation to truth (see postscript). And Fleischer, as always, was up to the challenge, offering a response which would simply be funny if he weren’t in a place of such high authority. Here’s what Fleischer said to Kinsolving, and no-we’re-not-making-this-up:
  4. FLEISCHER: I’m aware of the press reports about what he said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, it’s a terrible thing to say, and it’s unfortunate. And that’s why there was an earlier question about has the President said anything to the people in his own party. These are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say and what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.

    In short, Fleischer didn’t know what Maher had said, but he knew it was terrible, and should never be said. (Not even by Krauthammer? Not even by Mona Charen? Not even by Rich Lowry? Not even by Leon Wieseltier?) Hours later, Ryan pulled PI off the air again.

Is PI vital to our nation’s security? No, but intelligence is. And this is just the latest episode which shows a troubling aspect of our modern culture—the way we let our dumbest elements rule our public discourse. Why should Bill Maher be put off the air? Patrick and Ryan both specifically said that we shouldn’t "tolerate" naughty remarks which many others—including Krauthammer—have made many times in the past. But do you think for a minute that either man knew that? Do you think they understand our recent discourse one half as well as Maher himself does? And what can you say about Ari Fleischer? His hapless comments—to Kinsolving, no less!—could be dismissed as the latest bad joke, if he weren’t making them inside the White House, at a podium we’d all like to honor.

A pair of fist-waving talk show hosts; a knee-jerk Washington program director; a press sec who condemns what he hasn’t yet read—these are now the sad sacks and losers to whom we hand control of our discourse. Indeed, in the Age of Limbaugh and the Age of Stern, we’ve learned to tolerate dimwits quite nicely. But now, we’re in a state of near war; we need intelligence more than ever. So yes, the fate of PI does matter—unless you want the public discourse run by ayatollahs here too. The screamers like Patrick are willing to serve. Are we really willing to let them?

What Maher said: What exactly did Bill Maher mean when he said that "we" have been cowardly in recent military strategies? Did he mean to criticize our soldiers? Duh. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have known that wasn’t what he meant; policy is set by the commander-in-chief, not by the troops in the field. But for all the slackers and laggards out there, Maher later made his meaning clear. Here, for example, is what he said on The O’Reilly Factor on September 20:

MAHER (9/20): [S]ome shock jocks were able to put the word "cowardly" next to my name, and pretend that I was saying that the military was cowardly, which of course I was not. I have made that abundantly clear on my show since them.

I used the word "we," "we" have been. That was a mistake because it’s vague, and I apologized, as I do, to the military if they took it the wrong way. But I’ve been a huge military defender on this show, that is one of the things you and I would agree on, Bill, and maybe have when you were here.

What I was talking about was the policy making body of this country, which has not responded and had not responded before this, to terrorism the way they should. I was saying basically that they blew up our embassies in Africa. That was not a small thing…

As we noted in THE HOWLER, a wide array of major commentators used the very word "cowardly" to describe Clinton administration military actions from 1998 through 2000. Right or wrong, Maher was voicing a view which was commonly expressed in the past few years—a criticism of Clinton administration policy, not of our soldiers themselves.

But when we hand our discourse to talk show hosts, intelligence and accuracy rarely matter. Here was Kinsolving’s account of Maher’s statement. Kinsolving delivered his statement on September 26, speaking to Fleischer, in our White House:

KINSOLVING (9/26): As commander in chief, what was the president’s reaction to television’s Bill Maher in his announcement that members of our armed forces who deal with missiles are cowards, while the armed terrorists who killed 6,000 unarmed are not cowards, for which Maher was briefly moved off a Washington television station? And I have a follow-up.

It was perfectly clear that this was not what Maher said. But when we put our talk show hosts in charge, we make a joke of the public discourse. Pathetically, Fleischer then went ahead and condemned Maher’s remarks—remarks he hadn’t read, seen or studied. Are we really prepared to let our discourse be run by such slackers and losers?


The Daily update (10/1/01)

Malkin’s folly: Just how foolish was Michelle Malkin’s 9/25 column in the Washington Times? As we have noted, the holy warrior was conducting a jihad, looking for domestic voices to silence. Her theme? That crazy old Berkeley is at it again. "Berkeley vs. America," screamed the headline. Here was her opening paragraph:

MALKIN: President Bush urged citizens last week to go back to work and try to restore normalcy to their everyday lives. Accordingly, the People’s Republic of Berkeley, Calif., wasted no time in returning to its business as usual: stifling political dissent under the guise of "tolerance," stamping out every last ember of patriotism for the cause of "peace," and hating America while greedily feasting off the fruits of freedom so lovingly tended by their fellow countrymen.

We noted how far Malkin had to search to "prove" her exciting thesis. How did she "prove" that Berkeley was "hating America?" She cited the words of a single high school student, quoted in a local newspaper. She cited a protest by 100 Berkeley students (out of 30,000 on campus). And she cruelly twisted the words of Rep. Barbara Lee, dissembling and distorting to "prove" her dim point. At times of little domestic dissent, jihadists like Malkin will simply lie to find enemies whom they can squash.

Just how foolish was Malkin’s column? Today, the Washington Times offers useful reporting. "Berkeley breaks from anti-war past," reads the headline. Thomas Elias takes it from there:

ELIAS (pgh 1): A different kind of war is brewing, and it’s drawing a completely different kind of response on the University of California’s Berkeley campus than the war in Vietnam or any subsequent U.S. military involvement.

(2) For one thing, so far not a single American flag has been burned at Berkeley, the nation’s foremost symbol of student protest. There have even been pro-U.S. rallies. That’s partly because Berkeley now has a different kind of student.

(3) Yes, there have been protests against massive retaliation for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on America, but they have been largely drowned out by much larger gatherings supporting both the terror victims and President Bush’s early steps toward a response.

Hay-yo! Comically, Elias notes that "[o]nly about 100 protesters staged a sit-in outside the student newspaper, the Daily Californian," in the action which Malkin trumpeted. In short, the silly "evidence" which Malkin spun is now being cited to show how little dissent has appeared on Cal’s campus.

At times like this, we need reason, not jihad. The Times should have canned Malkin’s laughable—and dishonest—column. The "evidence" she cited was a joke on its face. At times like these, we need journalists, not jihad.