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10 December 2001

Our current howler (part I): Changeling

Synopsis: Fineman praised the prez when he "changed his attire." Our analysts swung into action.

"This Is Our Life Now"
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 11/3/01

The presidency as a family business
Howard Fineman,, 11/27/01

There we were, just minding our business, working on The Spinning of the President, Year 2000. And then, an alert: WE HAD MAIL. A reader had sent us a fine man’s thoughts on the state of a president’s soul:

HOWARD FINEMAN (11/3/01): It will get only harder from here on out. The economy is febrile, with re-emerging deficits likely to last years. Political unity is fraying, especially over Bush’s unflinching pursuit of sweeping, secretive law-enforcement measures. His decision to establish secret military tribunals to try terrorists has alarmed civil libertarians at home and allied governments in Europe. The traits that produced success so far—lofty self-confidence, a simple view of history, a willingness to delegate, a reliance on a small band of advisers and on his own charm—could produce a prickly, insular arrogance if things go wrong. Then he’ll have to rely on his personal compass—the reassuring Laura and his unwavering faith in God and prayer—to right his course.

What a fool—and what a toady. You’ll know that we mean no disrespect to President Bush when we point out what should be merely obvious—that Fineman has no way to assess the president’s "faith in God and prayer." Fineman does, of course, have excellent ways to assess the mood of the electorate and the White House. Here we see Fineman at the work he does best—pandering hard to them that’s in fashion, and playing the sniveling courtier.

But it wasn’t that clip—from a Newsweek piece—that got our fullest attention. No, our analysts threw their heads back and roared at a different passage, when Fineman profiled the president’s family for the msnbc dotcom. "So who are the Bushes?" the inquiring scribe asked. He offered a long, well-scripted paean. But the pundit brought us right out of our seats when he penned this startling passage:

FINEMAN (11/27/01): So who are the Bushes, really? Well, they’re the people who produced the fellow who sat with me and my Newsweek colleague, Martha Brant, for his first interview since 9/11. We saw, among other things, a leader who is utterly comfortable in his role. Bush envelops himself in the trappings of office. Maybe that’s because he’s seen it from the inside since his dad served as Reagan’s vice president in the ‘80s. The presidency is a family business.

Dubyah loves to wear the uniform—whatever the correct one happens to be for a particular moment. I counted no fewer than four changes of attire during the day trip we took to Fort Campbell in Kentucky and back. He arrived for our interview in a dark blue Air Force One flight jacket. When he greeted the members of Congress on board, he wore an open-necked shirt. When he had lunch with the troops, he wore a blue blazer. And when he addressed the troops, it was in the flight jacket of the 101st Airborne. He’s a boomer product of the ‘60s—but doesn’t mind ermine robes.

Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts roared at the passage we’ve set out in bold. Fineman saw Bush change his "attire" three times in one day—and he said it showed the gentleman’s savvy. Why, it even seemed to show the way that President Bush "is utterly comfortable in his new role."

Our thoughts turned back to Fineman’s work during the long last election. And we asked ourselves the obvious question: Is there a bigger phony on earth than Howard Fineman? The analysts scrambled to their stations. A four-part series on Fineman was surely due.

Next: How many times—and how crudely—did Fineman trash Gore for engaging in this very same conduct?


The Daily update (12/10/01)

All the news that’s fit to duck: Readers will recall a surprising appearance by the NYT’s Gail Collins on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, in which Collins—then a member of the Times editorial board—professed total ignorance of one of the principal charges made in Gene Lyons’ Fools for Scandal (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/99). At the time, we marveled at the way the NYT can avoid any normal accountability. Three full years after Lyons’ book raised the most serious questions about the paper’s Whitewater reporting, there was Collins, completely innocent of any knowledge of what the fellow had said.

Which brings us up to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the NYT’s major domo, appearing on Washington Journal this past Friday, November 30. Again, a caller asked about Jeff Gerth’s NYT Whitewater stories, which Lyons critiqued in such detail. The caller raised the very same point that was placed before Collins two years earlier:

CALLER: Since the Whitewater story was fabricated by you guys at the New York Times, Jeff Gerth and the lady in Arkansas—completely ignored her documents proving that she did ask Madison Guaranty to close two years earlier than the government asked them to do—do you think you owe the American people an apology?…Not only that phony scandal but the rest of the phony scandals. The NYT was the leader of the pack at that time.

Clearly, the caller referred to Beverly Bassett Schaffer, as anyone who has studied Gerth’s Whitewater reporting would of course know quite well. We waited for Sulzberger’s answer. After all, The Boss now had a perfect chance to lay this whole house of canards to rest. He could finally reply to the ugly charge—the claim that the NYT had been involved in a hoax in its Whitewater reporting. The slander has stood since 1996. Here’s what the incensed owner said:

SULZBERGER: You know, it almost sounds quaint, doesn’t it, now? I apologize for that to you, whoever you are, calling in, I don’t mean to dismiss your concern but in the midst of the new world and these new challenges we face, it just sounds quaint. I’ll tell you what. I’d be a lot smarter to let Howell Raines answer that question if the caller is allowed to restate it because he’s more in touch with that news story by far than I am. I don’t think we made it up, let me get that on the table. I don’t think we made it up…

Wow! The caller, of course, was not allowed to "restate the question" later on in the show, and the topic didn’t come up when Raines made his subsequent appearance.

So let’s see. It’s now been almost ten years since Gerth created the definitive scandal story of the past decade. It’s been more than five years since Lyons published the book which accused the NYT of a hoax. And a surprising fact is still clear—no one at the NYT has bothered to speak to Lyons’ analysis. The Times has never responded to the Lyons challenge, and—when Timesmen are asked about the Gerth stories—they don’t deign to speak to Lyons’ serious charges. They simply feign ignorance instead.

Our question: Is there any other sector in this society that has such complete and total immunity? Can any other sector on earth get away with this kind of conduct? No newspaper has ever asked the NYT to discuss the problems with the Gerth articles, and total slackers like Collins and Sulzberger get away with strategic ignorance every time they get asked about it. And by the way, it’s very good internal politics. Collins, feigning ignorance beautifully back in 1999, got her pat on the back from the board. She’s now in control of the editorial page, replacing Raines—who almost surely would have known nothin’ about nothin’ if the question had come up on his watch.

As we’ve long told you, here’s the dirty little secret, they key to it all—the press corps controls the press. For that reason, mainstream press organs are completely immune to the normal inquiry directed at all other sectors. No one else can duck and dodge the way the New York Times has done. The result of this breakdown in public accountability? The hapless work that rules the press corps. Howard Fineman’s, for example. More on Tuesday.

Visit our incomparable archives: It sometimes seems that Gail Collins will do and say anything. For a good chuckle, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/99.