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Caveat lector

MISSIVE TO MICKEY! An incomparable reply to last Wednesday's Kausfiles:


FOR THOSE OBSESSIVELY FOLLOWING: Oops! I hadn’t seen Mickey Kaus’ comments last Wednesday about the Couric-Coulter Culture Clash. For those obsessively following this topic, let me reply right to Mick.

Mickey, I agree with you that Couric (and others) may have been flogging the “airhead” flap to generate tons of excitement. And I agree that Morris may have been trying to stir the flap with his unflattering comments about Reagan. But that, of course, is precisely the point; you yourself say that you don’t agree with Coulter’s assessment of Couric’s vile motives. Having said that, let’s go back and look at the way you scored her Today show peformance.

You scored the Today show dispute this way: “Coulter 1, Couric 0.” Sorry, that’s absolute nonsense. On Today, Couric accused Coulter of falsely saying in her book that she, Katie Couric, called Reagan an airhead. Couric was plainly correct on that point: Couric 1, Coulter 0. Coulter then dissembled further, telling Couric, “Well, I didn’t call you a Ronald Reagan basher.” That, of course, is complete, utter nonsense. On the big, green wall we keep at THE HOWLER, our scoreboard said “Couric 2, Coulter 0.”

But like hometown refs all over the world, you simply chose to ignore these exchanges when you scored the Today show dispute. Directed by “senior officials in the Coulter camp” (your phrase), you described the Today session thus:

KAUS: Two weeks ago, Today host Katie Couric got into a dispute with her guest Ann Coulter over how many times Today had misleadingly said Reagan biographer Edmund Morris called his subject an "airhead.”
That was part of what was discussed, but only a minor, trivial part. Why did Coulter direct you to discuss that exchange? Because for once in her life, Coulter had made a statement that could (almost) be defended as having been technically accurate. So you focused on that (and on nothing else that was said), and said that Coulter had won the Today show dispute. “Coulter 1, Couric 0,” you said. This is roughly the way the French score their big figure-skate battles.

By the way, how did you decide that Coulter prevailed in the one exchange you discussed? According to your presentation, Coulter said that the Today show opened a certain way “three days in a row.” Couric said “it was [just] one day.” Your judgment? After checking NEXIS, you said that the show had opened that way two days—and then you awarded the dispute to Coulter! “She was closer to the truth than Couric.” Even the French were amazed.

Dude! I presume you approached this whole thing as a lark, but Coulter’s book is important. It’s number one on the best-seller list, and right from page one, it’s filled with howling misstatements of fact. On point after point, its readers have no way of knowing how baldly they’re being deceived. (One of its flat misstatements is on page 51, where Coulter says that Couric called Reagan an airhead.) This has nothing to do with conservative values; as Christopher Caldwell correctly noted, Coulter’s book is “political hackwork.” There are plenty of honest, constructive conservatives around. Your director, Ann Coulter, isn’t one of them.

On Wednesday, you pretended that I discussed this topic because I wanted to defend liberalism. Dude! You don’t know squat about my policy views, either. I have criticized Coulter’s book because it’s a gong-show of dimwit misstatements and lies. I think rank dissembling degrades our discourse. Next time Coulter calls with ideas what to write, why not ask what she thinks about that?

COULTER 1, DONAHUE 0: On Thurday’s Donahue, Coulter restated her nasty suggestion that we pay extra attention to “swarthy men in airports.” Technically, of course, Arab-American men are “swarthy.” Coulter 1, Donahue 0.

MONDAY: FAQs on Harken.

FRIDAY, JULY 19, 2000

WHAT A CROC: A “leftist!” What consummate clowning! Yesterday, we were so described by Andrew Sullivan, displaying his standard impeccable timing (see the contents of yesterday’s HOWLER). Sully, of course, has almost no knowledge of our policy views; they have almost never been discussed in these pages. And you can trust us—those policy views, such as they are, could not imaginably be described as “leftist.” But Sullivan often engages in gong shows, and silly name-calling is part of the deal. Indeed, only Sully could yell the name “leftist” on the same day we’re defending George Bush to the teeth. Alas! So it goes in the pandering provinces that make up that tortured state, Blogistan.

What set Sullivan into this rage? We dared critique his best bud, Mickey Kaus, for the silliest thing Kaus ever wrote in his long and constructive career. Stung to the core by such insolent blogging, Sullivan leaped into action. Flipping through the “cultural relativism” index cards he keeps in his head, he accused us of playing the “The Goldstein Defense,” in which “[i]f you get something wrong, relying on a third-hand inaccurate source, it is not incumbent on you to actually check the source, or apologize.” Maybe Sully is really that dumb, or maybe he thinks that his poor readers are. But that, of course, is not what we said (or what we believe). We said something massively different, which seems to have gone over someone’s head.

Let’s start where Sullivan often does, with the least relevant matter at issue. Did Katie Couric “get something wrong, relying on a third-hand inaccurate source?” That’s largely a matter of judgment. As we noted, while Edmund Morris didn’t exactly call Reagan an “airhead,” he came pretty close in his book and in interviews. Speaking to Newsweek, he called Reagan a “cultural yahoo” and “shatteringly banal;” he went into great detail about how “boring” Reagan was in private. As we noted, it was conservatives who were most upset by these statements. Here’s how Robert Novak limned the matter in the 10/11/99 Weekly Standard. Novak’s piece appeared a full week after Couric said that Edmund Morris called Reagan an airhead:

NOVAK: Dutch presents—and embroiders—the conventional liberal wisdom about Ronald Reagan, and [Morris’] book will be read with satisfaction by the president’s detractors. Over the last three years of the presidency Morris (as the authorized biographer and silent observer of presidential meetings) had the opportunity to view Reagan closely, and in Dutch he refers to the president’s “encyclopedic ignorance” and “hardening of his mind.” Reagan lacked “intellectual energy” and “had long since abandoned inquiry for the reiteration of old certainties.” “Reagan was, after all, an old man, with scar tissue near his heart and steadily atrophying powers of concentration.” “An apparent airhead” emerged in the interviews with the author. “Beyond amazement, I was distressed by the relentless banality, not to say incoherence, of the president’s replies.”
Wow! Were pundits wrong when they said that Morris had called Ronald Reagan an “airhead?” We wouldn’t describe the book that way ourselves, but according to Novak, the book mocked Reagan’s “encyclopedic ignorance.” Should Couric have led with that point instead? Should Novak apologize to Morris? Translation: If Couric was wrong in what she said, she wasn’t wrong by very much.

But somebody else was much wronger. That someone, of course, was dissembling Ann Coulter, baldly misstating in Slander:

COULTER (page 51): Most politicians would rather die face-down than be ridiculed by Katie Couric…[F]or the media to accuse you of being against “progress and enlightenment” (the New York Times on Jesse Helms) or to call you an “airhead” (Katie Couric, on Ronald Reagan)—well, that makes strong men tremble and weak men liberals.
Even if you think Couric’s statement was wrong, she clearly didn’t call Reagan an “airhead” herself. Coulter—let’s say it—is lying. And when Couric complained about this on the Today show, Coulter dissembled again. “Well, I didn’t call you a Ronald Reagan basher,” she said. But that, of course, was the obvious point of everything she wrote on this subject in Slander. What was Mickey’s oddball account of this meeting? “Coulter 1, Couric 0,” his site said. (See kausfiles, 7/8/02)

But let’s return to the single sentence that got Sully’s knickers so knotted. To Sullivan, we engaged in The Goldstein Defense when we wrote this: “Why did Couric say what she did? Because everyone thought it was true.” According to Sullivan, we were saying that it’s OK to be wrong in one’s statements. “I guess we’re lucky that Somerby didn’t pull the Full Goldstein and actually blame Coulter for Couric’s error,” he thunders.

Next time, we’ll try to write more slowly, so that even Andrew Sullivan can follow. Why did we note what “everyone thought?” Because Coulter was principally trashing Couric’s motives. According to Coulter, Couric said the things she said because she was trying to trash Ronald Reagan. But here’s the problem. Many others said what Couric said, and they didn’t say it to trash Ronald Reagan; clearly, they said it because they thought it was true. Coulter, of course, didn’t tell readers this, but Sean Hannity said the same thing as Couric. Was Hannity trashing Ronald Reagan?

COURIC, 9/27/99: Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead. That’s one of the conclusions of a new biography of Ronald Reagan that’s drawing a tremendous amount of interest and fire today, Monday, September the 27th, 1999.

HANNITY, 9/27/99: Welcome back to Hannity & Colmes. I’m Sean Hannity. Coming up, the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan calls him, quote, an airhead. And it is upsetting a lot of the former president’s supporters.

HANNITY, 9/30/99: Still to come, former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese. He sounds off on that controversial book that calls President Reagan an airhead. That debate straight ahead as Hannity & Colmes continues.

We weren’t saying that it’s OK to be wrong. Who would say something stupid like that? We were saying that Coulter’s account of Couric’s motives is exceptionally hard to square with the facts. And Couric’s motive lay at the heart of Coulter’s entire critique. This is why we also noted Couric’s tangy session with Morris. If Couric was trying to trash Ronald Reagan, why did she challenge poor Morris so? Couric says that Nancy Reagan called to thank her. Maybe Nancy was just trashing Ron too.

But let’s return to that silly clowning about “leftist” Somerby’s use of “The Goldstein Defense.” Sully, you can put your index cards away when you deal with people like us at THE HOWLER. When it comes to matters of this type, we’re smarter than you are, and we’re much better-trained. So keep on throwing those crumbs to the herd. Play your dimwitted Us-And-Them games. But please don’t go where the big gators glide. By the time we chase you back on the banks, you’ll simply look soggy and tired.

LATEST LEFTIST UPDATE: Being good leftists, we exchanged e-mails yesterday with our honored “Uncle Joe,” and in the wake of the bristling exchange, we decided to make ourselves clearer on Harken. At the HOWLER, we don’t have the slightest idea what Bush may (or may not) have done there. But fundamental fairness requires that basic facts be included in accounts of this matter. Here (gulp) is another clear error, this time from one of our favorites, Molly Ivins. In her piece, Ivins refers to an “old story” and a “new story” about Bush and Harken. She says that both these stories are accurate—but this account in her piece simply isn’t:

IVINS (Chicago Tribune, 7/18/02): The old story is that, in 1990, George W. Bush sold his stock in Harken for $848,560 while serving both as a consultant to the company and on the board of directors, assigned to both the audit committee and the fairness committee. He unloaded the stock 16 days after receiving an internal “flash report” that the company was about to record huge losses.
“Huge losses?” In the context of Harken, that just isn’t so. As we noted on Monday, that “flash report” predicted 2Q losses of about $4 million. Such losses would have been in the normal range for Harken. Questions arose when the actual losses, reported two months later, came in at a whopping $23 million. For Harken, those actual losses really were huge; they led to questions about Bush’s prior sale. But the “flash report” said nothing about them. This fact has been clear ever since the report was first described in September 2000.

What did Bush do at Harken? We don’t have the slightest idea. But Molly’s account here just can’t be defended. Don’t worry, though—many will try.


EXTRA! NOTES FROM A LEFTIST!! This is exactly the kind of clowning that undermines Andrew Sullivan’s talent. A very-special rejoinder will follow. By the way, see if you can find the “leftist” slant in today’s incomparable DAILY HOWLER.

READERS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN: Some readers are miffed because the HOWLER has criticized some of the Harken reporting. Sorry. From July 1999 right through the election, we challenged unfair coverage of Bush. To be sure, there was very little such work to confront; except for brief periods in March and September 2000, the press corps went in the tank for Bush, and stayed there till the votes had been counted. But whenever the press corps fooled with Bush, we incomparably spoke, loud and clear. Some of you want us to mislead you now. We’ll stick to our previous practices.

All through Campaign 2000, the press corps dissembled and spun against Gore. Some scribes are now being quite selective in things they report about Bush. If you want to be spun and misled, that’s your option. “Please mislead me,” some of you say. We offer two scribes who might help you:

SPINNIN’ MARTY: If it’s selective recitation you like, Marty Peretz offers the perfect example. In the current New Republic, he describes Bush’s sale of his stock:

PERETZ: The June 22, 1990, transaction was for 212,140 shares sold at $4 per share, for a total of $848,560. Two months after the sale (but before Bush actually reported it), Harken announced an unprecedented quarterly loss of $23 million, of which George W. could not have helped but be aware—of which, in fact, he was legally obliged to be aware…
It doesn’t get much more selective. Bush “could not have helped but be aware” of the size of Harken’s second quarter loss, Peretz says. The pundit is happy to tell you that, without saying how he knows it. But what does Peretz leave out of his piece? He doesn’t tell you that the SEC explicitly found that Bush wasn’t aware of these impending losses. In fact, no one knew, the gumshoes said; the size of the losses turned on accounting decisions which hadn’t been made when Bush sold his stock. But you won’t learn that elementary fact in this highly selective text. Its author simply asserts what he wants you to think, and omits facts which harm his assertion.

While we’re at it, also note the silly spinning of Harken’s stock prices down through the years:

PERETZ: When the loss was made public, Harken stock fell to a shade above $2 and, by year’s end, was down to $1. (As we go to press twelve years later, one share of Harken Energy is worth 45 cents.)
Peretz wants you to think that Harken simply went in the dumpster after Bush sold the stock. In fact, Harken sold between $5 and $8 from June 1991 through the end of that year. Why do you think he left that out, but told you what Harken’s price is now, eleven irrelevant years later? By the way, “a shade above $2” was actually $2.38. It went back to $3 the next day.

Peretz’s recitation is highly selective. If you like being spoonfed your facts this way, you should also check Anthony York.

A SELECTIVE SALON: How selective is York in Salon? He starts out listing things Bush knew. And he tells us about a key letter:

YORK (pgh 1): When President Bush sold more than 200,000 shares in Harken Energy Corp. in June 1990, he said he did not know the company was in bad financial shape. But memos from the company show in great detail that he was apprised of how badly the company’s fortunes were failing before he sold his stock—and that he was warned by company lawyers against selling stock based on insider information.
Wow! Despite the things that Bush has said, he had been “apprised of how badly the company’s fortunes were failing!” And he even was warned against selling his stock! Later, York insinuates further:
YORK (7): Bush and his Harken colleagues received a warning about selling based on insider information. On June 15, 1990, one week before Bush’s sale, Harken attorneys at the firm of Haynes and Boone sent a memo to Harken staffers with the subject line “Liability for Insider Trading and Short-Swing Profits.”

(8) “If the insiders presently possess any material non-public information, a sale of any of their shares could be viewed critically,” the memo states.

(9) On June 22, Bush sold 212,140 shares in Harken for $4 per share, netting him $835,807.

The insinuation is perfectly clear; Bush sold his stock despite the fact that the lawyers said not to do so. But what does York leave out of his piece? He doesn’t tell you that, when Bush decided to sell his stock, he ran the sale past those same Harken lawyers. That’s right—the same Harken lawyers who sent him that letter later told him his sale was OK. The SEC’s gumshoes stressed that point in their summaries of this case. Anthony York knows it perfectly well. He just doesn’t want you to know it.

On and on the spinning goes, as journalists tell you the stories they like. Peretz and York both include snippets of things Bush knew before he sold, hoping you’ll draw a vile conclusion. As noted, York even says that Bush had been “apprised of how badly the company’s fortunes were failing.” Really? The SEC gumshoes explicitly found that he didn’t know how bad things were. Of course, York doesn’t mention that fact. His story sounds better without it.

Readers, misleading accounts have been widely offered. You get to recite these accounts if you wish. But you complained when Clinton was spun by the press. Why is it OK with Bush?

TOMORROW: Closing thoughts about Ann Coulter’s Slander.


COULTER V. COURIC—THE FACTS: No doubt about it, the topic is stupid. And the background to the tale is complex. But Ann Coulter’s attacks on Katie Couric have been getting big play on TV and talk radio. Coulter is steam-rolling unprepared hosts, telling them tales of how Katie Couric went on TV and called Ronald Reagan an airhead. If Coulter’s host knows that isn’t true, she then amends her bogus tale, saying that Katie Couric falsely claimed that Edmund Morris called Reagan an airhead. One way or another, readers and viewers are led to believe that Couric went out and trashed Reagan. And our pundits are simply too lazy and careless to see this tale properly told.

Here’s what actually happened:

Back in September 1999, Morris’ new biography, Dutch, was being closely guarded as publication drew near. And uh-oh! The Washington Post—one of the only outlets to get an advance copy—ran an inaccurate quote. On September 22, the book was reviewed by Linton Weeks; few other pundits had seen the real text. Here’s the passage from Weeks’ review that led to the current confusion:

WEEKS: At points in the book, however, Morris is more dismissive of Reagan’s intellect. He writes that he could not believe how shallow Reagan’s “hidden depths” appeared to be. He refers to Reagan’s frequent use of cue cards, to his deference to aides on matters of substance, and to the often rambling answers the president gave to interviewers.

After following him around for seven months, making friends with Reagan insiders such as Michael Deaver, Donald Regan, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, Morris writes that he was stumped. “Dutch remained a mystery to me, and worse still—dare I entertain such a heresy, in the hushed and reverent precincts of his office?—an airhead.”

Weeks slightly misquoted the book; it actually said “an apparent airhead” at the end of the passage he quoted. But no one else had seen the book, and the story spread throughout the press. In his long-awaited bio, pundits said, Edmund Morris calls Reagan an airhead!

It wasn’t just Couric who thought this was true. The Weeks misquote gained wide circulation; pundits began to criticize Morris for having called Reagan an “airhead.” For example, Tim Russert used the one-word quote on the September 26 Meet the Press; on the program, Ed Meese, Marlin Fitzwater and Mike Deaver all insisted that Ronald Reagan clearly wasn’t an “airhead.” Later that day, the AP ran a story on the Meet the Press session, also using the single word “airhead.” When Couric went on the air the next day, at least six major papers were running stories in which Reagan’s friends pummeled Morris because he’d called Reagan an airhead. Although the Post had corrected its error on September 24, it had done so in standard, buried format. Almost no one in the press—and none of Reagan’s friends and associates—seemed to know that the quote wasn’t right.

But make no mistake—though Morris hadn’t exactly called Reagan an “airhead,” he had come pretty close in some interviews. Newsweek had an early exclusive; it hit the wire on September 26. “After three or four meetings [with Reagan], I realized that culturally he was a yahoo and extremely unresponsive in conversation,” Morris said. “When you asked him a question about himself, it was like dropping a stone into a well and not hearing a splash. I never got anywhere in interviews, except for odd moments of strangeness, like the time I showed him a leaf and he began talking about his boyhood.” The boisterous biographer had more to say as he batted his subject around: “The surface reality of Reagan was boring. His everyday conversation was boring. His documents were boring. He was a mystery that had to be plumbed.” Indeed, Morris told Newsweek that Reagan had seemed “shatteringly banal” when they lunched in 1982. The political world was flogging these statements as Couric went on the air. Indeed, Morris was still talking the talk in a Meet the Press session on October 3. “I have no doubt whatsoever that Reagan was a great man and a great president,” he said. “But some of his conversation, as you may possibly have noticed yourself, in private was quite astonishingly banal.” It was in this context—armed with the Post’s faulty quote—that Couric said Morris called Reagan an “airhead.” In fact, he hadn’t called Reagan an “airhead” at all. He had called him a “yahoo” and “banal.”

Why did Couric say what she did? Because everyone thought it was true. Indeed, despite the picture painted in Slander, many conservatives were slamming Morris for what he had said about Ron. The result? When Morris did the Today show on September 29, Couric gave him a difficult time, challenging him for his rough rap on Ronnie. When Couric and Coulter did battle last month, Couric described the session:

COURIC (6/26/02): I really conducted an extremely challenging interview with [Morris] because he did eviscerate Ronald Reagan in his book. It was a very, very unflattering portrayal. The Reagans were very unhappy with it. Conservatives were very unhappy with it. Afterwards, Edmund Morris was unhappy with the interview, and Nancy Reagan called to thank me for my line of questioning. So I’m just wondering how that jives with your contention that somehow I’m a Ronald Reagan basher?
In response, Coulter dissembled, as always. “Well, I didn’t call you a Ronald Reagan basher,” she said—although that was the obvious meaning of every word that she wrote on the subject. At any rate, Couric said that Nancy Reagan thanked her for her approach to Morris. If you’ve read the text of the Morris interview, there’s no reason to doubt this is true.

How dishonest can Coulter be? “Stunningly” might be a start. Everyone thought that Edmund Morris had called Ronald Reagan an “airhead.” (Given what he said to Newsweek, it isn’t real clear that he hadn’t.) Many pundits, not just Couric, made such statements on the air. As we saw last Friday, Sean Hannity said it two times on Fox (September 27 and 30).

But Coulter had a tale to tell, in which “the left” was trashing Reagan. So she said that Couric was calling him “airhead,” and didn’t mention anyone else. At Slate, Mickey Kaus swore that she had it just right. Why do such oddball things happen?

FACTS AREN’T STUBBORN THINGS AFTER ALL: Why should readers be careful with Harken stories? Because pundits are frequently wrong on the facts. Here is Michael Kelly in this morning’s Post. According to Kelly, this is “[t]he story, as told reasonably fairly from the Democratic point of view:”

KELLY: In June 1990, Bush sells 212,000 shares of Harken stock at $4 each, shortly before revelations of a sham transaction force a restatement of profits and drive the stock down. He uses the proceeds to pay off his Texas Rangers loan. Bush’s partners in the Rangers later make him a gift of an increased share of the profits. His insider-status investment of $500,000, which derived from his insider-Harken stock, which derived from his insider status as a Bush son, eventually nets him a decent-sized fortune of $14 million.
But that isn’t the story at all; Kelly has two different situations mixed up. In June 1990, Bush sold his 212,000 shares of stock shortly before Harken announced surprisingly large second-quarter losses. This wasn’t a “restatement of profits,” forced or otherwise. And it wasn’t due to a “sham transaction.” But it isn’t surprising that Kelly has these facts wrong; this confused presentation has been common. For example, David Broder made this same mistake in his column last Sunday. On July 10, Spencer Ackerman bungled the same facts for the New Republic on-line. “At issue is Bush’s conduct during 1990, when he served on the board of the Harken Energy Corporation,” Ackerman wrote. “Bush sold about $850,000 in Harken stock just two months before the company, under orders from the SEC, announced that it was restating its balance sheet, revealing a $23 million loss.” But Harken didn’t “restate its balance sheet” in August 1990, it simply announced its 2Q losses. And it didn’t do so “under orders from the SEC.” Like Kelly, Ackerman seems to be thinking of the restatement of earnings regarding Aloha, which occurred in 1991.

There is no sign that these scribes are trying to gimmick the facts; they simply don’t seem to understand them. But you should never assume that pundits know even the simplest facts of a high-profile case. In the past, Kelly has boasted about how little time he spends on his weekly column. Last week, he chided Bush for making “easy money.” “Look who’s talking,” we mordantly said.

TUESDAY, JULY 16, 2002

NEW MORNING: This looks to be a brand new day in the annals of Bush business coverage. For that reason, we’ll postpone our background report on Coulter and Couric, the silly topic which is getting so much play on cable TV and talk radio (that report will follow tomorrow). Instead, there’s a set of reports in this morning’s press that you ought to read and consider. They deal with issues the press corps refused to treat back when they should have been treated—back in Campaign 2000, when Governor Bush made his run for the White House.

Bush announced for the White House in June 1999. As of that time, the press corps had obsessed (and dissembled) about Clinton’s past business dealings for a period of more than seven years. But from June 1999 right through the election, the press corps simply walked away from the background of Candidate Bush. Make no mistake—now that the press corps is hot for a scandal, some among them will start to embellish, misleading you about Bush business matters. But here is a set of pieces from this morning’s press that you ought to explore. We do not assert that every claim in these pieces is perfectly accurate, or that every judgment reached is fully justified. In each case, though, one question should be asked: Why in the world are we reading this now? And, Why did the press corps take a pass on these topics in Campaign 2000? Apparently running on “Clinton time,” the press corps is several years late.

Bush and The Texas Land Grab, Nicholas Kristof, New York Times: “Democrats and media hounds are baying under the wrong tree,” Kristof writes. “The point in President Bush’s business career where he took outrageous shortcuts was not at Harken Energy, but rather when he was grabbing land for a new baseball stadium in Arlington for his Texas Rangers baseball team.” For the record, Kristof explicitly says in his piece, “Mr. Bush broke no laws” in his stadium dealings.

Kristof isn’t the first to call attention to aspects of Bush’s stadium deal. In June 1999, Byron York wrote a cover story for The American Spectator reviewing the Texan’s business career. As a conservative, York was troubled by the way Bush and associates bullied the tax-payers into giving them a shiny, free stadium. But York didn’t know that the national press was about to go in the bag for Bush. “Should Bush continue to run at the front of the Republican presidential pack, the story of how he made his money might well become the story of his campaign,” he opined. “Far more than tales of youthful drinking and carousing, the record of Bush’s rise to wealth reveals how he became what he is today. It’s a complicated tale of family connections, hard work, and sweet deals, topped off by a taxpayer-subsidized baseball bonanza that may leave some Republicans feeling queasy about how their candidate got rich.”

Of course, this didn’t become the story of the campaign; the press corps took a total pass, devoting its time to inventing “misstatements” which Gore was supposed to have made. Three years after York’s excellent piece, the press may be ready to comment.

Steps to Wealth, Paul Krugman, New York Times: Krugman also mentions the stadium deal, but focuses on a related matter—changes made by Governor Bush in the way the University of Texas endowment is handled. This matter was also raised—and then ignored—during Campaign 2000. In February 2000, Joe Conason offered a lengthy treatment of this topic in Harper’s. The article excited exactly no interest. At the time, of course, the press was quite busy. They were busy typing up spin from the Bradley campaign about what a Big Liar Gore is.

The watchdog didn’t bark, Harold Evans, Salon: Evans lomns the press corps’ startling lassitude during Campaign 2000. “Why the activities of oilman George W. Bush in the 1980s and 1990s should be a matter of headlines now is something of a mystery,” he writes. Using a phrase from Sherlock Holmes, Evans continues his analysis: “The ‘curious incident’ regarding the president’s shady stock dealings is why the watchdog media didn’t bark during the 2000 presidential election.” Specifically, Evans notes a Talk magazine piece which the corps ignored in October 2000. But he derides the press corps’ vacuous performance throughout Campaign 2K. “The 2000 election was notorious for the way beat reporters got themselves trapped in a narrative that was throughout impervious to real news,” he writes. “Throughout the entire campaign, the political reporters and their editors were typically less concerned with the integrity of Bush than with Gore’s decision to wear earth tones.” Evans shows admirable restraint as he sketches the press corps’ performance. In fact, it is hard to find words to describe the press corps’ dysfunction during Campaign 2000.

The Minutes Waltz and a Skeptical Press Corps, Dana Milbank, Washington Post: In an intriguing account from inside the press corps, Milbank explains the “increasingly contentious coverage of the administration.” At one point, he offers a somewhat self-serving account of why the corps was so deferential to Bush before this. But he offers the first insider account of why the coverage has now switched so suddenly.

According to Milbank, routine dissembling from the White House has finally got the corps’ goat. As an example, he cites a bait-and-switch maneuver from last week’s press conference. Asked about a Harken matter, Bush told reporters to check the Harken director’s minutes. When reporters followed up on his suggestion, the White House refused to hand over the docs. But we’ve been intrigued by another example, one which Milbank doesn’t mention. Until recently, Bush has been lying right in the press corps’ face about that absurd “trifecta” affair. Indeed, even after the entire press corps knew he was lying, Bush kept lying all the same. It’s hardly surprising that Bush was so bold, given the press corps’ long, sorry deference. But has any president been more overtly contemptuous of his press corps? Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been wondering if that was the straw that finally broke the corps’ back.

Let me stress one point again: I do not assert that these pieces have everything right. While I trust these writers’ intentions, readers should always be vigilant. As I noted yesterday, there have been major articles in the past few days in which basic facts have been spun about Harken. Many pundits are now on the hunt, eager for a Bush business scandal. And don’t be fooled—when the press corps decides it wants scandal, some reporters start making one up. They did it to Gore all throughout the campaign. Some will now do it to Bush.

But the corps took a dive in Campaign 2000, essentially throwing the election to Bush. They obsessed about earth tones, Love Canal and Love Story. Psychiatrically skilled beyond all belief, they often said that Gore’s polo shirts meant that Gore doesn’t know who he is. (The utterly vacuous Brian Williams was simply in love with this story.) Dissembling and spinning for all they were worth, they invented a string of bogus claims about Gore—and simply refused to explore Bush’s history. This morning, the shape of debate does seem to have changed. Make no mistake—these topics should have been hashed three years back. But the press corps is ready to look at them now, and these four pieces are well worth exploring. My advice? Hold all journalists to the same standard you’d maintain if they wrote about Bill.

HOW LAZY WAS IT? In her new book, Coulter pretends that the press corps hounded Bush during Campaign 2000. The claim is simply absurd. As York suggested in June 1999, if the press had wanted to go after Bush, it would have flogged his business history. No such flogging was ever observed.

Just how wrong was York’s prediction? Let’s perform one of Coulter’s beloved searches. According to NEXIS, the New York Times mentioned Harken twice from 1/1/99 through November 2000! (Kevin Sack, 5/8/99; Bob Herbert, 2/3/00) Would “the story of how he made his money…become the story of [Bush’s] campaign?” York, being rational, thought that it might. As he wrote his admirable piece in June 1999, York—being rational—couldn’t foresee the gong-show the press would be crafting.

MONDAY, JULY 15, 2002

ANN COULTER, DISSEMBLING ON COURIC: Ann Coulter dissembles throughout her new book, but the word “airhead” seems to bring out the worst in the pundit. She loves inventing examples in which “the left” uses “airhead” to put down conservatives. Let’s look at one silly example:

COULTER (page 134): Another Republican who failed to meet the exacting IQ standards of the media is President George W. Bush. The image of Bush as an “airhead”—as the New York Times nonjudgmentally put it—has been lovingly nurtured by the media.
Wow! Did the New York Times call Bush an “airhead?” Coulter’s footnote offers two citations. The first is an article by Sam Howe Verhovek on March 12, 2000, right after John McCain dropped his White House campaign. Verhovek’s topic: Where would McCain voters go now that their man was defeated:
VERHOVEK: Bart Ferko, of Oakland Township, Mich., a dance-studio owner, said he had concluded that a real rebel like Mr. McCain could not be elected president. “Obviously, if you’re not part of the network, you’re out,” he said.
Still, if many of these voters express contempt today for both Mr. Gore (“plastic,” “detached,” “a bore” were some of their descriptions) and Mr. Bush (“an airhead,” “out of his depth,” “unqualified”), they also typically said they were likely to vote in November, and to choose one or the other.
In the world of Ann Coulter, that’s an example of the New York Times calling Bush an airhead. Her readers, once again, have no way of knowing how thoroughly they’re being misled.

But then, Coulter loves inventing “airhead” insults. Earlier, she makes a similar bogus claim about favorite mark Katie Couric:

COULTER (page 51): Most politicians would rather die face-down than be ridiculed by Katie Couric…[F]or the media to accuse you of being against “progress and enlightenment” (the New York Times on Jesse Helms) or to call you an “airhead” (Katie Couric, on Ronald Reagan)—well, that makes strong men tremble and weak men liberals.
Wow! Did Katie Couric call Reagan an “airhead?” Sorry, that isn’t true either. Once again, here’s the actual statement by Couric, made on the 9/27/99 Today show:
COURIC: Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead. That’s one of the conclusions of a new biography of Ronald Reagan that’s drawing a tremendous amount of interest and fire today, Monday, September the 27th, 1999.
Clearly, Couric attributed the “airhead” remark to Edmund Morris, the Reagan biographer. And, as we noted in last Friday’s HOWLER, Couric’s statement this day was run-of-the-mill; it was being made all over the media. In particular, conservatives were making this same comment too—Sean Hannity on Fox, for example:
HANNITY, 9/27/99: Welcome back to Hannity & Colmes. I’m Sean Hannity. Coming up, the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan calls him, quote, an airhead. And it is upsetting a lot of the former president’s supporters.
Couric and Hannity said the same thing. Neither called Reagan an airhead.

What’s the background to this story, which Coulter is now widely flogging? We’ll take a look at that tomorrow. But on page 51 of Slander, Coulter plainly says that Couric called Reagan an airhead. It isn’t until page 133 that she notes that Couric was actually quoting somebody. And at that point, Coulter offers another misleading account, putting Couric in the wrong once again. When Coulter hears “airhead” (or “Couric”), she flips.

Not that Coulter needs an excuse to engage in her trademark dissembling. No major pundit, of the left, right, or center, dissembles as pathologically as Ann Coulter does. She misleads her readers all through this rank book. Our question: When will pundits get the courage to say so, right on the air?

O’REILLY, A TOTAL NON-FACTOR: Predictably, Coulter has been dissembling about the Couric matter all over cable TV and talk radio. Here she is on last Thursday’s O’Reilly Factor, spinning right in her host’s face:

O’REILLY: Joining us now is Ms. Coulter. I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m so excited about this story now. Couric says that she was quoting somebody else. But you say that she made the [airhead] comment, which is the crux of the debate.
O’REILLY: Who’s right?
COULTER: Well, it’s in my book. And I’m right, of course.
O’REILLY: Well, she says she was quoting someone else. And she backed it up somewhat in—
COULTER: No, I mean that’s—I say that in my book. I don’t say that it came out of nowhere.
Take your pick. First Coulter tried saying that Couric did say it. Then, when Bill began to challenge her account, she said she explained the whole thing in her book. Sorry. As noted, Coulter’s “explanation” came 82 pages late, and that “explanation” was bogus as well. More on that hoohah tomorrow.

But Coulter, of course, can say what she likes when she goes on a show like the Factor. Simply put, O’Reilly was totally unprepared for this session. Clearly, he hadn’t read what Coulter wrote about Couric, although he chose the topic himself. It takes ten minutes, using Slander’s index, to review what Coulter wrote about Katie. O’Reilly—too lazy and unprofessional to do so—was completely unprepared on the air.

There’s good and bad news when it comes to O’Reilly. On the one hand, the tough-talking tyro is tangy and talented. But he is frequently uninformed on the air, and now he’s begun a new radio gig. If Thursday’s performance is any sign, things aren’t about to get better.

AS SOMEONE SAID, THERE’S NOTHING NEW HERE: Yesterday’s Harken story in the Washington Post is a good example of lousy reporting. Mike Allen and George Lardner wrote the piece, which appeared on the Post’s front page. They claimed to offer new information about what Bush knew when he sold his Harken stock on June 22, 1990.

In paragraphs 4 and 5, you get the nugget. The following passage is simply bogus—an example of the Whitewater-style reporting the press corps long used against Clinton:

ALLEN AND LARDNER (pgh 4): Although Bush has maintained over the years that the size of the losses took him by surprise, interviews and internal Harken documents provide a newly detailed picture of how much Bush knew about Harken’s financial straits when he sold the stock.

(5) A confidential Harken chronology, obtained by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, said that 16 days before he sold the stock, Bush was sent the company’s “weekly flash report,” giving “information provided by subsidiaries regarding estimated historical and projected earnings.”

Finally, after much insinuation, the authors explain what that “flash report” said:
ALLEN AND LARDNER (pgh 16): The flash report Bush was sent 16 days before his stock sale, which was for the week ending May 31, 1990, projected losses for the second quarter of about $4 million.
The writers make it sound exciting, but there is no “new detail” here at all. During Campaign 2000, the Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press received a boatload of SEC documents under a Freedom of Information request. Here’s what the News reported on September 7, 2000:
DALLAS MORNING NEWS: The records released Wednesday show Mr. Bush, a Harken board director and member of its audit committee, received a so-called “flash sheet” in early June 1990 estimating quarterly losses for the company would reach $4 million.
The AP reported the same information. All the Post’s other “new details” were in these AP and DMN stories.

No, there’s no “new detail” in the Post’s report. Nor does it contradict what Bush has long said, although the Post so implied in paragraph 4 (see above). What has “Bush “maintained over the years?” As the Post notes, he has said that he was informed of impending second-quarter losses, but was surprised by the total ($23 million). In 1991, SEC gumshoes found that Bush had been told about a possible $4.2 million loss, but didn’t know what the losses would total.

Were the gumshoes right? We don’t have a clue. But there is no “new detail” in the docs the Post flogs, and they don’t contradict what Bush “has maintained.” This is the sort of gong-show reporting the press corps long used in its war against Clinton. Now, after years of pandering and fawning to Bush, the press corps seems to be seeking a scandal. And guess what? When the Washington press corps starts seeking a scandal, it often starts making things up.

Ironically, there’s one new tidbit in the Post’s story, and the writers don’t seem to have noticed. Bush aide Dan Bartlett told the scribes that Bush was expecting a loss of roughly $9 million. If accurate, that would seem to be a new detail, but the reporters don’t seem to notice. But then, why take note of real “new details,” when you can simply make “new details” up?


Week of July 8-12, 2002: Mostly Ann Coulter and Slander