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Daily Howler: Mosk clouds Clinton's stance on the war--and he withholds the key facts
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RETRACT, RENOUNCE, APOLOGIZE! Mosk clouds Clinton’s stance on the war—and he withholds the key facts: // link // print // previous // next //

SWARNS RESTORED: With the help of several e-mailers, we sheepishly announce that the New York Times’ Rachel Swarns is nowhere near as bad as we said.

On Friday, we complained about the way Swarns quoted a barber making a string of counterfactual statements. Here’s the part of her front-page report for which we called her every name in the book:
SWARNS (2/2/07): ''When you think of a president, you think of an American,'' said Mr. Lanier, a 58-year-old barber who is still considering whether to support Mr. Obama. ''We've been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn't feel right to some people.''
But Obama is “an American,” we noted.. He does “come from right here in America;” he isn’t “from another nationality” in the most literal sense of that term. He was born in America; he was “raised, bred, fed” here, except for a four-year period (ages 6-10) when he lived in Indonesia. No one had to “go outside and bring him in” in any clear sense of those terms.

What we said Friday remains true today; it’s unwise to quote “the man in the street” making counterfactual statements, unless you make it very clear that what is being said is inaccurate. But several readers noted that Swarns had pre-corrected one of the barber’s statements, right in her previous paragraph. (No, we hadn’t noticed.) Here is one such e-mail:
E-MAIL: To be a bit more fair to Swarms, she identifies Obama as "American-born" in the paragraph before she quotes the barber, Mr. Lanier. However, she sets up the quote, in a way that strikes me as very odd, by bringing up Debra Dickerson's recent article in Salon that claimed Obama isn't really "black." She sets up the quote by implying that it will speak to this same concern, that Obama is not a descendent of slaves and doesn't share the African-American experience. In fact, her article seems to hinge on her looking for this same viewpoint in the workaday African-American community. Mr. Lanier's quote does not have anything to do with that subject, instead laying out a string of misconceptions that, as you point out, Swarms does not address directly.
We don’t agree with all of that, but we certainly agree with the statement we’ve highlighted. When our analysts showed us the quote from the barber, we read through from there to see if Swarns adequately addressed his misstatements. We didn’t notice what she’d already written. Of course, the statement that Obama is “American-born” doesn’t speak to the barber’s full string of claims. But we definitely should have noticed Swarns’ statement. Very stupid—this time, by us.

On the other hand, our failure to notice helps point to the problem. We were struck by that barber’s colorful statements. Trust us: Other people read this article without seeing that Obama was “American-born”—and some who did see it didn’t realize that this fact means that he is “an American.” In general, writers shouldn’t quote strings of counterfactual statements without putting major bells and whistles around them. But we doubt that we’d have flagged this passage if we’d noted that previous paragraph.

Very dumb—this time, by us. Only modestly bad form by Swarns, who should have done a better job explaining the facts RE Obama. No—just because it’s the New York Times, that doesn’t mean that readers understand. The barber said many things which were untrue. Some readers may have gotten misled.

Very dumb—by us, not by Swarns. Next time our analysts bungle this way, we’ll promise you—their heads will roll.

RETRACT, RENOUNCE, APOLOGIZE: On the other hand, for “reporting” which is just flat-out awful, consider Matthew Mosk’s report in this morning’s Post. Mosk writes about John Edwards’ appearance on yesterday’s Meet the Press. But uh-oh! He begins with the type of colorful, novelistic constructions which routinely jumble up our highest-level political reporting:
MOSK (2/5/07): Of the 2008 Democratic presidential contenders who voted to give President Bush authority to wage war in Iraq, only one will have no chance to make a very public U-turn when resolutions opposing the president's new war plan come before Congress in the coming days.

That one is John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who showed again yesterday that he will find other venues to parlay his Senate vote into an extended mea culpa.
“Only one will have no chance to make a very public U-turn?” That’s barely decipherable—and when it’s deciphered, it doesn’t make much sense. Is some Democratic contender going to “make a very public U-turn” in the Senate next week? If a U-turn means a 180, it’s hard to imagine who that would be. For example, Hillary Clinton voted “yes” on the war resolution, but that was in October 2002. She has long since disowned the wisdom of the war itself, and of Bush’s latest strategy. Ditto Senators Biden and Dodd, who also “voted to give President Bush authority to wage war in Iraq.”

“U-turn” vs. “extended mea culpa” might make for a colorful novel. But it makes for confusing journalism—and Mosk’s piece goes downhill from there. Mosk says that Edwards continued his “soul-searching” about the war resolution on Meet the Press. And then, he writes the following about Clinton’s position. This is flat-out awful:
MOSK: Some believe that kind of introspection has helped Edwards build a bridge to the most vocal anti-Iraq-war quarters of the Democratic Party and may help distinguish him from one of his chief rivals for the party's nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

During yesterday's broadcast, Edwards said he believes that "anybody who wants to be president of the United States has got to be honest and open, be willing to admit when they've done things wrong."

"If she believes that her vote was wrong," Edwards said when asked about Clinton, "then, yes, she should say so. If she believes her vote was right, then she should defend it."

Clinton has not retracted her vote to authorize the war, saying "there are no do-overs in life." But she has made no secret of her distaste for the war.
“Clinton has not retracted her vote,” Mosk says—penning the latest fuzzy, misleading account of Clinton’s stance on her vote.

Clinton has not “retracted” her vote? The formulation makes little sense. After all, how does a senator “retract” a vote? Has Edwards somehow “retracted” his? No, Mosk’s construction doesn’t make clear sense. And it takes the place of real information about the things Clinton has said.

Has Clinton ever “retracted” her vote? We don’t really know what that means—nor does any other Post reader. But guess what? Clinton did say, in August 04, that there would have been “no basis” for the war if we’d known there were no WMD. And in repeating that statement last month, she also said that she wouldn’t have voted for the war resolution if she’d known there were no such weapons. But most Post readers don’t know these facts—because reporters like Mosk keep refusing to report them. They’re too busy typing novels, built around colorful constructs.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss this matter in more detail—and we’ll even start ranking the major Dem candidates. (We’ve decided to adjust our focus a tad.) But note well: If we want a Democrat to get elected in 08, we have to knock down the various themes which will be used to defeat them. In the case of Clinton, many scribes are eager to type a favorite story: Hillary Clinton hasn’t renounced/retracted/apologized for her vote. They just keep churning these fuzzy constructs—and in the process, they fail to report the things she has actually said.

In our view, Clinton’s vote on the war resolution was one of the worst votes in Senate history. But our last Dem nominee cast the same vote (as did Edwards), and we correctly trooped off and voted for him. It’s dishonest to punish Clinton for her vote by refusing to let voters know what she has later said about it. So yes: Reporters need to tell the public what Clinton has actually said about her vote. They need to stop writing their novels. (Edwards’ role in pimping this theme will also be discussed here tomorrow. Bill Bradley did this sort of thing—and helped send Bush to the White House.)

For ourselves, we want Clinton, Edwards or Obama elected. And we want the voters to get real facts—not a bunch of murky constructs from a gang of script-ridden reporters. Has Clinton “retracted” her vote on the war resolution? Mosk’s formulation makes little real sense—and it takes the place of actual facts, which seldom get to the voters.

THREE PINK SHEETS TO THE WIND: Chris Matthews capped a kooky week on Friday evening’s Hardball. He spoke with Clinton adviser Ann Lewis—and a favorite topic seemed to come flooding back into his mind. With apologies for the length of the excerpt, note how often this deeply strange man popped a favorite question:

MATTHEWS (2/2/07): Is Bill Clinton going to be a problem in this campaign?

LEWIS: Absolutely not.

MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself?

LEWIS: Bill Clinton has been around—in the first place, he’s been around the world saving lives.

MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself?

LEWIS: He’s going to do what he does best.

MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself—

LEWIS: Yes, he is.

MATTHEWS: —and not cause a publicity that gets her embarrassed?

LEWIS: He goes out—you go ask Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel how often they asked Bill Clinton to go out there and campaign for Democratic candidates.
MATTHEWS: I know he does a lot. He’s a multi-tasker.

LEWIS: He did it because people want to see him.

MATTHEWS: Because he’s a multi-tasker! He’s going to behave himself, right? No bad publicity? Did you see that story in the New York Times, though, a couple months back about Bill Clinton better watch it? Front page, top of the fold? He better watch it?

LEWIS: You couldn’t miss it. And I was interested to see that that was the most important news that the New York Times could have, was to try a write a story about people’s private lives. But you know what? At the end of the day, you read the story, it said there’s no “there there.” Guess what? That’s the story, folks! There’s no “there there.”

MATTHEWS: So you think the New York Times is going to stop writing about this?

LEWIS: No. I think Bill Clinton is going to continue doing his work, going around the world, saving lives—

MATTHEWS: So he’s going to behave himself.

LEWIS: He’s going to be out on the campaign trail—

MATTHEWS: And he’s going to behave himself so Hillary can be the first woman president.

LEWIS: You’re all going to be applauding—

MATTHEWS: I think it’d be great for the country if we were not once again distracted—

LEWIS: So do I.

MATTHEWS: —by what you call private life. And I think the way to avoid getting distracted is to have nothing there to distract us.

LEWIS: Well, I agree with that. But we just spent how many minutes of this segment—three minutes?—talking about there should be nothing to distract us. Why don’t we stop talking about it and talk about the issues?

MATTHEWS: Well, because I want to have some assurances from people that I trust and like to spread the word that—

LEWIS: Why don’t you watch—

MATTHEWS: —he better watch it.

LEWIS: —what he’s been doing? Why not see what he`s done for the last—

MATTHEWS: I am watching, unfortunately. Anyway, thank you, Ann Lewis.
Several points:

First: Matthews just can’t seem to keep his nose out of the Clintons’ sheet drawer. It’s where he wants his nose to be; when his nose is there, he feels fully human. Is Clinton “going to behave himself?” Matthews asked his childish question six separate times in this session.

Second, note how Matthews construes the New York Times story in which Patrick Healy told us how often the Clintons spend the night together. To Matthews, this wasn’t a news report. This was the New York Times saying, on its front page, that Bill Clinton “better watch it.” It seemed to be a news report. But Matthews says it was a warning.

Third: Note how Matthews explains his own session with Lewis. He isn’t trying to gain information or get her opinion. Instead, he’s trying to get Lewis to “spread the word that [Clinton] better watch it.” Chris isn’t gathering information. Playing the role of public nanny, he’s sending his betters a message.

Finally, note the talker’s plea at the end. Why does Matthews want Clinton to “behave himself?” So that he, Chris Matthews, won’t get distracted! Lewis suggests that Matthews should just shut up and stop distracting himself—should simply talk about things that matter. But it’s no use! Stop him before I get distracted again! this talker sadly implores.

Matthews savaged your candidate for twenty straight months during the course of Campaign 2000. His endless insults and disinformation helped put Bush where he is. Regarding Clinton, he’s gearing up again—and of course, he loves Saints John and Rudy. Indeed, Saint John McCain is “a patriot,” he solemnly announced on Sunday’s Chris Matthews Show. Just like old Tail-gunner Joe, Matthews knows who’s been naughty—and who’s been nice. He even seems to think he knows who is—and who isn’t—a patriot.

He’s gearing up to do it again. If we care about outcomes, we libs and Dems will work to make him stop.

REIGNING KING OF THE ANTOINETTES: It’s official! Dana Milbank is reigning king of the press corps’ “Antoinettes.” He took the crown with Saturday’s “sketch.” Sadly, it started like this:
MILBANK (2/3/07): Yesterday was the first cattle call of the Democratic presidential campaign and—holy cow!—these candidates can moo.
Good God, what an idiot! The war continues to rage in Iraq. The threat of a war with Iran is apparent. But so what? When Milbank attended Friday’s DNC conclave, he showed up with his stopwatch in hand and proceeded to time all the speakers! With apologies to those with IQs above 9, here were his next three paragraphs:
MILBANK (continuing directly): “Each candidate has been given seven minutes to speak," announced Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean before the first of six Democratic candidates took the stage at the Hilton Washington. He further announced that an "official timekeeper" will hold up warning and "time's up" signs. "After 10 minutes, wild gesticulations will take place," he threatened.

This quaint exercise in Democratic Party discipline lasted about, well, seven minutes. The first candidate, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), took the floor for 20 minutes and 15 seconds, ignoring Dean's hovering, the removal of Dodd's image from the projection screens, and the fact that he drew applause for saying "Let me conclude." Former senator John Edwards (17:40) wasn't far behind, trailed by Sens. Hillary Clinton (16:12) and Barack Obama (15:30).

The closest to the limit was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (12:38), but this was probably because the audience treated his appearance as a chance to start conversations or to visit the restrooms.
This was the sole topic of Milbank’s “sketch.” (He also noted that Dodd appeared “in his Phil Donohue hairdo,” a tribute to his regent, Maureen Dowd.) He discussed the minutes-and-seconds of every speaker, even criticizing Harry Reid for breaking the seven-minute limit—while noting that Reid was “not technically under the seven-minute rule.” (Take the word “technically” out of that sentence and Milbank has stated a fact.) In closing, he turned to Hillary Clinton—and showcased his skill with percentages:
MILBANK: After the Kucinich intermission, Clinton greeted the crowd with an announcement: "I'm here to start a conversation with our country." A couple of audience members took that offer seriously, and, eight minutes into Clinton's speech, began heckling her about Iraq. This made Clinton's speech louder, not shorter. "I've been fighting for more than 35 years," she said after talking for more than 13 minutes.

The timekeeper stood up and raised the red sign. Dean rose from his chair and stood at Clinton's shoulder. The candidate, having used 230 percent of her allotted time, surrendered the microphone.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Whew! That was the end of his “sketch.”

Earth to Milbank: At events like this, speakers (and performers) always exceed their prescribed, widely-flogged time limit. Everyone knows it, and no one really cares; indeed, this point will be of little interest to anyone who has spent more than an hour on the planet (60 minutes). But so what? This inanity consumed 880 words on page 2 of Saturday’s Post. And of course, Milbank used his pointless facts to tickle a treasured press corps script: Dems just don’t have any “discipline!” It’s a script—and Dana Milbank seized his chance to apply it. “Democrats Control the Hill, but Not Themselves,” said the headline.

We’ve searched for metaphors to describe the crowd which loves to type such perfect drivel. Today, let’s disregard the real possibility that they’re just an alien race. We’ve also suggested that you view this gang as a powdered royal court—as a cohort straight outta Louis XIV. On Saturday, Milbank became our current top “Antoinette”—Maureen Dowd’s silly-boy consort.