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THE FIX IS IN! It’s hard to learn even the most basic facts about the “compromise” package: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2009

Carlson knew what to say: You can fool most of the people most of the time, if you stage a cable pseudo-discussion. To recall what pseudo-discourse looks like, consider Margaret Carlson’s oddball appearance on Countdown, just last night.

Carlson appeared around 8:50 PM, the sole guest in Countdown’s final segment. The segment concerned a single topic—the stupid, insulting videotape which had been released by the press secretary to Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip. The videotape, riddled with fourteen expletives, insulted the civil service union AFSCME, which had been criticizing Cantor for his opposition to the stimulus package. On the web, Cantor’s release of the videotape had been an issue all day long, at least since this Politico post appeared at 9 AM.

If you click on that link, you can see the stupid, insulting tape which had occasioned the day-long discussion.

At the start of Countdown’s final segment, Olbermann played the offending tape, with all fourteen expletives deleted. Carlson had been brought on the show to discuss that tape—nothing else. But this is what the lady disclosed, midway through the segment:

CARLSON (2/11/09): I watched this today, Keith, when my computer wouldn’t play the voice. And I thought, “Hey, this is really good. This really makes a point.” Then I heard the other version, which is more amusing than coarse—although I’ve only heard it with expletives deleted. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. Joe the Plumber turned out not to be who he was put forward to be for purposes of John McCain’s campaign and became an embarrassment. This will, if this gets legs or if it comes back during Eric Cantor’s campaign, it will just be an embarrassment to him.

Just a guess: It’s absurd to think that this videotape will play a role in Cantor’s campaign next year. But please note: Twelve hours after this issue got started, Carlson still hadn’t heard the actual tape, the tape she’d come on the show to discuss. When she played it in her office, her computer wouldn’t play the sound. At some later point, she did hear the tape—but only with expletives deleted. (Given the large number of cuss-words, this creates large holes in the tape.) Carlson had been brought on the show to discuss that tape—nothing else. And as she sat and discussed it with Keith, she still hadn’t [expletive] heard it.

Why would you bring someone on your show to discuss a tape she hadn’t yet heard? Because Carlson is a reliable hack; she can be trusted to voice the points her host wants her to voice. She knew she should poke at Joe the Plumber, and she knew that silly claims about Cantor’s next race might also play well with the herd.

But so it works in cable TV’s world of pseudo-discourse. Hacks know what they’re booked to say, whether they’ve prepared themselves or not. Last night, as Carlson explained that she hadn’t quite heard the tape, we thought of another prime hack, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who appeared on Imus in October 2004 to discuss the final Bush-Kerry debate. In those days, cable’s smart set hadn’t turned against Bush, and Goodwin—presenting herself as a loyal Dem—voiced a long string of subjective points about how good she and her friends thought Bush had done in the debate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/15/04). Meanwhile, how bad had Kerry been? At one point, he had even made Goodwin think of Al Gore, the robo-hack scriptedly said. On and on the lady went, putting standard Republican points in the mouths of her Dem friends. And then, we learned the most basic fact of all: Goodwin hadn’t quite watched the debate! You see, the Red Sox had been on TV that night. And to Goodwin, first things had come first:

GOODWIN (10/14/04): But anyway, the debate went pretty well. I was able to watch both the debate and the game, mainly because, loving the Red Sox as I do, whenever the Yankees were up, I was too agitated to watch... So we had about ten friends here—mostly Democrats, actually, and Red Sox fans—and we had the game on in one room and the debate on in the other and sadly, I got to see a lot of the debate because of the way the Red Sox game went.

“Sadly,” Goodwin got to watch a lot of the debate—the parts which occurred when the Yankees were up! But so what? She and her friends all seemed to know how well Bush had done. And then, a modest brush with reality: “But yet, if the polls are saying that Kerry won, that’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

Good God. Yes, Goodwin is one of the worst. But we thought of her as we watched Carlson last night.

Goodwin hadn’t quite watched the debate—but twelve hours later, she went on Imus to say the things she knew she should say. Carlson hadn’t quite heard the tape—but she also knew what was expected. By the way: Olbermann seemed to lack Clue the First about the videotape himself. Around 8:30, he promo’ed the upcoming segment like this:

OLBERMANN (2/11/09): Segueing nicely, Republican senators and Democratic senators agreeing on the stimulus, making the Republican congressman making stuff out about the stimulus seems stranger than ever. And it was a long-forgotten spoof of the union AFSCME, long forgotten until Congressman Eric Cantor’s office wound up apologizing for it today. These stories ahead.

At 8:30, Olbermann seemed to think that the Cantor tape was “a long-forgotten spoof” of AFSCME. By the time he spoke with Carlson, someone had apparently clued him in, and he corrected himself:

OLBERMANN: If I remember correctly, that ad was an actual ad, and what we just heard was a retrack, as they say, somebody coming in and doing a different, more colorful version of the narration.

CARLSON: The Rod Blagojevich version.

OLBERMANN: That’s excellent.

If he remembered correctly? The facts in question had been quite clear since 9 o’clock yesterday morning. But then, Olbermann offered a blizzard of errors—and corrections of past errors—all through last evening’s groaning program. Speaking with Jonathan Alter about the stimulus bill, he even weirdly asked this:

OLBERMANN (2/11/09): What do we think the president got back into this in conference that he could not get past those three Republicans in the Senate? What did he have to sacrifice that he can now reclaim and put back in?

Each question seems to betray a deep cluelessness about the way that bill evolved. But Alter’s a professional guest, like Carlson. He acted like he hadn’t heard.

Carlson hadn’t heard the tape in question. But then, as of 8:30 PM, Olbermann didn’t seem to know much about it either. But both scribes knew what the talking-points were. Reciting happily—don’t forget Joe!—the pair of hacks churned a famous old product. You were handed the illusion of discourse, a product often tossed to the herd.

A flaneur of the people: Speaking of Goodwin, we thought the New York Times’ Ginia Bellafante did a superlative job in this review of Looking for Lincoln, the PBS show which debuted last night. What rare service did Bellafante provide? When a famous fellow struck a pose, she actually called him on it:

BELLAFANTE (2/11/09): In ''Looking for Lincoln,'' a documentary to be shown on most PBS stations on Wednesday, [David] Blight is one of the historians enlisted to debunk myths about the 16th president for the host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who appears to be encountering Lincoln's realpolitik approach to preserving the Union for the first time. The documentary, which he wrote, is largely his exercise in self-therapy, an effort to reconcile his wish to lionize Lincoln the emancipator with the less digestible reality of Lincoln's broader racial philosophy.

It is hard to disparage anything Mr. Gates does on television; he is easily our most charming public intellectual, displaying none of the blowhard, curmudgeon tendencies of his species. He refuses to allow viewers to feel stupid, bringing an affable spirit of inquiry wherever he goes, an approach so devoid of hauteur and presumption that it can nearly mask (in this instance at least) the apparent disingenuousness at the root.

''Looking for Lincoln'' is constructed as a listening tour. In it Mr. Gates, assuming the role of flaneur, roams up and down the East Coast and through parts of Illinois...to learn what it is hard to imagine he does not already know. Repeatedly he is surprised to ''discover'' that Lincoln's moral repulsion toward slavery did not extend to a belief in the practical equality of the races, a truth widely covered by generations of historians and explicit in some of Lincoln's most famous texts.

Disingenuous! It’s rare that someone will use such a term with someone of Gates’ stature. But it surely was the correct term here, and Bellafante stepped up to the plate and employed it. Indeed, how fake is Gates’ pose in this program? Bellafante even used Doris Kearns Goodwin as a bit of a modern gold standard:

BELLAFANTE: Not even Mr. Gates's friend Doris Kearns Goodwin seems really to buy the pose. ''I don't think I fully realized the extent to which even in your childhood you would have had that mythic Lincoln still there,'' she tells him in her sitting room.

Too funny! Goodwin will buy almost any pose, especially from her celebrity friends. But “not even Goodwin” was buying this time! Three cheers for Bellafante, who noticed.

By the way: What’s a flaneur, you may be asking. We don’t know—but it comes from the French.

THE FIX IS IN: Information plays a very small role in our alleged public discourse. Consider two unexplored aspects of the new stimulus compromise:

First, consider a slightly puzzling fact about the size of the compromise package. First, the House had passed an $819 billion version of the bill. Then, the Senate passed its own version; it came to $838 billion. Yesterday, the two chambers agreed on a compromise plan—and it came to only $790 billion! On its face, that fact is odd, as Rachel Maddow noted last night:

MADDOW (2/11/09): Two thumbs up, right? That said, looking at what’s actually in the compromise, what`s actually in the bill, makes my thumbs feel slightly less enthusiastic about what happened today in Washington.

For starters, the stimulus got smaller in the compromise. The House bill was $820 billion. The Senate bill was $838 billion. And the compromise was down to $789 billion. How is that a compromise? The math doesn’t work.

Maddow raised an obvious point, an hour after Olbermann floundered with Alter. Why is the final bill so much smaller than the deal which the Senate had approved—a deal which had the support of those three “centrist Republicans?” There may be a very good answer for this—but don’t look for it in this morning’s newspapers. Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times even mentioned this obvious point this morning. Why is the compromise package smaller than both original packages? The question would occur to almost anyone—except a major journalist.

Second: Due to the lazy way the process has been reported, it’s hard to see the extent to which the size of this package has changed over time, The problem involves that $70 billion, one-year “fix” of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). This one-year fix was part of the Senate bill. It wasn’t included in the bill originally passed by the House.

Why is this relevant? In fact, the Congress does a one-year fix of the AMT every year. There was no obvious reason to include the fix in the stimulus package. But its inclusion has masked the extent to which the size of this package has changed over time. Let’s put that $70 billion fix to the side, since it was always going to happen. This is how big the three packages were without considering that provision:

Original House package: $819 billion
Original Senate package: $768 billion
Final compromise package: $720 billion

It’s hard to learn this from the reporting. But putting the AMT fix to the side, the size of the package has dropped by a large amount over the course of this process.

In today’s front-page Times report, David Herszenhorn cites the AMT matter, quoting Tom Harkin’s complaints about its inclusion in the compromise. “It’s about 9 percent of the whole bill,” Harkin is quoted saying. “Why is it in there? It has nothing to do with the stimulus. It has nothing to do with recovery.”

Why is it in there? The answer seems obvious; it’s in there to mask the actual size of the post-House packages. Rightly or wrongly, the size of the package came down a good ways from the original House proposal. But it’s hard to learn that basic fact from the Post and Times reporting. Example: Shailagh Murray doesn’t even mention the AMT provision in this morning’s Post.

Clearly, the AMT fix is a major part of the compromise package. This morning, we wondered if the fix was in. The Post didn’t bother to tell us.