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A GUTTER RUNS THROUGH IT (PART 4)! How should pundits talk about Drudge? They know—but alas! They don’t care:


OUR BROADCASTER OF THE FORTNIGHT: That would, of course, be Tina Brown. We had hoped to open with this uplifting segment. But we drop it to “Critic’s Corner,” found below.

SPIN BEGINS: How will Kerry’s bio be spun? In this morning’s Washington Times, Charles Hurt unveils the script in a lengthy front-page profile. Needless to say, Kerry is a massive fake “who has voiced his presidential aspirations since high school.” That’s why he went to Vietnam, where he tried to avoid any dangerous duty. Through bad luck, he was forced into combat, but many people question whether he actually should have received all those medals. And of course, veterans hate the way he “gave aid and comfort to the enemy.” Crackpot Ted Sampley is quoted throughout. Our question: How many names had to be on The Wall before little-leaguers like Hurt would have been fully happy? But make no mistake: This is the story the Hurts will type for the next nine months.

QUESTIONS END: What ever happened to coverage of Bush-in-the-Guard? Several readers have written to ask. The answer is simple: At some weekend cocktail party or other, the Insider Press Corps agreed it was scared, and decided the discussion had gone far enough. Result? On Meet the Press, Tim Russert promoted Bill Calhoun to general—and accepted his unlikely tale without a word of caution or comment. The rest of the press corps dropped the tale like a rock. But this is the course the corps always takes when it gets involved in such a discussion. After years of ignoring a story, they initiate a sudden, frenzied discussion—in which they can’t get simple facts straight, and often focus on the wrong issues. Then, on a dime, the story is dropped. It’s as if the whole thing never happened.

As usual, basic questions remain unasked-and-unanswered. As Eric Boehlert noted in Tuesday’s Salon, some basic documents were MIA when the White House released Bush’s military records. Where is his Officer Effectiveness Report for 1973-74, for example? Why are there no physical exams after 1971? These questions are grindingly obvious, but no one bothered asking the White House once the corps decided to cut and run. Meanwhile, the most obvious question about the documentary record has also gone unasked-and-unanswered: Why did Bush’s Houston commanders say that he had been absent from Ellington air base for the prior year when they evaluated him on 5/2/73? According to the documents which the White House released, Bush had been doing drills at Ellington for roughly six months at the time this report was filed; indeed, the records show on duty that very day! Has the White House ever been asked to explain this? Have citizens been made aware of this basic conundrum? No, because even when the press corps got into a tizzy last week, they focussed on silly stories about ancient memory and ignored the puzzling documentary record. But then, you know that celebrity press corps! They love to get their shorts in a wad—and they love to bark up the wrong trails.

And they love to stand down when the gunfire starts. They were scolded for hassling Scott McClellan last week, so Russert blew the “all clear” whistle, and they walked off their posts once again. Boehlert’s readers know that questions remain. But at the Washington Post and the New York Times, duffer scribes got scared and ran. Times readers have never seen the unanswered questions. And guess what? Times readers never will.

A GUTTER RUNS THROUGH IT (PART 4)! Yes, they slithered out of their holes last week, all around the American public discourse. Drudge threw out his latest slimy tale, and Mickey Kaus and Susan Estrich ran to repeat a 1998 groaner. Meanwhile, doctored photos appeared on the web, and doctored quotes went in Kerry’s mouth. Nor would Ann Coulter be left behind. She typed up an astonishing mess about that old faker, Max Cleland.

Yes, Drudge sent out a phony tale, as he’s done so many times in the past. And just like that, other dirt-bags—Limbaugh and Hannity—ran to tell citizens all about it. But Andrew Sullivan—quite brave of late, as we’ve noted—seemed to speak for the press as a whole. He disapproved of the slimy tale. But “I don’t know how to talk about it,” he told Howard Kurtz on CNN.

How should journalists “talk about” this? Maybe they should try the famous “straight talk” they love to praise in favored pols. Maybe they should try the truth—should say that our discourse has been in the hands of dirt-bags for the past many years. Maybe they should try telling the truth—should say that Limbaugh and Hannity behave as slugs when they peddle this dirt to their listeners. And maybe they should say one more thing that is true. Maybe they should say that voters are played for rubes when Drudge and fellow dirt-bags—people like Kaus—spread around all these dirty, fake stories.

Readers, it isn’t hard to know “how to talk;” we’ve shown them how to talk all week. But Drudge and Limbaugh are powerful figures, and most of your pundits don’t want all the fuss. Instead, they do what Frank Rich lazily did—they go on TV and repeat Drudge’s message. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, they lazily say, with a shrug.

But readers, when dirt-bags spread phony tales around town, you can’t respond by discussing their targets. You have to do something vastly different—you have to talk about them! You have to call the dirt-bags by name—and you have to explain what it is that they’re doing. And you must tell voters they’re being played for fools when Drudge, Rush and Mickey start sliming.

But most mainstream pundits don’t play that way. It’s easier to go on TV and smile. “I don’t know how to talk,” they will say. So why are such ciphers on television?

THE HOST THAT WOULD NOT BARK: We couldn’t help chuckling when we watched Bill O’Reilly offer his “Talking Points Memo” last night. “The tide may be turning against defamation,” he said. “Talking Points was pleased to see many in the media ignore the John Kerry rumor last week…I was proud that many of my colleagues would not stoop to rumor mongering without facts to back up those salacious allegations.”

Good for Mr. O’R! we quickly exclaimed. And as he continued, he grew more ferocious. “I’ll repeat the Factor’s mantra,” he said. “We won’t report rumors or personal attacks unless the controversy is relevant to public policy. What we will report is who the smear people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. We’re keeping a list.”

All right! Cheers rang out at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters as Mr. O finished up his harangue! But even as the workers cheered, one worried analyst entered the room. He had transcribed Mr. O’s complaint—and he’d noted a puzzling omission.

Darn it! And yes, it really is true! Despite all his blather about naming names, Mr. O’R completely failed to name any names in his “memo” this night! The Kerry rumor was sickening, he said. But who had spread this tale around town? Mr. O had forgotten to tell us!

Below, we offer O’Reilly’s full “memo.” Drudge’s name is never mentioned. Neither, of course, is Rush’s or Sean’s. Mr. O had pimped himself hard. But, alas! He forgot to perform:

O’REILLY: Caution, you’re about to enter a no-spin zone [sic]. The Factor from L.A. begins right now.

Hi, I’m Bill O'Reilly reporting tonight from California. Thanks for watching us. The tide may be turning against defamation. That is the subject of this evening’s “Talking Points” memo. Talking Points was pleased to see many in the media ignore the John Kerry rumor last week. I think the senator made a mistake by talking about it on the radio, but I was proud that many of my colleagues would not stoop to rumor mongering without facts to back up those salacious allegations.

Of course, the rumor was quickly debunked. But the merchants of venom who traffic in this garbage couldn’t care less. They got their web-site hits and their cheap ratings.

Again today, another vicious defamatory situation was largely ignored, this one surrounding Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie about Jesus. So maybe there’s some hope here. Maybe Americans are getting fed up with those who peddle, slander and libel and they’re beginning to turn away from it.

If that happens, America will be a much better place. Right now, many of us are afraid to give opinions because we fear we’ll be personally attacked. Very well qualified people will not run for public office because they may have committed an indiscretion in their past. And some folks aren’t even exercising their freedoms out of fear they’ll be smeared.

This has got to stop. Now usually I’m down on the media because we have become increasingly unfair and politically charged. A newspaper, for example, doesn’t like your opinion, that newspaper might very well try to hurt you. But I’m feeling better after the Kerry and Gibson situations and I’ll repeat the Factor’s mantra. We won’t report rumors or personal attacks unless the controversy is relevant to public policy. What we will report is who the smear people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. We’re keeping a list.

And we want you to do so as well. If you’re tired of defamation and gutter politics, let the people who embrace those things know about it. And that's the memo.

Wouldn’t you know it! Drudge’s name was never mentioned on the Factor all last week! Mr. O knows how to talk. But he knows something else—how to run and hide—just like the rest of the press corps.

Critic’s corner

OUR BROADCASTER OF THE FORTNIGHT: That would, of course, be Tina Brown, whom we hail for featuring In America director Jim Sheridan on last Sunday night’s Topic A (now weekly on CNBC).

Since last we hectored you on this topic, In America has grabbed Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Samantha Morton), Best Supporting Actor (Djimon Hounsou) and Best Original Screenplay (Jim/Naomi/Kirsten Sheridan). The nominations are deserved, but they’re odd in one way. Many critics—and Sheridan himself—said that the performances by real-life sisters Sarah Bolger (age 10) and Emma Bolger (age 6) were the film’s greatest achievement. But the Bolgers were overlooked for Oscar nods even as adult cast-mates were honored.

Were the Bolger performances In America’s great achievement? That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But it’s stunning to read the words of praise that have been heaped on the heads of the sisters from Dublin. Gene Shalit searched the last century for a comparison. “So captivating, so accomplished, they are the purest, most promising acting sisters since Lillian and Dorothy Gish appeared together for D.W. Griffith back in 1912,” he proclaimed. At our hometown Baltimore Sun, Michael Sragow restricted his search to the past sixty years: “Emma and Sarah Bolger as the lead couple’s children are astonishing juvenile performers, as fresh as Peggy Ann Garner, who received a special [Oscar] as the year’s ‘outstanding child actress’ for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945.” Meanwhile, at the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper called Sarah Bolger’s work “the best performance by a child since Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.” His assessment: “She is the heart and soul of this film, and her performance resonated with me as much as [Sean] Penn’s work in Mystic River, [Charlize] Theron’s in Monster and Naomi Watts’ in 21 Grams.” But Emma Bolger had her advocates too. On Good Morning America, Joel Siegel recommended her for an Oscar nomination: “I loved that movie, loved that performance.” Did we mention that EB was six at the time In America was made? (The sisters are 12 and 8 now.)

Has any director ever shown child life in the way In America does? After repeated viewings at our neighborhood cinema, we came to share an assessment offered by Sheridan himself. “The kids in this film are magical,” he said on NPR’s Fresh Air last November. “Sam Morton’s fantastic, Paddy [Considine]’s great, Djimon’s great, but the kids are magical and we all knew that and we all stepped out of the way. You know, it’s like when you have a holy thing happening, you don’t mess with it.”

Will the Bolgers become fine adult actors? There is, of course, no way to tell. But rarely does genius burst on the scene as it did when they teamed up with Sheridan. Since they’ll likely be ruined for life by their notices, let’s marvel at their acclaim while we can. Liz Smith in Newsday: “The performances of these girls…are astonishing—every gesture and expression transparent with feeling.” David Edelstein in Slate: “The miracle of the movie is the Bolger sisters, who are so direct and matter-of-fact that they hardly seem to be acting. But their simplicity is radiant.” David Ansen in Newsweek: “Perhaps most astonishing are the luminous Sarah and Emma Bolger, who make most child actors look cloyingly artificial. They act so well they seem not to be acting at all.” And why not? Rex Reed in the New York Observer: In America’s sisters are “played with rapturous wonder by Sarah and Emma Bolger, two of the most miraculous real-life sisters who have ever shared a screen or purloined an audience’s heart.” Edelstein built his Slate review around Sheridan’s claim that the performances are “holy.” If you buy this film’s aesthetic—and most of you will—you may come to see the film that way too.

So thanks again to Tina B for providing a hook for these observations. When dirt-bags are throwing the dirt all around, the holy may deserve a quick mention.