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Caveat lector

READ THIS BOOK (PART 1 OF 2)! Yes, you have to buy Alterman’s book. But that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect:


THE DAYS OF THE DOLPHINS: In some ways, What Liberal Media? is a frustrating book. For one thing, it’s poorly proofread; there are numerous misspelled names, and sentence structure is sometimes a problem. And the author seems to push some personal feuds; Timothy Noah is twice described as Slate’s “gossip columnist,” for example.

No, Eric Alterman’s book isn’t perfect; none is. But readers, stop your reflexive complaining; What Liberal Media? is total must reading, an invaluable look at the bizarre public discourse which bedevils American democracy. On page after page, Alterman describes the troubled face of our modern public discourse. In his portrait, angry billionaires pay crackpot pundits to invent weird tales about pols and policy. And a craven “liberal press corps” stands by, letting the nonsense go on.

Who are the key players in this mess? Consider right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, a man who now helps drive your discourse:

ALTERMAN (page 245): When journalist Karen Rothmyer tried to interview [Scaife] for a Columbia Journalism Review profile in the early 1980s, Scaife avoided her every inquiry. When she finally caught up with him on a Manhattan street…Rothmyer inquired as to why he chose to dedicate his fortune to the cause of conservative politics. Scaife replied in a booming voice, “You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here.” He then volunteered his opinion that she was ugly and that her teeth were “terrible” before warning, “don’t look behind you.”
How does our modern world really work? Sweethearts like Scaife funnel money to “think tanks,” and soon public crackpots like Peggy Noonan are reporting on dolphins sent by God. Alterman describes the “masterpiece [Noonan] crafted during the Elian episode:”
ALTERMAN (page 234): In that famous episode, in which a group of Miami Cubans did not wish to return a child whose mother had been killed at sea to his father in Cuba…Noonan complained that her hero, Reagan, would never have allowed his justice department to enforce the law and the court’s decisions to return the child. Moreover, he “would not have dismissed the story of the dolphins [sent by God to rescue Elian, according to some of the young boy’s protectors/kidnappers] as Christian kitsch, but seen it as possible evidence of the reasonable assumption that God’s creatures had been commanded to protect one of God’s children.” She concludes, “But then he was a man.” Indeed.
Of course, Noonan’s piece was just passing lunacy, in which she attacked Clinton as less than “a man” because he doesn’t base his decisions on dolphin prophecies. But Alterman also describes major policy areas where Scaife-driven spin-shops have cranked abject nonsense—and he describes the process by which Scaife-funded crackpots accused Vile Bill Clinton of murder. You may have read about most of the topics described in this invaluable book. But no one else has ever gathered so much of this info into one place, and that is why this book should be read—and beyond that, should be carefully studied.

We were struck, however, by Alterman’s chapter on the coverage of Campaign 2000. Give Alterman credit—he quickly lays out the basic theme of the Bush-Gore election:

ALTERMAN (page 149): Gore could and should easily have won the election by a much more considerable margin than the easily reversible one he managed. And he might have, but for one key and frequently overlooked reason: the almost universal hostility he inspired in the editors and reporters who covered the race.
That includes a bit of understatement. The press corps’ role in Gore’s defeat hasn’t mainly been “overlooked;” in fact, the press corps’ role has been suppressed by the same corps which misbehaved in the first place. But Alterman describes a good deal of the press misconduct which eventually took Bush to the White House. “It’s weird how much the press corps hated Gore,” he correctly writes. “Weirder still…is how little compunction they felt about showing it.” Wisely, Alterman often relies on the DAILY HOWLER, citing us, quite fairly, as he goes.

But for our money, even Alterman seems a bit kerflubbled as he tries to explain Campaign 2000. What explains the disparity in the Bush/Gore coverage? Here is his nugget presentation:

ALTERMAN (page 158): Part of it can be blamed on the many mistakes of the Gore campaign. But it’s not clear that a competent management team would have changed matters much. The more obvious, and explosive, conclusion, that the disparity in coverage was due to a political bias in favor of Bush and against Gore, is one I’m not comfortable arguing. I have no evidence, and do not believe, that reporters prefer a conservative Republican to a centrist Democrat in the White House.
We appreciate Alterman’s reluctance to offer a simple answer to this question. But we think he ends up offering a limited explanation for the disparity in the Bush-Gore coverage. What Liberal Media! is indeed a must-read. But we think that even Alterman misses the essence of Campaign 2000—and therein lies a fascinating tale.

TOMORROW (PART 2 OF 2): How potent was the spin about Gore? In some cases, even Alterman buys it.

Some have said that we were unfair in blaming Joan Walsh for that Chris Matthews interview (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/20/03 and 2/21/03). Incomparably, we agree on one or two points. We don’t think it’s fair to expect to expect Walsh (or anyone else) to know every detail of all past events; for example, we only know what Safire and Matthews said about Bush-Gore Debate 3 because we looked it up after reading the interview. But we looked it up for an obvious reason; Matthews has been a public dissembler for years and years, and his general statement—the press corps liked Gore more than Bush, he told Walsh—is a thesis straight from Neptune. Yet Walsh offered little challenge to this oddball claim, and Salon went ahead and posted the interview, despite the fact that Matthews’ claim was based on a string of howling misstatements. As a result, Matthews was allowed to present another rant about that ol’ debbil, liberal bias. What should you do when an interview subject lies in your face about some subject? We’re not sure, but Salon took the easy way out; it published the interview as it was, without a word of clarification, challenge or comment. If centrists and liberals want a real discourse, they simply have to stop accepting this kind of inept conduct. Earth to Salon: Matthews has been a public dissembler for years. Are you simply too frightened to acknowledge it?

The Daily update

AND BILL MAKES THREE: Incredibly, William Raspberry has become the third Post pundit to do a flip on Colin Powell. Here’s the start of this morning’s column:

RASPBERRY: This is hard. So soon after very nearly swooning over Colin Powell’s report to the United Nations Security Council, I find myself thinking the once unthinkable: I don’t believe him.

Like Mary McGrory and Richard Cohen (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/03), Raspberry stampeded in praise of Powell’s report before he took the time to review it. Now, like McGrory and Cohen before him, the pundit retracts his high praise.

Why has Raspberry changed his mind? Try to believe that our major pundits behave in so careless a manner:

RASPBERRY: Whence my change of heart? For one thing, I’ve had time to digest that tour de force performance of earlier this month. For another, I’ve been listening and reading (particularly Dilip Hiro’s book “Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm”). And finally, I’ve found it impossible to see how Powell’s allegations and speculation—even if they are all true—lead so ineluctably to war.
In short, Raspberry wrote his earlier column—which helped form a consensus about this crucial matter—before he “had time to digest” it. To state the obvious, the concerns he now cites had been widely debated for months before Powell’s big speech.

It’s almost impossible to describe the worthlessness of the Post’s op-ed “liberals.” Indeed, how wed is this tribe to Conventional Wisdom? Even now, when Raspberry says that Powell’s speech “comes to the same thing” as lying, the pundit still feels that he has to call the presentation a “tour de force.”

Let’s review. A defining war is on the table. Despite that, The Post Three stampeded in praise of Powell without even taking the time for reflection. Now, they’ve started to read and to think. Who else is ever this careless?