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GAMES PUNDITS PLAY! Bush played “gotcha,” Milbank said. But look who had played the game first:


GAMES PUNDITS PLAY: Uh-oh! War broke out at the Washington Post with Dana Milbank’s “Sunday Politics” column. Gotcha Games Focusing on Donors, said the headline. Here’s the first “game” he described:

MILBANK (pgh 1): The gotcha games continue over donations to presidential candidates.

(2) It began a few weeks ago when President Bush’s reelection campaign put out an ad saying that Bush’s likely Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), had taken in about $640,000 from lobbyists over the years even as he railed against the influence of special interests. The ad omitted the inconvenient detail that Bush had raised $842,262 from lobbyists in the current election cycle alone, almost four times Kerry’s take.

Milbank battered the Bush campaign for playing “gotcha games” with Kerry. But time out! The Bush ad was derived from Jim VandHei’s front-page report in the January 31 Washington Post—and VandeHei’s article, like the Bush ad, “omitted the inconvenient detail that Bush had raised $842,262 from lobbyists in the current election cycle alone.” Indeed, VandeHei’s deeply misleading piece omitted almost all context whatever; those AWOL Bush numbers were only the start. Most egregiously, the piece focused on contributions from lobbyists—one small part of “special-interest money”—and failed to note that Kerry ranks low among senators when it comes to special-interest dough as a whole. Was the Bush campaign playing “gotcha games?” So too, it would seem, was the Washington Post, although Milbank wasn’t willing to tell. (Enter “VandeHei” in our search engines for previous discussions of his reports.)

Yep—if the Bush camp was playing games, it seemed that the Post had played those games first. But as Milbank denounced a second bad game, he approvingly cited the Post by name. But now, a different problem emerged:

MILBANK (3): After the special-interest search came the search for donors from those corporations that avoid U.S. taxes. Last week, The Washington Post reported that Kerry received more than $140,000 from U.S. companies that have offshore tax-haven subsidiaries—companies Kerry calls “Benedict Arnold corporations as he promises to abolish tax loopholes that let them function this way. (Bush has taken $795,101 from such companies, but he hasn’t accused them of treason.)
This time, Kerry was playing games, Milbank seemed to say. But time out! This second Post article, also by VandeHei, did not say “that Kerry received more than $140,000 from U.S. companies that have offshore tax-haven subsidiaries.” In fact, it said something vastly different; it said that Kerry had received more than $140,000 from executives and employees of such firms. Why did Milbank misstate what VandeHei said? Perhaps because, when you state it accurately, VandeHei’s complaint is so absurd. Readers, we pose an incomparable question: Who’s playing the “gotcha games” now?

Do voters deserve a serious discourse? They haven’t been getting it from VandeHei’s work. But his silly claims are becoming iconic—generally after being embellished. Indeed, on this weekend’s Tim Russert (CNBC), it happened again! This time, Gloria Borger misstated the VandeHei report; Kerry led Senate solons in “special interest” money, she inaccurately said. Three major pundits—including Russert—failed to correct her misstatement.

Do voters deserve a serious discourse? A serious discourse is built on real facts. But the “factesque” now drives your “press corps.” Let them eat gotcha games, major scribes seem to say. Tomorrow: How liberal is John?

THE MARRYIN’ KIND: Has the press corps pandered to Gavin Newsom, the same-sex-marryin’ San Fran mayor? That would make for an interesting study, but the Post’s Howard Kurtz isn’t up to the task. He discusses the topic in this morning’s Post—and his report is pure clowning. Try to believe that he really begins with this piece of pure pointless piffle:

KURTZ (pgh 1): When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defied state law by allowing same-sex marriage licenses, a New York Times profile reported him sporting “a wide grin,” “describing his motives as pure and principled,” and cited his “business acumen, money, good looks and friends in the right places.”
Kurtz refers to a 2/19 profile by the Times’ Dean Murphy; in it, Newsom does describe his own motives as “pure and principled.” It’s hard to know why a Times profile shouldn’t let Newsom describe his own motives. But for some unknown reason, Kurtz finds this troubling. Indeed, he seems to think that he’s found a double standard:
KURTZ (continuing directly): But when Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore also defied the law—by installing a Ten Commandments display in his public building—a Times profile said that “civil liberties groups accused Justice Moore of turning a courthouse into a church,” while allowing that he had also become “an Alabama folk hero.”
In this passage, Kurtz refers to an 11/19/02 Jeffrey Gettleman report. But what is wrong with reporting the fact that “civil liberties groups accused Justice Moore of turning a courthouse into a church?” Kurtz never says, but he implies that the Times has been caught in a troubling double standard. In the rest of his piece, he makes no effort to flesh out this tired complaint.

Plainly, Kurtz thinks the Times has offered unbalanced coverage. But then, the Times “has plenty of company,” he says. Indeed, “[h]undreds of news accounts have provided an upbeat portrayal of Newsom as a pioneer,” Kurtz complains. Of course, the coverage isn’t all one-sided, Kurtz acknowledges. “[T]hose opposed to gay marriage and Newsom’s maneuver are certainly quoted,” he says. But “the media spotlight has shone most brightly on the mayor and those (including Rosie O’Donnell) tying the legally disputed knot.”

But is it true? Has the “media spotlight shone most brightly on the mayor?” Has Newsom been treated differently from Moore? That would make an interesting study—a study Kurtz might be able to execute if he restricts himself to one new org, like the Times. But Kurtz is too lazy (or too scripted) to provide an actual study. His opening presentation—built on a phony “contrast”—reads like a parody of real press critique. And it reads like something else, dear friends. It reads like an editorial from the Washington Times—or like a conservative press release.

Is the press corps kissing up to Newsom? There’s no way to tell from Kurtz’ report. Kurtz panders hard in this laughable piece. So who’s playing “gotcha games” now?

HOLIER THAN MEL: Has there ever been a more scripted fight than the current brawl over Mel Gibson’s Passion? First, the conservative elect were dragged off to screenings; all of them knew they must emerge and proclaim that it was good. Then, those disinclined to share Gibson’s outlook got to see the film last Wednesday. And most of them knew that they must emerge and declare themselves holier than Mel.

Example? We marveled at Mary Gordon’s piece in Saturday’s New York Times. How silly do the Gibson Wars get? Gordon displayed her own passions again and again. Try to believe that she wrote it:

GORDON: It is true that the Roman flagellators are portrayed as viciously sadistic, but there are two good Romans, Pilate and Claudia, to add a counterweight to our understanding of Romanness. There is no counterweight to the portrayal of the Jews.
“There is no counterweight to the portrayal of the Jews?” How about Jesus, two Marys, and all the Apostles? We agree that Gibson’s portrait of Pilate & Pilate is laughable. Indeed, for the film’s first half-hour, Jesus’ suffering takes a back seat to the moral suffering of these two fine oppressors. But there is no counterweight to the portrayal of the Jews? Surely Gordon can’t mean that. But as in all great religious wars, reason is instantly thrown to the winds as the two sides recite their great sound-bites.

For ourselves, we aren’t attracted to the Crucifixion story; indeed, we don’t know why people find it uplifting, or even why they think it makes sense. But many decent people clearly do—and many such people have already said that they have been moved by Gibson’s film. But Gordon—fighting a war of the pious—must find fault with all she surveys. “A great deal of screen time is taken up with the flagellation of Jesus,” she complains. But “[w]hat does this accomplish in an understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death?” Different people will answer different ways—but Gordon doesn’t seem to know, or want to acknowledge, that answers to her question already exist. In that very same Saturday Times, for example, The Passion’s ad quotes Roger Ebert, well known as a decent person (and as a social and political liberal). Ebert—who praises The Passion as a “great epic film”—has already answered Gordon’s query. “What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of,” he has said. Yes, Ebert’s answer predated Gordon’s question. But in religious wars, answers don’t matter. Flogging the other guy does.

What a scripted discussion this one has been! Many questions ought to be asked about the growing, sometimes hidden role of conservative religion in our politics. But this current, scripted debate about Gibson is a generally worthless substitute. We’re not much drawn to Saint Mel ourselves. But why are the pious willing to say odd things like Mary Gordon has done?