A FAKE THEORY DISSOLVES! Oddly, Russert and his trophy wife forgot to gang up on the front-runner: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 6, 2008
COLLINS BY THE NUMBERS: Maureen Dowds twice-weekly nervous breakdown may draw attention from her colleague, Gail Collins. That would be a crying shame, because Collins is every bit as big an upper-class hack as her better-known lunatic consoeur.
This mornings column is Typical Collins—Collins by the numbers:
In paragraphs 1 and 2, Collins rolls her eyes at the thought of yet another big primary. Darlings, how will we survive it?
In paragraph 3, we get a complaint about Clintons boring round-table discussions.
In paragraph 4, were told that Obama plans to conduct mind-numbing policy chats of his own. (Im sure I speak for everyone when I say were all looking forward to that.)
In paragraph 5, we see Deepest Collins—the soul of an upper-class darling:
Translation: NAFTA doesnt affect my high kind! You working-class Ohio slugs can just go f*ck yourselves.
But then, Collins peddles this snark in every column. Question: If you couldnt read their columns, would you have the slightest idea that such Antionettes exist?
A FAKE THEORY DISSOLVES: At the October 30 Democratic debate, Russert and Williams fell on Clinton like a pair of starved Nantucket badgers. They threw oppo research-style questions at her for the bulk of two hours. (Several of Russerts questions were built around factual errors.) In their questions to Obama and Edwards, they largely cued Clintons two opponents to engage in attacks on their rival. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/07 and 11/2/07, for a detailed review of their questions.
In fact, no moderators have ever behaved this way in previous presidential debates. But in the aftermath of the session, Howard Kurtz joined a cast of thousands in explaining the Lost Boys odd behavior. This Q-and-A occurred in a Post on-line chat. Kurtz gave a Standard Response to a very good question:
We wonder if the questioner took his cue from our own incomparable work on that 2000 primary (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/02/07). But Kurtz voiced a form of the press corps Standard Reaction: We always treat front-runners that way! The claim is patently false, of course. But so what? It was widely expressed.
Front-runners always get treated that way! Three months later, on February 26, we finally got a chance to test this widely-voiced theory. Once again, Russert and Williams were hosting a Dem debate—and this time, the Dems had a new front-runner. This raised an obvious question: Would Russert and Williams gang up on Obama as with Clinton, back in the fall?
Did Jack Welchs hires gang up on Obama? For the sake of establishing the historical record: No, they plainly did not. Instead, they spent the first half hour of a 90-minute debate battering Clinton, who wasnt the front-runner. It was almost exactly what they had done at the October debate.
For the record, what follows has nothing to do with Obama or Clinton. Its a comment on the conduct of Russert and Williams. In fact, Russert and Williams didnt gang up on the front-runner in last weeks debate. They didnt do anything like it.
What did happen at last weeks debate? Lets run through the actual questions. Last see how the gang-up occurred.
Williams opened with the following question for Clinton. (Well number the queries as best we can.) In the process, he played tape of a moment on the trail for which she had been widely mocked:
On MSNBC, Clinton had been widely mocked for this difference in tone—and thats where Williams chose to begin. But then, his second question was also for Clinton—and it wasnt friendly either:
Again, Williams threw a question at Clinton—not at the front-runner. He (mis)quoted his darling, the loathsome Matt Drudge—then asked Clinton to respond.
There you see the first two questions of last weeks Dem debate. Each was a challenging question—and each was posed to Clinton. But dont worry—Williams was waiting to question the front-runner too! Here is the handsome anchors third question—the question where he finally began to gang up on the front-runner:
Go ahead—just laugh out loud! With this ludicrous non-question question, Williams returned to the format of the October 30 debacle, in which a series of hostile questions were thrown at Clinton, with Edwards and Obama asked to give their reactions to her answers. (In October, they were asked several times, quite directly, if they thought her answers were consistent.) At the time, we were widely assured that Russert and Williams had acted that way because moderators often gang up on the front-runner. But last week, we had a different front-runner—and the first of Jack Welchs plutocrat hires began by lobbing him softballs! By the way: If Williams had even a modest interest in ganging up on the front-runner (or in just being fair), this might have been his third question:
Thats what NBCs Trophy Bride might have asked—if he had the slightest intention of ganging up on the front-runner, or if he just wanted to play the game fair. As it turned out, we didnt get to hear his planned fourth question; Williams was interrupted as the two Dems initiated a debate of health care. But we can tell you this—his fourth question was going to Clinton again. Heres what the handsome anchor said before the hopefuls stopped him:
At that point, Williams was interrupted by the health care debate. But he was going to question Clinton again—perhaps as part of an elaborate strategy for ganging up on Obama.
So you see the way this debate began—a debate in which the front-runner was Obama. As readers may recall, Obama and Clinton debated health care between themselves for roughly the next ten minutes, while poor Williams tried to put the brakes on the unplanned discussion. (How dare they talk about something important?) Finally, at 9:16 PM Eastern, the Lost Boy regained control of the forum. And when he did, he soldiered on—with a question for Clinton again:
That question was fair—and we wouldnt call it hostile. But Williams was questioning Clinton again—a rather strange way to gang up on Obama. It was at this point that Clinton whined about the way she always gets the first questions. But dont worry! After Clinton gave her reply, Williams questioned Obama:
That was it; you can laugh out loud once again! Once again, its fairly clear that Williams was not trying to gang up on the front-runner. By now, the debate was roughly twenty minutes along. Williams has asked several hostile questions to Clinton—and he kept asking her rival to comment.
Surely, no one could seriously think that Williams had tried to gang up on Obama. And now, NBCs glorious trophy wife handed the floor to his better half. And wouldnt you know it? Russert began just as Williams had—with a hostile question for Clinton:
Your record is pretty clear, Russert said—as he recited selective parts of it. (More on this point below.) Like Williams, Russert was starting with Clinton—and his accusatory tone and selective presentation stamped this as a challenging or hostile question. And uh-oh! Soon after Clinton started to answer, Russert interrupted her, maintaining his hostile tone:
In response, Clinton managed to get out a short, cogent answer. But quickly, Russert interrupted again—and again, he continued his hostile questioning of the person who wasnt the front-runner:
The record is very clear, he said—reciting the part of the record he preferred. At this point, Russert was being openly hostile—to Clinton, who was not the front-runner.
For the record, Russerts next question went to Clinton again, as he tried to button up the NAFTA matter. According to our notes at the time, we were now 27 minutes into the debate—a debate which would run 90 minutes, minus time for two commercial breaks. And omigod! Russert and his trophy wife had pounded at Clinton for the whole time! Finally, at 9:27, Russert posed the first question to Obama which went beyond a simple invitation to comment on Clintons remarks. And when he did, he lobbed a softball—the kind of softball question that would be spoofed a few days later on Saturday Night Live:
After pounding away at Clintons alleged inconsistency, Russert quoted an ambiguous two-word critique of Obama (consistently ambivalent), then lobbed an admittedly simple question. The Welch Boys had now burned a full third of the evenings usable time—and this was the first real question they had posed to the front-runner! If you want to know why Russert and Williams were mocked on Saturday Night Live that weekend, this explains it in a nutshell. And by the way: After Obama answered this simple question, there was one mild follow-up from Russert. (Are you sure this has not been better for Ohio than youre suggesting?) And then, he turned back to the person he loathes. It was now 9:31—and his tone was openly hostile:
The question was reasonably fair, if a bit tortured. But it was plainly intended to be a tough question, a bit of a gotcha—and Russerts tone was openly hostile. By the time this Q-and-A was done, roughly forty percent of the evenings time had been used. This is the way Jack Welchs twin hires ganged up on the front-runner last week.
A bit of background is called for here. Before we go there, lets say it again. This is not about Obama or Clinton. This is about Tim and Bri:
Obviously, Russert and Williams did not attempt to gang up on the front-runner last week. (Good. Thats not their job.) By contrast, they plainly did so back in October, in an utterly indefensible way. In the remainder of last weeks debate (comprising roughly 60 percent of the time), their treatment of the two Dems was more balanced. Russert challenged Obama about his semi-pledge to accept federal funding for the general election—but he then challenged Clinton about two separate matters. (Release of her income tax records. Release of material from the National Archives—with a follow-up.) He questioned Obama about Louis Farrakhans endorsement—questioning for which he was criticized—but he then threw an undisguised gotcha at Clinton. (Can you name the new Russian president?) Most comically, Williams opened the debates second half by challenging Obama about a little hyperbole he had supposedly committed. But when Williams asked Obama to watch the tape, NBC accidentally played tape of yet another comment by Clinton—another comment for which shed been widely mocked. When Williams finally played the tape of Obamas alleged hyperbole, it basically served as a chance for another softball question.
Most strikingly, the first forty percent of this debate was basically used to gang up on Clinton—at a time when pundits were widely saying that Clinton needed to find a way to change the drift of the campaign. Obviously, people like Kurtz need to re-examine their explanation for the October 30 debate; its perfectly clear, after last weeks debate, that Russert and Williams do not gang up on front-runners as a general policy. And no: Moderators have not ganged up on the front-runner at past debates in the way Russert and Williams did last October. Why did Russert and Williams behave as they did on October 30? The reason for that is perfectly obvious—though professional pundits would jump off a bridge before theyd ever disclose it.
One last note about Russerts conduct—more specifically, about his loaded questions to Clinton concerning her views on NAFTA.
As we noted, when Russert stopped badgering Clinton about NAFTA, he asked Obama a rather mild question. In the process, he referred to an AP report which said that Obama had been consistently ambivalent about the trade deal.
That AP report is quite intriguing. In fact, it was a Fact Check by Calvin Woodward—a balanced review of both candidates views about NAFTA. It criticized each of the Dems for (occasionally) distorting the views of the other. Heres something Woodward said at one point about Obamas occasional distortions:
Thats true—and Clinton has sometimes simplified Obamas views as well. But lets read that quote from the AP again: Obama is correct that Clinton has praised NAFTA in various ways, but he leaves out the qualifications she's expressed along the way. In fact, thats exactly what Russert did in his series of question to Clinton! (See questions 7-9, above.) In his questions, Russert cited several times, some in the distant past, when Clinton spoke favorably about NAFTA. But in his questions, he absent-mindedly left out the qualifications she had expressed along the way. But this is exactly what Woodward criticized, in the report Russert later cited! In short, Russert was playing the hack against Clinton. But then, this has long been his way.
No, Virginia: Moderators have never behaved the way these Twin Plutocrats did last fall. Last week, they had a new front-runner to gang up on—and you saw a fake theory dissolve.