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FIVE EASY PIECES! It’s easy to write outraged columns on earmarks. Just memorize five easy terms: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 6, 2009

On a mission: We’re off on a mission of national import. We hope to review those George Will climate change columns on Monday. In the meantime, three cheers for Chris Mooney! Well—until his piece appears!

We’ve also been thinking about Hitch quite a bit. No, not Hitchens—about Alfred Hitchcock! Last year at Oscar time, we were planning to post our ten favorite films, but a computer meltdown intruded. In recent weeks, Oscar had us thinking again. We may post this item tomorrow.

We’ve been puzzling about the way “Hitch” kept exploring men’s troubled behavior toward women. (Notorious is our all-time favorite film.) As it turns out, Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock bio churns a great deal of this ground.

FIVE EASY PIECES: We’ve seen lots of silly pundit talk about those troubling “earmarks” this week. On Wednesday, Maureen Dowd offered a simpering column. That night, Chris Matthews ranted and railed—and seemed to say that the “pork” and “crap” in question totaled $410 billion. All around the pundit world, similar thunder was heard.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Shailagh Murray reports one apparent result. “The Senate stalled action on a $410 billion spending bill that would fund much of the federal government for the current fiscal year, amid resistance over the legislation's huge price tag and more than 8,500 pet projects,” she wrote.

At least for now, the spending bill is down and out.

Question: Why do pundits enjoy hackneyed pieces about “earmark spending” so much? In part, they love these stories because they’re so easy. You just memorize five easy terms. A schoolchild could take it from there:

Five easy bits of vocabulary:
Earmark
Pet project
Pork
Pork-barrel
Wasteful spending

There! Just throw those five easy terms in a blender. You too will have an outraged report about those wasteful earmarks. Indeed, Murray uses a loaded term—“pet projects”—right at the start of today’s “news report.” So did the Baltimore Sun’s Paul West, in this news report about the (perfectly sensible) earmarks coming to Maryland. Or not.

Once you’ve learned those five easy terms, the story’s so easy it writes itself! And of course, according to Hard Pundit Law, you won’t be asked to tell the rubes that these “pet projects” amount to less than 1.9 percent of the bill in question. You won’t be asked to defend the claim that such projects are “wasteful,” or silly.

Dowd’s column, like others, was masterfully dumb—but it virtually typed itself. But then, almost everyone plays the fool when it comes to this type of spending. In West’s report in yesterday’s Sun, Barbara Mikulski helped us recall the Requisite Spinning of Earmarks circa 2005:

WEST (3/5/09): Mikulski, a strong defender of the system, said earmarks enable her to "exercise my independent judgment on how best to help my constituents."

"There was no doubt that under the Republican administration the earmark process was corrupted. They built bridges to nowhere," she said, adding that she supports efforts to make the process more open and force lawmakers to "own up" to their earmark requests.

Ah yes—the bridge to nowhere! In part due to Saint John McCain’s endless nonsense, this was one of those “easy pieces” back in 2005. It was just last year that we all found out that we got spun a bit back then too. And sure enough! When we Nexised the term, up popped Shailagh Murray herself! But let’s stick to the work of our Major Pundits. In real time, here was Richard Cohen, typing the Standard Easy Column of that place and time:

COHEN (11/10/05): National Pork Service

Returning home after a brief, but historic, trip to the Middle East, I am relieved beyond words to find that Ted Stevens is still in the Senate. Before I left, the senator from Alaska had threatened—on the floor of the Senate, no less—to resign his seat if his colleagues passed a measure that would have eliminated some of Alaska's already approved transportation projects, including the now-famous "Bridge to Nowhere," and awarded the money to hard-pressed Louisiana. Stevens may be the first senator to equate pork with honor. A statue should be raised to him.

As the ever-humble Stevens would himself acknowledge, this statue—appropriately funded with money taken from Louisiana relief—would be not so much in his honor as the entire Senate's, and—why stop there?—all of Washington's. Indeed, the funding of ridiculous and unnecessary projects while the government is deeply in debt (and guided by an economic numskull) has become so much a part of contemporary Washington that—the scolding John McCain notwithstanding—it ought to be memorialized. A man feeding pigs is what I have in mind.

Schoolchildren of the future will bend their little brains memorizing Stevens's defense of home-state pork, the transcript of which shall be engraved on the base of the statue. They will recall that after one of the projects, a $223 million bridge from Ketchikan (population 8,900) to Gravina Island (population 50), was mocked as the "Bridge to Nowhere," Stevens properly turned the issue into one of virtual civil rights. He recalled the days when Alaska was a mere territory with few of the usual rights of states and said that now, once again, it was being accorded second-class status: "It will not happen," he thundered. "It will not happen," he bellowed.

Was the bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina a worthwhile project? Given its hefty price tag, we’ll assume it would have been unwise spending. But in those days, readers constantly read what Cohen wrote: That this bridge would have connected Ketchikan “to Gravina Island (population 50)”—to an island where fifty people lived! Such pundits (and reporters) kept forgetting to add a key point; they kept forgetting to say that this “bridge to nowhere” would actually have been a bridge to an airport! Yep! Ketchikan’s airport is on the island in question; this was one of two principal reasons why this bridge was sought. (Second reason: Land-locked Ketchikan can only grow by expanding onto this island.)

Was this bridge a good idea? We’ll assume the cost was too great. But as always, pundits like Cohen—reporters like Murray—decided to have some good solid fun as they “improved” the facts of the story. In 2005, it was hard to learn the fact that this bridge was really a bridge to an airport. We ourselves were surprised, just last year, when we came upon this fact in researching Candidate Palin. (In his column, Cohen said the bridge proposal represented “an action of vast indifference to all of mankind with the possible exception of the 50 people on Gravina Island.”)

You read those silly columns this week because the story was easy to type. Just memorize five easy terms, and the column types itself! But the press world was playing its typical games back in 2005 as well. You see, Saint John McCain was tramping around, bellowing high-minded complaints. The “bridge to nowhere” was part of his shtick. Soon, it was part of yours.

Is anything ever true in newspapers? It would be easy to answer “no.” We could type it—but it would be wrong.

A long legacy: McCain wasn’t the first major pol to sanctify himself in this manner. In the 1970s, William Proxmire became a liberal saint for his “Golden Fleece Awards.” But Proxmire may have built a few bridges too far himself. In 2006, Etienne Benson recalled the problems with the fleece awards for the Association for Psychological Science:

BENSON (6/06): For the sake of a catchy headline, Proxmire and his staff sometimes twisted the facts to suit the story and rarely attempted to clarify the nature of the research with the scientists who conducted it.

"He was out to score points in the press and any contact with the participants involved was not to really understand the work," says Leigh Shaffer, who published one of the first in-depth analyses of the awards in 1977.

Scientists criticized Proxmire—sometimes sued him—for what they viewed as disingenuous conduct. For Wikipedia’s treatment, click here. Just last month, Steve Perlstein offered a larger political view.

That “bridge to nowhere” was really a bridge to an airport! In 2005, you weren’t told that. You see, Saint John McCain was waging a war—and, as always, Big Major Pundits were having some good solid fun.