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Daily Howler: Lizza fudged about McCain. Finally, Chris told the truth
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CATCH A RISING STAR! Lizza fudged about McCain. Finally, Chris told the truth: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 27, 2008

GOOD AND BAD FACT-CHECK: In this morning’s New York Times, Kate Phillips offers a very good “fact check.” What makes her piece so good? For one thing, she actually quotes the actual words a White House candidate actually said. These words have been widely reinvented (“massaged,” “improved”) during the past three months:

PHILLIPS (3/27/08): The original exchange began when a self-described Democrat, whom Mr. McCain jokingly referred to as Ernest Hemingway because of his resemblance to the author, said, ''President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years— ”

“Maybe a hundred,'' Mr. McCain interjected, almost cavalierly. ''We've been in South Korea. We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. Then it's fine with me.

''I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training, recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day.''

One bit of criticism for Phillips: In performing a fact check, it will typically be much better if the reporter keeps her subjective assessments to herself. In this passage, the scribe couldn’t help it; she instantly volunteered the thought that McCain’s statement was “almost cavalier.” (It was almost cavalier—not quite.) This piece would be better if that had been dropped. But at the mighty Times, it’s the law: Reporters just gotta opine.

At any rate, Phillips performs a service with this report. When McCain made his now-famous statement, he instantly stressed the fact that he was imagining a situation like Japan or South Korea—a situation where “Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.” This was part of his original statement. As Phillips notes, a wide range of pundits and pols have reinvented this in the months since.

This was a sample of good fact check. For a really pitiful check, try Michael Dobbs’ latest piece in this morning’s Post.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve had a bug up our keister concerning Dobbs—perhaps undeserved—since the puzzling product placement in his lengthy, front-page report about those Swift Boat claims. (Dobbs broke news which helped Kerry—in paragraph 49! This may not have been his fault. Links below.) Putting that to the side, the gentleman has lived in hog heaven in the past week, correcting Clinton’s misstatements about her trip to Tuzla. This morning, though, he plays the fool, “correcting” something that isn’t worth mentioning—something which was originally reported in his own newspaper!

For our money, this is as dumb as “fact-checking” gets. Go head—just laugh out loud at that comical opening sentence:

DOBBS (3/27/08): Just because something has appeared in a newspaper does not mean that is entirely accurate. The Clinton camp has circulated a March 26, 1996 quote from the Post describing Clinton’s Bosnia trip as "the first time since Roosevelt that a first lady has voyaged to a potential combat zone." The article went on to say that "other first ladies have visited troops abroad but never in front-line positions," citing the examples of Bush and Nixon.

How these factoids got into the Post story is unclear, but they offer a somewhat misleading picture of the relative risks being run by the three first ladies...

The picture was somewhat misleading—not wholly. But the fact-check grinds ahead all the same.

“How these factoids got into the Post story is unclear?” We’ll tell you how they got into the Post; they got into the Post because John Pomfret—now the editor of Outlook—put them there, presumably thinking them accurate. Dobbs, of course, is a solid team player; he drops Pomfret’s name from this piece as he bats Clinton around again—this time over something so pointless and obscure that it simply doesn’t merit discussion.

Clinton was wrong in her statements about Tuzla; fact-checkers were right to correct her. But here’s an inherent problem with fact-checking; fact-checkers can be quite selective in whose facts they decide they should check. Dobbs has performed like a pig in mud when it comes to the Tuzla story. But what did he say about the facts concerning Obama and Exelon? The story appeared on the New York Times’ front page, almost two months ago. So far, Dobbs hasn’t fact-checked it at all—in the paper. When he gave Obama “two Pinocchios” (“significant omissions and exaggerations”), it only appeared on the web site. We don’t necessarily have a problem with that decision. It’s just a little hard to square with this morning’s descent into trivia.

The original role of the Post in today’s “fact check” makes it especially comic. But here’s the key lesson from today’s piece: Some errors are worth correcting. Other errors are not.

By the way: Some of you will now compose e-mails. You’ll insist that McCain didn’t say what he so plainly said, or that he plainly meant something different. You see, you play on the team called the shirts—and McCain is now king of all skins.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For all we know, it wasn’t Dobbs’ choice. But when Wayne Langhofer made news that favored Kerry, he ended up in paragraph 49; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/23/04. But then, the New York Times never mentioned Langhofer at all, along with many other news orgs. For two fuller accounts of this puzzling affair, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/04 and 9/27/04.

CATCH A RISING STAR: If mordant laughter is what you enjoy, we hope you watched last evening’s Hardball.

It’s always amusing when Big Major Scribes pretend to discuss the press corps’ own conduct. Last night, Chris Matthews triggered such a “discussion.” Two top pundits had been called to help settle a question—a question which is quite important:

MATTHEWS (3/26/08): John McCain had the press in his pocket, some said, with his “Straight Talking Express” eight years ago, but does he have a different straight talk with the press today than he has with the average voter? [sic]

Jennifer Donahue is with the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. And the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, a rising star in our business, he recently profiled McCain.

I got to go to you, Ryan. Is he still getting good press?

Visibly, Lizza flirted with climax during that “rising star” business. But Matthews had asked a very important question: Does the press corps fawn to McCain? In response, a rising star started off in this manner:

LIZZA (continuing directly): I think, for the most part, yes, he is. He has had a couple of bumps. I mean, the dynamic is that everyone is paying attention to Hillary and Barack, and ignoring McCain. So, when McCain does something like go to Iraq and misstate—you know, confuses the Sunnis and the Shiites—it sort of makes the news. It is buried inside. You know, we talk about it a little bit. But it doesn’t get the amount of play it would if we were in the general election race, where you have that head-to-head dynamic.

Don’t worry: They’ll murder McCain in the fall! “I mean, for stuff to really take off, you have to have the opponent mentioning it and really, and really highlighting it,” Lizza continued. “And because we don’t have a real head-to-head general election yet, he is basically doing—”

At that point, mercifully, Matthews broke in. Lizza was making a common claim: If the Dems aren’t trashing McCain for his howlers, well really, our hands are tied.

Lizza was copping a standard plea; journalists frequently argue this way. And uh-oh! As is the norm when such topics are raised, things drifted downhill from there. It’s inevitable! When scribes are asked to review their own conduct, inquiring minds start drifting off topic. Does the press corps favor McCain? Four minutes into last night’s discussion, the analysts were debating a different question—the age at which kids get ironic:

MATTHEWS: Do you have kids yet? How old are your kids?

LIZZA: I have a 16-month-old.

MATTHEWS: They’re not old enough to be ironic. Jennifer, when your kids are old enough to be ironic, you really have a whole new relationship with them. I find that I really begin to have better conversations when we can both be ironic. It is usually around 13 or 14, I think. What do you think?

DONAHUE: Well, right. I think you are right. My kids are not quite there yet, but they are getting pretty ironic for little kids.

Donahue thought Matthews was right—but then, they always think that. And they persistently wander off topic when asked to debate their own conduct. Last night, as always, they just couldn’t focus! Earlier, for example, at the three-minute mark, Donahue managed to pimp herself in typical fashion—and the gang lapsed into debate about other stray issues. By the way: As you can see, Chris was “absolutely right” once again:

DONAHUE: I—actually, he doesn’t know what to make of me, because I am an analyst and a press, and I—he doesn’t know what. He trusts me. And I have gone to dinner with him. When he trusts a person, he is very open. He trusts the back of the bus. When he doesn’t trust someone or doesn’t know where a voter is coming from, he is guarded and very, very stiff.

MATTHEWS: Yes, well, we saw that picture a moment ago of Mike—of Mike Barnicle practically discussing his sandwich with him up there!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS (watching video): And then it was Jill Zuckman of the Chicago Tribune. I thought Mike was really attentive to his sandwich there.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: That is the kind of—and he is a fairly tough reporter. What do you make of all this?

LIZZA: Well, Jennifer is right about that. I have seen him—I remember getting off a bus and talking to a TV reporter who just did an interview with McCain. Sometimes on the TV interviews, he is not the McCain of lore, and I said how did the interview go? And she said, it was terrible. What happens when the camera goes on? Sometimes he stiffens up a bit. And it is true, he does have certain reporters he is more comfortable with.

The segment began with a very important question: Does the press corps fawn to McCain? Within three minutes, the pundits were discussing virtually everything else, including whether McCain stiffens up a bit when the camera goes on. As often happens, the pundits were now discussing McCain’s behavior, not their own. And Donahue was modestly letting viewers know that the great saint trusts her.

Matthews, of course, was “absolutely right.” So was Donahue. It’s Hard Pundit Law.

Sorry! If you watched this seven-minute segment, you actually saw very little discussion of the press corps’ actual conduct. The segment had been inspired by Neal Gabler’s piece in the New York Times, which argued that the press loves McCain became he’s so post-modern and ironic. (This gave the gang their route of escape to that pointless debate about children.) For our taste, Gabler’s piece was too cute by half, although he’s long done superlative, street-fighting work about the political press corps. Who knows? Maybe “cute” is the only way you can get this stuff into the Times.

Does the press corps fawn to McCain? It’s a very important question. But if you watched this seven-minute segment, you saw very little real discussion of that critical question. The scribes’ minds wandered all about, as is the rule when such questions are asked. Until the very end of the segment, when Matthews explained the whole syndrome:

MATTHEWS: Let me explain why a lot of guys like McCain. He served his country in ways that none us cannot imagine serving this country. I think that gives him a moral edge over a lot of us and we show it.

Anyway, Jennifer Donahue, thank you very much for being on. Ryan Lizza, as always.

It’s all about Nam, Matthews said. McCain served there, and we multimillionaires didn’t. “That gives him a moral edge over of us,” Matthews said. And then, the key part of his statement: That gives him a moral edge—and we show it.

Shorter Matthews: We refused to serve during Vietnam. And because we feel so guilty about it, we refuse to serve today too.

For us, we found Gabler’s piece a bit frustrating. Does the press corps love McCain because he’s so ironic? Maybe. But Matthews explained the affair in a different way—and a long string of losers gave that same speech when they were embarrassing themselves, and failing their country, during Campaign 2000. Weak little fellows with weak little minds felt bad because they’d avoided Nam. And McCain was riding them around on his bus, telling them jokes about stripper ex-girl friends. For these scribes, it was plainly a Vietnam fantasy camp. Their payment was found in their coverage.

Should they have served in Vietnam? For ourselves, we don’t see it that way. But when they cover up for McCain—as they have done for so many years—they’re refusing to serve their country again. But darlings! People like Lizza will never say so. Darlings! He’s a big rising star!

Is this fair? John McCain can trust Jennifer Donahue—and Matthews can trust Ryan Lizza.

ONE OTHER PULL-QUOTE: Donahue offered the other pull-quote. Her statement came in the form of a prediction:

DONAHUE: I would argue with one point in [Gabler’s] piece. I think the press might love Obama more than McCain. And if Obama is the nominee, that’s going to cause a conflict, because I think Obama is going to be the darling over McCain, if that’s how it plays out.

Wow! What did Lizza and Matthews think about that? Nothing! The gentlemen changed the subject! “I will tell you one dynamic that will happen,” a rising star said—and he mentioned something he thinks McCain will do. In this cohort, sticking to scripts is one key skill; changing the subject is another.