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A REMARKABLE MORNING! On C-SPAN and in the Times letter section, the public is irate—and confused: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, APRIL 8, 2006

SMILE-A-WHILE/OOPS, HE DID IT AGAIN: No, Mark Shields doesn’t read THE HOWLER. On Monday, we helpfully corrected a groaning error he made a few week back on the NewsHour (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/06). But last night, there he went again! Squeamish readers may want to avert their gaze:
SHIELDS (4/7/06): That has—that has been George Bush's stock and trade. George Bush is not Lyndon Johnson. He's not an—an operator. He's not a guy who gets things done. He's a guy that tells you what he believes. And, in this case, he didn't

LEHRER: So, you think it will—you think it will hurt?

SHIELDS: I think, I think it's—I think—well, we have seen one single word in Andy Kohut's Pew poll over and over. When they ask the one single word that identifies the president to you, it had been “honest” for six months every year—every six months. And it plummeted, to the point where honest fell to sixth. And I, and I—I don't think there's any question. We used to have two out of five people say it. He—“honest” is the most thing.

LEHRER: “Honest.”

SHIELDS: Now it's down to 14 percent. This is not going to help.

But “honest” isn’t “down to fourteen percent” when Andy Kohut asks respondents for a one-word description of Bush. In fact, it’s down to less than two percent; in the most recent Pew survey (the survey to which Shields refers), 14 individuals (out of 710 asked) said “honest” when asked for one word. But then, there never was a previous poll where “two out of five people” said the word “honest.” In the February 2005 Pew survey, 38 individuals said the word “honest”—out of 761 people asked. Shields keeps bungling these familiar data—in precisely the way Kohut warns about, right there as he presents the numbers (click here, then scroll down). Clearly, Shields isn’t reading his HOWLER. Is there any chance that Kohut could give the struggling pundit a call?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Now that we know that Shields isn’t watching, why not review an astounding performance from Campaign 2000? We refer to the time when he heaped praise on Bush for wearing a suit and a tie as he explained a disgraceful bungled procedure—a procedure which involved life and death. In a truly amazing campaign, this may be one of the ten weirdest press corps incidents. Do you still believe that you live among humans, the way we’ve all been told since birth? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/6/02, then tell us that you still hold that view. Yes this post is a bit long, but trust us—it simply must be read. Bonus points! The hapless John Cornyn, then Texas AG, played a large role in this matter.

A REMARKABLE MORNING: Amazing. It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen a newspaper as hopeless as today’s New York Times. Let’s start with the letters section—with this letter from at outraged reader in Somerville, Mass., for example:

NEW YORK TIMES LETTER (4/8/06): President Bush does in fact have the legal right to declassify information at any time. This does not make his disclosure morally defensible.

The president claimed that any person responsible for this leak would be removed from his administration. Is the president willing to stay true to his words, and admit the seriousness of his own offense?

Americans should be outraged at this reckless disregard for both honesty and security.

The writer is outraged, and says you should be too—but she has her facts mixed up. When the president “claimed that any person responsible for this leak would be removed from his administration,” he was, of course, referring to the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity. That is not the leak at issue here, but the writer from Somerville seems not to know it. But then, all five letters in the Times on this topic make this conflation, or seem to support it. Here’s the start of the first letter in this group, for example:
NEW YORK TIMES LETTER (4/8/06): Re "Cheney's Aide Says President Approved Leak" (front page, April 7):

It is most ironic that President Bush—who has vowed to "get to the bottom of the leak case," and whose administration's pathological obsession with secrecy is well known—should himself turn out to be at the bottom of part of it, according to the testimony of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

This writer is thoroughly outraged too—and thoroughly confused on his basic facts. He goes on to complain about “the Bush-Cheney regime's consistent track record of...dishonesty” and its willingness to “mislead the public” through the use of “selective” information—even as he does so himself.

And don’t worry—many citizens are being misled as the Times prints a string of bungled letters from thoroughly misinformed readers. On C-SPAN this morning, an endless string of jabbering callers made this same conflation of the two leaks, even after repeated clarifications from other callers and from C-SPAN guests. Perhaps they’d read Maureen Dowd’s clownish column today—a column so foolish that we won’t bother to quote it. Or perhaps they’d read Scott Shane’s front-page “News Analysis,” which includes a hapless passage which we’ll quote at some length:

SHANE (4/8/06): For months, Mr. Bush and his top aides have campaigned against leaks of classified information as a danger to the nation and as criminal acts...

In that context, the report that the president was himself approving a leak may do serious political damage, said Mr. Shenkman, who has a blog on presidential politics. ''It does give the public such a powerful example of hypocrisy that I think it might linger for a while,'' he said.

Scott McClellan, the president's spokesman, disputed the charge of a double standard on leaks. ''There is a difference between declassifying information in the national interest and the unauthorized disclosure'' of national security information, Mr. McClellan said Friday. Of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, part of which Mr. Libby shared with Judith Miller, then a Times reporter, Mr. McClellan said, ''There was nothing in there that would compromise national security.''

Mr. McClellan's tone contrasted sharply with that of administration officials after the N.S.A. story broke in December. Mr. Bush told a news conference at the time: ''My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy.”

Why would McClellan’s tone have differed in these two instances? Duh. Because the Bush Admin claims that the NSA leak compromised an important secret program, and that the release of the National Intelligence Estimate did not. (As far as we know, no one claims that release of the NIE compromised national security.) The logic here would baffle few chimps. But we’ll suggest you do yourselves a favor. Go ahead—spend a dollar today just to watch this puzzling matter wrestle Dowd straight to the ground.

The calls to C-SPAN today were amazing—but then again, so are those letters. Amazing too was last night’s cable viewing, in which—for the first time we can remember—we thought the presentation on Special Report was the clearest anywhere on the dial. For ourselves, we’ll go with Michael Isikoff’s take, offered on last night’s Hardball:

ISIKOFF (4/7/06): Look, in my mind, this is, you know, we may be making—we may be losing the big picture here. Yes, the president did authorize this leak selectively. But compared to the other selective leaking that the president has done, read Bob Woodward`s books. They are loaded with authorized leaks from the president of much more sensitive, highly classified information than was involved here, and they`re all over the place. I mean—

MATTHEWS: Is that for history? What came out after the war?

ISIKOFF: Well, there was one that came out before the war, and another came out after the war. But you know, one could argue that it was for history and critics have argued they were sort of selectively choosing what they were going to provide or now. But what I`m saying is, to put it in context, you know, I think it makes this particular leak rather small potatoes.

We think Isikoff is basically right. At earlier junctures, we learned about much more significant leaks and misstatements; Woodward’s Plan of Attack was full of such material, at a time when it really mattered. But Bush’s poll numbers were higher then, and timorous newspapers failed to react. (And the fiery activist web? Don’t ask.) Now, with Bush dropping through the mid-30s, the New York Times is ready to act—and to put its thumb on the scale, as such life forms so unfailingly do. Into the paper go strings of letters from outraged but mixed-up readers. (Is there a rule against posting one accurate letter?) And all over C-SPAN, callers recite the bungled facts which have them so enraged and irate. When a C-SPAN guest politely corrects one caller, the next caller says the same thing. (In the case, the guest was Peter Wallsten of the Los AngelesTimes.)

By the way: Chris Matthews, the “unmitigated GOP whore,” spent the entire hour last night battering Bush all around on this matter. More on his lack of mitigation next week.