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Daily Howler: Flag-pin pundits all said the same things. But so had big journos before them
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OVER AND OVER AND OVER! Flag-pin pundits all said the same things. But so had big journos before them: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 21, 2008

CARTOON NATION: In many ways, the nation’s political discourse can best be compared to a giant cartoon. For a couple of famous examples, consider John McCain’s appearance on yesterday’s This Week. Four minutes into his interview, he offered this variant on a decades-old claim:

MCCAIN (4/20/08): [Obama] obviously doesn’t understand the economy. Because history shows, every time you have cut capital gains taxes, revenues have increased, going back to Jack Kennedy.

American voters have heard it for decades: Lower tax rates produce extra revenue! Eight minutes later, McCain expounded on the obvious perils of “big-government” health care:

MCCAIN: We’re not going to have a big government take-over and mandates. They’ve tried that in other countries. Both of the—Senator Obama and Senator Clinton’s plans are big-government solutions...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, what’s wrong with government-run—what’s wrong with government-run health care?

MCCAIN: What’s wrong with it? Go to England. Go to Canada. Governments don’t make the right decisions. Families make the right decisions.

Euro health care has been a disaster! American voters have heard that claim over and over, too.

Yesterday, McCain voiced two familiar claims—claims which are exceptionally hard to square with basic facts. But George Stephanopoulos didn’t challenge what McCain said concerning the magic of lowered tax rates. Nor did he challenge the insinuation that Euro health care is a big giant mess.

We don’t want to criticize Stephanopoulos too much. During the interview, he seemed to be trying to challenge McCain’s recent budget proposals, although he did so rather ineptly. But Republicans know they can make these claims with almost no chance of being challenged. For decades, the mainstream press corps has sat on its hands while these cartoonish claims distort the political discourse. By the way, there’s little chance that Dem Party officials or liberal elites will ever get their act together enough to challenge these spin-points either. These claims are bogus, but they’re made with impunity. And they make a cartoon of our discourse.

But then, the mainstream press corps is notable mainly for its gross incompetence. Can this group perform any task, no matter how simple? The question crossed our minds again when we read this post at Media Matters. CNN tried to inform the public about the three major candidates’ “wealth” and “income.” To watch CNN compare apples to kumquats, just read that short report.

Given current public information, there is no way to compare the charitable giving of McCain, Obama and Clinton. You’d think CNN could have figured that out. But if you thought that, you would be wrong. CNN, inside Cartoon Nation, couldn’t quite figure it out.

On This Week, Stephanopoulos was trying to push McCain about his recent budget proposals. How capably will those proposals be covered? We expect to comment further.

OVER AND OVER AND OVER: David Barstow has broken the mold before; more below on his previous service. But Barstow’s front-page report in Sunday’s New York Times helps raise one of the journalistic questions which have defined our age. How is it that our public discourse is so thoroughly “managed?” How can it be that so many pundits will go on TV and All Say The Exact Same Things?

Barstow describes the way the Bush Admin has scripted TV’s ubiquitous “military analysts” about the war in Iraq. In the following passage, he describes the way these flag-pin patriots agreed to play “monkey-see/monkey-do” in the months leading up to the war. In the highlighted passage, Pentagon staffers marvel at how easy it was to script the pin-wearing poobahs:

BARSTOW (4/20/08): In the fall and winter leading up to the invasion [of Iraq], the Pentagon armed its analysts with talking points portraying Iraq as an urgent threat. The basic case became a familiar mantra: Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, was developing nuclear weapons, and might one day slip some to Al Qaeda; an invasion would be a relatively quick and inexpensive “war of liberation.”

At the Pentagon, members of [Torie] Clarke’s staff marveled at the way the analysts seamlessly incorporated material from talking points and briefings as if it was their own.

Clarke’s staff marveled as they watched the generals repeat the things they’d been told. Flag pins secured to their lapels, these patriots were taking whatever claim they’d been handed—and then, they were reciting the claim “as if it was their own.” In his next paragraph, Barstow quotes Brent Krueger, a top Clarke aide. Krueger describes the broken shape of an age of American discourse:

BARSTOW (continuing directly): “You could see that they were messaging,” Mr. Krueger said. “You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying it over and over and over.” Some days, he added, “We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’ ”

They were saying it over and over and over. Indeed, whatever the latest bull-shit might be, you could see the Pentagon’s pigeons “saying it on every single channel.”

They were saying it over and over and over! You could hear it on every single channel! But this phenomenon hardly began during this pre-war period. By the late-1990s, the phenomenon Krueger describes had become the norm in the world of American journalism. This phenomenon contradicts the basic things we’re told about the way a free press functions. And yet, this phenomenon was already ruling our discourse by the late 1990s.

For the moment, forget about these “military analysts,” taking dictation from Torie Clarke’s shop. By the mid- to late-1990s, the nation’s civilian pundit corps was already behaving precisely this way. Whatever the latest talking-point was in the press corps’ wars against Clinton and Gore, you could seen them on every channel, saying it over and over and over. They would line up to recite the latest point—even when many of them knew that the point in question was wrong, or was grossly misleading. No dissenter would ever speak up—though the pundit corps was full of “liberals” who surely knew that their scripted colleagues were baldly deceiving the public.

For a late-1990s example, see below. But our archives contain a great many.

Barstow gives reasons which help explain why these “military analysts” recited the things they’d been told to recite. (Some of them had financial reasons for peddling the Pentagon’s Official Approved Lines.) But in fact, these compliant script-readers were extending a culture which civilian pundits had already invented. To this day, the New York Times hasn’t gone back to examine that line of misconduct.

During the years of Clinton and Gore, this disgraceful style of civilian punditry began to drive the American discourse. Those brave, brave men who recited Clarke’s lines were heirs to a long line of previous monkeys. So go ahead: Just click the link we give you below. Why did all those civilian pundits stand in line to say what was false? Through the 1990s, they did this again and again and again; you could see them on every channel, over and over and over. Why did these journalists play this game? The New York Times has never asked. Best bet: The Times never will.

JUST ONE EXAMPLE: Civilian pundits were behaving this way long before the flap-pin gang began reciting Clarke’s points. This conduct had come to rule the discourse during the wars against Clinton and Gore. For one easy-reader example, consider the press corps’ assault on Candidate Gore concerning his deeply troubling remark about the book and film, Love Story.

In late 1997, author Eric Segal had said that Gore was one of the two role models for the book’s leading character. This nonsense was never worth discussing, of course. But Segal’s unambiguous statement had been reported by the New York Times. It was later reported by the Associated Press, several times, even in December 1998, when Gore’s father died. But so what? In March 1999, pundits stood in a very long line to insist that Segal had said the opposite—and to say that this deeply troubling affair showed us what a liar Gore is.

They said it over and over and over! You could see them in every single newspaper! The AP even got in line to contradict its own prior reporting.

In the spring of 1999, the American press corps was full of people who knew what Segal had actually said. But go ahead—just find the mainstream journalist who stood and challenged what the rest of the press corps was saying about this absurd affair. For a partial list of these misstatements, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/05. The Times has never explored this era’s misconduct—and most likely, the Times never will.

HE GOT IT RIGHT IN THOSE DAYS TOO: David Barstow is a serial offender; he seemed to break his cohort’s rules during McCain’s 2000 race. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/29/00 and 3/3/00. Three cheers for David Barstow!