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Daily Howler: Your press corps loves to talk about swag--except when the swag is its own
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INTENDING TO BE WELL PAID! Your press corps loves to talk about swag–except when the swag is its own: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 25, 2007

IT’S STILL HOW DEBATES GET DECIDED: Tomorrow, the first Democratic debate! Hosted by NBC’s Brian Williams! Responding to the growing excitement, Roger Simon penned this world-class groaner over at Monday’s Politico. At Tapped, Paul Waldman offered this reply, then added this valuable post.

Amazingly, Simon wrote in praise of the dumbest, least appropriate question ever asked in a general election debate—the lurid query Bernie Shaw threw at Dukakis to open the final 1988 forum. ("Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”) It’s amazing to see that pundits like Simon still think this was the greatest moment in the history of American journalism. And it’s amazing to see that Shaw still thinks this question proves he was The Man.

In his first post, Waldman does an excellent job of critiquing the nonsense involved here. (Though no one could really do full justice to the absurdity of Simon’s analysis.) In his second post, he takes us back to the 1972 White House race—and helps us see how major pundits pick and choose winners for us dumb-ass voters. Yep! This has gone on for a very long time in this, our dumbest cohort.

If you’re interested in the way our elections get scripted, we strongly recommend both Waldman posts. But we thought it was worth noting one further point: Right after that second Bush-Dukakis debate, Bernie Shaw got some very bad reviews for asking his dumb, ugly question. Checking on Nexis, we found few next-day reports praising Shaw. We found several reports which savaged him for asking his dumb, ugly question.

Here’s how Steve Daley began an analysis piece in the next day’s Chicago Tribune:
DALEY (10/14/88): In a matter of figurative television moments, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw raped and murdered Kitty Dukakis, then killed off George Bush before Inauguration Day.

Counting the Bentsen-Quayle confrontation, maybe three of these increasingly lunatic televised debates are enough.

Shaw, moderator for the second presidential debate Thursday evening, provided the lowest moment in three long nights of these tightly wound parallel press conferences.

And this time, the panel of journalists really did botch the process.

Newsweek reporter Margaret Warner dithered over an ill-conceived question on Michael Dukakis' "likability.” ABC's Ann Compton was able to elicit the startling fact that Dr. Jonas Salk is one of Dukakis' heroes. Based on his performance, viewers were blessed that Shaw got only one question.

It was a grim evening for anyone wearing press credentials, as well as for anyone shopping for a president.
Ouch! But others had the same reaction to Shaw’s brilliant question. In the Boston Globe, Tom Oliphant said that Dukakis had done quite poorly overall. (In the polls, The Duke had won the first debate.) But he savaged Shaw “for asking a question of appalling poor taste.” In the Post, Tom Shales whacked him too:
SHALES (10/14/88): Moderator Shaw certainly got the evening off to a morbid start. He began a question about the death penalty by saying to Dukakis, "If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered ... " Then he turned to Bush and asked, "If you are elected, and die before inauguration day ... ." Bush exclaimed, "Bernie!"

Before the closing statements, Shaw declared, "We have come to the end of our questions. That's a pity." Not really. Most of the questions were reprises from the first debate. In fact, last night's questions were probably the most lackluster of the three encounters.
On October 15, Oliphant reported an interesting fact: Citing panel member Ann Compton, he reported that “the three panelists had tried to persuade Shaw not to ask the question, arguing that it might set an ugly tone for the 90-minute session.” In that same day’s Chicago Tribune, Timothy McNulty quoted Kitty Dukakis, who said, "It was an outrageous question, it really was." More McNulty: “Mrs. Dukakis, a strong-minded campaigner and her husband's closest adviser, said she was embarrassed and did not want to make eye contact with her husband as he answered.”

We’ve always thought that was the lowest and dumbest moment in the history of presidential debates. To this day, of course, journos love to mock Dukakis—because he didn’t know how to respond to a type of question almost no one would ask. (On October 14, several reporters said that Dukakis seemed “startled” or “taken aback” by the question.) But we didn’t know that our pundit corps still thinks that was a brilliant query. Even here, we didn’t know that their judgment remains that poor.

Meanwhile, be sure to read the part of Simon’s piece where he describes the scene in the press room that night, as the nation’s reporters assembled their story almost before the debate had begun. And be sure to see Waldman’s account of the way they pre-scripted Candidate Muskie back in 1972. Your brilliant press corps also scripted that crucial first Bush-Gore debate, of course. These sages always seem to know what’s best for the nation’s rubes to think. Looking ahead to tomorrow night, this is still how debates get decided.

THE EFFECTS OF SLEEP DEPRIVATION: Pondering his timeless brilliance, Shaw says he thought up his question at 2 in the morning. Readers, please! A bit of decorum! Let’s agree not to guess where he was.

Special report: Gregory’s world!


PART 2—INTENDING TO BE WELL PAID: A lot of money is sloshing around at the top of the Washington press corps. There’s nothing automatically wrong with that. But when they gather at Eel Point, adjacent to Nantucket’s swells, we start to see how phony it is when their cohort complains about Edwards’ big house, the one that cost so much money (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/24/07). Eek! Edwards’ “mansion” in Georgetown was worth $5.2 million, Maureen Dowd complained last weekend. But uh-oh! In 2004, her friend Chris Matthews had paid $4.4 million—just for his summer crib.

Meanwhile, there is a down-side to those big salaries: Lots of people will do lots of things to qualify for the pay-days found at the top of our broadcast press corps. What became of the street-fighting Norah O’Donnell who would challenge Matthews in the late 90s? Today, her Inner Feist has been sanded away—and O’Donnell, once so young and bright, is on her way to a giant, less useful, career. No, we can’t read Norah’s mind. But this does go on in the press corps.

For the record, David Gregory hasn’t engaged in the kinds of excesses which have bedeviled his parent, NBC News. By the late 90s, the network’s pundits were being chosen from an amazingly limited cultural stock, and they engaged in astounding misconduct during Campaign 2000, the election which changed U.S. history. Matthews’ performance was simply astounding, and Brian Williams was little better (at the time, he hosted a nightly MSNBC program). Meanwhile, Tim Russert’s session with Gore in July 2000 may have been the worst hour we’ve ever seen from a national broadcaster. Even Tom Brokaw—then the network’s “diversity hire”—marked himself at several key junctures with weirdly unprofessional comments about what a big loser Al Gore seemed to be. But through all these seasons, Nantucket was there; the gang would gather with their owner, Jack Welch. We’ll muse about Jack’s role on Friday.

No, Gregory generally hasn’t behaved in the gruesome manner of the boys’ club which has surrounded him all these years. He doesn’t rush to the silly themes which long defined his network’s punditry; if the rest of the press corps acted like him, THE DAILY HOWLER might not exist. Indeed, at various times in the past few years, his work has been famously pleasing to liberals. President Bush may call him “Stretch,” but “Stretch” has often seemed inclined to cut the Bush Admin down to size, sometimes overdoing in the process. By March 2006, his battles with hapless press spokesman Scott McClellan had earned him a profile from the Post’s Howard Kurtz. “Gregory is emerging as the Sam Donaldson of the Bush years,” Kurtz wrote, “the outspoken, aggressive, smart-aleck correspondent serving as a symbol for conservatives who detest the press and liberals who want reporters to crusade against the White House.” We think such conservatives over-react. But when Gregory guest-hosts Hardball, the nonsense level drops through the floor. Let’s say it again: In the gentleman’s time at NBC News, he has generally behaved like a professional.

But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t surrounded by issues of wealth and connection. We’d long been intrigued by those Nantucket nuptials; we’d idly wondered how this young Californian fit into his network’s East Coast island boys’ club. And during some recent on-line perusals, we were struck by some issues that were raised by his marriage to Beth Wilkinson—a highly-accomplished, superstar lawyer who has also, as far as we can tell, never done anything wrong in her life. Because the Washington press corps is so intent on keeping us clueless about the Washington press corps, we thought these issues of wealth and connection might be worth discussing.

Let’s start again in a hail of compliments. Beth Wilkinson is a super-achieving, superstar lawyer who has served her country—and who donates to Dems. In September 1998, the Washingtonian’s Kim Eisler profiled her as one of Washington’s top young lawyers. In fact, her name was second on Eisler’s list. Here was the basic background:
EISLER (9/98): Beth Ann Wilkinson, 35—the daughter of a retired nuclear-submarine captain—is one of the most talented prosecutors to come out of the Justice Department in decades. One of two women in her class to go through the ROTC program at Princeton University, Wilkinson deferred her service duties to attend the University of Virginia law school and then spent four years as an Army lawyer working on the classified-documents part of the successful Manuel Noriega prosecution.

After military service she made her way to the Justice Department, where by age 32 she had become principal deputy chief of the terrorism and violent-crime section. Wilkinson's reputation soared when she won the conviction of a Colombian drug lord accused of blowing up an airliner. Then she was selected for the all-star team to prosecute Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. With the O. J. Simpson case still fresh in the public's mind, Wilkinson's professionalism was a key component in a prosecution now viewed as a textbook example of how a case should be tried.

Wilkinson was “a fan of Dostoevsky's brooding Russian thrillers,” Eisler wrote, providing a bit of human interest. And she had “just left the Justice Department...to go into private practice at the DC office of the Los Angeles-based law firm Latham & Watkins.” In fact, Wilkinson was a partner at Latham, where she worked for the next seven years.

For the record, Gregory met Wilkinson while reporting on McVeigh’s trial, where the pleasure of a good legal brief attracted him to his future wife. Those Nantucket nuptials that caught our eye occurred in June 2000. At the Washingtonian, Eisler continued to profile Wilkinson in his periodic reports on Washington’s most outstanding lawyers. Last June, Wilkinson made her next career move. She left Latham to become executive vice president/general counsel at Fannie Mae, the hard-to-explain government-sponsored enterprise which is now “the ninth-largest business in the world”—if you trust Forbes and Wikipedia. And here at THE HOWLER, we do.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it! (There isn’t.) But Wilkinson’s career at Latham and Fannie Mae is why the Washington Monthly includes her and her hubby in its current list of D.C. “power couples.” And yes! Although you’d never know it from the way the press corps writes about the press corps, this means that Gregory lives in a world of major wealth and insider connection. What kind of salary does Gregory make? Except at the very highest levels of the broadcast press corps, matters like that are rarely discussed—although the press corps loves to discuss big salaries in every other sector. (“Reportedly,” Katie Couric is being paid $15 million per by CBS News.) But Wilkinson hauls down a good salary too. She was profiled by the New York Times when she made the move to Fannie Mae. In a Bloomsday profile (“The Lure of the In-House Job”), business writer Karen Donovan raised the always delicate question of compensation on such levels:
DONOVAN (6/16/06): Fannie Mae did not disclose Ms. Wilkinson's compensation upon her hiring.

The average profits at Ms. Wilkinson's former law firm, Latham & Watkins, were $1.6 million per partner last year, according to The American Lawyer. ''Some people were very intrigued and nicely jealous,'' Ms. Wilkinson said of her move to Fannie Mae. ''Other people I think were a little more circumspect probably because they didn't want to ask the indelicate question about compensation.''

But the company has pegged her compensation to performance and she said she intended to be paid well.
We’ll admit it! Given our delicate sensibilities, we found that last paraphrase mildly off-putting. (But then, tossed-off paraphrase is often unfair.) It is safe to say that this power couple gets by on at least several million a year. The press corps almost never discusses such matters—except, of course, when such wealth is found in some other occupation. Then, they sometimes stampede off to complain about all the excess.

Is there something wrong with earning big bucks? In principle, no—there is not. For example, Al Gore has earned big bucks in recent years, and guess what? He’s right about warming! Meanwhile, Gregory doesn’t embarrass himself, the way some network associates do. And we’ve read nothing but praise for his brilliant wife—although, if you read tomorrow’s post, a few of her legal cases at Latham may well make a few readers twitch.

But we’d guess that few voters understand the wealth of the upper-end Washington press corps. We’d also guess this: If voters knew how much these louts make, they’d be more inclined to wonder about the general drift of their work. Gregory’s work is generally reasonable. But elsewhere, journalists clown, recite and self-edit with big career pay-days in mind. After all, it’s human nature. People are willing to do a lot for a shot at those big, massive salaries.

On Friday, we’ll wander back to look at a case where our analysts can’t help but wonder: Did Jack Welch possibly make a phone call? Does that explain why his network’s pundits turned on a dime in a very big matter? (Voters rarely ask themselves that, in part because they rarely hear about this cohort’s insider connections.) But before we go there, let’s discuss insider connections in the world of a better-than-average scribe. Your press corps rarely discusses the way your press corps connects with those big power players. As we Nexised and Googled around, we were struck by one such (reported) insider connection inside that Latham career.

TOMORROW: No, no one did anything wrong.

CALM DOWN, READERS: At kooky-con web sites, Wilkinson is sometimes batted about for her work in the Clinton-era Justice Department. This explains why Gregory favors Dems, savants sometimes say. (Janet Reno and Jamie Gorelick get mentioned.) In fact, just to set your minds at ease, we’ll note this fact—Wilkinson does seem to donate to Dems. We stumbled across the data at a big web site we knew nothing about. We feel funny about such things. But perhaps you know which one it is.