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TAKE ME TO YOUR MORAL LEADER! Brian Williams once said he loves Rush. Last Thursday evening, he proved it: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 30, 2007

TAKE ME TO YOUR MORAL LEADER: Brian Williams, expensively dressed, started things off at Thursday’s debate with a question for Candidate Clinton. Despite his excellent sense of humor, we’ve sometimes found the handsome anchor to be a bit of a public lightweight (links below). But his first question Thursday was basically fair—and it was highly topical:
WILLIAMS (4/26/07): Senator Clinton, your party's leader in the United States Senate, Harry Reid, recently said the war in Iraq is lost. Do you agree with the position of your leader in the Senate?
You could argue that Williams had over-simplified Reid’s statement; according to his fuller remarks and his later clarification, Reid thinks the war is lost unless we incorporate attempts for a political settlement. But really, this first question wasn’t half-bad. And that should be our first, clear sign that this isn’t the question Williams asked.

What did Williams actually ask? What follows is the text of his full first question. It includes an astonishing swipe at Reid that is straight from the world of conservative talk—a gratuitous remark that typified much of Williams’ work this evening:
WILLIAMS (actual opening question): Senator Clinton, your party's leader in the United States Senate, Harry Reid, recently said the war in Iraq is lost. A letter to today's USA Today calls his comments "treasonous" and says if General Patton were alive today, Patton would wipe his boots with Senator Reid. Do you agree with the position of your leader in the Senate?
Good God! Nothing too “loaded” about that question! And no, we really aren’t making this up; in his first question on Thursday night, Williams quoted a letter-writer—accusing Reid of treasonous conduct! Sadly, foolish, poisonous letters like this are now an integral part of our discourse. Amazingly enough, this cry of “treason” became a part of the first question at Thursday’s debate!

Yep! Instead of simply asking his question—Do you agree with what Harry Reid said?—Williams constructed a lurid framework. Reid is “treasonous,” a letter had said. Patton would “wipe his boots” on him.

What a remarkable question that was! Aside from his treason, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you like your leader?

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Sadly, that name-calling letter was Straight Outta Limbaugh. But then, so were a lot of questions Williams asked Thursday night. (For the transcript of the debate, just click here.) For example, how about the elementary fairness of Williams’ second question:
WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, you have called this war in Iraq, quote, "dumb," close quote. Why have you voted for appropriations for it in the past?
There again, not a horrible question by Williams—and therefore, not the question he asked. Here is Williams’ actual question. Could Hannity have framed it any better?
WILLIAMS (actual second question): Senator Obama, you have called this war in Iraq, quote, "dumb," close quote. How do you square that position with those who have sacrificed so much? And why have you voted for appropriations for it in the past?
Good God—what a perfect hack! Back in the fall of 2002, long before the war began, Obama said he opposed the idea, the wisdom of which was then being debated. “I don’t oppose war in all circumstances,” he said. “But what I do oppose is a dumb war.” When he spoke, no American soldier had lost his life; the wisdom of going to Iraq was still being debated. But so what? Five years later, Williams constructed a classic, dishonest “gotcha” moment; he made it sound like Obama had been parading around saying things that disrespected the loss of American lives. This sort of garbage-can framing can be seen each night—performed by Sean Hannity. And you could see it Thursday night too—in Williams’ second question.

Yes, the degraded soul of pseudo-con talk was present in that pitiful “question.” But then, how about this astounding question to Edwards, concerning that recent Supreme Court decision:
WILLIAMS: Our most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated a majority of Americans approved of last week's Supreme Court decision to make so-called partial birth or late-term abortions illegal.

Most of the people on this stage put out statements and criticized the ruling. A lot of American families find this just a hideous topic for a discussion.

Is this a case, do you think, of the Supreme Court and the public with opinions in one place, and yet a lot of elected officials [i.e., Democrats] in another?
Good God! Unfortunately, that question has so many glaring problems it’s hard to get them all straightened out.

First, of course, Williams’ use of the term “partial-birth abortion” was a political choice. That’s the language of conservative pols, not of medical people. Beyond that, Williams’ conflation of “partial-birth” and “late-term” abortion was one of the many conceptual blunders the handsome hunk would author this evening. So-called “partial-birth abortion” is only one form of “late-term abortion;” the terms are not interchangeable. Yes, it’s a fairly minor point. But in the course of the debate, Williams would make many small blunders like this, as we will point out below.

But the most remarkable part of this question to Edwards was the section where Williams informed the world that “a lot of American families find this just a hideous topic for a discussion.” With this statement, Williams put his thumb firmly on the scale, producing an absurdly “loaded” question. Almost surely, his statement was technically accurate; the vagueness of the phrase “a lot” is very useful in spinning such matters. But once again, Williams had his thumb firmly on the scale as he offered this highly-charged aside. In this question, the word “hideous” played the same sort of role that “treasonous” had played earlier on. It served to put an obvious political slant on an otherwise valid question.

“American families” found this thing “hideous!” Edwards had criticized the Court’s decision—and here was Williams, plainly saying that this put him, and his fellow Democrats, severely at odds with these families. After all, “a majority of Americans” approved the Court’s decision, Williams said at the start of his question. But uh-oh! There too, he was tilting his presentation. In fact, he was making a claim about that new NBC poll that is just untrue.

In fact, it isn’t clear from that NBC poll that “a majority of Americans” agree with the Court’s new ruling. In its poll, NBC asked about the ruling in two different ways. And as NBC’s results clearly show, when pollsters mentioned the lack of “an exception for the health of the mother,” the public favored the Court’s ruling by a very slender plurality; 47 percent favored the ruling, 43 percent opposed it. (For poll results, click here.) Indeed, only 50 percent favor the ruling when results from NBC’s two questions are combined. But so what? Williams built an aggressive framework around his question, putting Edwards on the defensive. In his next question, he repeated his framework, asking for Obama’s “reaction to most of the public agreeing with the court’s holding.”

“American families” think this whole thing is “hideous!” Aside from that, Mr. Edwards, how do you like your opposition to this new, highly popular ruling?

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Let’s summarize. A letter-writer thought Reid was treasonous. And American families think Edwards is hideous. But then, Williams constantly built his questions around heavily loaded conservative frameworks. And his local co-moderator, WIS-TV’s David Stanton, seemed to be feeling the spirit too. Try to believe that he asked this groaner. No, we’re not making this up:
STANTON (4/26/07): Senator Clinton, if you were currently the president, would you defy the majority of American citizens and offer a form of amnesty for illegal aliens?
Good God—what perfect crap! You could hardly form a more “loaded” question about this topic; if Rush himself had been the moderator, he might have shrunk from this grossly unbalanced (and misleading) formulation. But Williams and his eager pal framed their questions like this all evening. Here was one of Williams’ gooniest—the question which closed the debate:
WILLIAMS: Senator Biden, a question for you. A friend of mine who's in the leadership of the Democratic Party says that if the party goes down a third straight time, what will happen is what he defined as modern-day extinction of the Democratic Party.

Putting yourself aside, perhaps, is there a winner on this stage tonight, and does your party have what it takes to reverse this trend and win the White House?
Assuring us that he was quoting a major Democrat, Williams pictured the party’s extinction—a perfect way to end the evening! But then, this was kid stuff compared to the earlier question in which he quoted Rudolph Giuliani, then assumed a fact not in evidence:
WILLIAMS: Senator, Rudolph Giuliani, a friend of yours from back home, said this week: Quote, "the Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us."

Another quote: "America will be safer with a Republican president."

How do you think, Senator, that it happened that that notion of Republicans as protectors in a post-9/11 world has taken on so?
Because Rudy says something, we assume that it’s true? Williams seemed to assert that the public thinks of Republicans as their protectors against terrorism. (To state the obvious, this is a very central Republican talking-point.) Indeed, in his next question, to Senator Dodd, he asserted this premise again:
WILLIAMS: Senator Dodd, same question. How has this label been attached to the Democratic Party, that the Republicans will protect America best?
How has this label been attached to the Dems? Simple! In part, through the work of people like Williams! At THE HOWLER, we don’t blame Senators Clinton and Dodd because they weren’t prepared with the relevant data. (Neither one challenged Williams’ premise.) But current data don’t support the premise Williams asserted. For example, in the most recent poll reported here on this subject, ABC News and the Washington Post asked respondents the following question: “Who do you trust to do a better job handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism: Bush or the Democrats in Congress?” 39 percent favored Bush—but 52 percent favored Dems! But so what? Williams had weeks to prepare his questions. But here again, he asserted a highly tendentious conservative framework—a frame that was Straight Outta Rush.

Which leads us up to our basic question: Has anyone ever asked so many loaded questions in a presidential debate? Williams is a low-key, mannerly fellow, so it seems he can get away with this conduct; he can offer asides about treason in his first question, and liberals and Democrats don’t seem to notice. But routinely, Williams’ questions Thursday night made him sound like a tool of conservative interests. For example, he smuggled in a remarkable claim when he played gotcha with Obama:
WILLIAMS: You’ve promised in your campaign a new kind of politics, but just this week the Chicago Sun-Times reported on questionable ties you have with a donor who was charged last year for demanding kickbacks on Illinois business deals.

Aren’t you practicing the very same kind of politics that many of the others on this stage have engaged in?
Say what? In the course of asking Obama about the Rezko matter, Williams suggested that “many” of the other candidates had engaged in some undefined but “questionable” “kind of politics!” As we’ve said, Williams is so smooth and bland that you barely notice him making such claims. But in this question, he smeared the other seven candidates. And he managed to keep this up throughout the course of the evening.

His weirdly conservative frameworks were endless. Example: When Gore testified before the Senate about global warming, a string of Republican senators pushed the interests of the nuclear industry. We thought of that episode when we saw Williams ask another weirdly framed question:
WILLIAMS: Senator Gravel, your two terms in the Senate representing Alaska have sat on top of, of course, a huge reserve of oil. With the French system as the model, is the United States, in your view, woefully behind in its use of nuclear energy?
There’s nothing wrong with asking these candidates what they think about nuclear energy—quite the contrary. But this question was framed exactly the way the nuclear industry would have done. As presented, the question seems to suggest the answer being sought. Again, this was a classic loaded question—tilted the “conservative” way.

Finally, consider the following question for Clinton. Williams seems to have used only one poll to establish the fact he asserts at the start. Then, he assumes another fact not in evidence—a fact designed to embarrass:
WILLIAMS: Senator Clinton, recent national polls indicate the majority of the general public has an unfavorable view of you, right now, at this point in time.

Why do you think Republicans are looking forward to running against you with so much zeal?
There’s no better way to waste everyone’s time than by asking questions like this at debates—questions about candidates’ standing in polls. (Later, Williams wasted time by asking Kucinich a similar question.) But in this question, Williams seems to be citing a single poll—the latest Gallup survey—in making his claim about Clinton’s unfavorables. And then, he assumes a fact not in evidence. Is it true? Are Republicans “looking forward to running against Clinton with so much zeal?” Williams can’t possibly know the answer. But it provided one more awkward framework. The always dreamy, handsome hunk kept this up all night.

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Many of Williams’ (and Stanton’s) questions bore unmistakable conservative frameworks. But beyond that, a surprising number of Williams’ questions were just flat-out dumb. We’ve noted the gentleman’s lightweight tendencies in the past, all the way back to 1999 (links below). But on Thursday, Williams seem determined to prove it all night long. In some instances, his odd questions seemed to baffle the candidates—sometimes provoking audience laughter at the hopefuls’ expense.

How poorly formed were some of his questions? The following question, to Biden, was a tad puzzling. But the question which followed was just flat-out dumb:
WILLIAMS: Senator Biden, from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, what three nations, other than Iraq, represent, to you, the biggest threat to the United States?
In this question, Williams seemed to assert that Iraq “represents a big threat” to the United States. If meant seriously, that’s a slightly tendentious claim, and fairly odd as a matter of logic. (Technically, Iraq is an American ally.) But the question which followed was just plain stupid. But so what? Williams asked it:
WILLIAMS: Senator Gravel, same question: Other than Iraq, the three most important enemies to the United States?
Thinking he was asking the “same question,” Williams uttered a cosmic howler; he seemed to assert that Iraq was an “important enemy” of the United States. Has Williams heard that Saddam was overthrown? As noted, Iraq is currently a United States ally; we bring its leaders to the White House and offer them our fulsome praise. But so what? Given weeks to form his questions, Williams ended up making this odd presentation. Heroically, the candidates kept giving the answers they wanted in response to Williams’ odd questions. But the oddness of the gentleman’s reasoning and expression never seemed to flag.

Throughout the evening, candidates worked their way around Williams’ tendentious and puzzling questions. But for the record, several other questions included illogical or unexplained elements. A news junky would understand the reference to Putin in the following question, for instance. But other viewers wouldn’t know what Williams meant, because he didn’t explain his reference:
WILLIAMS: Governor Richardson, with your forays into diplomacy, four nominations for Nobel Peace Prizes, when you consider that President Bush said he once looked into the soul of Putin, how would you do things differently with Russia?
It would have been easy to state that question clearly. For example, Williams could have said this:
WILLIAMS, REVISED QUESTION: Governor Richardson, President Bush once affirmed his faith in Vladimir Putin’s soul—in his good intentions as Russian president. But Russia continues to become less and less democratic. Would you do things differently with Russia? If so, what approach would you take?
Essentially, that’s the question which Richardson answered. In our suggested revision, we’ve also dropped Williams’ gratuitous puffing of Richardson, which may reflect that fact that the tax-cutting governor is many Republicans’ favorite Dem candidate.

That in mind, let’s return to Williams’ free-floating incoherence, which was on display all evening. How many people really knew what he meant when he posed this puzzler?
WILLIAMS: Second "show of hands" question: Do you believe there is such a thing as a global war on terror?
You could take that question in various ways—Kucinich raised his hand and answered—but it was remarkably incoherent, given the august setting. But incoherence was Williams’ friend all evening. When he got to the “elephants in the room” section (translation: “Things we hope you’ll find embarrassing”), he shared his concern about Edwards’ haircut. But his question omitted elementary facts about the recent, fatuous flap. No, everyone doesn’t follow this stuff. Almost surely, many viewers had no idea what Williams was talking about:
WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards, you've spoken with great passion and energy and eloquence about the issue of povert y in the United States, your "two Americas" theme. And yet I want to read you a quote from the political journalist Roger Simon:

Many people miss the point about the haircuts. The point is not the cost. John Edwards is a very rich man and could afford even a $4000 haircut. But why did he pay for his haircuts out of campaign funds?" Senator?
But surely, many viewers “missed the point” of Williams’ question—as he asked about a mini-flap he made no attempt to explain.

A few times, Williams’ hazy questions produced laughter from the audience—laughter at the expense of the candidates. For example, he drew a laugh at Richardson’s expense after a poorly-phrased question which asked the candidates to name a “model” Supreme Court Justice. (Williams wanted a model from the current Court, a desire he hadn’t expressed.) And clearly, Williams did actual harm with some of his hazy questions. Consider the following question to Edwards. Our query: Is this a type of question you’ve ever heard asked? Do English speakers talk like this? To us, this question seemed quite odd. It seemed to puzzle Edwards too:
WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards, who do you consider to be your moral leader?
Huh? After what may have been a puzzled pause, Edwards began by saying this: “I don't think I could identify one person that I consider to be my moral leader.” Indeed, we’d been puzzled by the question ourselves; we don’t think we’ve ever “considered” some person to be “our moral leader,” nor have we ever heard a question phrased that particular way. You could probably ask some form of this question in a way which would be understandable. But Williams seemed to have gotten his language for this question from Mars: Take me to your moral leader, he seemed to be asking the candidate. But uh-oh! Over the course of the next few days, we heard talk-radio hosts trashing Edwards for the deeply troubling delay in his answer. Needless to say, this delay—perhaps caused by Williams’ oddly-phrased question—had let these deeply worried hosts see the problem Edwards has in addressing questions about moral values. Their frameworks come to us Straight Outta Limbaugh—and straight outta Williams’ odd lingo.

Take me to your moral leader? To our ear, this question came from Mars. But then, another question seemed to be written in a dialect we might describe as “Near English.” And this one produced the most-discussed Q-and-A’s of the entire debate:
WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, if, God forbid a thousand times, while we were gathered here tonight, we learned that two American cities have been hit simultaneously by terrorists and we further learned beyond the shadow of a doubt it had been the work of Al Qaeda, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?
“How would you change the U.S. military stance overseas?” Are we sure this debate was conducted in English? Everyone basically knew what Williams meant, and they answered the question accordingly. But uh-oh! This was a hypothetical question with several specific bells and whistles; it seemed to emerge from a 24 writing session. As noted, the candidates labored to answer it anyway—with later respondents gaining the advantage of having more time to consider the question’s twists and turns. In our view, this wasn’t a very good question either; its useless details may have struck Williams’ staff as brilliant, but such details actually tended to cloud the elementary issues involved in this matter. But the responses to this needlessly-complex question have produced some astoundingly banal (and dishonest) punditry. We will move ahead to that pitiful punditry in tomorrow’s post.

Some of Williams’ questions seemed to have been written on Mars, in the dialect known as Near English. But these Martian questions were better than those which seemed to come from Rush Limbaugh’s play-book. In that book, Harry Reid commits a treasonous act when he says what he thinks about a war. And a Court decision with which many agree is one that “American families” find “hideous.” Not only that: Obama insulted the memory of our lost soldiers with a remark he made long before they died. And Republicans can’t wait to run against Clinton. These frames were all Straight Outta Rush—and they were part of Williams World as he stood on that stage Thursday night.

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Is Williams smart enough to play this game? His questions this night were often hazy—oddly short on logical connections between oddly-selected “facts.” But again, the thing that was most striking this night was the way so many of his questions seemed to be Straight Outta Limbaugh. It seems Williams can get away with this, because he’s such a mild-mannered man. But the kooky-con frameworks were really quite glaring, starting with that remarkable opening question. Take me to your treasonous leader, he said, right out of the box.

But then, in December 2004, Williams gushed to Brian Lamb about his great respect for Limbaugh. Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Oh, how the followers of this great man have been disrespected, he said:
WILLIAMS (12/26/04): I do listen to Rush. I listen to it from a radio in my office, or depending on my day, if I'm in the car, I will listen to Rush. And he will tell you I've been listening for years. I think it's my duty to listen to Rush. I think Rush has actually yet to get the credit he is due, because his audience for so many years felt they were in the wilderness of this country. No one was talking to them.

[...]

Rush said to millions of Americans, “You have a home. Come with me. For three hours a day you can listen and hear the like-minded calling in from across the country, and I'll read to you things perhaps you didn't see that are out there.” I think Rush gave birth to the Fox News Channel. I think Rush helped to give birth to a movement. I think he played his part in the Contract with America. So I hope he gets his due as a broadcaster.
In future weeks, we’ll offer more detail about where Williams seems to come from. But the values Williams expressed to Lamb were glaringly present in Thursday night’s questions. Starting with that absurd Query One, his queries were Straight Outta Rush.

In the meantime, let’s be clear about one thing: In the years when Jack Welch controlled NBC, the network assembled a randy stable of future broadcast and cable stars. Presumably, Williams was chosen in part for his looks. But along with his looks, we got a bit of semi-dumbness—and we got the outlook that drove so many of his questions last Thursday night. Harry Reid may be guilty of treason! And: Dems may be on the edge of extinction! And: Families find the Dems’ stance to be “hideous.” And: The public thinks Dems won’t protect them from terror! Good God! Back in 2004, you may have thought that Williams was faking when he offered those words of praise about Limbaugh; after all, no one goes after middle-brow viewers quite the way NBC News does. But last Thursday night, Williams did it—he made us believers. Over and over, it seemed all too clear. His world-view seemed Straight Outta Rush.

Sometimes, he seemed like a fellow from Mars; more often than that, he was Straight Outta Limbaugh. Readers, is Harry Reid treasonous? This noxious, dumb thought—straight outta talk radio—was there in the first question asked.

BY THEIR SALARIES YE SHALL KNOW THEM: Williams came to NBC in 1993, attracted by a $2 million salary. He was 33 years old at the time. When he took Brokaw’s job in late 2004, his salary was estimated to be $5 million.

Let’s make sure we know what that means: In all likelihood, Williams makes considerably more money just from Bush’s tax cuts than most of those “American families” earn in total income all year. Despite all that, he’s quite concerned about John Edwards’ haircuts.

Our view: Liberals need to understand who these people actually are. We’ll start exploring the Williams file in the weeks to come.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: It would be hard to overstate the degree to which Williams embarrassed himself during Campaign 2000. Night after night, he conducted rants about Gore’s polo shirts; he complained that Gore was wearing these shirts in a devious plot to attract female voters. (No, we’re not making this up.) Howard Fineman was by his side, as his helpmate—willing to offer psychiatric theories about why Gore would dress in such troubling ways. (Why, he was wearing casual clothes to some events! And more formal clothing to others! Williams and Fineman were amazed.) In other professions, people who behave like this get fired, then escorted to a safe, quiet home. But in the late 1990s, at Jack Welch’s joint, such lunacy meant you were anchor material. It meant that you really did “get it.” You would go from two million to five.

Presumably, that was just stupid anti-Gore clowning—the kind of work which sent Bush to the White House, where he passed the helpful tax cuts which saved these losers all that dough. But on December 6, 1999, Williams brought our analysts out of their chairs with his world-class dumbness. Omigod! Plainly, Williams didn’t even know how “margin of error” is applied to a poll! First, our analysts averted their gaze. Then, they typed it on up.

DUDE CAME CLOSE: Some comic relief from Thursday’s debate: At one point, Stanton posed the following question. Personally, we hate this type of query. But it now seems to be required:
STANTON: The next question is a short-answer question—one sentence. And I am going to ask each of you, beginning with Senator Gravel.

This is from Paula in Conway, South Carolina: "What is the most significant political or professional mistake you have made in the past four years? And what, if anything, did you learn from this mistake which makes you a better candidate?"

And make the sentence no longer than 20 seconds.
Given ninety minutes of power, these tyrants love to form compound questions, then dole out twenty seconds for answers. At any rate, asked for his most significant mistake, Richardson answered like this:
STANTON: Governor Richardson?

RICHARDSON: I'm impatient. I try to change institutions in my state rapidly. I'm too aggressive.
Omigod! Our analysts roared! Richardson had come extremely close to executing the great, apocryphal exchange:
QUESTION: What is your biggest character flaw?
ANSWER: My biggest flaw is that I’m too honest.
No, “Big Rich” didn’t take it that far. But omigod! Dude did come close!

NOT TOO SWIFT: One more semi-dumb question, this time from Stanton:
STANTON: This, again, for all of us, one sentence, and the question is this: "While sitting in the Oval Office on the first day of your administration, name the first thing that you want accomplished by the end of that first day."
There’s nothing wrong with asking about priorities—quite the contrary. But this question assumes something that’s far from obvious; it assumes that every president has something important he or she wants to accomplish on Day One. That first day lasts only twelve hours, by the way. And the president gives a major speech, then attends several parties.

By the way, should a candidate know, two years in advance, what he wants to do on Day One? This sounds like a highly specific, tangy question—if you’re dumb as a box of rocks, as our moderators too often are.