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THE THREE AMIGOS! Howard Kurtz profiles three brilliant young scribes. How come they don’t seem so brilliant?

MONDAY, MAY 3, 2004

THE THREE AMIGOS: Wow! Here at THE HOWLER, we are always on the prowl for fresh new journalistic talent—the kind of hot new blood which might shake up our disordered, script-reading “press corps.” That’s why our analysts all perked up when they saw Howard Kurtz’ column this morning. “Fresh on The Page And Hot On the Trail,” the headline said on his weekly piece. Early on, the Post scribe promised to give us just what we’ve been seeking:

KURTZ: Every presidential contest produces a crop of younger journalists who grab the attention of the media establishment through dogged reporting, sparkling writing or provocative analysis—often in multiple forums these days.
Wow! And Kurtz had found three such stars, he said. Our analysts settled back in their seats, prepared to enjoy the talented trio’s “dogged reporting” and “provocative analysis.”

But their smiles quickly faded away when they saw what Kurtz was actually pimping. One of his stars is Liz Marlantes, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She “profiled the much-profiled [John] Kerry in November,” Kurtz enthused. But here’s the kind of “provocative analysis” this brilliant new star gave her readers:

KURTZ: Marlantes rendered Kerry as “a product of exclusive schools and a relatively blue-blooded lineage,” with a “somewhat mannered style” and “anchorman’s head of hair.” But rather than echo the conventional wisdom that Kerry was a political corpse, she wrote: “Under the glare and strain of a hard-fought campaign, some say, Kerry’s preparedness may start to pay off.”
Low, mordant chuckles filled our great halls. Yikes! Marlantes’ “provocative analysis” included hackneyed notes about Kerry’s hair and mannered style. Quickly, Kurtz acknowledged the truth. “The 30-year-old writer has caused a stir not for her Monitor articles but for her appearance—and smooth performance—on a spate of television programs,” he admitted. “She doesn’t deny that being an attractive young woman helps.” In short, Marlantes hasn’t “grabbed the attention of the media establishment” because of any “provocative analyses.” Marlantes has caught the press corps’ eye because she is young and good-looking.

But then, when we checked out the rest of the Talented Three, we found other puzzling problems. According to Kurtz, the New Republic’s Ryan Lizza has also caught the press corps’ eye. But here was one example of the fresh new scribe’s brilliant analyses:

KURTZ: Lizza’s writing doesn’t always endear him to his subjects. After writing “Free Fall” last summer—a piece likening the Kerry campaign to a 1990s tech stock—Lizza says he got an expletive-filled e-mail from a Kerry staffer telling him never to call again. (They’ve since made amends.)
Oops! Since Kerry went on to win the Democratic nomination, Lizza’s “analysis” only had one small flaw—it had been completely inaccurate! On the plus side, when Lizza predicted the Kerry demise, he was saying what the rest of the press corps was saying. Does the press corps really love scribes who “provoke?” Or does the press corps love scribes who conform?

Finally, Kurtz gave us Slate’s Will Saletan. Frankly, if the quoted analyses had been more provocative, we would have put in a coma:

KURTZ: William Saletan specializes in what he calls “spin analysis.” As Slate magazine’s chief political correspondent, Saletan posts witty, attitude-filled dispatches that critique, and often skewer, the candidates. After the president’s last news conference, Saletan wrote that Bush just “says the same thing today that he said yesterday” and is “blind” to external reality.

“I’m not burdened like a lot of daily folks by having to appear objective,” says Saletan, 39, who has also written for the Times, appeared on National Public Radio and published a book on the battle over abortion. “I feel at liberty to just say out loud what other reporters are saying under their breath.”

Not that Saletan is easy on the Democrats: “I pounded the hell out of Kerry during the primaries. I hit the argument about his ‘electability’ for two or three weeks, proving that people like me have no effect. Kerry never walks into a sentence without leaving himself a way out—‘I was for the war, but not this war’—and he’s a lousy salesman.”

When it comes to Bush and Kerry, Kurtz finds Saletan reciting pure conventional wisdom. How “provocative” is the Slate scribe? By his own account, he “feels at liberty” to say out loud what other reporters are already thinking! Oh, freedom! Are you really surprised when the corps loves a guy who says what they already think?

For the record, we were struck by Kurtz’s piece because we were going there anyway. All this week, we’re going to offer an overview of the way this election is now being covered. More specifically, we’re going to look at the New York Times—at the odd coverage it seems to be offering. Yes, we’re going to watch as the paper of record seems to shout and cheerlead for Bush. And we’re going to ask a question you’ll rarely see asked by “provocative” scribes of the type Kurtz describes. We’re going to ask why the New York Times has now done this for two straight elections.

Readers, you may know the background. Four years ago, the press corps made a sick joke of your White House election, trashing Gore for twenty straight months and thereby putting Bush in the White House. And while this happened, the “provocative” types Kurtz praises today sat around and said nothing about it! The New Republic never opened its mouth; Saletan (and Slate) barely offered a peep. These “provocative” fellows sat on their hands while the press made a joke of your interests. We’re going to ask you why that occurred—and why it seems to be happening again.

Yes, it’s time to take a searching look at the work of “younger journalists” like these—to look at the “provocative” young scribes who are “grabbing the attention of the media establishment.” We were repulsed by their cowardice four years ago, and we can’t help but notice them drifting again. So read Kurtz’s column and tell us the truth: Do you really see three brave young reporters? Or might you see three self-serving scribes, looking ahead to Millionaire Pundit Days, selling you straight down the river?

GOOD PUNDITS BELIEVED ALL THAT STUFF: Why does the press corps love Ryan Lizza? Because he offered a “provocative” prediction about Kerry’s campaign—which turned out to be completely inaccurate! But so what! This press corps doesn’t care if you’re right. As we’ve seen again and again, the Washington “press corps” only cares if you repeat their conventional wisdom.

For the record, when it comes to bungled predictions, Saletan can play the game too. In fact, he totally bungled the 2000 race as late as October 2000:

KURTZ: Saletan says he isn’t “trying to break news” and rarely hits the campaign trail: “My excuse is I’ve got a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. I plead guilty to armchair quarterbacking.”

Instead, he delivers punch-in-the-nose commentary (once writing that Dean can be a “jerk”) and bold predictions—including one that blew up on him. “I’m still humiliated by having said ‘Bush is toast’ four years ago. I’m kind of embarrassed by my support for the war. I believed all the stuff about WMD.” Still, he says, “you’ve got to take risks.”

Yes, Saletan wrote that “Bush is toast” with weeks to go in Campaign 2000. (We’ll examine the reasons later this week.) But then, to judge from the passage above, Saletan doesn’t just bungle elections. He also “believed all the stuff about WMD,” the provocative analyst sheepishly says. Meanwhile, Saletan seems to think he was “taking a risk” about WMD when he said what every insider said! Can you start to see why the mainstream press just loves the scribe’s “dogged reporting?”

Go ahead and read Kurtz’s piece. But ask yourselves this: Are you reading about three “provocative” scribes? Or is Kurtz describing compliant script-readers? All week, we’ll examine the way the coverage of Campaign 04 is unfolding. And we’ll wonder why “provocative analysts” of this type never seem to say one word about it.

From the annals of Bob Woodward sessions

IT TAKES A VILLAGE NON-IDIOT: Let’s face it: Bob Woodward could do a thousand shows and no TV pundit would ever dare ask about his book’s most puzzling narrative. No one would ever dare to ask about that weird scene from December 2002—the scene in which Strong Leader Bush challenges hapless George Tenet. Everyone knows how to play the scene. They play it the way Tim Russert did when Woodward did an hour-long turn on his eponymous CNBC program:

RUSSERT (4/24/04): The book, Plan of Attack, the author, Bob Woodward, and he is here talking to us about it. December 21, 2002: George Tenet and his top deputy briefing the president, in effect, a slide show, if you will, on the weapons of mass destruction, in the Oval Office, and the president at the conclusion says, quote, “Nice try, but that isn’t going to sell Joe Public. This is the best we got?”

WOODWARD: Question mark.

RUSSERT: A real skeptic.

Bush was “a real skeptic,” Russert said—showing that he, Tim Russert, isn’t. After all, by the time this ballyhooed briefing was held, Woodward’s book quite clearly states that Bush and Cheney had been overstating the intel on WMD for four solid months, driving the nation to war in the process! If Bush was such a masterful “skeptic,” why wasn’t this briefing held before December—before he misstated the intel for months? The question here is perfectly obvious—but every pundit knows not to ask it. Indeed, Russert carried the clowning further only a few moments later:
RUSSERT: You think he—Bob, you take it even further.


RUSSERT: You say the president several times said to Tenet, Make sure no one stretches to make the case.

But that’s the problem with Woodward’s book! When Bush tells Tenet not to stretch, he himself has been stretching for months! But Russert knows not to notice this point, or to ask Woodward how to explain it. Everyone knows how this script has been blocked. Everyone knows to admire the way Strong Leader Bush challenged Tenet.

No, no TV pundit ever asks Woodward about this part of his book. And then, late Thursday night, e-mail flooded our Advanced Message Center. Someone had asked him about it:

E-MAIL: On Monday you pointed out that neither Woodward, nor anyone else, picked up on the fact that while Bush was [allegedly] skeptical about WMD’s when Tenet briefed him in December he’d already been selling the idea for months.

Well one newsman picked up on it. On Thursday night, that’s exactly what Jon Stewart asked Woodward about on The Daily Show.

As in Lear, it took a fool, a comedian—a village non-idiot! Several readers noted the irony—that only Stewart, a working comedian, was willing to ask the key question:
E-MAIL Don’t know if you watch The Daily Show, but Jon Stewart got it right about Bob Woodward’s book. In his interview with Woodward tonight he mentioned the December WMD briefing and pointed out that Bush and Cheney had already been flogging the issue for months. Perhaps he reads your site (or maybe he’s intelligent enough to know these things without it), but at least maybe Stewart gets it. At least there’s a semi-sane voice—on the made-up comedy news! That says something about the press corps, doesn’t it?
Yes, it does say something about the press corps! We don’t know if Stewart reads THE HOWLER, and we’re sure he is intelligent enough to ask this question on his own. (So is every Washington pundit.) But here’s what this says about the press corps. It says that your “press corps” will stick to Approved Pundit Scripts, ignoring even the most obvious questions. Many readers wrote to say how “f*cking pathetic” this is:
E-MAIL Did you see The Daily Show last night? It was (sadly) the first real interview with Woodward about his book. Stewart is the first guy who didn’t just sat there mesmerized with awe while Woodward cooed about Bush saying that John Q. Public wouldn’t buy the story about WMD and telling people not to stretch anything to make the case. Instead, Stewart sat through that and asked, Yeah, but that was in December, right? Weren’t they pushing this intelligence for months before that?

It’s pretty fucking pathetic that I have to turn to The Daily Show for real interviews when there are so many clowns in the Washington press corps making millions for their brand of “journalism.”
Our reader is absolutely correct. Big Pundit Russert played the fool. Stewart asked the obvious question.

But there’s an obvious downside to having comedians handle your public discourse. Comedians tend to interject jokes. When Stewart asked Woodward this obvious question, he didn’t force the scribe to answer. The chance for full discussion was lost.

For the record, let’s establish what was said. Coming back from a break, Stewart asked Woodward to describe that ballyhooed briefing. Woodward recited the Official Script about the “instinct” of Wise Leader Bush:

WOODWARD: Tenet’s deputy made a detailed presentation…It was quite long and at the end there was this silence, and the president, President Bush, said, Nice try, but it doesn’t sell. Joe Public will not buy it. And so he turned over to Tenet, who was sitting on one of the couches, and said, What have you got, George? I thought this was good stuff! And Tenet twice said, Oh don’t worry, it’s a slam-dunk. Now Bush’s sniffer—his instinct—told him something didn’t add up here. Tenet said a slam-dunk. Ideally, they should have gone back to Square One and said, Let’s really look at this intelligence, because this was the basis for war. This was not just what sort of bill they were going to send up to the Senate.
Of course, many things don’t quite “add up” in this Official Story. Stewart teased out one such problem with his next pair of questions:
STEWART (continuing directly): Right. What I think was even so interesting about it was the timing. Because when did this briefing take place?

WOODWARD: The Saturday before Christmas, about three months before the war started.

STEWART: And they had been promoting this idea of weapons of mass destruction and the intelligence associated with it already for months, had they not?

WOODWARD: Yes, initiated by Dick Cheney, the steam-roller in all this, saying—

Things were starting to move along. Then, the inevitable occurred. Stewart broke in with a joke:
STEWART: No, he is—and again, I don’t know if you interviewed him on this—a mindless cyborg. He is not man but machine.
The audience laughed, Woodward did too, and Jon-and-Bob never got back on track about Plan of Attack’s puzzling story.

Ideally, many questions should have followed that first pair of queries by Stewart. Here are a few obvious questions ignored by Woodward’s book:

  1. How had Bush been briefed about WMD before that 12/02 meeting?
  2. In particular, how had Bush been briefed about WMD in 8/02, when (according to Woodward) Cheney began to overstate the intelligence in a crucial public speech?
  3. What did Bush think when Cheney began to overstate the intelligence in that speech? (Powell was “dumbfounded” and “astonished,” the book says.)
  4. How had Bush been briefed about WMD in 9/02, when he too began to overstate the intelligence?
And of course, an obvious question for Woodward:
  1. Why are you pretending that Bush was vigilant about the WMD intelligence? Your own book says he overstated the intel for months before this December briefing.
As we’ve repeatedly told you, Woodward’s narrative makes little sense. It reads much like a disordered dreamscape. But alas! Stewart quickly told a joke, breaking off his analysis. But at least he asked the first question. All good pundits—see Russert above—know that they must never do that. And guess what? As they “grab the attention of the media establishment,” three younger journalists will surely know to avoid this “provocative analysis” too. Good Little Pundits stick to the scripts. That’s how they get rich and famous.

ALL WEEK: We continue to look at the oddball ways Woodward’s strange book has been spun.