MONDAY, MAY 10, 2004
REVIEW LESSONWHAT DO SCRIPTS LOOK LIKE: What does it look like when scribes use a script? Given the way our press corps works, the point cant be explained enough. So lets engage in a quick review. Lets consider three unremarkable Q-and-As from Kerrys 4/18 Meet the Press. Then, lets recall the way his statements were played in two big publications.
First, consider the programs initial Q-and-A. Tim Russert had a Q on Iraq:
RUSSERT: [I]n the interest of candor and clarity, I want to give you a chance to answer a question right up top, and I promise well talk about the nuance later on. But the American people, I think, would like a yes or no answer: Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake?Russert went on to ask if Kerry has a plan to deal with Iraq.
Next, consider what happened when Russert asked a speculative question:
RUSSERT: If you were elected one year from now, will there be 100,000 American troops in Iraq?Kerry said he couldnt give a number. It would depend on the situation one year hence.
Finally, consider a two-part Q-and-A. Russert asked about Kerrys claim that foreign leaders have told him they hope he wins the November election:
RUSSERT: Let me see if I can clean up a comment that you made in March that created an awful lot of controversy and stir. I have met more leaders who cant go out and say it publicly but, boy, they look at you and say, You gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy, we need a new policythings like that. So there is enormous energy out there. Tell them, wherever they can find an American abroad, they can contribute.In all three cases, Kerrys answers were unremarkableand were quite direct. His answer on the war in Iraq took twelve words total. When asked about future troop levels, he stated the obviousit will depend on circumstances. When asked to name foreign leaders with whom he has spoken, he said he wouldntfor fairly obvious reasonsand noted that you dont have to leave the country to meet such people. In two of these cases, Russert went on to ask more questions. But Kerrys initial statements were hardly remarkable. And it would be hard to be much more direct.
But so what? Your Washington press corps has a hard scriptKerry is nuanced, evasive and rambling. Result? Two major scribes pretended that these answers were troubling. They had their scriptand they made the facts fit it. Their work is well worth a review.
On April 19, Jodi Wilgoren highlighted Answer 1 in her New York Times report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/04). Her problem? She was troubled that Kerryasked for one wordhad spoken as many as twelve! In the same article, Wilgoren complained because Kerry said it dependsalthough Donald Rumsfeld had given the same obvious answer to the same fuzzy question only two weeks before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/04). And last week, Karen Tumulty worked the script too (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/04). In Time, she quoted Kerrys remark about where you can meet a foreign leader, and pretended that this was his reply to the question of who he had met. Having thereby misled readers, she complained that this gaffe had been lame.
No, there was nothing remarkable about Kerrys answersbut the way they were reported was striking. Wilgoren and Tumulty had a hard script, and they hammered the facts to make them fit. But then, reporters played this game throughout Campaign 2000. What does it look like when scribes use a script? Wilgoren, then Tumulty, let us know. Will we ever have an election where reporters just tell us what happened?
SOMETIMES REPORTERS REPORT: For the record, sometimes reporters just tell you what happened. For a good example, read Elisabeth Bumillers spare report in yesterdays New York Times. Throughout the piece, Bumiller quotes a major official, by name, about Don Rumsfelds job status. She quotes the official again and again, with barely a hint of analysis or comment. We are simply told what this person said. There isnt a hint of an external script, as we often see in reporting on Kerry.
Why was Bumiller so restrained, so professional? Because she was quoting Condi Rice! When Wilgoren reported Kerrys Meet the Press session, she was full of criticism, analysis and scripts. But Rice is an Official Press Darling, and thats exactly how Bumiller treated her. You got to learn what Rice said (as is appropriate). Bumiller kept her own spin-points out of it.
So if you had come to believe that major scribes are addicted to spin, read this report from yesterdays Times. Reporters do know how to report. But especially at the disordered Times, they can be extremely selective when it comes to dispensing such courtesies.
MORE TALES OF CONTEMPTIBLE CHARACTER: We were amazed when several readers dissented about that snowboarding incident (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/04). (Yes, this includes you, David!) Of course Kerrys SOB comment was important, they said. And yes, it did show his contemptible character. Here was one line of reasoning:
E-MAIL: Was it a joke or not? If not (and it seems highly likely that it was not), then it IS news. The bottom line is that such a comment shows a contemptible side, i.e., a penchant for taking a shot at someone who cannot fight back. Like a guy who embarrasses a waiter or some poor sap just trying to do his job. It is a very nasty character trait, and character IS important.Good God! Readers, this is the voter for whom sophists pray! And yes, their number is legion.
Readers, its known as misdirection. Its the intentional effort to get you to think about things that are trivial and unverifiable. No, it wouldnt really tell you much if Kerry had called that agent a bad, naughty name. But was Kerry serious when he made his remark? As almost everyone surely knows, people use the term SOB in an off-handed way all the time. Lets consider a recent report about Kerry-in-Vietnam.
On May 2, the Oregonians Jeff Mapes described the way Kerry saved a crewmans life during a Vietnam firefight. But guess what? Apparently, the crewman, Jim Rassmann, has a contemptible character too, just like Kerry! Here is Mapes account of the incident:
MAPES: An explosion rocked the swift boat to their left, and gunfire erupted from both banks. Another mine exploded near PCF-94, sending Kerry into a bulkhead, smashing his right arm.Earlier this year, Rassmann told the Boston Globe that Kerry should have gotten a Silver Star, not the Bronze, for this daring behavior.
But readers, how contemptible can Jim Rassmann be? Kerry and Sandusky risked their lives to save hisand as soon as he was dragged on board, he called Sandusky a dumb SOB! And dont worry. If Rassmann were running for office as a Dem, Republican operatives would send out this item, saying it shows his contemptible character, just as they have done with Kerry. Our view? If its contemptible character you want, we think we know where you can find it.
Readers, uncover your ears and meet the real world! Tough-talking men of a certain generation often call each other SOBs. It tells you nothing about their character. It does say something about Republican operatives when they circulate these pointless stories, as Patrick Healy described in the Globe. It says they want to treat you like rubesand make a joke of your White House election. Theres only one thing here we dont understand. We dont understand why you let them.
WHAT DO SCRIPTS LOOK LIKE, PART TWO: While were at it, lets consider the script-peddling scribe who put this snowboard event into play. That would be David Halbfinger of (what else?) the New York Times, one of only two reporters who witnessed this meaningless incident.
Kerry uttered his troubling imprecation while snowboarding on March 18. The next day, Halbfinger described the event:
HALBFINGER: On his first full day off, though, Mr. Kerry awoke determined to hit the slopes of Mount Baldy.Those who feign concern about Kerrys remark have pointed to that single word, sharply. The Kerry camp said Kerry was joking. But this single word sharply became the evidence offered by the troubled dissentersby those who said that Kerry was upset at the agent, and showcased his troubling character.
But how reliable is David Halbfinger? This incident was observed by two reporters, Halbfinger and ABCs Ed OKeefe. For the record, the two reporters didnt even agree on what Kerry said when he got flattened. (For OKeefes account, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/04). Meanwhile, how much confidence do you have in Halbfinger? Here at THE HOWLER, we have very little. For example, heres the spin-drenched way he began the report which included the snowboarding incident:
HALBFINGER (pgh 1): John Kerry was in the air, approaching the Continental Divide, and the candidate often ridiculed as straddling both sides of political divides was wrestling with the big matter at hand.Is Kerry often ridiculed as a big straddler? Showing off his masterful wit, Halbfinger ridiculed Kerry on the theme once again, right at the start of this news report! Indeed, he even jammed the Continental Divide into his piece as a way to use the amusing scripta script he continued as he mocked Kerrys attempt to choose between snowboards and skis (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/19/04). Is this simply bad judgment, or does it show a partisan animus? Here at THE HOWLER, we really cant say. But at any rate, are you prepared to trust this hapless scribe when he says how sharply Kerry spoke? In our view, theres only one thing you can trust about Halbfingeryou can trust his relentless bad judgment.
At any rate, there you have it. Kerrys camp said he was joking. Halbfinger said the downed solon spoke sharply. But the scribe mocked Kerry throughout his report, typing up familiar scripts about the image-conscious candidate. Yes, the Times is our most disordered paper, and this report helps show why we say that. Are you on the prowl for contemptible character? If so, Kerrys deeply troubling remark may not be the best place to look.
BUT WHO WILL TEST THE JOURNALISTS: Weve written about this matter before, but nothing stops the press corps cluelessness when it comes to standardized testing. On page one of Sundays New York Times, Diana Jean Schemo penned a report about performance bonuses for public school teachers. Should teachers get a boost in pay if their students get good test scores? Schemo offers a lengthy, two-photo report about this ongoing issue.
Schemos piece is more than 1500 words long. It stretches over 31 paragraphs. But nowhere does she mention an obvious problem with this ideathe possibility that bonus pay will encourage teachers to cheat on their standardized testing. All over the country, for the past three decades, cheating scandals have been reported. Everyone understands a basic problemas pressure builds around student test scores, teachers have an increased incentive to cheat. But as weve told you again and again, education reporters refuse to acknowledge this well-known problem. For obvious reasons, educators like to duck this topic. Education scribes like to duck too.
Yes, Virginia, teachers (and principals) cheat all the time. They cheat in every way you can think of. But the press corps always plays it dumb on the subject. Yesterday, they did it again.
NOTE: Teacher cheating could be greatly reduced if certain security measures were introducedif tests were administered by outside agents, or if teachers were unaware of the specific content of specific tests. But no one ever discusses that, either. Your education establishment likes you clueless. Your press corps is up to the task.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: How widespread have cheating scandals beenand how clueless does the press tend to act? For one detailed report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/01. For other reports on such subjects, enter TAAS or Cannell or KIPP or NAEP or Lake Wobegon in our whirring search engines.