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THEY SURF DURING ADS (PART 2)! Rutenberg critiqued Bush’s ad. But he told a much softer story:


ANNALS OF THE AESTHETICALLY STUNNING: We love it when we get e-mails like this one! How will In America play on tape? One reader wrote to inform us:

E-MAIL: My wife and I viewed Sheridan’s In America last night on DVD. We enjoy movies, and see a fair number, but are not the type to watch Bergman films and stroke our chins meditatively. In America was simply the best movie we’ve ever seen. We sat silently through the credits, emotionally moved and aesthetically stunned. My wife’s comment was the most trenchant: “It was so true.” Thanks for the tip.
We noted one word our e-mailer used. Like lightning, we penned a reply:
REPLY: “Stunned” is the word I have always used to describe my initial reaction to In America, especially to its brilliant ending. I was lucky the first time I saw it; I saw it with an audience that simply adored it. They laughed hard all the way through, and within ten seconds of the turn at the end, there was choking and coughing all over the theater. Then they applauded when it was over. For myself, I was virtually seeing things when Christy delivered her direction to her father. If I had ever taken acid, I would have thought I was having a flashback. The dedication then rocked my socks too.

I’m glad it worked for you at home. The film is beautiful in a theater; beyond that, I thought a viewer might need the laughter of an audience to help keep its moods in balance. I guess not—I’m glad you liked it.

We still plan to offer critical guidance on Friday. But some advanced readers are moving ahead, getting these pleasing results.

THEY SURF DURING ADS (PART 2): Is Bush’s new ad “particularly cynical?” On May 2, the New York Times made this claim in a stinging lead editorial (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/04). Were the editors right in their judgment? You’d think the press corps would want to find out. After all, pundits keep noting an obvious point—Bush is shattering all spending records as he floods the air with his campaign ads. If these ads are misleading voters, you’d think the press corps, demons of diligence, would want to help those voters find out. In fact, in a year when so many ads are being run, you’d think the press itself would be flooding the zone with critiques of the crucial commercials.

But as usual, the “press corps” has slumbered, snoozed and snored as these ads have affected our White House campaign. Is the latest Bush ad “particularly cynical?” The nation’s reporters have made little effort to speak to this critical question. Indeed, the nation’s reporters must surf during ads, to judge from the way they’re reporting this race. Even at the mighty Times, they’ve made little effort to examine the ad which the editorial board found “particularly” noxious. Is there something wrong with this ad? It seems no one wants to find out.

In fairness, on April 27, reporter Jim Rutenberg did make a half-hearted effort. As the new commercial came on the air, he filed a report of the “Ad Watch” type. Early on, he repeated the text of the new Bush commercial:

RUTENBERG (4/27/04): SCRIPT: Mr. Bush says, “I’m George W. Bush and I approve this message.” A male announcer says: “As our troops defend America in the war on terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror: Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Patriot missiles, B-2 Stealth bombers, F-18 fighter jets and more.”
Rutenberg cited additional text which appears on the TV screen. “As Our Troops Defend America in the War on Terror/John Kerry Opposed Weapons Vital to the War on Terror,” the ad continues. “Kerry Voted Against Body Armor for Our Troops/John Kerry’s Record on National Security: Troubling.”

Are these claims inaccurate? Misleading? “Particularly cynical?” The Times editorial alleged several problems with the ad, but one of the claims was especially striking. According to the editorial, Dick Cheney, Bush’s right-hand man, “repeatedly opposed” some of these same weapon systems when he served as secretary of defense for the elder Bush. What makes this ad “particularly cynical?” According to the Times editorial, the Bush/Cheney ad was trashing Kerry for doing what Cheney himself had done! For example, had Kerry “repeatedly opposed” the Bradley vehicle and the F-18 fighter? According to the Times editorial, “Cheney’s first budget canceled, among other things, production of the…Bradley fighting vehicle, and made big cuts in the F-18 fighter.” As noted, the Times editorial made other points, too. But surely, any reporter worth his salt would want to examine this claim by the Times. After all, we know how much the Washington press corps hates all manner of slick deception. Unless this editorial is wildly off base, any reporter would surely want to examine this ad in detail.

Alas, that didn’t happen in Rutenberg’s piece. Here is his full analysis of the ad’s “accuracy.” Ironically, he starts with a factual error—one which cuts against Kerry:

RUTENBERG (4/27/04): ACCURACY: Throughout his career Mr. Kerry has either voiced opposition to or voted against appropriations for the weapons mentioned in this spot, though he has said that in light of the climate after Sept. 11, 2001, he regrets some of those positions. In 1984 Mr. Kerry proposed reducing money for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the cancellation of the Patriot missile and B-2 Stealth bomber systems. Yet Vice President Dick Cheney also moved to terminate or cut back similar programs, like the Apache helicopter and the F-14 and F-15 fighters, when he was defense secretary under the first President Bush. And Mr. Kerry did not vote specifically against “body armor for our troops.” The advertisement is referring to his vote against an $87 billion appropriation last year for reconstruction and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which included money for body armor.
Let’s start with Rutenberg’s factual error. Does Kerry “regret some of those positions?” This misleading claim—which cuts against Kerry—is based on an earlier error by Rutenberg (see below). But note the way the scribe’s analysis differs from that in the Times editorial. According to the editorial, this Bush/Cheney ad is “particularly cynical” because Cheney opposed some of the very same systems which Kerry is attacked for opposing. But Rutenberg tells a softer story. According to Rutenberg, Cheney “moved to terminate or cut back similar programs” when he was the secretary of defense. Obviously, this one “Ad Watch” feature wouldn’t stir many voters, no matter how hard it went at the facts. But even within the limited attention given here to this crucial new ad, Rutenberg tells a much softer story than the one which the editors tell.

But then, around the country, reporters have made almost no effort to examine the contents of this widely-aired ad. Everyone knows that Bush is spending record amounts on his ad campaign. And eventually, everyone mentions the fact that these ads are driving up Kerry’s “negatives.” But try to find the major paper which has really examined this year’s campaign ads. Is this ad “particularly cynical?” Few newspapers have tried to find out. And papers which have examined this ad have generally done what the Time has done. They’ve offered truncated, fleeting accounts of the ad which is flooding our airwaves.

No, to all appearances, the nation’s “reporters” don’t really care what you see in those ads. They seem to be like many hip viewers—it seems that they surf during ads. But elsewhere, American voters are watching this ad, and the ad is helping them form their beliefs. Is this ad “particularly cynical?” Your slumbering, snoozing, snoring “press corps” doesn’t much want to find out.

TOMORROW: What did Kerry and Cheney do? Go ahead—try to find out!

RUTENBERG’S ERROR: Rutenberg discussed this ad for the first time on April 25. He quickly made a factual error—an error which cuts against Kerry, of course:

RUTENBERG (4/25/04): Mr. Kerry’s voting record does include many votes to cut weapons systems. He ran for the Senate in 1984 on proposals to eliminate 27 weapons systems and to make reductions in 18 others. Mr. Kerry has said many defense bills he voted against later were ridden with pork. Still, although he has complained that Mr. Bush’s campaign has taken his votes out of context, he told The Boston Globe last year that some of his stances were “stupid in the context of the world we find ourselves in right now and the things that I've learned since then.”
Uh-oh! It is perfectly clear from the Boston Globe piece that Kerry’s comment only referred to his campaign proposals from 1984, when he made his first run for the Senate. (See the Globe biography, page 196.) Quite clearly, his statement did not refer to any “votes” he later cast as a senator. Other papers have cited this comment (see below), but, as far as we can tell, only the Times has bungled this way. And do we need to state the obvious? This error by Rutenberg cuts against Kerry. It makes it sound like he called his Senate votes “stupid,” including, conceivably, votes cast in recent years. In fact, he only said that he took some “ill-advised” positions twenty years back, before he had entered the Senate.

On April 27, Rutenberg extended this error in his “Ad Watch” report (text above). Wouldn’t you know it? The very first sentence in his “ACCURACY” section extended this bit of inaccuracy!

TORRY SPELLS IT OUT: They’re better readers out in the heartland. On April 27, Jack Torry discussed the new Bush ad in the Columbus Dispatch. Like Rutenberg, he cited Kerry’s remark to the Globe. But the Buckeye limned it correctly:

TORRY: In an interview last year with the Globe, Kerry conceded that some of his views on national defense during that 1984 campaign were “ill-advised,” calling them “stupid in the context of the world we find ourselves in right now and the things I’ve learned since then.”
As Torry noted, Kerry only said that he’d had some “ill-advised” ideas when he ran for the Senate in 1984. Rutenberg made it sound like Kerrry denounced recent votes he had cast in the Senate. Funny, isn’t it? The way the Times, our greatest paper, keeps making these unforced mistakes?

From the annals of major-league analysts

MUST-READ NYT: In today’s New York Times, Adam Clymer offers a major-league analysis of the general issue we are discussing. But wouldn’t you know it? He had to go to the op-ed page to offer his thoughts on this critical subject! Clymer’s piece is a clear must-read; indeed, we’ll return to his column in Part 4, on Friday. But as you read this column by Clymer, ask yourselves this obvious question: Why aren’t the facts which drive this piece being reported in the paper’s news section? In a year when spending records are being shattered, why aren’t the contents of these crucial ads being explored by our news reporters? It looks to us like our burbling press corps doesn’t much care what the voters are told. Maybe they slumber before their TVs. Or maybe they surf during ads.