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Daily Howler: Attention must be paid to those scripts! So we cheered when a top writer went there
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ATTENTION MUST BE PAID! Attention must be paid to those scripts! So we cheered when a top writer went there: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2006

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: We’ll admit it. Our analysts were thrilled when Kevin Drum incomparably linked to yesterday’s HOWLER—to our post about the press corps’ script on the great sainted solon, John McCain. By now, it should be perfectly clear. Our White House campaigns are driven by the press corps’ scripts—and the script on McCain will decide Campaign 08, unless we start acting now. (Indeed, it may be too late already.) As we’ve long said, we regard Kevin as one of our very best analysts; without question, our side needs him attending to these plupotent scripts. A noxious script about Candidate Gore clearly decided Campaign 2000; the script on McCain is almost as foolish—and it could be just as potent. We all need to attend to this script—right now. We all cheered when Kevin went there.

What exactly do we mean by a “script?” In 2004, The Krug explained it, in a New York Times column called “Reading the Script.” He wrote just after that year’s Dem Convention. Let’s quickly review what he said:

KRUGMAN (8/3/04): A message to my fellow journalists: check out media watch sites like, and It's good to see ourselves as others see us. I've been finding The Daily Howler's concept of a media ''script,'' a story line that shapes coverage, often in the teeth of the evidence, particularly helpful in understanding cable news.

For example, last summer, when growth briefly broke into a gallop, cable news decided that the economy was booming. The gallop soon slowed to a trot, and then to a walk. But judging from the mail I recently got after writing about the slowing economy, the script never changed; many readers angrily insisted that my numbers disagreed with everything they had seen on TV.

Krugman referred to cable news coverage, but the press corps’ scripts have shaped almost all coverage of recent White House elections. And, as Krugman went on to explain, these scripts are amazingly powerful. “If you really want to see cable news scripts in action, look at the coverage of the Democratic convention,” he wrote. “Commentators worked hard to spin scenes that didn't fit the script.” After offering a few examples, he noted a further power of scripts, one that is truly remarkable: “[T]he real power of a script is the way it can retroactively change the story about what happened.” Indeed, we’ve presented examples of this in the past (link below)—instances in which journalists renounce their own accurate reporting to get in line with inaccurate scripts. When it comes to campaign reporting, our major journalists follow their scripts the way a zombie flees from the light. If Democrats want to have a chance in Campaign 08, we must start unpacking the script on McCain—and we must start unpacking it now.

How potent is the script on McCain? Consider Richard Cohen’s column in today’s Post—a column in which Cohen actually breaks from the script in some major ways. Omigod! Defying David Broder’s recent edict, Cohen acts as if McCain’s policy views may be more important than his Sun God-like character! This is heresy, pure and simple—but Cohen is willing to go there. According to Cohen, McCain must explain his continuing support for the war in Iraq—and he even suggests that McCain’s ongoing hawkishness could count against him as a possible president. Again, this is a break from the emerging script which Doris Kearns Goodwin expressed for Don Imus last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/06). Goodwin disagrees with McCain’s policy views—but so what? Who cares about that? John McCain is a wonderful leader! He’ll lead us into wars that Goodwin abhors—but so what, we’ll feel good as we go there! In a rational world, no one actually reasons like this. But this is the world of our millionaire press corps—and Cohen stands and dissents today from this daft new outlook.

But readers, how potent are the corps’ scripts? Even as he criticizes McCain on the war, Cohen recites the corps’ greatest script: John McCain is the world’s most sanctified human. Yes, hyperbole rules when these scripts are employed. For example, consider this script-friendly overstatement, in which Cohen describes McCain’s “stunning” character:

COHEN (5/17/06): It's not possible for me to read McCain's speech [at Liberty University] and not find those qualities that I have always found so attractive. There's the humor, the modesty, the honesty, the decency and—always—the stunning capacity to grow, to shed hatreds. In his speech, McCain recounted his friendship with the late David Ifshin, a onetime antiwar activist. McCain had first heard of Ifshin when his antiwar speech was broadcast into the cell in Hanoi where McCain was being held as a POW. Ifshin later apologized, and McCain, in a lesson to all boys about manhood, accepted it. "It was an easy thing to accept such a decent act," McCain said. You're a better man than most, John McCain.
Let’s agree—it was a good thing when McCain and Ifshin became friends and allies. (And by the way—we’re prepared to believe that McCain is “a better man than most.” So are Clinton, Gore and Kerry.) But did this friendship with Ifshin display some “stunning capacity” on the part of our secular saint? Sorry, but Cohen’s claim is just foolish—a tribute to the power of his cohort’s childish scripts. In fact, politicians make up with past rivals all the time—as do people in all walks of life. This is typically taken to be a good thing—but it isn’t taken to be a sign of some sort of “stunning capacity.” The hyperbole only extends to McCain. For example, Hillary Clinton now works amicably with many senators who tried to have her husband removed from office—often, in rather unpleasant ways. Pundits sometimes mention this fact—but does anyone ever go on to say that it displays a “stunning capacity” on her part? Of course they don’t—that isn’t the script! The silly hyperbole extends to McCain alone—as we see when Cohen continues:
COHEN (continuing directly): McCain's virtue is his virtue—those aspects of his character that mirror his physical courage. He has been the politician who would not play politics, the presidential candidate who would sweep out the White House, put K Street in its place, rein in Congress and, always, talk plainly and candidly to the American people. In short, he was the man who could restore faith in government.
But has McCain “always talk[ed] plainly and candidly to the American people?” One might think that from what Cohen wrote—but the claim is utterly bogus. As we’ve recently noted, McCain often lied and dissembled in his 2000 campaign—and yes, the pundit corps knows it. He misstated his views on the South Carolina flag issue. He flatly lied about an anonymous telephone campaign he ran against Candidate Bush in Michigan. He repeatedly lied on the trail about Gore (see below)—telling a story which was patently false, but which always got a good laugh from his crowds. And he shape-shifted endlessly on abortion. Meanwhile, he flipped, then, flopped, then flipped again about a nasty flier his campaign was handing out, right there in South Carolina. Paul Gigot even mentioned that episode in the Wall Street Journal—and then explained why it wouldn’t hurt the campaign of the great sainted solon (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/00):
GIGOT (2/18/00): [McCain] did fib this week when he denied, during Tuesday night's debate, that a flier demagoguing Mr. Bush on Social Security was his. Mr. McCain finally admitted authorship, but with the Clintonian caveat that it must have been passed out before he gave the cease-and-desist order. Mr. McCain is lucky this episode didn't fit into the silly media consensus that Mr. Bush is the only negative campaigner.
Omigod! McCain did fib, Gigot dared say. But it wasn’t going to hurt his campaign, Gigot said, because it didn’t fit a “silly media consensus.” Note: When he used the term “silly media consensus,” Gigot really meant to say “script.”

The press corps has a script on McCain: John McCain is the world’s most authentic human. This script is foolish, childish and false—but it will rule, unless we address it. For that reason, our young analysts stood and cheered when Kevin Drum took up this matter. If Democrats hope to win in 2008 (or 2012; or 2016), we must start addressing the corps’ strange scripts. And by the way, that one last part—we must start addressing them now. If we wait for the next Dem Convention, it will be much too late—once again.

READ PETER DAOU AGAIN: “Democratic leaders and strategists are pathologically incapable of going after the media,” Peter Daou wrote at The Huffington Post. Yes, and they’ve also been “pathologically incapable” of going after the media’s scripts. Daou’s remarks are extremely important. We suggest that you read them again.

MCCAIN’S FAVORITE LIE ABOUT GORE: During Campaign 2000, McCain had a lie about Candidate Gore—a lie the sainted solon adored. On CNN, Candy Crowley played tape of this enjoyable “staple” in McCain’s wondrous “repertoire:”

CROWLEY (1/27/00): The outstanding question for whoever becomes the GOP nominee is whether the sins and omissions of the president will be visited upon a vice-president, who also doesn't mention his boss's name much. He doesn't have to. There's always the impeachment day videotape.

GORE (videotape): The man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents

CROWLEY: And here is a staple in John McCain's campaign finance reform repertoire.

MCCAIN (videotape): I don't know why anybody wouldn't want to make illegal what Al Gore did, to go a Buddhist monastery and ask those monks and nuns to renounce their vows of poverty and give thousands of dollars, so they could spiritually commune with him. By the way, he said he didn't know where he was. Perhaps the odor of incense and all those folks in saffron robes might have given him a clue.

It always got a good laugh—but it just wasn’t true. No, Gore had never “asked monks and nuns to give him thousands of dollars”—or any money at all, for that matter. And no, he had never said that “he didn’t know where he was” when he spoke at the Buddhist temple; in fact, he never said anything like that. But so what? McCain’s pleasing lie always got a big laugh (and needless to say, the press corps loved it), so the sainted solon just kept on telling it—made it “a staple” out on the trail. Has McCain “always talked plainly and candidly to the American people?” Perhaps “the odor of the [bullsh*t]” will give the non-scripted “a clue.”

We’ll continue to discuss these topics tomorrow—and we hope that others will follow suit. By the way: Note the press corps’ strategy during Campaign 2000. When Gore tried to distance himself from Clinton’s “sins and omissions,” Crowley knew what to do—she played “the impeachment day videotape.” She had no plan to let the topic drop. And this is why she forgot to mention an important fact—the fact that the sainted solon, John McCain, was misstating the facts in that campaign presentation. Today, of course, we still get told that McCain has always “talked plainly and candidly.”

ALSO TOMORROW: More good news! Greg Sargent—commonly referred to “The Answer,” once Ezra Klein abandoned the moniker—has started his own web site. Drum on the script! Daou on the Dems! And Sargent, on his own, at this site! Tomorrow, we’ll speak to one of Sargent’s points (at present, we can no longer find the new site). But we all should be speaking about the ways the press corps spins elections—unless we simply don’t care who wins. Doris Kearns Goodwin doesn’t care about going to war—just as long as it feels good marching there. If we care about “policy views,” we have to go after scripts—now.

RETROACTIVELY CHANGING THE STORY: How powerful are the press corps’ scripts? As we’ve noted in the past, reporters will even abandon their own accurate reporting to get in line with inaccurate scripts. To see it done (against Gore) during Campaign 2000, you know what to do—just click here.