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DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 1)! Pundits snooozed on the road to Iraq. Jim Lehrer has a strange explanation:

MONDAY, MAY 17, 2004

WHAT HANNITY SAID: Three cheers for David Brock’s new site, which has run down last week’s Hannity story. Yes–according to Media Matters, Hannity did commiserate with John McCain about those “unfair” attacks during Campaign 2000–the unfair attacks about breast cancer research which damaged the senator’s primary race. Last week, Hannity called the attacks “unfair.” But as we showed you, Hannity was one of the scripted scribes who pimped these absurd attacks in real time! To see the Media Matters report, click here. For our own report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/13/04. By the way: Remind us to show you what Bush said when his campaign aired those attacks on McCain. This is precisely why the Washington press should rouse itself from its months of slumber and critique those current campaign ads–the endless, slashing TV commercials that are shaping this White House race.

Our current series: Don’t look back

READ EACH EXCITING INSTALLMENT: Pundits snoozed on the road to Iraq. All week, we explore pre-war coverage.

DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 1): We were struck by Jim Lehrer’s remarks when he played a bit of Hardball last Wednesday. The PBS host has been making the rounds promoting his latest novel, Flying Crows—one of the novels he finds time to write in spite of his broadcasting duties. But talk of fiction would have to wait; Lehrer’s host, Chris Matthews, was talking Iraq. Early on, he asked a good question–after making an odd admission:

MATTHEWS (5/12/04): During course of the war, there was a lot of snap-to coverage. We’re at war. We have to root for the country to some extent. You’re not supposed to be too aggressively critical of a country at combat, especially when it’s your own.

And yet it seems something missing from this debate was a critical analysis of where it was taking us. That if you occupy a country for good or bad reason, you face resistance because of nationalism. It’s always out there in every country, especially ours.

You then face an underground. Then you have to fight an underground with the tactics that sometimes get ugly. You’ve got to interrogate, for instance. You’ve got to crack the underground. Do you think journalism, by the objective standards we have in this country, in the early part of the twenty-first century, should have included that kind of analysis?

Did the press fail to provide that “critical analysis” in the months before Iraq? Lehrer said the press had failed, then offered a novel explanation:
LEHRER (continuing directly): I do. The word “occupation,” keep in mind, Chris, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was “liberation.” This was a war of liberation, not a war of occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.

MATTHEWS: Because?

LEHRER: Because it just didn’t occur to us. We weren’t smart enough to do it. I agree. I think it was a dereliction of our—in retrospective.

According to Lehrer, the nation’s scribes “weren’t smart enough” to foresee the problems of occupation. Soon, Lehrer expanded on his remarks. He gave an even more surprising explanation for the pre-war reporting:
LEHRER: You touched on something else when you asked the question. Let’s say a group of journalists had gotten onto that. It would have been difficult to have had debates about that going in, when the president and the government of the—it’s not talking about “occupation.” They’re talking about—it would have been—it would have taken some—you’d have had to have gone against the grain.

MATTHEWS: Right. You’d also have come off as kind of a pointy-head trying to figure out some obscure issue here.

LEHRER: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: Not good guys and bad guys.

LEHRER: Negative. Negativism.

Could “courage” be the word Lehrer sought? Did he want to say: “It would have taken some courage” for the nation’s press “to have gone against the grain” pre-Iraq? We were surprised to hear Lehrer say how “difficult” those debates would have been. Inevitably, we thought of Elisabeth Bumiller, explaining why Bush got softball questions in his last pre-war press conference (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/04):
BUMILLER: I think we were very deferential because…it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.
According to Bumiller, it would have been “frightening” to ask real questions. Now, Lehrer seemed to say it would have been “difficult” to “go against the grain” at this time.

Let’s give Lehrer credit for telling the truth, although his remarks struck us as odd. But Matthews took his guest’s comments in stride. Next, he asked about Lehrer’s “brilliant lifestyle”–and we e thought the exchange might help you see why the press corps is often so docile:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): Let me ask you about your brilliant lifestyle. I don’t know how you do it, Jim, because you are very active socially. We bump into each other, my wife and you, you guys, and I just have to say, you write like a full-time novelist. And you’ve done it again! Do you get up at 4 in the morning and deny yourself a cup of coffee for three hours until you’ve written 500 words or what? How do you do this? You’ve done another great novel!

LEHRER: Chris, I am—I am blessed by having been in daily journalism for forty years. This means writing is a natural act to me. I think with my fingers. And I get up very—I do get up, not quite at 4, but I do get up early. And I go to my office a couple of hours before anybody else did. And I work every day. The only way I can write these books—

MATTHEWS: You’re over there in Shirlington, Virginia.

LEHRER: That’s right.

Might we be permitted a question? If Lehrer had gotten up each morning and studied the news (see below), is there a chance he would have been “smart enough” to anticipate the problems of occupation? And if Lehrer cut back on that brilliant lifestyle–if he weren’t so “active socially” among D.C. swells–might he have found it less “difficult” to conduct those debates we missed? Yes, Millionaire Pundit Values were in the air as Lehrer chatted with Matthews last week. Tomorrow, we’ll show you one “debate” the NewsHour managed to miss.

TOMORROW: A major story the NewsHour skipped. Wednesday: Hamza does Hardball!

WHILE LEHRER SLEPT: Let’s state the obvious. It’s absurd to say that “those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation” in the months before Iraq. Pundits may have chosen to ignore these concerns, but some reporters did report them. For example, here’s part of a front-page report by Vernon Loeb and Thomas Ricks in the 3/11/03 Washington Post. (It took us about twenty seconds to find it.) Headline: “Iraq’s Historic Factions May Severely Test a U.S. Occupying Force:”

LOEB AND RICKS (pgh 1): The U.S. Army is bracing both for war in Iraq and a postwar occupation that could tie up two to three Army divisions in an open-ended mission that would strain the all-volunteer force and put soldiers in the midst of warring ethnic and religious factions, Army officers and other senior defense officials say.

(2) While the officers believe a decade of peacekeeping operations in Haiti, Somalia, the Balkans and now Afghanistan makes the Army uniquely qualified for the job, they fear that bringing democracy and stability to Iraq may be an impossible task.

The Doomsday Duo continued apace. “[T]he greatest source of concern among senior Army leaders is the uncertainty and complexity of the mission in postwar Iraq, which could require U.S. forces to protect Iraq's borders, referee clashes between ethnic and religious groups, ensure civilian security, provide humanitarian relief, secure possible chemical and biological weapons sites, and govern hundreds of towns and villages,” they wrote. Maybe if Lehrer had put down his novels and picked up the Post, problems with post-war occupation might have “occurred to” the scribe.

From the annals of strange campaign coverage

WHY DID THIS HAPPEN: With incomparable persistence, we’ve said it for years–Democrats need to understand the way their party lost the White House. On our beat, that means that Democrats need to understand the press corps’ twenty-month War Against Gore. Last Friday, we received an e-mail on that subject, posing questions we’re often asked. Citizens should be asking these questions as they watch the Bush-Kerry coverage:

E-MAIL: I hope I’m not wearing out my welcome by writing too often, but my number-one issue is the same as yours so I’m so inclined..The failure of the main line media in 1999-2000 towards Al Gore is still what drives me...

I’m sending the fourth page of an interview by Eric Boehlert with David Brock in Salon. I’m sure you know about Brock’s new website and new book coming out soon. Anyway, in the first question below, Boehlert asks why the so-called liberal media sat on their hands [while Gore was trashed during Campaign 2000]. Brock answers that he doesn't know because he never inhabited the New York Times culture. So I ask you as well, why did this happen? I know what happened (mostly because of you), but why did it happen? I know you plan on eventually publishing a book on Gore and what happened back then, but are you also going to try and find out why it happened? Was it really because it was “fun,” like Margaret Carlson said? Did they really dislike Al Gore viscerally like some others hinted at?....Or is it (my biggest fear) all about economics? In other words, journalism has become a big-paying job, and people with big salaries predominantly, and especially as they age, tend to drift rightward...

What I’m saying is, I wish someone would “investigate” the matter. You know, interviews with all those journalists and their editors about why they ridiculed and lied about one of the most qualified and most prepared men ever to run for the presidency. I’m still shocked and even enraged by it.

Our thoughtful e-mailer should be shocked, and he should be asking those questions. We get such questions from time to time. So here is a bit of an overview:
REPLY: For starters, let’s address one point in the passage you sent from the Boehlert/Brock interview. The Gore campaign was well aware of what was going on in the press. I have the impression that they considered complaining publicly around May 2000, but then decided not to. It’s a very dangerous thing to do–the press always gets the last word. [Please note: This is an impression.]

Why did this happen? To start with, of course, I don’t know. But the simplest explanation would seem the most obvious--the War Against Gore was an extension of the fury-with-Clinton which culminated with his impeachment trial. Clinton’s trial was held in February 1999; Gore began campaigning about three weeks later. And the press assault began instantaneously (just as soon as the RNC signaled what the spin-lines should be). Indeed, “invented the Internet” was ginned up from Gore’s first interview as a candidate. Within one week of that first interview, the corps was peddling three iconic-but-bogus tales to prove that Gore Was A Big Liar Just Like Clinton (invented the Internet, Love Story, farm chores).“Farm chores” foolishness was so total a hoax that even the press corps was forced to abandon it--so they replaced it with the Love Canal nonsense, again completing the Rule of Three. As a group, without dissent, they pimped these stories for two solid years. Whatever one thinks of the current coverage, nothing even dimly like this has happened with Candidate Kerry.

Beyond that, what larger forces are shaping the press? As you suggested, millionaire pundits have less incentive to be liberal/progressive (or journalistically vigilant) than they might have had as Beetle-driving youthsters. Beyond that, there seems to be something happening at the NYT that goes beyond the parochial considerations that bled over from Clinton to Gore. In Campaign 2000, the Washington Post was just as over-the-top as the Times–but in this election, the Post has reverted to journalistic form and is providing fairly normal coverage. Not so the Times. I have no idea why this is so, but I think it's absurd to keep seeing this as some sort of strange coincidence. At least one observer has said that the Times wants Republican presidents for reasons of FCC politics. I have no idea if that is true, but their coverage of White House elections stands out like a sore thumb. It seems to bear no relation to the way they cover anything else, and it has now gone on through a number of elections. People should ask why this is.

Did the press corps really hate Gore? In January, Tucker Carlson offered an interesting anecdote; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/19/04. Meanwhile, the corps’ clowning about Gore never ends. For the sake of the historical record, more on that subject tomorrow.

AT SOME PAPERS, LIFE IS LIKE KINDERGARTEN: A number of e-mailers rolled their eyes at a passage from yesterday’s New York Times. Todd Purdum offered a biographical profile of the young Kerry. Early on, the scribe said this:

PURDUM: If only because life is like high school, Mr. Kerry's adolescent experiences are worth examining in some detail.
Say what? To their credit, many HOWLER readers have noticed that adult life really isn’t “like high school.” But Purdum is looking for ways to pretend that Kerry’s adolescence is worth discussing. Your press corps loves to write these tedious bios, and they’re expert at finding reasons to do so. Note the way Purdum continued:
PURDUM: If only because life is like high school, Mr. Kerry's adolescent experiences are worth examining in some detail. But for him, those years may loom even larger, since as the son of a diplomat, he grew up in various temporary quarters in America and Europe. From 1957 to 1962, his real home was St. Paul's, and it was here that enduring patterns were set.
Does anyone know why a candidate’s adolescent experiences “may loom even larger” if he “grew up in various temporary quarters” (i.e., went to prep school, as Bush also did)? The modern presidential campaign biography has become a vehicle for endless spin. In the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at biographical profiles from this race–and the last one.