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ALTERING STATES! We're off on a mission of some importance. Meanwhile, contemplate this:

THURSDAY, MAY 20, 2004

CALLED AWAY: Our entire staff has been called to Virginia’s Homestead to provide entertainment for a professional group. We may not do a full post until Saturday. In our absence, we strongly suggest that you consider Kevin Drum’s post RE Jonathan Alter:

DRUM’S ALONG THE POTOMAC: We strongly recommend Drum’s report on Newsweek pundit Jonathan Alter. Alter appeared on Tuesday’s O’Franken Factor. According to transcripts from the man called “8rivers,” here’s one of Alter’s remarks about the Bush Admin:

ALTER: The level of incompetence is so staggering here, and yet there’s this gap between how astonishingly incompetent—and we can go over particulars in the last year if you want to—how astonishingly incompetent they’ve been and the perception is still of them as solid citizens...
As we think we mentioned last week, this is in many ways the problem confronting our mainstream pundits. From the start, they portrayed the Bush Admin as essentially competent; you might have concerns about Bush himself, but he had surrounded himself with highly capable aides. In fact, the thing that has most stood out about this Admin has been its apparent lack of competence. For example, if we take events at face value, they were played for fools by the Chalabi gang, those “heroes in error” discussed here yesterday. This seems to place the Bush Admin among the ranks of history’s greatest rubes. But it has been hard for pundits to state this point, because–as Alter’s comment suggests–the pundit corps’ basic talking-point has always been just the opposite. Result? The Admin has been “astonishingly incompetent,” Alter says. But because pundits have a hard time reversing their core appraisal, “the perception is still of them as solid citizens.”

Drum suggests you review what Alter told Franken, then compare it to his latest column in Newsweek. We think this is well worth doing. Did the guy who said these things to Franken actually write that Newsweek piece? If the Bush Admin is “astonishingly incompetent,” wouldn’t that be the obvious basis for a column? Not in the world of Washington pundits! They are very timidly inching away from a world-view they’ve recited quite well.

LEMANN ON RUSSERT: But then, timidity seems to rule our press. On Tuesday, Eric Alterman offered the following post about a new profile of Tim Russert. The profile appears in the current New Yorker, written by Nicholas Lemann:

ALTERMAN: Too bad that Tim Russert had to throw a hissy fit just a day after Nick Lemann did such a bang-up job of dissecting his appeal in an essay that the Dean should assign to all Columbia J School students both for its content and its example. Russert’s essential con-game does not escape Lemann, but the piece is nevertheless as generous and rational as one could hope for. Still, if you read it carefully, you understand why these Sunday shows are ultimately so contentless and hence, why administration officials are so eager to go on them, knowing as they do that nothing they say will be challenged in any fundamental fashion no matter how little evidence they may have to support it.
When we read the profile by Lemann, we were struck by its timidity; for that reason, we don’t understand Alterman’s praise for his efforts. After all, if Lemann noticed an “essential con-game” at the heart of Russert’s work, why should he have written a piece that is “as generous and rational as one could hope for?” Why should we have to “read it carefully” to understand its basic points? We’ll probably discuss Lemann’s profile later on. But in our view, you have to read his profile as Soviets read Pravda to tease out the things that “don’t escape” him. Is the Bush Admin “astonishingly incompetent?” Is Russert running an “essential con-game?” Why should citizens be forced to read with great care to tease out such startling observations?

OUR SERIES CONTINUES: Our current series–“Don’t look back”–continues with our next post.