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EXIT OKRENT (PART 3)! Final question: Why did a guy who voted for Kerry love fever swamps of the right? // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 26, 2005

BORKING THE 7: What did the Gang of 14 decide? Inquiring minds are still unsure. Last night, Robert Bork gave his view on Hannity & Colmes:
HANNITY (5/25/05): What do you think about the deal?

BORK: I think it's a dead loss to the Republicans.

HANNITY: I agree. Why do you think so?

BORK: Well, for a lot of reasons. They gained three judges and gave up four.

HANNITY: Threw them overboard.

BORK: Yes.

So Bork and Hannity think that the Gang of 14 agreed to deep-six Judges 4-7. Other giants of cable think otherwise. But no one seems to know just what has been agreed, and that’s because of the press corps’ standard reaction to this agreement. Instead of asking the Gang of 14 to explain exactly what they’d decided, pundits did the things they do best; they began to speculate about solons’ motives and predict who was “the winner.” Of course, there’s no real way to know who has “won” when it comes to a long-term, informal agreement which may unravel at any time. But so what? Rather than ask the Gang to expound on Judges 4-7, pundits blathered on.

What exactly was agreed about Judges 4 and 5 (Myers and Saad)? About Judges 6 and 7 (we think, McKeague and Griffin)? About Judges 8 and 9 (Kavanaugh and Haynes)? We don’t have the slightest idea. And we haven’t seen anyone ask the 14. They’re too busy picking out winners.

DEAN DOMED: With all the rest of the week’s excitement, we’re late to Howard Dean’s Meet the Press appearance. We thought Dean did well on certain subjects, but was more frequently awful. As always, we cringed at this familiar exchange on the subject of Social Security:

RUSSERT (5/22/05): You mentioned Social Security. You were up in Ithaca at Cornell. (Reading from newspaper) "Dean pointed out that while he would not endorse this, if Social Security were left alone for 30 years, its benefits would be reduced to 80 percent of what it is now."

DEAN: It's probably a slight mistake that the reporter made. It's actually about 35 years, but that's right. If we did nothing—

RUSSERT: In 2042, the benefits would be about 73 percent of the schedule.

DEAN: That's right.

RUSSERT: So that being said, that Social Security recipients will in effect have a reduction in benefits if we do nothing—

DEAN: That's right.

No, nothing will turn on that exchange. But here again, a major Democrat chooses the version of facts most favorable to Bush’s position.

What was wrong with this familiar presentation? Here are three options open to Dems when they talk about future revenue shortfalls:

Option 1: They can cite the gloomy forecast of the SS trustees. This forecast says the revenue shortfall begins in 2041.

Option 2: They can cite the slightly less gloomy forecast of the CBO. This forecast says the revenue shortfall begins in 2052.

Option 3: They can mention another fact; if the economy grows in the next fifty years at the rate that it grew in the last fifty years, SS faces no revenue shortfall in the coming years.

We’d go with a blend of 2 and 3. But Dean, like so many Dem leaders, adopted Option 1—the gloomiest of the three major options, and the one that may well be least accurate. And by the way: This is the option preferred by the White House. We’re amazed when Dem leaders keeo choosing it. (How bad does this get? Link below.)

But this was just one of several problems. For example, we’re amazed when Dems keep making this self-defeating presentation about Bush’s pre-war dissembling:

DEAN: Some of the things that the president said on our way into Iraq, they just weren't true, and I don't think that's right. So—

RUSSERT: Such as?

DEAN: Such as the weapons of mass destruction, which we have all known about, but the—

Good grief! Could anyone fail to see what was coming? Yes, this happened next:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): Well, you said there were weapons of mass destruction!

DEAN: I said I wasn't sure, but I said I thought there probably were. But the thing that really bothered me the most, which the 9-11 Commission said also wasn't true...

Could a Dem leader look worse? Dean calls Bush a liar for saying there were WMD—then has to admit that he said the same thing! Years have gone by, and Dems still haven’t developed a better presentation. (Hint: Focus on Bush’s pre-war claims about nukes. Much of this was blatantly phony—and these claims weren’t echoed by long lines of Dems going all the way back to Clinton.)

But the biggest problem with Dean’s appearance concerned his recent string of undisciplined attacks against Republicans. Dean has made so many such statements that when he goes on a show like Meet the Press, half the time gets eaten up evaluating his own unwise statements. Some libs are inclined to love these attacks. But how does this sort of thing sound to undecideds?

RUSSERT: Governor, you did on May 14 say something about Tom DeLay that raised a lot of eyebrows. Let's watch Howard Dean on Tom DeLay.

DEAN (videotape): I think Tom DeLay ought to go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence down there courtesy of the Texas taxpayers.

RUSSERT: "Serve his jail sentence"? He—what's he been convicted of?

DEAN: He hasn't been convicted yet, but he is also, in addition to the things that I just mentioned, under investigation in Texas by a district attorney down there for violating the campaign finance laws of Texas by funneling corporate donations, which is illegal, into certain campaign activities. This gentleman is not an ethical person, and he ought not to be leading Congress, period. And it is endemic of what happens in Congress when one party controls everything.

RUSSERT: You said in December of 2003 that we shouldn't prejudge Osama bin Laden. How can you sit here and have a different standard for Tom DeLay and prejudge him?

DEAN: To be honest with you, Tim, I don't think I'm prejudging him.

“I don’t think I’m prejudging him?” That, of course, is total nonsense, as any Meet the Press viewer can see. And as Russert continued, Dean did too. This is equally foolish:
RUSSERT: Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat, said, "That's just wrong. I think Howard Dean was out of line talking about DeLay. The man has not been indicted. I don't like him, I disagree with some of what he does, but I don't think you, in a political speech, talk about a man as a criminal or his jail sentence."

DEAN: As I said before, we're not speculating here. Three of the things I've mentioned he has already done and been admonished for by the House Ethics Committee.

But of course, that’s wrong; Dean was “speculating there,” as any viewere could see. The fact that DeLay has been admonished by the Ethics Committee doesn’t mean he’s committed a crime. (As Frank noted, he hasn’t even been indicted.) Some Dems and libs may cheer this stuff on. But on its face, it’s factually bogus, and it must look silly to undecideds. Meanwhile, enormous chunks of time get wasted going over misstatements like this.

In 2003, we strongly criticized Russert for his interview with Candidate Dean. But this time, Russert’s questions were perfectly obvious; anybody would have asked them. Meanwhile, Dean’s lack of discipline about SS was matched by the nonsense about DeLay’s crimes. Tom DeLay is an easy target; it’s absurd to think that you have to embellish to make a case against his conduct. (Ditto for Bush’s pre-war conduct.) In our view, Dean has been extremely undisciplined in the past few months. We thought that he, and the party he works for, paid a price Sunday morning.

OPTION 1: How bad do Dem leaders get about SS? On May 1, Chris Dodd didn’t just vouch for Option 1. He said “every single actuary” endorses that forecast, a claim that is absurdly inaccurate. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/2/05. The lack of message discipline here is really a thing to see.

TOMORROW—DEM LEADERS PART 2: Sad to say, it’s Pelosi’s latest palooza. (To spot it yourself, just click here.)

TOMORROW: Our big “blue slip” Part 4 finale

Special report—Exit Okrent!

PART 3! GRAND FINALE! STILL “LIBERAL” AFTER ALL THESE MONTHS: In his final column, Daniel Okrent offered a mea culpa for a fairly minor offense. “I wish I hadn't made so much noise, in print and in various interviews, about how hard this job was,” he wrote. “Dexter Filkins, in Baghdad, has a hard job; Steven Erlanger, in Jerusalem, has a hard job. By any reasonable standard, public editor is a walk in the park.” As public editor, Okrent sometimes complained about the grief he had to take from Times readers, several times taking his kvetching too far. But then too, we saw him several times, in public forums, complaining about the nasty e-mails he and Times reporters received, and we came to admire the fact that these e-mails seemed to disgust him. The biggest problem with many modern media types is the fact that nothing makes them mad. We thought it spoke well of Okrent that he seemed to hate the nasty, dumb mail Times reporters routinely receive, even if it suggested that he might not have the perfect temperament for the public ed job. Mike Getler surely gets dumb e-mails too—but he doesn’t name people’s names and gnash his teeth about their dumb comments.

But then, Okrent had to go after Krugman with those nasty, cosmos-class cheap shots (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/23/05), and he had to write that ludicrous item about the Times and Bill Moyers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/05). And omigod! He had to vouch for his most famous column—the column in which he told the world that the Times is “a liberal newspaper.” (“Of course it is,” he blithely said.) That was one of the topics Okrent explored in his final public ed piece. Because the topic is so important—and because his item is so short—we’ll cut-and-paste it in full:

OKRENT (5/22/05): Last July, when I slapped the headline ''Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?'' atop my column and opened the piece with the catchy one-liner ''Of course it is,'' I wasn't doing anyone—the paper, its serious critics, myself—any favors. I'd reduced a complex issue to a sound bite. The column itself, I'll stand by; I still believe the paper is the inevitable product of its staff's experience and worldview, and that its news coverage reflects a generalized acceptance of liberal positions on most social issues.

For The Times's ideologically fueled detractors on the right, though, there was no reason to invoke this somewhat more complex analysis when they could paint my more incendiary words on a billboard: ''According to The Times's own Daniel Okrent.” I may wish they'd live by one of the same standards they ask The Times to adhere to—the fair representation of controversial opinions. But I handed them a machine gun when a pistol would have sufficed.

Of course, we criticized Okrent in real time for being so cavalier on this subject (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/26/04). Anyone could have seen where this column would end—with kooky-con New York Times detractors saying it proved they’d been right all along about the paper’s grotesque liberal bias. Okrent now says that he gave them a gun. But that was easy to see in real time.

But Okrent’s mea culpa is just a tiny bit disingenuous. “The column itself, I'll stand by,” he says. “I still believe the paper[’s]...news coverage reflects a generalized acceptance of liberal positions on most social issues.” But that isn’t quite what the gentleman said when he slammed the Times for its “liberal” ways. Back then, he was a bit tougher on the Times. Here was the nugget statement from this, his most long-lasting column:

OKRENT (7/25/04):I'll get to the politics-and-policy issues this fall (I want to watch the campaign coverage before I conclude anything), but for now my concern is the flammable stuff that ignites the right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed.
Okrent wasn’t talking about politics-and-policy, he said—though anyone with an ounce of sense would have known that this would be ignored when he handed Times-trashers their license to vent. But how does the Times cover social issues—the “flammable stuff that inflames the right?” “If you think the Times play it down the middle,” you’re a blind man, Okrent said. Later, he expanded his criticism:
OKRENT (7/25/04): [I]'s one thing to make the paper's pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls...and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. I don't think it's intentional when The Times does this. But negligence doesn't have to be intentional.
According to Okrent, the Times has been “negligent” in covering these topics; the paper “tells only one side of the story.” And then, he offered the “perfect example”—the Times’ coverage of same-sex marriage.

Let’s start out with a key disclaimer. Is the Times fair-and-balanced when it comes to gay marriage? We don’t have the foggiest. Readers, it’s hard to say where “fairness” lies when a newspaper covers a complex subject, and when we examined Okrent’s critique, we found that some of his complaints seemed to be hatched from the same fever swamp where he found his utterly bogus complaint about the Times and Bill Moyers. According to Okrent, the Times had been “present[ing] the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading.” Other papers had been more balanced, he said. At one point, he gave some examples.

OKRENT (7/25/04): This implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn't appeared. Apart from one excursion into the legal ramifications of custody battles (''Split Gay Couples Face Custody Hurdles,'' by Adam Liptak and Pam Belluck, March 24), potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.

The San Francisco Chronicle runs an uninflected article about Congressional testimony from a Stanford scholar making the case that gay marriage in the Netherlands has had a deleterious effect on heterosexual marriage. The Boston Globe explores the potential impact of same-sex marriage on tax revenues, and the paucity of reliable research on child-rearing in gay families. But in The Times, I have learned next to nothing about these issues, nor about partner abuse in the gay community, about any social difficulties that might be encountered by children of gay couples or about divorce rates (or causes, or consequences) among the 7,000 couples legally joined in Vermont since civil union was established there four years ago.

Okrent complained that the Times had failed to take a walk on the down side, the way the Chronicle and Globe had done. But when we researched the items he mentioned, we found that no newspaper except the Chronicle had reported that marginal congressional testimony, and we couldn’t find any serious coverage, in the Globe or anywhere else, about “the potential impact of same-sex marriage on tax revenues.” (The Globe report to which Okrent seemed to refer said that same-sex marriage would likely increase Bay State revenues.) Again, the Times was hardly alone in its editorial judgment. We couldn’t find evidence that any paper except the Globe had ever covered this apparently marginal topic. Nor could we find any AP reporting on this issue.

Was this the best evidence we could get for so blithe a claim on so central a topic—for Okrent’s assurance that the Times is “of course” “a liberal newspaper,” which we now tells us has handed machine guns to conservative Times-trashers? Okrent says he stands behind his general claim, although we’re still not sure why he does; we don’t have the slightest idea how the Time handles same-sex marriage (or the other topics he mentions), and his analysis still strikes us as slapdash—not unlike his foolish embrace of the bogus claim about the Times and Bill Moyers. Is it true? Does Times news coverage “reflect a generalized acceptance of liberal positions on most social issues?” We still don’t have the slightest idea—although we do note that this letter was published in the wake of Okrent’s first column:

To the Editor:

Daniel Okrent argues that The Times's news coverage of same-sex marriage and families reflects ''implicit advocacy.'' I disagree.

Since January, The Times has published nearly a dozen articles centered on the social conservatives and religious right groups that are the leading opponents of equal marriage rights.

That Mr. Okrent didn't consider the newspaper's intensive focus on their perspectives is perplexing.

Would such an argument have been made in the 1950's and 60's? Would ''three-dimensional perspective'' have required articles about the divorce rates of interracial couples in states where they were allowed to marry? Or about dubious research by antimiscegenationists on the ''deleterious effect'' of interracial marriage on same-race families?

Marriage equality is a politically charged issue that demands vigorous, nuanced coverage. But the reality of gay and lesbian lives and the existence of our families are not matters of legitimate debate, nor should they require journalistic ''balance'' to justify their presence in The Times.

Joan M. Garry
Exec. Dir., Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
New York, July 29, 2004

Is Garry more correct than Okrent about the Times coverage? We don’t have the slightest idea. But we will say this: A Nexis scan of New York Times headlines does show a wide array of news reports about this subject. It’s hard to say just what is “fair.” But it isn’t clear that Okrent made a stringent attempt to sift through all the Times reporting. Instead, he made a flippant statement—one he now semi-regrets.

We’re struck by several things in all this. Mostly, we’re struck by the way Okrent seems inclined to jump on various creaking bandwagons when it comes to “the flammable stuff that ignites the right.” In his final column, he stages an ugly, inexcusable, cheap-shot attack on the man who has done the most to challenge and fact-check the Bush agenda. Soon thereafter, he adds his assent to a scripted claim about the Times and Bill Moyers—a claim that was groaningly familiar but palpably false, as even a small bit of research makes clear. And he stands behind his earlier claim that the Times is “a liberal newspaper,” an imprecise claim he initially “proved” by taking what seems like a slapdash look at the paper’s coverage of gay marriage. Our question: Why does a man who says he voted for Kerry seem to get so many scripts from fever swamps of the kooky-con right? Answer that question and you might start to understand the odd currents driving our public discourse—a discourse in which a prince of Manhattan is too lazy to research a claim about Moyers, and engages in the nastiest kind of attack against the bravest scribe of the day. Why was Okrent so inclined? Tell us, and then we’ll all know.

JAY FIRST: Yes, Okrent is a prince of Manhattan, where we think his work is viewed rather kindly. In particular, here’s Jay Rosen’s upbeat assessment of that key “liberal newspaper” column:

ROSEN: One Sunday morning he called the New York Times a liberal newspaper. And even though he meant "...on social issues only!" it was still a profound moment in the history of the Times—and I believe a liberating one. He said it was his most important column and he's right.
We agree that this was Okrent’s most important column—but only because it was so poorly reasoned and so unwise, because it handed a fully predictable gun to the newspaper’s kooky-con critics. The reader who sent that ridiculous “question” on Moyers no doubt cheered the scribe’s every word. But Rosen seems to think this column served a good purpose. At THE HOWLER, we’d love to know why he sees it that way. Write on, Brother Jay! Write on!

By the way, one final, ironic note on how poorly reasoned that key column was. As Rosen notes, Okrent only claimed that day that the Times was “liberal” when it came to social issues. In fact, when Okrent finally wrote his promised column on “politics-and-policy issues,” he specifically judged that the Times was not favoring Kerry over Bush. (This seemed to be his only frame of reference for evaluating such matters.) So, even though Okrent specifically found that the Times didn’t have a political tilt, every conservative in the country will endlessly hear that he said something different. They’ll hear this because of the flamboyant way he penned that unwise “liberal newspaper” column. This “liberated” us to more fever-swamp tripe of the type presented in that question about Moyers. We think this is no “liberation” at all—and we hope that Jay will splain different. In our view, we need to know why this kind of work often meets such indulgent critiques.