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WHO WILL WATCH THE AD-WATCHERS (PART 2)! Bush’s new ad makes a nasty claim. But the Times turns it into a joke:

THURSDAY, MAY 27, 2004

BUT WHO WILL WATCH THE AD-WATCHERS (PART 2): How lazily has the New York Times reviewed the ads from Campaign 04? Consider Jim Rutenberg’s latest “Ad Campaign” feature, the one in yesterday’s paper.

Rutenberg reviews the latest Bush ad–and the ad makes a nasty accusation. John Kerry has “changed his position” on the Patriot Act because he’s been “pressured by fellow liberals,” it says. Kerry is “playing politics with national security,” the ad says at its conclusion.

It’s hard to make a nastier charge. But time out_ Rutenberg says this:

RUTENBERG: Contrary to this advertisement’s claim, Mr. Kerry has not called for the repeal of the act’s expanded use of wiretaps and other surveillance tools in terrorism investigations. He has, rather, called for a greater level of judicial oversight.
Say what? Although the ad makes a nasty charge, its principal claim is false, Rutenberg says. And he notes that the Bush campaign can’t back up its claims about Kerry’s motives. “The Bush campaign has offered no proof” that Kerry bowed to pressure from liberals, he writes. Indeed, Rutenberg notes that several Republicans who supported the bill now want to change some provisions, as does Kerry.

So let’s see. The ad misstates Kerry’s stand on the bill, and makes an unfounded claim about motive. And it does all this in just thirty seconds_ Why, you’d almost think that this information might play a large role in Rutenberg’s report. But you have to read to the end of his “ACCURACY” section–almost at the end of his piece–to gain this seminal information. Meanwhile, what does the headline on his piece say? Incredibly, the headline says this:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE: Portrait of a Patriot and a Flip-Flopper
Has Kerry “flip-flopped” on the act? That’s hardly what Rutenberg seems to be saying. But so what? Readers see the spin-drenched term sitting atop this piece in its headline. Indeed, enjoy the ironic “Scorecard” passage which closes Rutenberg’s report:
RUTENBERG: SCORECARD: This spot is consistent with two of Mr. Bush’s more prominent lines of attack against Mr. Kerry: that he is a perennial flip- flopper who is weak on national security. Mr. Bush’s aides say that for all of the objections Democrats and journalists can raise about the commercial’s claims, voters will be left with the clear impression that Mr. Kerry has yet again switched positions on an important issue...
And Rutenberg is surely right; voters will be left with that “clear impression.” Indeed, they’re left with that clear (if misleading) impression if they read the headline that runs on his piece_

May we ask a pair of obvious questions? First, if a nasty ad features bogus claims, why isn’t that the headline? Why doesn’t this headline say: “Bush ad based on bogus claims?” Rutenberg tells you about this ad’s claims, but he and the Times seem unable to care. You find this info deep in his piece. The headline spouts spin about Kerry.

But how about a second question? If this ad is as bogus as Rutenberg says, why isn’t that a news story? Why is such important information relegated to a dusty old “Ad Campaign” feature? As everyone knows, a record-shattering volume of ads is helping define this White House campaign. Isn’t it news when Bush runs an ad whose nasty claims are false and unfounded? Millions of people will see this ad–and they won’t know that its claims are bogus_ Shouldn’t it be major news when voters are misled this way?

Alas! At the Times, it isn’t big news. Like other news orgs, the paper seems unable to care about these crucial TV ads. But then, in each of the past two White House campaigns, the Times has done inept “Ad Watch” work. This routinized piece–with its hopeless headline–continues the paper’s weak record.

TOMORROW: An e-mail critique of Tuesday’s piece. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/04.

THE SPIN GETS INTO THE HEADLINE: Always remember: Spin will be served. Hesiod Theogeny notes a similar headline in this morning’s Boston Herald. And no, Kerry hasn’t “flip-flopped” on the matter at hand; as the Herald reports, the solon “floated a trial balloon,” then made his decision on Wednesday. But so what? “Flip-flop” is one of the year’s biggest spins. At the Herald, as at the Times, the spin-point went straight to the headline, where it could do the most good.

SPEAKING OF CONVINCING HEADLINES: The lead story in this morning’s Post concerns those seven al Qaeda villains. “Officials Convinced Attack on U.S. Is Being Planned,” the headline says.

But are these officials really “convinced?” To state the obvious, the Post doesn’t know. Indeed, in this morning’s Times, this story gets a quite different play. It appears on page 10, and from the third paragraph on, Richard Stevenson suggests there’s room for doubt about the sincerity of this new warning. “Some intelligence officials said they were uncertain that the link between the fresh intelligence and the likelihood of another attack was as apparent as Mr. Ashcroft made it out to be,” Stevenson writes. “There’s no real new intelligence, and a lot of this has been out there already,” one anonymous administration official says. Beyond that, Stevenson quotes Senator Richard Durbin saying that the Senate intelligence committee “had received no word of any new information of the type Mr. Ashcroft described.”

Is this a real threat? Or it is just hype? Is Ashcroft “convinced” of what he has said? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know. But then again, we’re hardly alone; the Post has no way of knowing, either. Moral? Papers should report what pols say. They shouldn’t report what they’re thinking.

From the annals of worthless discussion

LET’S PLAY FOOZBALL: How worthless can our discourse be? Viewers of Tuesday evening’s Hardball received a dispiriting lesson. Excitable Hardball host Chris Matthews was joined by Terry Holt, a spokesman for Bush, and Tad Devine, repping for Kerry. Quickly enough, the chatter went bad when Holt played a Tired Old Card:

MATTHEWS: Why is [Kerry] nailed on the flip-flop thing whenever you ask the poll question? Is that just negative advertisement or is that his history?

DEVINE: Listen, they’ve spent $74.5 million on television, almost all of it negative, and that's been their message. And obviously people got that information. We don't deny that.

HOLT: John Kerry’s own words–

DEVINE: It’s not going to affect–

HOLT: “I voted for it before I voted against it.”

DEVINE: It is not going to affect their voting decision, though.

MATTHEWS: But what about that devastating bite you just mentioned, where you’ve got John Kerry saying, I voted for this $87 billion for reconstruction in Iraq, and then I voted against it. It sounds crazy_

DEVINE: Chris, they put about $50 million behind that. And look–

MATTHEWS: But he said it_ [Laughter] But John Kerry said it_

DEVINE: But so what? Bush has the lowest–

HOLT: But, Tad, it’s indicative of his personality. He can’t give people a straight answer. And nobody can understand how you could be for it and then against it.

“Nobody can understand” this matter? In fact, school kids can could understand it; Kerry voted for a spending bill he favored, and against a different bill he opposed. And Bush’s position was just like Kerry’s; Bush supported one of the bills and opposed the other, just like his rival. This snoresome story could hardly be simpler. But instead of clarifying this pointless old saw, Matthews said Kerry’s statement “sounds crazy.” Yes, Devine made no effort to sort this out either, extending the Kerry campaign’s striking ineptitude. But journalists don’t have to wait for pols to clarify such silly issues. Devine was hopeless–but Matthews was worse. And his viewers were quite poorly served.

But then, having failed to clarify this attack on Kerry, Matthews started trashing Bush. Having nothing of value to say, he too played a Tired Old Card:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a question about a choice in John Kerry's life.

HOLT: Yes.

MATTHEWS: John Kerry went to Vietnam. He volunteered. Why didn't the president volunteer to go to Vietnam? He's for the war.

HOLT: Well, the president flew–

MATTHEWS: No, but why didn’t he volunteer to go to Vietnam if he was for the war? Shouldn't people who support wars go and fight them?

HOLT: But, in fact, he was one of the–he served in the National Guard honorably for his country.

MATTHEWS: But why didn't he go and fight in the war? He believed in it.

HOLT: Well, everybody made a decision about how best they served. He served as a fighter pilot in the Texas Air Guard.

MATTHEWS: No, but if you believe in a war, shouldn't you fight it, rather than someone who doesn't believe in it, a draftee getting drafted in the war?

We’ll spare you the rest of this pointless discussion. But here’s our question: Has Matthews been off the planet since March? Surely, all his viewers were well aware of the Tired Old Topic he flogged. The host brought nothing new to the topic–a matter which has been exhaustively explored.

Meanwhile, Matthews keeps flogging the fatuous foofaw which scribes of his class refuse to abandon. On Tuesday, he wasted time and insulted his viewers by asking if Kerry is “cuddly enough.” Last night, he killed time on a poll about who voters want to have barbecue with. Even after 9/11–even in the face of Iraq–major scribes won’t abandon these topics. Remember: If you want to examine this crowd, you must regard them as alien beings. Nothing–nothing_–will stop their clowning. Such scribes surely aren’t of this earth.