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PEPPERIDGE FARM MISREMEMBERS! The Washington Post was strangely selective as it recalled major gaffes: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 14, 2010

The problem never gets mentioned: Last Friday, we praised Trip Gabriel’s front-page report about the problem of cheating on high-stakes tests (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/11/10). As the stakes on high-stakes tests get higher, will teachers and principals cheat even more? Last Friday, Gabriel discussed this problem on the New York Times’ front page.

Gabriel’s report was a pleasant surprise. When it comes to the bulk of the mainstream press, the reality of this problem never seems to sink in. As an example of what we mean, just consider this editorial from today’s New York Times.

The editors praise the new teachers contract in DC—a contract which increases the stakes in high-stakes testing in the following way:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/14/10): The new contract will raise salaries across the board by about 20 percent over the next five years. But it also creates two categories of teachers.

Those who choose to remain on the traditional salary schedule will receive collectively bargained increases at the appointed times and get to a top salary, after about 20 years, of $106,000. High-performing teachers who opt into a performance-based system could see more rapid pay increases under a plan that is still being worked out and could potentially earn more than $140,000.

Translation: Teachers whose students achieve high scores on the high-stakes tests might make $140,000! For ourselves, we’re not necessarily opposed to using test scores this way. But with that much swag at stake, how will the DC schools know that its teachers aren’t cheating?

Go ahead—read today’s editorial. Try to find a single word about this obvious concern.

As we said last Friday: Journalists routinely praise this use of high-stakes tests, without showing the slightest sign that they understand the security problem. Do the editors read their own front page? Last Friday, Gabriel explained the problem. The eds don’t seem to have heard.

PEPPERIDGE FARM MISREMEMBERS (permalink): In the Outlook section of yesterday’s Washington Post, the editors compiled a fascinating list of historical gaffes, pegged to the Helen Thomas story. “Thomas is hardly the only figure undone by a spectacularly ill-advised, tone-deaf, insulting or untrue remark,” Outlook’s editors deathlessly said. “But not all career-defining lines are necessarily career-enders. Some offenders bounce back, others rehabilitate themselves over time, others slowly disappear--and none is ever quite the same.”

Good to know.

There followed a list of such “career-defining lines”—statements which are said to be “spectacularly ill-advised, tone-deaf, insulting or untrue.” In its selection of these lines, the Post provides a spectacularly unbalanced account of the political history of the past 35 years. For our money, the Post’s selections reinforce a point we have often made—during this era, the culture of silly pseudo-scandal has been disproportionately used to attack Major Dems.

As Outlook scans the past 35 years, who do the editors remember? Which major politicians have made these spectacularly undesirable “career-defining” remarks? Outlook’s omissions are striking, as are some of the lines the section chose to include.

When Outlook recalls the past 35 years, a long string of major Democrats make spectacularly undesirable statements. Did major Republicans utter any such lines? Pepperidge Farm can’t seem to recall! On the level of presidential politics, six Democrats are included, starting with Walter Mondale in 1984. Incredibly, Outlook recalls only one such Republican—Jerry Ford, 1976!

How does Insider Washington recall the drift of the past forty years? The Post is as “inside” as inside gets. Our thoughts on Outlook’s recollections:

The role of sexy-time sex: Journalistic rules changed in 1987, when the press corps followed Gary Hart around, reporting his sexual conduct. Should journalists report such stories? However one may answer that question, Outlook’s list suggests that these new rules have disproportionately harmed Major Democrats. Outlook includes “career-defining lines” concerning sex from three presidential-level Democrats—Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, John Edwards. Outlook includes no Republican counterparts.

We wouldn’t say that anything’s “wrong” with Outlook’s recollection here; we’re unaware of any similarly-situated Republican who had a comparable sex scandal. There was the Newt Gingrich matter, of course—although Gingrich was speaker at the time, not a presidential candidate. That said, Newt got a fairly easy ride when it came to his sexy-time sex acts.

Brought down by the truth: In other areas, Outlook displays a highly selective set of judgments. Consider the “career-defining line” attributed to Walter Mondale at the 1984 Democratic convention: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.”

Twenty-six years later, this is recalled as a “career-defining line”—as a remark which is “spectacularly ill-advised, tone-deaf, insulting or untrue.” The editors forget to say that this particular remark was, in fact, perfectly accurate. President Reagan did raise taxes in his second term—and his vice president, George H. W. Bush, was forced to raise taxes even more when he followed Reagan to the White House.

Despite these facts, Mondale is occasionally mocked, to this very day, for making this accurate statement.

The editors included Mondale’s statement in their list of gaffes. They didn’t include this famous line from George H. W. Bush, at the 1988 Republican convention: “Read my lips—no new taxes!” Almost surely, Bush was dissembling when he made this pledge, over and over and over again. (At the start of the 1988 campaign, he had refused to make the “no new taxes” pledge.) But so what? At Outlook, Bush’s once-famous dissembling has been forgotten. Mondale is mocked to this day for having made an accurate statement about the same state of affairs.

Brought down by the press corps’ refusal to function: A second major Democrat is included on the Outlook list—this time, for a statement which was slightly clumsy but perfectly sensible. Outlook remembers Candidate Kerry saying this in 2004: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

In fact, this was a perfectly sensible remark. There were two different $87 billion spending proposals before the senate. Kerry supported the proposal which paid for the spending with new taxes; he opposed the proposal which added the spending to the national debt. By way of contrast, President Bush favored the latter proposal and said he would veto the latter. Kerry voted for the proposal which would pay for the spending, then voted against the proposal which added it to the debt.

In a rational world, a press corps would have tried to clarify the silly flap which arose about Kerry’s statement. Instead, the press corps ran hard with this pseudo-scandal. Six years later, Outlook recalls this as a “spectacularly ill-advised,” “career-defining” statement by Kerry.

A somewhat similar situation obtains with Outlook’s inclusion of Howard Dean. Dean is remembered saying this, also in 2004: "And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeah!" This was a thoroughly unremarkable type of statement, offered to Dean’s supporters on the night he lost the Iowa caucus. But some press entities jacked up the volume on the tape, making it seem that Dean was crazily shouting. Six years later, Outlook recalls this as a “spectacularly ill-advised,” “career-defining line.”

Where was George: Mondale and Kerry are remembered for making perfectly accurate statements. Dean is remembered for making an anodyne pledge to supporters. But land o’ goshen! Outlook has completely forgotten a long string of “career-defining lines” uttered by Major Republicans. These statements used to be quite famous—till Outlook erased them away.

As noted, Outlook forgets Bush 41’s once-famous statement about “no new taxes.” Beyond that, Outlook forgets a string of famous gaffes (or alleged gaffes) made by Vice President Quayle. Ronald Reagan can’t be found on this list; in real time, the press corps kept wishing away his misstatements, and Outlook forgets all about them now. But most strikingly, a well-known president is AWOL here—President George W. Bush.

Did the second President Bush utter any “career-defining” lines? Not if you listen to Outlook! His “sixteen words” have been sent down the memory hole, along with his words of praise for Brownie. The statement he made beneath that MISSION ACCOMPLISHED sign didn’t make Outlook’s list; neither did some famous lines from Campaign 2000. Forget the famous, inaccurate lines about “fuzzy math” and “phony numbers.” Did George Bush “restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office?” That line is missing here too.

How do the editors keep Bush off their list? They offer George Tenet as a scapegoat, recalling his alleged “slam dunk” line. They even include Colin Powell’s speech to the UN, pretending that Powell’s erroneous statements have somehow been “career defining” for this perennial insider favorite. But with Tenet and Powell thus included, Outlook can breathe a sigh of relief, keeping the president they served so badly off this list.

Mondale and Kerry made this list for accurate statements. Reagan, Bush and Bush don’t appear, despite some famous groaners. In fairness, you can’t entirely blame the editors; their recollections faithfully track the culture of the insider press corps over the past forty years. All too often, groaning misstatements by Major Republicans have been ignored, fudged and wished away, eventually lost to history. Accurate statements by major Democrats have been turned into major scandals which linger in insider memory. Outlook is simply recording the era as it actually has unspooled. But during this era, the culture of the insider press has often turned truth on its head.

Outlook’s largest omission: Let’s review. Six presidential-level Democrats make the list (Mondale, Hart, Clinton, Kerry, Dean, Edwards). There is only one corresponding Republican--President Jerry Ford, from 1976!

That said, the editors have omitted the most consequential “career-defining line” of this era—and it belongs to a Democrat! It was uttered by Candidate Gore in 1999. The press corps’ use of this unremarkable line massively changed the world’s history:

GORE (3/9/99) During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

Starting on March 11,1999, the highlighted statement was turned into the mother of all career-defining lines. Why has it been omitted?

Just a guess: By now, everyone knows that the press corps’ use of this statement by Gore represents a case of major journalistic misconduct. It’s a very famous line of this type. But major journalists, by and large, no longer want to discuss it.

It’s the law among many DC elites—the history of the Clinton-Gore era must be washed away. “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” It’s the era’s most consequential “career-defining line. “

Pepperidge farm has forgotten.