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A PLACE FOR THE RUBES: Its stunning to see the way Keith Olbermann now panders to our own liberal rubes. Just consider last nights bungled report about Obamas fund-raising.
Should Obama have accepted federal funding for the general election? Did he break his previous word with yesterdays decision? We dont care a great deal about those questions. But right out the gate last night, Olbermann helped our liberal rubes feel better by misstating elementary facts. He opened with tape of Demon McCainthen moved to blatant error:
MCCAIN (videotape): This is a big deal, a big deal. He has completely reversed himself.
OLBERMANN: Except he didnt. The question was asked last November: If you were nominated for president in 2008 and your major opponents agree to forego private funding in the general election campaigning, will you participate in the presidential public financing system? McCain hadnt agreed to forego private fundinghad been running his general election campaign on private funding since the day Mike Huckabee dropped out. Only this evening did McCain declare he would sign up for public financing, but, of course, Republican 527 groups can still spend money attacking his opponent for him.
Maybe this was just a mistake. But by legal definition, the general campaign (for fund-raising purposes) doesnt start until after the conventions. By legal definition, this is still the primary season, even thought the nominations have both been (presumptively) decided. McCain has indeed been running his campaign on private funding since the day Mike Huckabee dropped out. But by definition, it has remained his primary campaign. Obamas decision only concerned funding for after the conventions.
Maybe this was just a mistake. If so, the mistake was huge and amazingly basic, and it continued into Countdowns fifth story. (Weve made basic mistakes ourselves.) But long ago, Olbermanns show turned into pure propaganda. It gives a troubling picture of where news orgs may be headedof what future news shows may look like.
Special report: Novels, all the way down!
PART 4WHAT A COUNTRY: In the aftermath of Tim Russerts death, the insider press corps rushed to display an integral part of their upside-down culture. As a group, they lionized the brilliant guy who pretty much got it all wrong.
As far as we know, Russert was as decent a person, within the group, as friends and colleagues all say he was. But:
He pretty much got it wrong, in the past sixteen years, about who the phonieswere. (He chased around after both Clintons and Goreand largely knuckled to Cheney and Bush.)
He pretty much got it wrong about Social Security, his adopted pet issue. (He constantly cited irrelevant data while forcing the issue into every discussion. To see him trashing Candidate Gore for daring oppose partial privatization, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/02.)
And Russert pretty much got it wrong on Iraq, the policy challenge of his time. For all his fairness, civility and Jesuitical brilliance, Russert produced nothing of value in the year leading up to the war. And he embarrassed himselfwe all do so at some pointwhen Bill Moyers asked him about this matter in an interview last year (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/19/08). This was such a god-awful moment, its worth presenting again:
MOYERS (4/25/07): Critics point to September 8, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the New York Times. And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the New York Times. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.
RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the New York Times. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that. My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.
Russert could have gotten anyone on the planet to take his phone calls about Iraq. But he didnt make those calls; if were to believe what he told Moyers, he simply sat in his office and prayed that his phone would ring. That doesnt mean that he was a bad person. In fairness, though, it does mean this: He wasnt the journalistic god his shameless colleagues ran around inventing for the rubes all week. In fairness, Russert got almost everything wrong. Almost surely, this helps explain why his colleagues all loved him so much.
By now, many liberals have described a basic law of Modern Insider Press Corps Culture: If you get it right, you have to leave. If youre wrong, you get to stayand youre even promoted. In the past week, major pundits stood in line to insist that Russert was the greatest journalist ever. In fact, he pretty much got it wrong about his eras biggest stories.
That said, this week has produced an astonishing outflow of commentary from insider pundits. In their shock and emotion over Russerts death, they have revealed much more about their values and thinking than is their norm. This was especially true inside NBC News, the deeply peculiar, influential news org which has produced so much of our eras broken journalism. It would take a month of lengthy posts to explore all the themes that have surfaced this week. Well try to touch on a few basic themes as we close out the week:
Ambition: A person who wanted to be cruel would note an unfortunate fact about Tim. No, he didnt make those phone calls about Iraqbut his phone lines were busy all the same. In December 2002, Russert was failing to make those calls. But USA Todays Peter Johnson described something Russert was doing:
JOHNSON (12/23/02): "Is this a great country or what?" asks Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press. "The son of a sanitation worker is going to write a book about his father, and people are bidding on it. Lordy, lordy, what a country." As of last week, bidding among 10 publishers for Russert's first book, to be called Big Russ and Me, was nearing $ 3 million.
Russert joins a growing list of TV news types who are trotting down memory lane with memoirs and other booksincluding NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, CBS' Bob Schieffer, MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Unkind? Perhaps. But its not like all outgoing calls had ceased from Russerts offices. That same day, the New York Posts Keith Kelly reported that the deal was done:
KELLY (12/23/02): After a wild auction, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert has agreed to do his memoir with Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Books for close to $3 million, according to knowledgeable sources.
The deal, which might be announced as early as today, caps a heated year-end auction in which seven publishers quickly pushed the price tag to $2 million. A handful of finalists then zoomed past $2.5 million until only Miramax remained, at just under $3 million.
The frenzied bidding came at an unusual time for the book industry, which generally goes into snooze mode in terms of acquiring big books after Thanksgiving, Kelly wrote. To appearances, some of the bidding in that wild auction had been conducted in the press; during the previous week, Russert had given interviews to various newspapers about the plans for the bookand about the offers he was getting. Theres nothing evil or wrong about that. But its very typical of modern press culture than those phone calls were being made, even as our most influential journalist was failing to call around to learn more about Iraq.
By the way: Why was Russert making calls about one subject, but failing to pursue the other? Johnson was the rare TV writer who didnt pander and fawn to Russert. In November 2001, he gave us a hint of Russerts possible thinking about journalism and Iraq:
JOHNSON (11/1/01): NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert says that covering the war on terrorism is not like covering politics, a presidential impeachment or a missing intern.
"In times of war, the media should lower our voices, modulate our tone. Yes, we are journalists, but we are also Americans," Russert said in a speech Friday to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Russert said that as the war on terrorism unfolds, the media and the government "will have serious disagreements over what is fair, timely or relevantor even what should be defined as a threat to national security. But we should not and will not report anything which puts our troops at risk, and we must always reject any attempt to suggest a moral equivalency between the United States of America and the terrorists."
"We are at war, and all of us must come together as never before," Johnson quoted Russert saying. Other big journalists, most notably Dan Rather, said similar things after 9/11. Is this why Russert seemed to defer to the Bush Admin in the move toward Iraq? There is no way to know that. But last Friday night, Chris Matthews described a conversation with Russert about Iraqand he pictured Russert as a mark. Speaking of the Bush Admins embellished arguments about Iraqi nukes, Matthews said this: The guys who wanted the war used that one thing that would sell the patriot in Tim Russert.
None of this makes Russert some sort of bad person. It does make a farce of the pundit corps claims about his superlative work.
And yes, Tim Russert was supremely ambitious. It was obscene that, even when speaking with Moyers about all those deaths, he wouldnt stop peddling that silly story about his superior Buffalo childhood. By the way: What was Walter Cronikes father like? You dont know, because people like Cronkite didnt think that building a cult of personality was part of the task of being a journalist. Russert had very bad judgment on such mattersand no one at NBC told him to stop. In one of his profiles, Johnson described the massive ambition which drove Russert to create this cult:
JOHNSON (11/1/00): "As my dad would say, 'What a country,' " says Russert, 50. "The sun, the moon and the stars have all aligned for me."
As a child, "I always wondered what it was like in Washington and the world," says Russert, who since Labor Day has shed 20-plus pounds from his bulky frame. But he says he never would have dreamed, helping Sister Mary Lucille put out a mimeographed special edition on President Kennedy's death, that one day he would grill national leaders.
Colleagues and competitors see it differently. They say that Russert, a lawyer who served as a top aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, also a Democrat, before joining NBC in 1984, has always had an intuitive sense of how to get ahead and has worked hard to get there. He is, they say, a player.
"I've never seen anyone work this town the way they did," Washingtonian writer Chuck Conconi says of Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, who live in Washington's tony Cleveland Park in a house that has a media pedigree: Previous owners include PBS' Charlie Rose, NBC's Tom Brokaw and New York Times columnist James Reston.
Conconi recalls a tale about Russert and Orth being spotted at a cheap hamburger joint in Georgetown after an exclusive party at Pamela Harriman's house after President Clinton's first election. "They are masters of the Washington social scene. They know you don't go to parties to eat or drink. You go there to work." The anecdote may be apocryphal, Conconi says, "but I can't think of a story that rings more true."
Not that theres anything (necessarily) wrong with it! But silly, saccharine, story-book tales about what a country this is are exceptionally bad for real journalism. Russert was in love with such saccharine storiesperhaps because he actually thought that way, perhaps because they were good for business. At any rate, major journalists have sat around reciting those tales all week long, making a joke of your discourseagain. Its the one thing they do really well.
Politics. Russert chased around after both Clintonsand after Candidate Gore. He adopted a conservative take on Social Security, his semi-obsessive pet issue. And he punted when it came to Iraq. A cynic could think he saw politics there. But what was Tim Russerts politics?
You might see Tim as a Reagan Democrat, the description he pretty much put on his dad in Big Russ & Me. What kind of Democrats were the two Russerts, long before one became a journalist? On page 199, Russert described Robert Kennedys appeal when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1968. In the 1970s and 80s, many working-class whites concluded that the Democratic Party had abandoned them, he wrote, but Robert Kennedy was a unifier and a coalition builder. Was Russerts father one of those Democrats who felt abandoned by his party? On page 238, Russert suggested an answer. Why did Russert the Younger favor Pat Moynihan for the 1976 Senate nomination, as opposed to more liberal rivals? I was convinced that, for a Democrat to win [in New York] in 1976, it would take a centrist who could appeal to mainstream Democrats like Dad, who felt the party had drifted away from them, Russert wrote. He then stated the obvious: In 1980, many of these Democrats would return the favor by voting for Reagan. Was Big Russ one of those Reagan Dems? Russert never said. But when he discussed Robert Kennedy, he revealed his own views about the party of his birth. [W]ith Kennedy, unlike some of the liberals who followed him, the message was never about blaming America, he wrote. Russert never said which liberal Democrats had blamed America in the period in question. Was it George McGovern? Was it Jimmy Carter? Russert forgot to say.
Was Tim Russert a Reagan Democrat? We dont have the slightest idea, but he referred to Moynihan as his intellectual fatherand by May 2000, Moynihan was being quoted on the front page of the New York Times criticizing Candidate Gore for using a scare wordprivatizationto describe Bushs Social Security plan. Did Russert pretty much get everything wrong? By this time, his intellectual father had pretty much joined the parade.
You might think Tim was a Reagan Demor you might be somewhat less charitable. In 1984, he was taken under the wing of Jack Welch, the near-billionaire, conservative Republican CEO of General Electric. We have no view of Welch ourselves, as a person or as a businessman. Last weekend, Welch said his heart was broken by Russerts deathand we believe what he said. But Welch made Russert amazingly wealthyand Tim was soon summering with Neutron Jack among the famous swells of Nantucket. When Tim went on to get pretty much everything wrongto chase both Clintons and Gore aroundwas he simply adopting poses that were good for NBCs bottom line? Might he even have been pushing Welchs political line? We dont have the slightest ideaand major pundits, reciting those saccharine narratives, understand that they must never ask.
Revelations. That said, there were amazing moments this week, as major pundits copped to things that had never been said before in public. After Wednesdays memorial service, Gene Robinson even said this, on-site, on Hardball. He responded to Chris Matthews blather:
MATTHEWS (6/18/08): Elvis Presley was a country boy. Country boys are always ignored. Hicks, we call them, the guys from the sticks. Elvis Presley was their guy.
Tim Russert, it seems to mehe was the truck driver, the plumber, the garbage truck guy, the cop. Theyou know, like where we came from, and not where he ended up. As they were kidding about it, not every regular guy from Buffalo has a kid from St. Albans Preparatory School and a home
ROBINSON: Youre right. And a house in Nantucket, right.
MATTHEWS: Its the house in Nantucket. But he still looked like the guy from there
REP. PETER KING: He looked like the guy. He sounded like the guy.
MATTHEWS: From Buffalo.
KING: And everyone who really hardput in a full days work. Thats the impression.
MATTHEWS: Thats it.
Oh. Our. God. Russert had a house on Nantucket! According to a Nexis search, no one had ever stated this fact before on NBC or MSNBC before (before this past weekend, that is). In the networks marketing plan, Russert was indeed the guy from Buffalothe truck driver, the plumber, the garbage truck guy, the cop...you know, like where we came from. (Similarly, Brian Williams is the NASCAR-loving, Price Club shopper who loves the rough working class.) As Peter King said, with Matthews agreement: That was the impression. Indeed, He looked like the guy. He sounded like the guy. From Buffalo, King/Matthews said
But oh our god! In the rushing emotions of the past week, people went on TV and blabbed things outthings which had never been blabbed. This included many things about the soul and culture of NBC News, the news network which did much more than any other to put George Bush where he is. Why did NBC chase both Clintons around? More remarkably, why did NBC and its cable arms conduct such a vicious wilding of Gore? (The wilding good liberals must never discuss.) We dont knowbut we were struck by the story Maria Shriver told in various settings this week. Here she is, on the Today show:
LAUER (6/18/08): Talk about that. I mean, you were colleagues, but how did this friendship develop?
SHRIVER: Well, and I'm going to say when I speak today at the memorial that when I first came to NBC, I had just been fired by CBS. So I came not knowing really anybody, and Tim came up, put his arm around me and said, Look, we're both Irish Catholics. We're both educated by the nuns and the Jesuits. There aren't that many of us in this business. So if we stick together, we'll be fine. And Tim wasn't on the air at the time. He was the vice president of news. So his whole kind of position at NBC was to kind of, you know, traffic information, find young talent, nurture them.
SHRIVER: And that's what he was really great at doing.
The sheer absurdity of that story (from 1987) almost defies comprehension. In the past week, weve seen a lot of multimillionaire celebrities crying, blubbering and boo-hoo-hooing about how tough they had it starting outabout the continuing lack of respect they feel from the wider culture. But in that story, were somehow supposed to semi-believe that a high-profile daughter of the Kennedy family needed the help of an ethnic home-boy if she hoped to proceed in the business! After the memorial service, honorary Irishman Howard Fineman rolled his eyes at the silly taleand oh. Our. God. Like Robinson before him, Fineman blurted something out that normally never gets tattled:
FINEMAN (6/18/08): I had to laugh when Maria Shriver told the story about when she came to NBC and Tim went up to here and said were both Irish-Catholic and there are not many of us here so we got to stick together. At that time, NBC was run by Jack Welch at General Electric and Bob Wright. And so its basically a Holy Cross conspiracy, from what I can tell.
Thats what we loved about it. Thats what we celebrated about. Its a great gift that he left for America.
MATTHEWS: Howard Fineman, thank you buddy.
Oh. Our. God. Fineman even blurted the part about Welch and Wright and Holy Cross. (And Russert. And Matthews. And Williams. And Buchanan. And Barnicle. And ODonnell, ODonnell, ODonnell. And Doris Kearns Goodwin, of course.) Under Welch, for whatever reason, NBC News increasingly became an East Coast Irish Catholic boys cluband the perils of building a news org that way became apparent as NBC and its cable arm chased both Clintons around, and then, most consequentially, chased Candidate Gore. Last weekend, Joe Klein alluded to something many people have noted; it was the Irish Catholic branch of the insider press corps which most completely lost its mind about Bill Clintons disturbing ten blow jobs. Leading the way was NBC Newsright up to that astounding debate last October 30, the first turning-point in the Democratic race. We read through the questions again last weekthe questions asked by Russert and Williams. In all candor, its still shockingit almost takes the breath awayto read through the list of accusations they were drumming at Clinton by mid-way through that debate.
No moderator has ever behaved the way Russert and Williams did that night. Meanwhile, the networks twenty-month conduct toward Candidate Gore is still quite stunning to behold.
Did this happen because a gang of kooks were dragooned into an ethnic news org? A news org where their cultural tendencies were endlessly reinforcednot challenged or enhanced? Theres no way to know that, but as emotions roiled NBC this week, pundits opened up their soulsand endless odd thoughts about being Irish came pouring out into the sunlight. Even we were stunned to see the obsessiveness of their ethnic/religious culture. Right after the memorial service, for instance, Matthews called wife Kathleen overand soon, we were pondering this:
KATHLEEN MATTHEWS (6/18/08): You walk away from funerals and peoples deaths and say why, why, why did this happen? If you can walk away with a sense of lesson for all of usI think it was Tims sense of exuberance...That`s the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt, which Doris Kerns Goodwin talked about. Thats the spirit of Lincoln, that there was going to be a better country after we fought the war of secession, the war of the states, the Civil War. I think Tim communicated that in many ways and was helping people transport themselves with what the conversation needs to be in 2008 and this election.
JOHN HARWOOD: Not the dark Irish Catholic.
KATHLEEN MATTHEWS: No. All of us who are Irish say, Lets purge the dark side or our Irishness and lets hold on to the good positive side of it, right.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Its always hard. Right. Exactly.
KATHLEEN MATTHEWS: Thats the lesson to learn from Tim...
We had no idea that anyone in America was still so tormented by ethnic nightmares about (in this case) the dark side of our Irishness. As you can possibly see, its an exceptionally bad idea to throw a gang of such perfect crackpots together in a highly ethnic news org. By the way: On May 25, Tim helped people transport themselves with what the conversation needs to be by assembling a six-member pundit panel to sit around trashing Hillary Clintons claims about sexismnot permitting a single voice to describe what his network had actually done during the long Democratic campaign. But thats what happens when big news divisions are turned into ethnic boys clubs.
On Monday night, Chris, Mike and Patrick had talked on and on about We Irishabout our superior kind. We showed you highlights in Tuesdays post. Near the end, they turned to the following thoughtsthoughts which almost surely help define the mind-set driving NBC News when people like Russert and nut-case Matthews chased down the likes of both Clintons and Gore:
MATTHEWS (6/16/08): So let me ask you about the ethnic piece of this. Why do Irish Catholics make some great cops, such great prosecutors? Michael, I mean, they are!
BARNICLE: Yes, I
MATTHEWS: They were born to it, to try to catch the bad guys, but also, as prosecutors, to try to do what Tim did every Sunday, you know, in that depositional manner in which he would try to use documentary evidence to get people to admit to the truth. It was almost like "Perry Mason" with documents.
BARNICLE: I think it beginsas just Pat referenced, I think it begins with so many Irish Catholics of a certain age, of a certain generation, with their parochial school education, and they come to life later on with a missionary zeal for the truth because it begins in parochial school. Who is God? Why did God make me? And the interrogation during the Baltimore Catechism years of you in religion class five days a week, you had better have those questions answered. You better be able to answer them. And thatyou bring that along through the years. It follows you through the years. No matter if youre a lapsed Catholic and leave the church, those roots are so strong, so deep that youre still doing that on Meet the Press on Sunday 50 years later.
To this pair of perfect kooks, Tim was a prosecutor, with a missionary zeal for the truth. Semi-comically, they think this great proclivity among our people comes from learning the catechism. (By the way, here are the answers to Barnicles questions: God is the creator of heaven and earth and of all things/God made me because he loves me.) I remember every single word, Buchanan soon said. And then, he semi-jokingly sketched the world view of these exceptionally ethnic throwbacks:
BUCHANAN: But Russert, what he got it from iswe were tested and tested and tested and tested and tested every day, and all the time. You better get it right. You better know your answer. You saw him...You get your idea that youve got the right answers. And look, Pat Moynihan oncewhatd he tell me? He said, You know, the Fordham guys are graduated to keep an eye on Harvard guys.
BUCHANAN: You know, all the traitors are up at Harvard and these good Catholic FBI agents
BUCHANAN: Let me sayhe did tell meI was havinglet me tell you. I was having breakfast with the head of Catholic University. We were talking about these grants to Catholic schools. And so Moynihan says to the guy, the head of Catholic University, What has Fordham produced but a long gray line of FBI agents?
Good grief! The Fordham guys are graduated to keep on eye on Harvard guys...You know, all the traitors are up at Harvard and these good Catholic FBI agents Yes, Patrick was joking here, as he often does. (Hes the sane one of these three.) But it was tortured East Coast Irish Catholic prosecutor Louis Freeh who was still chasing Candidate Gore around in the summer of 2000, inspiring Russert to tell the candidate, on Meet the Press, that Freeh thought Gore might have committed crimes, or perhaps had engaged in perjury. And what did East Coast Irish Catholic Margaret Carlson tell the world after Russert finished chasing Gore around that day? Russert was a prosecutor, she told Don Imus. Russert was like a prosecutor, she repeated, and he did a very good job.
Jack Welch created a ticking time bomb when he lured these self-pitying nuts into an ethnic news division. Did he realize what he was doing? There is no way to tell.
Respectful and obedient. Inevitably, the pander bears lined up to praise Russert, who may have been a superlative person but pretty much got everything wrong. They found every way to praise his brillianceand to avoid discussing the truth. We thought David Remnicks New Yorker piece especially stood out for its clownish examples of Russerts vast brilliance as an interrogator. When do you think life begins! In a political setting, it was the perfect irrelevant question. Meanwhile, in posting this example, Remnick breaks into the middle of the discussion so you cant see whats really going on.
But then, its much as Buchanan said about Russert. Tim was a certain type of individual, Pat opined. He was respectful, obedient:
BUCHANAN (6/16/08): Look, you and I and Mike and Tim were born in a time and a place that I think no longer really exists. I mean, we all went to parochial schools when they were 100 percent nuns. I did. I never had another teacher but a nun. They were all Jesuits in high school, in college almost all Jesuits. And they did imbue in you certain certitudes, beliefs of right and wrong. They were hammered into you.
You got the religion every day. You got the religion every day in high school and you got theology three times a week, and philosophy and all that in college. And I think that creates a certain type of people.
Now, today, you see a lot of what I think are pretty homogenized individuals, you know, come out of a cookie cutter and theyre almost interchangeable. He was unique, he was sui generis, because he came out of that working-class Catholic urban ethnic Buffalo neighborhood, parochial school, church, Sister this. And youre respectful. You were obedient. And I think it creates in you a certain type of individual. I dont care what side of the party of the political party youre on, we are culturally very much the same.
And I think, ChrisI mean, I think, Chris, that Tim really reflected that. You could look at that and you could seeyou could see where he came from and who he was.
Tim was respectful and obedient, Pat said. But didnt it perhaps occasionally seem that Tima good Irish Catholic kid from the wardwas perhaps a tiny bit too respectful of authority? Too obedient, one might imagine, to those who were in charge? Meanwhile, if Pat thinks those traits no longer exist, he clearly hasnt watched the boys and girls at our fiery liberal journals in the past sixteen years. Like Russert, they have been respectful/obedientand, most often, exceptionally silent. Lets face it: Theyre out for the $3 million book deal themselves! And so, hooray for the boys in Iraq! Our side kept its mouths shut very tight when Tim chased Gore around for the hourwhen Matthews wilded Gore for two years, before flying off to summer with Jack, a benefactor and supporter of Bush. Indeed, right to this day, our side has never yet tattled on Matthews! For that reason, he felt very free to mock Gore again this Tuesday night. (Gore weighs too much, it seems. It seems he's the "jowly green giant.")
Truly, the order is turned upside down. This gang of kooks and nincompoops mocks the nations Nobel Prize winners. Respectful tools in the liberal world all know they must stare into air.