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ALL IN THE FAMILY (PART 2)! Being Tim Russert has its advantages, as we see when Big Russ helps him bungle:


IGNORING KLEIN’S OUTBURST: We could scarcely believe our eyes when we watched Meet the Press Sunday morning. A Standard Panel had been assembled to make Standard Complaints about Bill Clinton’s book. But like a blast from a dim, distant past, Joe Klein ditched the script, saying this:

KLEIN: [Clinton’s] main gripe about Starr isn’t the Lewinsky case, but it’s Starr’s behavior up until then: the fact that it—the excessive zeal of Starr's prosecution, the badgering of witnesses, the threatening of witnesses, having Susan McDougal spend 18 months in jail, all of that—the leaks to the press that are illegal. I mean, you know, he makes a very strong case for Starr’s abuse of power.
Say what? Klein was rebutting Robert Novak, who had made some Standard Complaints, complaints derived “from what I know of the book and from what I've heard on the interviews.” Like so many other pundits, Novak didn’t have to read the book; most scribes can recite Standard Gripes in their sleep. But Klein was like a bat out of Unscripted Hell. And a few moments later, he did the unthinkable. The scribe got way too specific:
KLEIN: [Clinton] is also the first sitting president to be subjected to the kind of prosecution that Ken Starr laid on him over those five or six years. Now, we have reported at great length about Clinton’s sins, but my feeling is that, in the end on all this stuff, he’s more sinned against than sinning, that the quality—

RUSSERT: By whom?

KLEIN: By Ken Starr. The quality—we didn’t spend nearly enough time reporting the overstep, the abuse of power, you know, the zealousness of Ken Starr.

RUSSERT: Do you agree with that, Bob?

NOVAK: No, I don’t agree—

KLEIN: I don't mean just the Lewinsky case; I mean all those years. We never reported—why didn't we report that in 1995 Jay Stevens, a Republican, a conservative Republican, working for the Resolution Trust Company, reviewed the Whitewater allegations and found that the Clintons were completely exonerated? We never reported it. Our coverage—and I’m speaking about myself as well as everybody else—was unbalanced and unfair with regard to Whitewater.

Omigod! Klein pulled the curtain away from one of the dirtiest secrets in the coverage of the “Clinton scandals”—the press corps’ endless refusal to report the exonerations of the Clintons. Yes, that Pillsbury Report made it clear, as early as 1995, that the Clintons had done nothing wrong in Whitewater. And the report had been supervised by Jay Stevens, a partisan (and honest) Republican. So what did the press corps fearlessly do when this important report was released? Of course—they kept you from knowing that it existed! And when Gene Lyons published Fools for Scandal in 1996, discussing this matter in clear detail, the press corps knew had to be done. Although the book was published and promoted by Harper’s, they simply pretended it didn’t exist, which let them keep pimping their fake, phony scandal. To this day, very few American have ever heard that the Clintons were exonerated in the Whitewater matter—precisely due to the shameful misconduct by the press which Klein laid out this day.

Of course, Russert, Novak and Katty Kay all knew what to do in response to Klein’s outburst. Novak offered an ad hominem response, and Russert quickly changed the subject, with Kay returning to Scripted Complaints. What did Russert, Kay and Novak say about the substance of Klein’s remarks? Duh! All of them knew they must never discuss it! You can’t find people of such low character anywhere else in American life, and as long as they sit at the top of your discourse, you will continue to puzzle hard at the discussions you hear all around you. The Stepford Husbands know what to do when a chip goes bad in their wives. They simply ignore till the chip is replaced; so too with three Stepford Scribes on Tim Russert’s program this Sunday. (For earlier discussions of this matter, enter “Pillsbury” or “Lyons” into our whirring search engines.).

Our current series: All in the family

ALL IN THE FAMILY (PART 2): Yes, it sometimes seems that Tim Russert has failed to adopt his father’s core values. Right on page one of Big Russ & Me, he praises his father’s modesty; “Big Russ has never been much of a talker, especially about himself,” he says (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04). But is there anyone currently walking the earth who talks about himself more than Tim Russert? In the past few months, the scribe has been all over cable, talking about his father, his son, his own life story, and, of course, his Buffalo values, relentlessly praising his own moral sense and his brilliant journalistic achievements. He rarely seems to shrink from self-praise. For example, when a journalist pokes fun at his Election Night coverage, he doesn’t hear her gentle teasing. Instead, he somehow hears her say that he has “helped the country get through an extraordinary, volatile election”—through the use of a “Big Russ [dry-erase] board,” of course. Big Russ never talks about himself? Russert seems to balance things off. In contrast to his admirable dad, Russert never talks about himself without embellishing his brilliant achievements.

But never mind the apparent differences between the two men named Russert. According to the plan of Tim’s book, we’re supposed to believe that the Nantucket squire is just like his truck-driving father. In the book, he’s forever “learning valuable lessons” from Big Russ, lessons that help the reader see that Russert the Younger is salt-of-earth too. But alas! Russert’s alleged devotion to Dad brings us at last to a troubling point—a point where the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann sees Russert’s journalistic work starting to go off the tracks.

How modest, how common, is our Nantucket squire ? This modest: Even though he “makes north of $5 million a year” (Howard Kurtz), Russert says he calls his retired, 83-year-old dad for advice about big Meet the Press interviews. This seems like a slightly odd thing to do, but Russert insists that it really does happen, and that his dad’s advice is quite helpful. (Big Russ is “the least expensive and most accurate focus group around,” he says on page 313 of his book, and on every TV show that will let him.) In fact, Russert says he called his dad for advice before interviewing Vice President Cheney five days after September 11. To Lemann, this wasn’t a great idea. Here’s his account of what happened:

LEMANN: Just after the September 11th attacks, Russert bags an interview at Camp David with Cheney. Beforehand, naturally, he calls Big Russ for advice, and it is “Just let him talk. Let him help get us through this.” Bingo: “Dad was so right. Without his advice, I would have focused mostly on the future, on our response to terrorism.” Instead, though we now know that planning for the war in Iraq was already under way, he had Cheney reminisce about 9/11. On the drive home, he checks back in with Big Russ. “That was great. Thank you,” he says.
“Dad was so right,” Tim predictably says—but Lemann clearly thinks otherwise. If the alleged events really occurred, Lemann thinks Russert bungled this session based on the advice of his well-meaning dad. In all honesty, it seems odd to think that our biggest broadcast journalist would actually plan a major interview around the advice of his elderly father. But Russert loves to promote such notions. When Howard Kurtz interviewed him for a recent Post magazine profile, Tim explained the advice he got before his February interview with President Bush:
KURTZ: Whom did you ask for advice about the [2/8/04] interview?

RUSSERT: I talked to my dad more than anybody else because he is just a wonderful sounding board as to what is on his mind. He said, you know, first of all, be comfortable because you have a long-term contract, and you’ll be there long after those guys. But also be respectful because it is the Oval Office, and that’ll be there long after you’re gone. But his concern was Iraq and the economy and jobs, along those lines.

Why did he ask Big Russ for advice? “Because he is just a wonderful sounding board as to what is on his mind,” Russert says, in one of the semi-logical comments which typify these pleasing tales. Can this really be the way Russert plans his most important TV interviews? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know, but according to what Russert tells us, Big Russ gave underwhelming advice; he advised his son to be respectful, and suggested that he might discuss “Iraq and the economy and jobs, along those lines.” Almost surely, Russert could have thought of these things by himself. Is the squire being honest here, or is he just talking down to us rubes, polishing up “the Russert brand,” as Lemann puts it in the New Yorker? We don’t have the slightest idea. But, taking Russert’s claims on their face, Lemann suggests that his dad’s advice caused him to bungle the Cheney interview. And one year later, it happens again. Lemann has already mentioned Big Russ’s “deep reverence for authority:”
LEMANN: A year later, with war plainly on the horizon, Russert gets another interview with Cheney. The Vice-President’s manner—gruff, plainspoken, and perpetually alert to the world’s manifold perils—could have been custom-designed to have a positive effect on Big Russ’s son. I’m going to put an excerpt from the interview up on the screen, just to show you the distinctly respectful tone that Cheney brings out in Russert...
We’ll spare you the excerpt that Lemann quoted. Does Russert really take this kind of advice from “the least expensive focus group around?” If he does, Lemann suggests that Russert (and NBC; and the nation at large) may be getting pretty much what he pays for.

But being Tim Russert does have its advantages. One advantage is clearly this; no matter how shaky his work may be, major scribes are never eager to lower the boom on the Nantucket dandy. Throughout his New Yorker piece, for example, Lemann seems to roll his eyes at the “branding” involved in Big Russ & Me. Beyond that, he suggests that Russert bungled the two crucial sessions with Cheney. On the other hand, he shows Russert “go[ing] in for the kill” as he interviews Gore in July 2000, and he recalls Russert taking the same approach to Hillary Clinton in that same election season. Does this suggest the possibility that Russert is harder on major Dems than on Cheney and Bush? Not in this profile, it doesn’t. “Toward officialdom he is always respectful, and toward officialdom so high as to border on celebrity he is starstruck,” Lemann writes, despite having noted the sessions with HRC and Gore, which seem to contradict this assessment (more on this in Parts 3 and 4). And, despite the sardonic tone of his piece, Lemann ends up praising Russert, as mainstream scribes almost always do:

LEMANN: [I]n Russert’s field, one has to play both a character whom audiences want to invite into their homes and one who is deeply a part of the high-level business of Washington. To be voluble and bright but also an authority figure, to be morally aware but in the end practical, to subject power to the test without undermining it, to question assertively within a conventional frame—that’s the job description. Russert fulfills it better than anybody else, and the title character he has created in his book makes for an excellent guide to the rules of this highly particular game. [END OF PROFILE]
Is it true? Do our major TV journalists really “have to play a character?” Lemann seems to mock Russert’s role-playing all through his profile, but in the end—as always with Russert—it all seems to work out OK.

Yes, being Tim Russert does have its advantages. Indeed, we emitted low chuckles at one part of Kurtz’s long session with Tim for the Post. As we’ll see tomorrow, Kurtz is much tougher with Russert than is the norm; at times, he almost seems to subject the squire to the type of critique major figures should get. But being Tim Russert does have its advantages. We chuckled when Russert let Kurtz know that he had anticipated some of his questions. As we break in, Kurtz is grilling Russert about his June 2003 Meet the Press session with Howard Dean:

RUSSERT: [H]aving a sense you may have asked this—

KURTZ: You researched the possibilities of my questions in advance?

RUSSERT: When you called “Meet the Press” and asked for the Howard Dean transcript and the George Bush transcript, I said I see where he’s going.

Silly, isn’t it? Why would Kurtz call Russert to ask for transcripts which are posted on Nexis and on NBC’s website? Presumably, he called to let Tim have a “heads-up”—to let him see where the questioning would be going. Kurtz deserves credit for being tougher with Russert than mainstream types ever dare to be. But being Tim Russert does have its advantages, and as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post, advantaged people tend to swell up with pride, even if they come from Buffalo and have enjoyed a life-long access to the world’s most accurate focus group.

TOMORROW: Tim Russert is always right

From the ongoing annals of puzzling headlines

GIVING HEAD AT THE GOOD SHIPWRECK TIMES: Those odd headlines keep coming at the Good Shipwreck Times. Tuesday, the paper ran an anti-Kerry headline that had nothing to do with the story it topped, in which the solon wasn’t mentioned (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04). But yesterday, the Times went itself one better. Here was the headline on the paper’s front-page lead story. It read like manna to Bush:

For Bush, such a headline could hardly be better. And inside the paper, on the jump page, the headline was even more helpful:
NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE: Bush Directed Humane Treatment for Detainees in Terror Campaign
Each of the headlines said that Bush pushed “humane” treatment, not torture. But the article, written by Richard Stevenson, was almost completely incoherent about the matter blared out in its headlines. Here are the only two grafs which deal with this matter in any way:
STEVENSON (pgh 1): In a February 2002 directive that set new rules for handling prisoners captured in Afghanistan, President Bush broadly cited the need for “new thinking in the law of war.” He ordered that all people detained as part of the fight against terrorism should be treated humanely even if the United States considered them not to be protected by the Geneva Conventions, the White House said Tuesday.

(2) That statement of principle, which has been described publicly but never before released in its entirety, came at a time of intense debate within the Bush administration over how far the military and the intelligence agencies could and should go in using coercive interrogations and torture to extract information from detainees, administration officials said as they released hundreds of pages of previously classified documents related to the development of a policy on the detainees.

Just try to figure out what that says! The first paragraph plainly suggests that Stevenson is reporting something “the White House said.” But the second paragraph clearly suggests that Bush’s statement has now been “released in its entirety.” But Stevenson quotes nothing that Bush really said. What did Bush actually say about “humane” treatment? Nowhere does the article say. Indeed, the two paragraphs we provide are the only two grafs which mention this topic in any way! Readers have no way of knowing what Bush really said. They do, of course, get those two headlines, headlines which pimp the prez hard.

By contrast, yesterday’s Post gave real information about the 2/02 document in question—and no, the Post didn’t seem to think that Bush’s single comment about “treat[ing] detainees humanely” was a very big part of the story. But the Times continued its gong-show conduct, running headlines that pimped for Bush above an incoherent story. By the way—we’re showing you the actual headlines that ran in our actual Wednesday newspaper, the one we’re looking at right now, not the scaled-down, sensible headline that now appears on the Good Shipwreck’s web site.