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TWO DAYS IN THE LIFE! Your brain doesn’t want you believing the truth. And yet, the truth is there: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JUNE 26, 2008

PREVIEW–TWO DAYS IN THE LIFE: Last week, following Tim Russert’s death, the nation was subjected to a torrent of propaganda about Russert’s work–and about the work of the press corps in general. As this disinformation rolled down from the hills, we were working on a press issue from Campaign 2000.

Given that torrent of propaganda, we thought you deserved a glimpse of the truth. Our question: What kind of work really transpired at NBC News, and its cable arms, during Russert’s tenure as Washington bureau chief? What kind of work really transpired on Tim Russert’s watch?

Tomorrow, we’ll review two days in the life. We’ll review the work done on the cable show Hardball on Friday, December 3, 1999 and Monday, December 6. Today, we offer a bit of background about that particular week:

We reviewed those programs last week for a particular reason. On December 1, 1999, the “Love Canal” pseudo-scandal broke–a pseudo-scandal which played a giant role in the outcome of Campaign 2000. The pseudo-scandal began in the Washington Post and the New York Times, with a completely accidental/unintentional misquotation of something Candidate Gore had said. Within hours, the Associated Press had made a second error, this time a serious editing flub. And within a couple of days, large chunks of the press corps had adopted a mocking paraphrase of Gore’s remarks; this paraphrase had begun–where else?–in the RNC’s December 1 press releases. Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! A string of pundits (not all) started reciting, and a narrative about Gore’s troubling character sprang into life once again.

The new pseudo-scandal revived a narrative which had been dying on the vine–dying for a lack of examples. It revived the claim that Candidate Gore was a (delusional) liar, not unlike President Clinton. How much fun did the press corps have with the exciting new “Love Canal” story? The fact that Gore had been misquoted became clear on the evening of December 1. But so what? The Post and the Times refused to correct, waiting six and nine days, respectively. And when the grumbling newspapers finally corrected, each paper made a new error about what Gore had said! Most clownishly, the Times flat-out misquoted Gore again, even as it corrected its initial “misquotation.” But that’s the way your upper-end “press corps” was functioning at that glorious time.

Last week, we were reviewing the way Chris Matthews handled this important new pseudo-scandal. On December 1 and 2, 1999, Matthews murdered Gore on Hardball, staging two of the most clownish evenings of the entire campaign. As usual, it was fairly clear that Matthews and guests knew little about the facts of the case. On December 1, for example, Matthews seemed to think that Gore had claimed that he had addressed the Love Canal problem during his early career as a reporter. Gore had said nothing dimly like that, but Matthews–cosmically clueless, as always–pounded the point throughout the program. According to Matthews, this was “the amazing assertion by the vice president of the United States, Al Gore, that...Love Canal, the horror story, was based upon his investigative reporting.” Does anyone else know so little so often? Baldly misstating basic facts of the case, Matthews assailed Gore’s character. And of course, open ridicule followed; Gore was “sort of a Jimmy Olson turned wild,” the Hardball host mockingly said. But then, Matthews compared Gore–a future Nobel Peace Prize winner–to a wide range of cultural icons during these two programs. No, it wasn’t just Jimmy Olson; Gore’s originally misquoted statement “reminds me of Snoopy thinking he’s the Red Baron,” Matthews said. He likened Gore to Zelig, and to Forrest Gump. “He’s almost like Ben Franklin,” Matthews mockingly said–“he invented everything.” And Matthews aggressively played the shrink, as many other pundits would do. “We’ll have to start wondering about the psychological tendencies that make a man jump so far out on the edge,” he said on December 1. The next night, Matthews began to share his theories: “He's not happy with being Al Gore. He wants to be these other guys.” Panelists took turns affirming Matthews’ views and posing as shrinks themselves. And throughout these programs, Matthews kept linking Gore’s “delusionary” statement about Love Canal (“his latest delusions of grandeur”) to earlier alleged misstatements–alleged misstatements ginned out of cloth by the Clinton/Gore-hating mainstream media. On December 1 alone, he claimed that Gore had said he invented the Internet in four different segments of the program–and he kept citing the Love Story nonsense. Here’s a sample of the remarks which suffused these programs. Matthews watched tape as he spoke:

MATTHEWS: Well, there’s Al Gore. What is it, the Zelig guy who keeps saying, “I was the main character in Love Story, I invented the Internet, I invented Love Canal?”

We’re not even discussing what happened on December 2, when Alan Simpson appeared as an expert guest–with Robert Reich affirming the ludicrous statements of his broadcasting partner. (Simpson and Reich co-hosted a long-standing PBS program–and Reich had endorsed Bill Bradley.) But sadly, this is the actual history of the actual way George W. Bush ended up in the White House. For the record: As this nonsense transpired on NBC’s cable arm, Tim Russert sat in his office, a mile away. He was NBC News’ bureau chief in Washington.

That’s a taste of what happened on December 1 and 2. Tomorrow, we’ll walk you through what happened on Hardball on the two nights after that. Last week, you see, we decided to check something we’d never researched before. We knew that Matthews dropped Love Canal on the December 3 and December 6 programs. Last week, we decided to see what topics had replaced it.

What bumped Love Canal from the air? For one thing, Candidate Bush showed up for his first Republican debate on December 2; the next night, Matthews devoted several segments to his utterly brilliant performance. We’ll review those segments tomorrow. For another thing, Seattle had been rocked by demonstrations during the WTO meetings. On December 3, Matthews interviewed James Hoffa about “those wild-in-the-streets demonstrations.”

But something else had happened on December 3; Hillary Clinton had named a campaign manager for her New York Senate race against Rudy Giuliani. And sure enough! Matthews devoted large chunks of his programs on December 3 and December 6 to remarkable trashings of Clinton. As we reviewed these segments last week, even we were surprised–almost shocked–by Matthews’ loathing; by his undisguised lunacy; and by the bald-faced lying displayed by Matthews and Andrea Mitchell on the December 3 program. The pair contrived another “tarmac incident,” this time involving Hillary Clinton. It’s very hard to reconcile the things they said with the week’s plain journalistic record. At times, Mitchell seemed to be trying to keep her statements “technically accurate.” Russert sat one mile away.

On Monday, December 6, Matthews spent half of his program discussing Hillary Clinton’s troubling character with new Clinton biographer Gail Sheehy. We won’t even attempt to preview the lunacy which transpired.

We’ll run through all these segments tomorrow–though, for those who followed Matthews’s work in the past eighteen months, much of the work may seem quite familiar. But it was striking to review these programs last week, even as the propaganda rolled down from the hills about the wisdom, brilliance, fairness and decency displayed by the late Tim Russert. In fact, the brilliant dysfunction of these four programs was all spewed out on Russert’s watch. The disconnect between propaganda and reality thus seemed especially striking.

We’ll offer a couple of frameworks for judging tomorrow’s material:

*Again, we invite you to compare the actual work done by NBC’s cable arm with the deeply absurd representations offered all last week. No one was ever more honest, they said. We invite you: Take a look at the record.

*If you’re struck by the familiarity of Matthews’ Clinton-trashing from 1999, we’ll ask you to marvel at this fact: It wasn’t until the fall of 2007 that liberals and Democrats began to complain about this decade-long conduct. Indeed, Howard Dean was still surprised by this problem this month; he said he doesn’t watch that much cable. These facts simply defy comprehension–and help explain why we’re now in Iraq.

*Please understand: Your “liberal journals” said virtually nothing about this remarkable press corps misconduct. (No serious profile of Matthews’ work has ever been published, right to this day.) And yet, this disgraceful trashing of Gore and Clinton transpired all through the 2000 campaign. In particular, Matthews kicked the tar out of Gore for twenty straight months; very, very few people complained. Any chance that the boys and girls wanted to get on Hardball themselves? So eventually, once they were rich and famous, they could use their wealth and fame to get all these things straightened out?

The fact that Matthews remains on the air–well, it’s a stunning state of affairs. Let’s put it this way: Matthews is even a bigger nutcase than his friend, Maureen Dowd. (On the other hand, outside his work, he’s a perfectly nice person too–if a bit turbo-charged.) Equally stunning: The fact that a long string of major scribes felt perfectly free to play you last week in the ways they did. Tim Russert may have been exceptionally decent and generous–as a person. In fact, we have no doubt that he was. But NBC News and its cable arms were an utter disgrace on his watch. Even now, after all these years, our most dysfunctional professional cohort felt free to lie about it.

When you compare the truth with the propaganda, you enter the realm of the emperor’s clothes. Your brain doesn’t want you believing the truth. And yet, the truth is right there.

A BIT MORE BACKGROUND: Jack Welch was very rarely mentioned in last week’s discussions of Russert. On the one hand, that was a bit surprising; Welch was a major force in Russert’s journalistic career, as Russert discussed in Big Russ & Me. Then too, it wasn’t surprising. The press corps keeps its wealth and corporate connections nicely hushed. They want you thinking that they’re like you and me. They want you to think about Buffalo.

On the night Russert died, Welch had to go onto Hannity & Colmes to say how much he’d loved his friend.

Welch was barely mentioned in the American press. Unsurprisingly, the tangiest mention appeared across the pond, in the Guardian. Michael Carlson did the work–and he spelled Welch’s name wrong:

CARLSON (6/16/08): [Russert] was hired by NBC's Washington bureau in 1984, and, in 1991, became host of Meet the Press. Traditionally, the show's subjects had been questioned by a panel of journalists, and its moderators–only four in its first 37 seasons–came from the panel itself. But a change of format had seen four different hosts in the seven years before Russert started. His immediate success was due to a combination of personal affability and sharp questioning, and he quickly became identified with the programme, and through it, a celebrity. This melding of celebrity journalists and Washington insiders has set–many would say lessened–both the tone and quality of what Americans know about politics in their capital, knowledge they glean mainly from television.

Washington insiders live in a hothouse world of privilege. They marry among themselves; Russert, for example, met his wife, Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Orth, at the 1976 Democratic party convention. They even holiday together; Russert's $7m summer house on Nantucket Island was close to those of his corporate bosses: NBC's Bob Wright and NBC's parent company, General Electric's Jack Walsh [sic].

Two days later, the Guardian corrected the name.

For what it’s worth, that’s the first estimate we’ve ever seen of the price of Russert’s house on Nantucket. (We have no idea if it’s accurate.) In this country, journalists know enough not to write such things about ranking journalists. People! Russert came from South Buffalo. Brian Williams loves to shop at the Price Club.

By the way, we enjoyed that one sentence: “They marry among themselves.” Was a British journalist craftily hinting at the actual source of our problem?