MONDAY, JUNE 28, 2004
IFILL LOVES FACTS: Gwen Ifill is a lover of facts. Indeed, when Tim Russert asked her about Michael Moores film, she quickly admitted her preference:
IFILL: You know, I look at this movie as a journalist, and as a journalist I have this affection for facts and accuracy. And even though there are facts in this movie, on the whole its not accurate...[Moore] is saying, Well, look at the president and the Saudis. They were all friendly. You see a lot of pictures of him shaking hands with people wearing turbans. You raise mysterious questions about that, never completely answer them, and then leave with a lot of, I think, fairly cheap shots at this administration, which makes it a movie, but it doesnt make it fact.Ifill has this affection for facts, but as youll notice, she doesnt cite many. Indeed, by her second statement yesterday, she was using her valuable time to throw off speculations and predictions—packaged, of course, as the truth:
IFILL: You know what? The truth is, people who made up their minds and dont like President Bush are going to come away still not liking President Bush. People who made up their minds and like President Bush think this movie is terrible—I mean, lawsuits aside. And people in the middle, I dont know if this is going to change any minds.The truth is, that mornings New York Times was already reporting that at least one conservative Republican who saw the film was saying that it had changed her outlook. No, Ifill didnt offer many facts—just Standard Pundit Blather. Indeed, how bad has the mainstream commentary been? Even Ron Brownstein fumbled a bit when he followed Ifill:
BROWNSTEIN: Its over the top in many respects. The allegations about the Saudi flights—Dick Clarke and the 9-11 Commission, for example, who have not been apologists for President Bush, reached very different conclusions.But what were Moores allegations? And what were those different conclusions? Despite calling the movie over the top, Brownstein didnt bother to say. Meanwhile, Clarke said on May 25 that he was the person who okayed those Saudi flights (he said the opposite back in March). So according to Brownstein, were supposed to be surprised when the man who okayed the flights says the flights were A-OK! Of course, Ifill—loving facts though she does—made no attempt to lay out the facts of this debate either. All we got was a Current Establishment Script: Moores film is over the top.
Well offer more thoughts on the Moore critique as the week progresses. But readers, remember who youre listening to when you listen to Meet the Press. Ifill enjoys a good home-cooked meal—when its cooked by Condi Rice, that is (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/03). Russert, of course, parties hardy with Rummy (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/16/03). They want you to think theyre just Buffalo types, but if human nature still affects the world, they are now something quite different. And theyll repeat the world-view of their adopted class on every important occasion. Moores film does raise mysterious questions—mysterious questions that go straight to the heart of the class in which Tim and Gwen now run. Regarding Moore, they know they must complain and kvetch as surely as they know they must breathe—as surely as they know to praise Rice for the home cooking that doesnt affect them.
In short, Ifill is the very person this film asks mysterious questions about! Dont be shocked by her tough new standard—when she says that Moores film doesnt give complete answers to all the questions it has the temerity to ask.
BUT MYERS LOVES SCRIPTS: Others have mentioned Lisa Myers hapless Truth Squad reports from last Friday. (One report was presented on NBC Nightly News and Countdown; an alternate report appeared on Scarborough Country.) On Nightly News, Brokaw introduced the report. But just how truthful are some of Moores assertions? he asked. And Myers wanted to know that too. We decided to look into when and where director Michael Moore takes liberty with the facts, she said on Scarborough Country. With that, the scribe was off to the races—presenting opinions as if they were refutations of facts. On all three shows, for example, she quoted terrorism expert Roger Cressey. Heres the segment from Scarborough Country:
CRESSEY: Where the film does a disservice is implying that the personal relationship between the Bush family and the Saudis somehow is driving U.S. foreign policy. The administration has made many mistakes in the war on terrorism, but to say somehow personal or financial profit by the Bush family is at the heart of it is simply wrong and unfair.Thats fine—but its Cresseys opinion. Theres nothing wrong with interviewing specialists about the questions Moores film raises, but Myers seemed to think she was dealing in truthful assertions and facts. Heres another hopeless example from the Scarborough program:
MYERS: The presidents reaction on 9/11: The film notes that after Bushs chief of staff informed him that America is under attack, the president stayed in this Florida classroom for seven more minutes reading the book My Pet Goat to children. The film says, Not knowing what to do—with no one telling him what to do—Mr. Bush just sat there.That was Myers full report on that vexing topic. Obviously, this has nothing to do with truthful assertions or facts. That was simply Hamiltons opinion—or the one he expressed out in public.
Myers has never seemed like a genius, but she isnt an absolute idiot either. When you see such gong-show reports, does anyone think that she and her superiors (including Brokaw) are actually trying to offer real journalism? In fact, its just as we have told you: The very concept of the fact plays little role in modern press culture. As a basic unit of thought, the fact has been replaced by the script, and all good journalists know to recite them. No, no one in the mainstream press is as dumb as Myers reports would imply. When you see such nonsense thrown on the air, youre seeing the culture weve long described—a culture in which the fact is extinct, and the Official Approved Tale is ascendant.
ENJOY EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT:
PART 1: Tim Russerts father deserves your respect. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04.Now, for todays fourth installment:
CATCHING HIS DRIFT (PART 4): Is Tim Russert harder on Democrats? Howard Kurtz thought the question was worth asking when he interviewed the Meet the Press host, and he got the standard reply, the one Press Poobahs repeat in their sleep. You know what? I get [criticism] from both sides, Russert said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/04). Challenged later for his treatment of Hillary, Russert expressed this Great Escape more fully. You get it from the left and the right, he said, and I think that kind of confirms youre doing a pretty good job. Its truly a measure of our times—that a journalist paid $5 million per year can respond to this in so empty a way, in a manner that shows so little attempt at anything like real reflection. But once again, lets be fair. Every big scribe knows this is the way to rid himself of Kurtzs question..
But is Tim Russert tougher on Dems? In his profile of Russert for the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann almost seems to suggest it; he describes Russert going in for the kill with Gore and Dean, but rolling over in two sessions with Cheney. Before we revisit the most egregious interview of Russerts NBC career, it might be worth considering a few hints about Russerts political background—hints he sprinkles throughout Big Russ & Me.
Russert, of course, grew up a Democrat, a point his memoir makes quite clearly. Indeed, there would be little point in attempting to fudge, since he served as chief of staff to two major Dems (Moynihan, Cuomo) before beginning his career as a journalist. But Russerts memoir offers clues to his evolving view of his party of birth. Some of these tidbits may be attempts to sooth the soul of conservative readers; in recent years, TV hosts have used books like Big Russ & Me as a way to cultivate potential viewers. At any rate, these tiny tidbits are worth exploring for what they might say about a scribe as important as Russert.
What kind of Democrats were the two Russerts? On page 199, Russert describes the appeal of Robert Kennedy appeal in 1968, when he sought the Dem White House nomination. In the 1970s and 80s, many working-class whites concluded that the Democratic Party had abandoned them, he writes, but Robert Kennedy was a unifier and a coalition builder. Was Russerts father one of those Dems who felt abandoned by his party? On page 238, Russert suggests that he was. Why did Russert favor 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, he says. He then states the obvious: In 1980, many of these Democrats would return the favor by voting for Reagan. Was Big Russ one of those Reagan Democrats? Russert never says. But when he discusses Robert Kennedy, he reveals his own views about the Dem party. [W]ith Kennedy, unlike some of the liberals who followed him, the message was never about blaming America, he writes. Russert never says which liberal Democrats were blaming America in the period in question. Was it George McGovern? Was it Jimmy Carter? Absent-mindedly, Russert forgets to say. But to state the obvious, that is stock conservative language, and Russert knows all about the process by which one adopts the buzz words of the opposition. Moynihan called this process semantic infiltration; on page 247, Russert recalls being warned about it. In context, the passage is a bit comic; just two paragraphs earlier, Russert has used another bit of stock conservative language, saying that Moynihan was an early victim of political correctness when he was criticized by some Dems for some of his statements in the 1960s and 70s about racial matters.
Yes, according to Russert, liberal Dems were blaming America in the 1970s and 80s, and they were indulging in that ol debbil, political correctness. Just how bad was the party getting? Russerts service with Moynihan is the occasion for one of the books oddest anecdotes. Poor Tim! In 1977, he moves to Washington to be Moynihans press aide. But when he gets there, he discovers that his centrist boss has a wild-eyed group of associates:
RUSSERT (page 260): My difficult moments came not with the press, but with a few of Moynihans other staffers. They were serious, high-powered intellectuals, Ivy League graduates whose idea of a good time was a two-hour argument over the intricate details of arcane left-wing factions in the City College cafeteria. I didnt always follow their conversation, and I was sometimes intimidated in their presence.No, we dont quite follow that either; were not sure why these Ivy League graduates were arguing about the City College cafeteria. But when he found these troubling staffers arguing about arcane left-wing factions, Russert knew just what he should do—he ran and tattled to Moynihan. As he boo-hoo-hoos to the boss, his description of his fellow staffers only gets odder:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): One afternoon, when I was alone with the senator, I told him that I wasnt sure I fit in with the rest of the staff. I think a little differently from these guys, I said. We have meetings and discuss the votes, and the conversation veers off into theoretical discussions about socialism. I have a Jesuit education and a law degree, but I have no ideas what theyre talking about.Needless to say, the story turns out well for Russert; Moynihan tells him that he is better—better by far—that the left-wing socialists infesting his staff. In the meantime, Russert gets to boo-hoo a bit more about the influence of rich people or those with Ivy League degrees, a pleasing complaint he revisits periodically. But the reader is left to wonder why Moynihan—such a street-smart centrist himself—would have left-wing socialists on his staff, or why Russert still wants to mention it three decades later. Meanwhile, for readers who want to get even more upset at the tidbits Russert tosses to cons, we strongly recommend page 285, where he shoehorns in a derogatory comment about the Wellstone memorial service. In political circles, there is a tendency for funerals to take on the form of political theater, a trend that reached its low point in the memorial service for Sen. Paul Wellstone in the fall of 2002, he writes. Luckily, Moynihans funeral had none of that: it consisted of a solemn Mass in the old Washington church that he had walked to every Sunday. The Wellstone comment seems gratuitous, but so does the occasional use of conservative buzz words. We find no countervailing examples in which liberal buzz words are dropped on the heads of Republican targets. In Russerts book, unnamed Dems were blaming America, but no Reps were starving the poor.
What kind of Democrat was the young Russert? No, you cant really tell from this book. But he isnt afraid to toss hints to conservative readers about the blame America left-wing socialists he found infesting the party which was drifting away from his dad. Meanwhile, one more anecdote from the book should be considered in this regard—the puzzling anecdote concerning the time his dad lost a crucial promotion.
This story comes early, in the chapter called Work. In his grueling job as a Buffalo garbage collector, Russerts dad becomes a foreman, then takes the test for superintendent. He did well on the test, Russert says, and by law, the Commissioner of the Streets Department had to appoint as superintendent someone who had finished in the top three places. But Big Russ doesnt get the job. One day, three strangers appeared at our house, and they put the kibosh on the deal, Russert says. Years later, Russert asks Big Russ to tell him what happened. The books account is strangely murky, but the suggestion seems plain:
RUSSERT (page 63): As I suspected, there was more to the story than I knew, and the three visitors had something to do with it. They wanted me to sign off the superintendent list, [Big Russ] said. If they could get the guys with the highest scores to sign off, they could appoint the candidate they wanted, who didnt do so well on the test.When Big Russ said he wouldnt do it, they werent happy, and they offered him money to sign. But even then, Big Russ wouldnt budge. The story means the world to me, Russert says. Dad didnt get the promotion, but he kept his honor. But why did these strangers have a candidate they wanted, who didnt do so well on the test? If you cant guess the answer to that, youve been living off the planet. Did Russerts dad lose a job to affirmative action? Russerts coyness—his refusal to say—makes this one of his oddest stories. But its another wink-and-nod example. Its another story which seems to say that Russert, born a Buffalo Dem, was seeing the drift of his party.
But how about it: Is Tim Russert tougher on Democrats? In Big Russ & Me, he isnt afraid to throw a few bones to con readers he may be wooing. But his worst work as a journalist—his worst work by far—was done at the expense of a Big Major Dem. Tomorrow, as we finish our series, we revisit that startling occasion.
DESERVES YOUR RESPECT: Important note: At several points, Russert stresses his fathers lifelong good faith on matters of race. Dad had worked with black men all his life, and had no tolerance for bigotry, he writes. When Dr. King was shot in 1968, Dad took it very hard, Russert says. South Buffalo wasnt known for its racial diversity, but Dad had made a point of teaching us that there was no place for prejudice in our heart. As we said at the start of this series, Tim Russerts father deserves your respect. We wish his son had spoken more frankly about that lost promotion.