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WHERE ARE STANDARDS (PART 4)! Russert botched a charge, but pundits cheered. Readers! Where were standards?


PRESSING THE FLESH: Our entire staff will appear on tonight’s Buchanan & Press, on MSNBC. Our segment begins at 6:30 P.M., but why not throw the boys a bone and watch the entire hour?

A BIT OF SELECTIVE SERVICE: Double standards are hard to prove. One rarely observes perfect parallel cases, in which the coverage of two different pols can be definitively compared. But one thing is clear—our pundits got some New Religion when Russert played “gotcha” with Dean last week. In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, for example, Mark Barabak became the latest scribe to type the Standard Approved Press Corps Script. Barabak is deeply troubled by Candidate Dean’s factual blunders:

BARABAK: [B]y most accounts, Dean performed miserably. He bickered with the host, Tim Russert, evaded some questions and equivocated in response to others. Most egregiously, in the eyes of critics, he could only guess at how many U.S. troops were on active duty around the world and incorrectly estimated the number in Iraq.
It was egregious! Dean “incorrectly estimated the number of troops in Iraq,” the troubled Barabak said. In fact, Dean said there were “in the neighborhood of 135,000” such troops. The next day, the New York Times said the real number was 146,000. Four days later, Brian Lamb did a segment about Dean’s interview on Washington Journal; he had asked the Defense Department, and the number they gave was 132,000. In short, Dean’s estimate of troops in Iraq was quite accurate; to say that Dean “incorrectly estimated” the number of troops is to engage in ludicrous nit-picking. And pundits didn’t simply pick nits—they applied what looked like a new, double standard. For example, when Candidate Bush flunked his famous “pop quiz” in November 1999, Washington pundits insisted, repeatedly, that we were electing a president, not a Jeopardy champion and that they couldn’t have answered the questions, either. Indeed, not only did the corps defend Bush; they were plainly reciting a pair of spin-points which had come to them straight from the Bush camp itself (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/02). Meanwhile, as late as Bush-Gore Debate II, Bush made factual errors about troop deployments which created almost no concern. Howard Kurtz described the errors in the Washington Post:
KURTZ (10/15/00): Bush said that “our European friends” should “put troops on the ground” in the Balkans, where European forces already make up the bulk of peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. He also cited Haiti as an example of a country from which the United States should withdraw its troops—when in fact all but 100 U.S. troops have left Haiti.
Only three weeks from Election Day, the pundit corps was undisturbed by these errors. That’s right, folks. The Washington press corps got new religion when Dean gave the number of troops in Iraq. And scribes like Barabak are still taking turns typing the Approved Press Corps Script.

Did Russert play “gotcha” with Candidate Dean? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply can’t say. But as we saw yesterday, there were no “gotcha” games—and no scolding lectures—when Candidate Bush did Meet the Press in November 1999, three weeks after he’d flunked his “pop quiz.” Almost surely, Candidate Gore wished he had been treated so kindly when he did Meet the Press eight months later. Indeed, the semi-mugging accorded to Dean recalls the treatment handed to Gore. Some HOWLER HISTORY might help us see the problem of shifting press standards.

Candidate Gore did Meet the Press on July 16, 2000. In the aftermath of the session, Russert was praised by other pundits for the way he grilled his guest. Russert “brilliantly pummel[ed] this guy all morning,” Bill Sammon said on Special Report. In the Washington Post, Mary McGrory said that Gore “had the look of someone in the midst of a root canal,” and “never got a break” from his host. In the Boston Herald, Wayne Woodlief lauded Russert’s “brilliant and persistent questioning.” Russert was “so sharp, so knowledgeable on the issues, so well-prepared that I’m darned near ready to vote for the first candidate who picks Russert as a running mate.” In the Post, Marjorie Williams called Russert “famously gladiatorial.” The only problem in his performance, she said, was that he was “too well prepared.”

As usual, fawning pundits stood in line to praise their high-profile colleague. But no one lauded Russert more than Time’s Margaret Carlson—and no one heaped more scorn on Gore. “Russert chopped him up in little pieces,” she said on the July 20 Imus in the Morning. “I thought it was the single worst performance I have ever seen by a public official on a Sunday talk show.” Carlson engaged in Standard Cant about Gore’s phony manner. “Someone told him to relax, so he slouched, but he slouched in the wrong direction,” she said. “It looked like he was a candidate who was bolted together by the people at the robot factory, and somebody wound him up.” Carlson even did her famous mocking impression of Gore, and she engaged in the corps’ favorite psychobabble, telling Imus three separate times that Gore “doesn’t know who he is.” She and her daughter had been “appalled by” Gore’s performance, she said.

By contrast, Russert was magnificent. “He asked that kind of question that late at night in a dorm room you’d come up with,” Carlson said, plainly intending her words as praise. But Carlson expressed a specific view that showed the corps’ unerring bad judgment. “Russert was a prosecutor,” she told Imus. “Russert was like a prosecutor,” she repeated, “and he did a very good job.”

But are journalists supposed to act like prosecutors? Clearly, Washington’s pundits thought so; Carlson was one of many scribes who praised Russert’s bulldog performance. And Russert especially played Top Cop in his discussions of 1996 fund-raising. Russert devoted the final segment of his hour-long interview to Clinton-Gore fund-raising matters—and as he began, he presented Gore with a damaging accusation. Russert’s charge was highly “prosecutorial,” but there was one small problem with what the host said. At best, his accusation was highly tendentious. More fairly judged, it was utterly bogus.

“Mr. Vice President, when we talk to voters all across the country, they say they are looking for trustworthiness,” Russert said. Voters were making “a lot of comments made about your role in 1996 fund-raising.” Russert then raised the matter of the Buddhist temple, an iconic episode from the 1996 White House race. As Russert rolled tape from the famous incident, he made an extremely serious charge:

RUSSERT: April 29th, 1996, fund-raiser at the temple, Hsi Lai. We can see it there on our screen. And following right behind you is one of your principal fund-raisers, Maria Hsia, who was convicted of five felony counts. The essence of the debate or discussion seems to be that director of the FBI Louis Freeh and three other ranking Justice Department officials believe there should be an independent counsel, special counsel, to look into this matter, because they think you may have broken the law or lied under oath. And they point specifically to your denial that you knew that event was a fund-raiser.
Hmmm. One thing should be mentioned right away; when Hsia was convicted of those five felonies, her prosecutor said, in his opening statement, that Gore had been unaware of her conduct. Russert forgot to mention this. But he went on to make a more serious charge; according to Russert, four Justice officials—including FBI chief Louis Freeh—thought Gore “may have broken the law or lied under oath” in connection with the incident. They were “pointing specifically” to Gore’s denial that he knew the temple event was a fund-raiser. Had Russert been cast in the role of Top Cop? Cheering pundits urged him on. But it’s hard to imagine a more serious charge, offered less than four months before the public would be voting for president.

Russert’s charge was extremely serious. But was it accurate? Did Justice officials think Gore had committed a crime? In fact, two of the four officials to whom Russert referred had repeatedly said something quite different. (The other two hadn’t discussed the matter.) On June 11, for example, one of the four officials, Robert Litt, had appeared on ABC’s This Week. “You have to remember that this is not a question really of whether the vice president committed a crime,” Litt said. “Nobody really thought that was the case.” Nobody thought that, Litt said. Appearing with Litt was Charles LaBella, another of the Justice officials to whom Russert referred. LaBella seemed to agree with Litt, and from April through June, he made similar statements on a number of major programs. On June 27, for example, he was specifically asked about the Buddhist temple on Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes. “I have never said anything other than I thought an investigation was warranted,” he said. “I also said I thought, at the end of the day, the investigation would wash out the allegations.” LaBella specifically said that Gore was unaware of Hsia’s illegal activities: “The fact is, when I was there, there was no evidence that I was aware of that Vice President Gore was aware of any of the [illegal] contributions that went on at the temple.”

On show after show, LaBella said that he had favored appointment of an independent counsel only as a “process matter;” he wanted the public to know that the charges had been investigated by someone from outside the Justice Department. And here’s the most surprising part: Despite Russert’s damaging charge on July 16, LaBella had made similar statements to Russert himself on the April 2 Meet the Press. “We’ve got to put it in context for the American people because I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” LaBella said, speaking to Russert. “What we were saying was there should be an investigation…[We were] not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that charges were going to be brought, or that charges were even appropriate.” But alas! When Gore did Meet the Press three months later, Russert said that the four officials—including LaBella and Litt—thought Gore “may have committed a crime.” LaBella had said something very different right there on Russert’s own program.

At best, Russert’s presentation was hard to square with what LaBella and Litt had repeatedly said. At worst, his statement was grossly inaccurate. Let’s review the record, recalling how influential Russert is—and recalling how narrowly the 2000 election was decided:

Robert Litt, This Week, 6/11/00: You have to remember that this is not a question really of whether the vice president committed a crime...Nobody really thought that was the case.

Robert Litt, Senate Judiciary Committee, 6/21/00: It is important to remember that no one really thought that the Vice President ought to be prosecuted. The question was only whether the technical provisions of the Independent Counsel Act required that an independent counsel be appointed to make that decision.

Charles LaBella, Hannity & Colmes, 6/27/00: I have never said anything other than I thought an investigation was warranted. I also said I thought, at the end of the day, the investigation would wash out the allegations.

Charles LaBella, Meet the Press, 4/2/00: [We were] not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that charges were going to be brought, or that charges were even appropriate.

Tim Russert, Meet the Press, 7/16/00: Louis Freeh and three other ranking Justice Department officials…think you may have broken the law or lied under oath.

If fairness plays any role in press culture, Russert’s statement this day was appalling. “Tim, this has all been aired publicly and otherwise,” Gore replied, after Russert finished a lengthy statement, “and those are pretty selective facts.” But the American public never got to know just how “selective” those facts really were. Too many pundits stampeded into print, swearing how brilliant their Top Cop had been. Three years later, Russert would again overcharge, strangely saying that Dean’s teen-aged son had been “indicted” in a criminal incident.

Russert’s performance with Candidate Gore helps show why some Dems now doubt his good faith. But to members of Russert’s own class, his performance was simply outstanding. In fact, Russert had been “so knowledgeable on the issues, so well-prepared” that Woodlief hoped he’d seek office himself! Russert’s only problem, Williams said, was that he was “too well prepared.”

But so it goes when this laughable “press corps” falls in line with its Latest Group Story. Indeed, Russert’s unfortunate session with Gore suggests a conclusion we now share happily. We conclude that the Washington press corps—so deeply concerned about factual accuracy—might direct its gaze away from Dean and look instead at its own greatest tribunes.

TOMORROW: Final thoughts as we ask our incomparable question. Readers! Where are standards?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: We examined Russert-on-Gore in real time. For more prosecutorial bloopers and blunders, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/00, 7/26/00, 7/27/00 and 7/28/00. At the time, we weren’t aware of LaBella’s Meet the Press session.

The Daily update

SMELLING THE ENEMY: The kookiest crackpot of them all was hawking her new book on Hardball. Why should decent, intelligent, constructive conservatives take back their movement from crackpots like Coulter? At one point, Chris Matthews quoted the scribe’s ruminations about the war on terror:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this book. This book is very interesting, and I am not going to comment. I am going to let you comment on it. “The principal difference between fifth columnists in the cold war versus the war on terrorism is that you could sit next to a communist in a subway without asphyxiating.” What does that mean? I just want to know. What does that mean? I want to know.

COULTER: It means what it says. The second difference is that, in far more time, the enemy that we’re up against now has killed far fewer people.

MATTHEWS: So—but the enemy smells. Is that your knock against Arabs? I mean, that’s your point here. You sit next to them and you are asphyxiated while sitting next to them?

COULTER: I’m just drawing the differences between the cold war and the current war.

MATTHEWS: Is that a way to win friends in the Arab and Islamic world, by saying they stink?

COULTER: I think it is a way to get people to read my book, so I thank you.

“I’m just drawing the differences between the cold war and the current war,” Coulter said, showing her complete contempt for the American public discourse. But that final comment was her most interesting. Why does she put racial insults in her books? Simple. It pleases the kooky-con crowd!

So let’s see. Gay sex leads to bestiality. Asian-American kids are “Sumatran gibbons.” You can smell the Arabs on the subway. Get the feeling there may be problems within the kooky conservative movement? This has nothing to do with conservative beliefs. This has to do with the well-funded, kooky-con crowd that has taken control of the conservative movement.

But pundits have averted their gaze from this problem. John Rocker gets in big trouble for this, but Coulter gets placed all over TV. When will mainstream pundits—and constructive conservatives—stop hiding behind their desks and chairs and challenge this overt, screaming nutcase?

One scribe, Richard Cohen, has risen to speak. And you know what to do. Just click here.