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Print view: Your press corps is almost wholly Potemkin. Why won't your leaders complain
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WHY LIBERALS HAVEN’T COMPLAINED! Your press corps is almost wholly Potemkin. Why won’t your leaders complain: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 8, 2011

All good things must come to an end/At the same time, history continues: Today, our second non-annual fund-raising drives comes to its official end. We’ll be thanking those who have contributed, though you can still join in the fun! Go ahead! Just click here!

We’re plowing ahead on chapter 6 over at How He Got There. This chapter deals with the giant flap about Love Canal—perhaps the most consequential episode of Campaign 2000.

Sad story! By the fall of 1999, the press corps’ favorite theme—Al Gore is a liar, just like Bill Clinton!—was dying on the vine, basically due to lack of examples. This theme got its start in March of that year, driven by three alleged examples (click here). But one example was so bogus that even the press corps was forced to drop it. By November, this meant that the corps was down to just two alleged lies.

The corps was clinging to two alleged lies—but by the famous Rule of Three, the children needed one more. And along came Connolly and Seelye! On November 30, they misquoted Gore about Love Canal—and yes, it was a flat misquotation. Earth tones quickly faded away. The theme about lying came back with a vengeance. It hardened, then turned into stone.

Al Gore is a liar, just like Bill Clinton! From this point on, this theme never quit. Most strikingly, it was put to use in September 2000, when Gore was pulling away in the polls—and then again in October 2000, after Bush and Gore’s first debate.

Quite plainly, this theme sent Bush to the White House. Shouldn’t the public know?

Future generations should know this history, the history “liberal leaders” have agreed not to tell. We’ll be recording this history, in full detail, over at our companion site. For today, here’s a short opening chunk from the still-unfinished chapter 6. In this passage, we describe a swoon which coincided with an ugly war.

From chapter 6, How He Got There:

LATE IN NOVEMBER, AS THE FIRST SNOWFLAKES FELL, John McCain moved ahead of George Bush in New Hampshire’s Republican polling.

A series of headlines describe McCain’s rapid advance in the state which would hold the nation’s first primary.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: MCCAIN TWO POINTS UP, the Hotline reported on November 29, citing a new Time/CNN poll.

McCain had gone ahead in the state for the very first time. On December 9, another headline extended his margin. NEW HAMPSHIRE: MCCAIN UP 7, a new Hotline banner said.

One day later, another new poll: NEW HAMPSHIRE: MCCAIN UP 15.

In a truly stunning reversal, McCain was pulling away in New Hampshire. In mid-September, Bush had been leading McCain in the state by a walloping 31 points.

No one doubted a basic point about McCain’s advance. His remarkable rise had been aided, in part, by remarkably friendly press coverage. By late November, no one denied that a swoon for McCain had taken hold in the national press. That very term was in wide use, sporting a capital S.

For the record, the press corps’ swoon for John McCain had begun in the campaign’s prehistory. The love affair received its name from the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson; this occurred in July 1998, midway through the brutal year of President Clinton’s impeachment. “It is widely acknowledged that [McCain] wants to run for president in 2000,” Ferguson wrote at that time, “and already national political reporters are lost in love.” McCain “gets the best press coverage of any politician in the country,” the conservative writer continued. “The McCain Swoon is now so conspicuous that NBC News, the Washington Post and other news outlets have assigned reporters to do favorable stories explaining why the stories about John McCain are so favorable.”

Twenty-nine months before the election, “The Swoon” had been given its name.

Plainly, Ferguson was right on one score. By the summer of 1998, reporters were writing glowing reports explaining McCain’s glowing coverage. On June 8, to cite one example, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post had examined the potential candidate’s relationship with the establishment press. Kurtz expressed a striking judgment: “The plain truth is that a growing number of journalists want John McCain to run for president.”

It was hard to dispute this assessment. Kurtz quoted a number of major press figures expressing their unvarnished admiration for the Arizona Republican. Liberal columnist Al Hunt had called McCain “the most courageous and one of the most admirable men I’ve ever known in American politics.” Mark Shields, another liberal columnist, had praised McCain for his “against-the-grain leadership coupled with his riveting personal history.” And a Mike Wallace statement was simply astounding, coming from an iconic symbol of a supposedly skeptical press corps. “I’m thinking I may quit my job if he gets the nomination,” Wallace had said, implying that he would work for McCain in a general election.

In Esquire, Charles Pierce had already offered a mordant assessment of the press corps’ general attitude. “If John McCain doesn’t run,” he had written, “the mandarins of the chattering class may throw [an] ensemble hissy fit.”

Pierce’s piece had appeared in May 1998. Its headline: “John McCain Walks on Water.”

What explained this hard early swoon? Over time, a string of profiles agreed on the basics. First, McCain had what journalists called “The Story”–his personal history in Vietnam, where he endured more than five years as a POW. Beyond that, reporters agreed that McCain had The Issue; campaign finance reform, his trademark, was a press corps favorite. Pundits agreed on another point; in their view, “The Story” proved that McCain had character, one of the press corps’ basic requirements for the coming post-Clinton era. And they agreed that he scored major points as a “maverick.” Because his trademark issues tended to put him at odds with his own party’s leadership, McCain had become “the conservative that liberals love to love,” Ferguson wrote in his 1998 profile.

One year later, in the fall of 1999, McCain was still quite low in the national polls. But profiles and columns reflecting The Swoon were appearing all over the press.

Gushing portraits came from all quarters. More strikingly, major journalists routinely acknowledged that they and their colleagues were caught in a swoon. “So far, McCain has gotten terrific press,” Roger Simon wrote in U.S. News in late September. “The praise has been so lavish, it has been dubbed the ‘McCain Swoon.’ ”

Two weeks later, Geneva Overholser said the same thing in the Washington Post. She cited the hopeful’s “adoring press. The McCain Swoon, it's called.”

Jonathan Alter said it in Newsweek: “It's swoon season on John McCain's bus, the Straight Talk Express.”

Kurtz authored a mocking headline in the Post: “Stop Me Before I Swoon.” In his piece, written in mid-October, he quoted several writers describing the way they themselves had now joined the swoon. “Journalists go weak in the knees around the guy,” Jacob Weisberg had written in Slate. “When I set out to spend a few days with McCain last week, I promised my editor that I wouldn't join in this collective swoon. That proved impossible.”

By late November, the swooning was general over the press corps. No one seemed embarrassed to say so, even though the love affair seemed to violate normal standards of journalistic deportment. But a very different pattern emerged as this press corps continued its war against Gore, a building war which was completing its seventh and ugliest month. Journalists widely acknowledged—if asked—that Gore was getting horrendous coverage. But in this case, no one was willing to state the obvious: The press was at war with Al Gore.

It was OK to cop to The Swoon. Not so with this undeclared war.

Indeed, no one even seemed able to say why the coverage of Gore was so brutal. This awkward group silence became rather clear on CNN late in November…

Before too long, we’ll post the full chapter. (Most work is done on all future chapters.) At any rate, on November 30, Love Canal hit—and a punishing theme turned to stone. No one in the mainstream press could explain that episode either.

Needless to say, your liberal leaders stared off into air. None of the liberal journals complained. The children behaved like good boys and girls. Are you happy with how that turned out?

Special report: Sargent’s portrait!

PART 4—WHY LIBERALS HAVEN’T COMPLAINED (permalink): It isn’t like nothing ever gets explained by our mainstream press corps. Indeed, a recurrent feature exists at Slate for that very purpose.

EXPLAINER: ANSWERS TO YOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NEWS, the recurrent feature is called. Here’s the headline on the most recent report in this series, a report which was published on Tuesday:

“Why Does Dominique Strauss-Kahn Have White Hair and Black Eyebrows?”

Don’t say nobody told you! That same day, William Saletan posted a detailed report at Slate which ran beneath this headline: “Did Dominique Strauss-Kahn Try To Rape Tristane Banon? Seven ways to check his story and hers against the evidence.”

Saletan went into exquisite detail, helping French police learn how to solve this potential criminal case. So it isn’t like journalists never try to explain highly relevant topics.

Various things do get explained within our mainstream press. But the press corps’ powers seem to fade when serious topics are involved—topics which lay at the very heart of this society’s basic functioning. Consider what happened in today’s New York Times when the editors tried to explain why we have such large federal deficits.

Why do we have such large deficits? By now, you’d think this question would have been thrashed within an inch of its life out on this famous paper’s front page. You’d think we’d be swimming in simple graphics which lay out basic relevant facts. But that kind of explaining has not occurred on this newspaper’s feckless news pages. And here’s a key part of what occurred when the editors did some splainin’ today:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (7/8/11): It is already clear that the Republicans have succeeded spectacularly in their insistence that the agreement be mostly about spending cuts rather than building back the money lost from the Bush tax cuts that was the principal cause of the deficit. Mr. Obama has said there will have to be some revenue increases, but Republicans are in an antitax straightjacket and have defined the term so narrowly that cuts are likely to outweigh increases by a factor of three or four to one.

Is that true? Is the money lost from the Bush tax cuts “the principal cause of the deficit?” We’d have to say that isn’t quite accurate—that this statement is at least somewhat misleading. But for our money, the editors’ claim becomes downright misleading when it’s joined to the passage we’ve highlighted from the start of this same editorial:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: Every fresh report of “progress” on the debt-ceiling talks produces new reasons to feel profoundly uneasy. The talks were misbegotten from the beginning, made necessary only by the irresponsible refusal of Republicans to pay the nation’s bills unless they got everything their way on government spending and taxes.

President Obama had to deal with them to prevent an economic collapse, but he should have sought the most minimal way possible to get out of their headlock with the government’s crucial functions intact.

Instead, he seems to have embraced this illegitimate process—rooted in the false and dangerous premise that the nation’s budget problems are entirely a matter of overspending on the needy and not of undertaxing the rich. Now he is trying to expand it to reach a grand agreement to cut the deficit by as much as $4 trillion over 10 years, twice as much as discussed in the first round of talks.

We’ll let others decide who’s “rich.” But from reading this morning’s editorial, mightn’t a reader get the impression that our current large deficits have mainly or largely been caused by low taxes on our highest earners? That reader would have a hard time fact-checking this impression through the New York Times’ news reporting—though if he read all the way to the end of David Leonhardt’s informative column in Wednesday’s Business Day section, he would have reached the following data, buried deep in paragraph 14 on this newspaper’s page B4:

“Allowing the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on income above $250,000 a year would raise about $60 billion a year. The expiration of all the other Bush tax cuts would bring in another $200 billion or so.”

The Bush tax cuts on those upper-end earners are worth about $60 billion per year. The current deficit—the deficit our “press corps” pretends to discuss—is somewhere around $1.6 trillion. (This is not a criticism of Leonhardt, who presented some actual facts.)

Every word in today’s editorial can be defended as technically accurate. But does the editorial really explain the situation in a competent way? Our press corps will often display enthusiasm and great competence when it explains someone’s bushy eyebrows, earth-toned clothing, wind-surfing technique or limbic brain functions—or when it thrashes the details from a French attempted rape case. But the competence tends to fade when we get to trivial topics like Medicare, Social Security, tax rates and Grand Compromises. How bad does it get when our “journalists” examine such topics? For unvarnished incompetence on the part of the Times, we’ll suggest you examine this embarrassing but typical graphic, a version of which appears in today’s hard-copy paper.

Through its headline, this graphic purports to show “A Spectrum of Positions in the Debt Ceiling Debate.” Seven positions exist on this spectrum—but alas! Two of the seven positions seem to be exactly the same:

Consider raising new government revenue without raising taxes
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said he would consider eliminating some tax breaks and corporate subsidies provided there was not an overall increase in taxes.

Consider closing tax loopholes without raising new revenue
The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, who earlier left talks led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. because of administration demands on taxes, says that he is now willing to consider White House proposals to close tax loopholes. But Mr. Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House after Mr. Boehner, said that he would not accept any net increase in federal revenues and that any change “should be coupled with offsetting tax cuts somewhere else.”

Huh? The Times seemed to think those were different positions. In fact, as they are presented here, the positions adopted by Cornyn and Cantor seem to be exactly the same. (Some loopholes/tax breaks can be killed—but there can’t be an overall increase in revenue.)

The passage on Cantor is rather clear. The passage concerning Cornyn is a classic, world-class muddle. Meanwhile, feast your eyes on this pointless passage: “Some Senate Democrats, like Jeff Merkley of Oregon, have called for an end to $126 million in annual tax breaks for the horse-racing industry that Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, secured in the 2008 farm bill.” $126 million each year? Why not report the brand of gum Merkley was chewing as he made this tiny proposal?

The incompetence of your mainstream “press corps” is one of its distinguishing features. And this has been true for a very long time; to cite one example, it dates to the evening we cited yesterday, the evening in October 2000 when Ted Koppel said it turned his brains to mush when he tried to consider the budget debate which lay at the heart of Campaign 2000. Of course, Koppel wasn’t the first of our major stars to demonstrate an insulting malfeasance when it came to this topic, the matter of the Bush tax cut proposal. Candidate Bush had unveiled his plan all the way back in December 1999. Four days later, Cokie Roberts still had no earthly idea what the candidate had proposed; she made a groaning, ridiculous factual error about his proposal as she co-hosted ABC’s This Week, the network’s showcase Sunday program. Cokie’s remarkable error suggested that she had scanned a few headlines about the Bush plan but had done nothing more. In that case, George Stephanopoulos came to the rescue, overriding her ludicrous error while obscuring the fact that she’d made it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/99.

Ten months later, Larry King politely moved on when Koppel said he was still clueless about the same topic—about the most seminal, most-discussed topic in the whole Bush-Gore campaign.

These people have been this way forever. Their grinding incompetence is a companion to their focus on trivia—on the question of which candidate is wearing too many earth tones or mentioning his or her children too much. (To their focus on Bristol Palin’s new jaw, on Rod Serling’s vast relevance.) These people tend to be multimillionaires—and they tend to act like they are. Last week, Greg Sargent painted a reasonably decent portrait of the criminal culture these gruesome miscreants have fashioned down through all these years:

SARGENT (6/30/11): [I]n our discourse,…it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.

[We have] a deeply ingrained set of unwritten rules about what does and doesn’t constitute acceptable political discourse that really deserve more scrutiny. This set of rules has it that it should be treated as a matter of polite, legitimate disagreement when Michele Bachmann says deeply insane things about us not needing to raise the debt limit, but it should be seen as an enormously newsworthy gaffe when she commits a relatively minor error about regional trivia.

Set aside the claim that Bachmann has said “deeply insane things” about that topic. Sargent painted a fairly decent portrait of the pseudo-journalistic culture which obtains in our modern, Potemkin press corps. As part of this journalistic culture, newspapers land at front doors every day, giving the impression that real discourse is occurring. Thanks in part to the culture Sargent describes, that impression is massively false.

So here’s the question we’ve posed all week: Why have “liberals” accepted this deeply destructive state of affairs over the past (let’s say) twenty years? Why have you never seen a challenging profile of the fool Dowd in your liberal journals? Why did you never see the profile of the disgraceful Chris Matthews of the Jack Welch years? When Koppel made that amazing statement to King, why did no one offer a comment? Why did no one even say boo when Matthews gave Gennifer Flowers a full half-hour to discuss the Clintons’ various murders?

In these and a thousand other cases, why was the silence so loud?

Everyone knows what the pseudo-conservative critique of the mainstream press corps is. The corporatist world has blared that carefully-constructed critique for three or four decades now; this relentless critique has changed the terms of American political discussion. But what is the liberal critique of that “press corps?” What is the liberal critique of a press corps which clowns in the way Dowd has done? Which engaged in the conduct Ezra Klein once described with substantial accuracy?

In a cover story for the American Prospect in April 2006, the still-youthful Klein described the conduct of that “press corps” during Campaign 2000. In the following passage, which started his piece, he is describing a speech by Al Gore in 2005. He is also describing conduct from 1999 and 2000 which changed the face of the world:

KLEIN (4/06): The address was the keynote for the We Media conference, held at the Associated Press headquarters in New York last October [2005] and attended by an audience that included both old media luminaries and new media innovators. In attendance were Tom Curley, president of the AP, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, all leading lights of a media establishment that, five years earlier, had deputized itself judge, jury, and executioner for Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, spinning each day’s events to portray the stolid, capable vice president as a wild exaggerator, ideological chameleon, and total, unforgivable bore.

Yikes! According to Klein, the “media establishment” had “deputized itself judge, jury, and executioner for Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.” Major news orgs like the three he named had “sp[un] each day’s events to portray the stolid, capable vice president as a wild exaggerator, ideological chameleon, and total, unforgivable bore.”

That’s true, of course, though a bit understated; those news orgs engaged in much more than mere “spin.” But in its essence, this is the story we are reporting, in full detail, at our companion site, How He Got There. For whatever reason, Klein made this accurate statement once, then never mentioned it again.

Just think about what Klein said in that passage, right at the start of a cover story in a liberal journal. Does that sound like something you’d say only once? More significantly, why hasn’t the rest of the liberal world told the public this story? If you still don’t know the answer, there’s a good chance you never will.

That said, just understand this:

There is no liberal critique of that mainstream “press corps” because liberal careers run through its organs. The Walshes don’t talk about the Koppels—or about the Dowds, or about Chris Matthews. Absent screaming and yelling from you, these career liberal leaders never will.

Happy ending: Ezra never mentioned this history again, not even in TV sessions in which he discussed this article. But here’s the good news: Today, he’s employed by the Washington Post and MSNBC, the two news organs which did the most to produce the gross misconduct he described—just once, when he was still young.

Simple story: Your “press corps” is now almost wholly Potemkin. For reasons which are blatantly obvious, career “liberal” leaders won’t tell. This adds to the way the liberal world gets its brains beat out in our pseudo-discourse—in the Potemkin discussions the children pretend to conduct.