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Caveat lector

WHERE’S THE OUTRAGE? Matthews went on the air and played dumb. HOWLER readers? They were mightily satisfied:


THERE YOU WENT AGAIN: Amazing! HOWLER readers staged a Tuesday tantrum, forced to read offensive material that could be interpreted as vaguely semi-supportive of Bush! Indeed, yesterday’s e-mails showed how hard our readers are willing to work if they have a worthwhile project. Yesterday’s project? Readers set out to prove that conduct which was repulsive when done to Clinton and Gore is highly correct when done to Bush. HOWLER readers worked extra-hard, trying to defend the indefensible.

Our entire staff is on the road today, so we can only provide a truncated HOWLER. But what follows is a general reply to your letters of outrage and complaint.

What was wrong with the articles we criticized yesterday? Let’s make this as simple as possible. If you’re going to accuse public officials of conducting a “hoax” (Nicholas Kristof), you can’t refuse to publish their explanation (Kristof) and you can’t bury their explanation at the end of a long, front-page article (the Post). You can’t pretend you don’t know what they’ve said. And no, you can’t make the kind of factual presentation made on Monday night’s Hardball:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, the big thing about this issue, I think, has been overlooked. It’s not a question of whether the president was given wrong material to use in his speech. The question is, Who is calling the shots? Who in this government is deciding what is being said to the American people and to the world about what the United States believes was the threat from Saddam Hussein? Do we have a Ted Baxter in the White House?

That’s what the conservatives are saying, that the president was merely given the wrong script. But, the bigger question is, Who talked to the president? Who told the president—the National Security staff, the vice president’s office, wherever in the government—that we faced a nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein?…You have to ask yourself the question, how does the president get information? Who gives it to him?

Does somebody simply say, “Put this in the president’s speech and he will read it like he is a newsreader,” or do you have to make the case to the president? Here is the question I want answered. When President Bush saw on his script—in his speech for the State of the Union—that Iraq had attempted or had, in fact, bought nuclear materials from the governor of Niger in Africa, did he ask anybody how do we know this, why do we know this, and I would like to get to the bottom of it?

Matthews’ questions would have made sense, but it seemed that he had been off the planet during the previous week. According to the Bush Admin’s repeated explanations, if Bush did ask about that speech—if he did ask, “How do we know this?”—he would not have been told “that Iraq had attempted or had, in fact, bought nuclear materials from the governor of Niger.” According to repeated Admin explanations, Bush would have been told that British intelligence says that Saddam sought uranium from several countries in Africa. But, like many pundits and reporters this week, Matthews has simply disappeared the Bush Admin’s explanation. Maybe he doesn’t know what the Admin has said. Maybe he’s creating a simpler, pleasing story. (He did just that, again and again, in his endless attacks against Clinton and Gore.) But let’s say it again: As a matter of fairness and intellectual integrity, you can’t accuse public officials of conducting a hoax—you can’t accuse them of being Ted Baxter—unless you’re willing to report their explanation for the conduct you criticize. If something is wrong with their explanation, then by all means, feel free to say that. But Matthews either didn’t know what the Admin has said, or he chose to pretend that he didn’t. This was endlessly done to Clinton and Gore. You loved it when we complained about that. Yesterday, you found yourselves deeply outraged.

Once again, here’s what the Admin has said about Bush’s “16 word” statement:

  1. They have noted that the statement cited British intelligence.
  2. They have noted that the Brits still assert that Saddam did seek uranium from several African nations.
On its face, that’s a fairly sensible explanation of Bush’s remark. But that’s why propagandists will omit it. If you want to build a feel-good case against Bush, you will simply omit these ameliorating facts. As noted, Matthews has done this many times in the past. He seems to be doing it again.

Readers, those were simply horrible pieces which we critiqued in yesterday’s HOWLER. And there’s no excuse for that silly presentation on Hardball (Matthews made similar presentations last night). Meanwhile, the irony here must be apparent. While Matthews accuses Bush of not knowing his brief, it is Matthews who seems unaware of basic facts. Rice and Rumsfeld were everywhere last weekend, saying that the “16 words” were not about Niger. Maybe Matthews was at the beach. Like Ted Baxter, he seems deeply clueless.

Gee! We wonder if Matthews is simply reading what his handlers put up on his screen…

HOWLER HISTORY: We’re puzzled by our readers’ outrage over our fairly obvious comments. In fact, we have routinely criticized unfair coverage of Bush in the past. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, we’ve incomparably spoken.

Some examples: When the press corps swooned for McCain—and semi-slimed Bush—we laughed at the fickle Frank Bruni (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00). When Bruni and Berke tried to punish Bush for defeating McCain, we chastised their ridiculous conduct (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/00, and the days that followed). For three weeks in August/September 2000, the press corps actively turned on Bush, the only time they did so in the campaign; at the time, our lead articles were written for, but we spent a week attacking this coverage. Last summer, when pundits spun some Harken facts, we spoke up about that as well.

Sorry, kids. Bush has gotten absurdly favorable press, during his campaign and during his presidency. No one has pointed that out more than we have. But when he’s been slimed, we’ve spoken up. And guess what? The same hapless people who slimed Bill and Al were spinning Bush this past Monday. Maybe you want to give these scribes to power to pick and choose their facts. But we think that would be very foolish. What happens when journalists are given that power? Review the past five years of work about the spinning of Clinton and Gore.