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Daily Howler: Shear debunks a smear in the Post. Mainstream press culture thus changes
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NEW MORNING! Shear debunks a smear in the Post. Mainstream press culture thus changes: // link // print // previous // next //

WORST “JOURNALIST” IN THE WORLD: In our principal post today, we discuss some work in this morning’s Post. But Dana Milbank deserves a spot all his own, for this gruesome performance.

My, how times have changed! Last year, Dana Milbank complained when Al Gore used too many big words. Today, he himself is rather wordy as he starts a Dowdian effort:

MILBANK (7/30/08): Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee.

On what meat doth this Milbank feed to engage in such big-word argot?

In fact, Milbank is feasting on narrative. In our view, no modern reporter is more dishonest; though he trashes members of both parties, today he targets Obama. He isn’t faithful to the facts–but he’s wonderfully faithful to preferred story-line. Indeed, Obama even gets called “Prom King”–though in that passage, Milbank is quoting Gabriel Sherman (the New Republic), who seems to be quoting someone else.

We also get “hubris,” and “premature drape measuring.” (Truly, Milbank is Dowd with different plumbing.) The real crime, of course, is found in this passage. And just gaze on that claim about Bush!

MILBANK: Sherman quoted Adam Nagourney's reaction to the Obama campaign's memo attacking one of his stories: "I've never had an experience like this, with this campaign or others." Then came Obama's overseas trip and the campaign's selection of which news organizations could come aboard. Among those excluded: the New Yorker magazine, which had just published a satirical cover about Obama that offended the campaign.

Even Bush hasn’t tried that.

Even Bush hasn’t tried that? Good God, what perfect lunacy! Truly, Milbank is the worst pseudo-journalist in the entire world. And today, he seems to be disturbed because the Prom King has been dissing his cohort.

(To ponder the double standards involved here, be sure to read Eric Boehlert’s latest. You know what to do–just click here.)

Here at THE HOWLER, We had a personal experience with Milbank’s bizarre dishonesty all the way back in 1999. The subject matter was trivial, but the dishonesty was truly remarkable; it really helps define the way people like Milbank do business. Today, he seems peeved about the way the Prom King has mistreated the press. We’ll review that old incident some day; for this morning, just gaze on his latest “sketch.” Like few others, Milbank defines the broken moral state of a broken, upper-end press world.

Postponement: Today’s a big day in the Washington Post. For that reason, we’re postponing our treatment of that excellent piece about testing programs by the Post’s Daniel de Vise; we expect to review it tomorrow. On Friday, we plan to revisit Hedrick Smith, getting tooken in 2005 by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Where do bogus data come from? In this case, bogus data came from a major school system–and from those who refused to check facts.

NEW MORNING: It’s quite a day in the Washington Post. Let’s start with Michael Shear’s front-page piece about John McCain’s character problem.

For the record, John McCain has always had this character problem. But in the past, the insider press corps was on his side–when he misstated the facts about Candidate Bush; when he told his weird “jokes” about Candidate Gore; when he made those anonymous robo-calls in Michigan, then lied to the press corps about them. And of course, until very recently, the press corps played by very permissive rules–if you were sliming Big Democrats. You could say any damn-fool thing you pleased about Major Dems like Clinton/Gore/Kerry. The mainstream press would stare into air. Or they’d be the ones who were saying it!

But by now, major elements of the mainstream press (not all) have made a decision; they don’t want to study war no more, and they’re troubled by John McCain’s war-love. And so, to his credit, Shear starts his report with a soft but accurate statement:

SHEAR (7/30/08): For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing wounded soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true.

The attacks are part of a newly aggressive McCain operation whose aim is to portray the Democratic presidential candidate as a craven politician more interested in his image than in ailing soldiers, a senior McCain adviser said. They come despite repeated pledges by the Republican that he will never question his rival's patriotism.

By the way: When a candidate makes “repeated pledges that he will never question his rival’s patriotism,” he’s questioning his rival’s patriotism! And yes, we think Shear’s opening paragraph could have made its point more briskly. (The report appears beneath a headline so dull, it virtually defies you to read the full story.) But Shear’s report represents a major change in the mainstream press culture of the past sixteen years. In this report, the Washington Post, on its front page, directly challenges the latest slimy “character” charge against the latest Dem White House hopeful. This represents a major change in the way this newspaper does business.

The times truly are a-changin’! In Campaign 20004, the Post ran and hid from the “swift boat” charges against Candidate Kerry. In Campaign 2000, the Post played the leading role, for twenty straight months, in generating the smears against Candidate Gore–the smears that sent George Bush to the White House. (Your “liberal leaders” still won’t tell you that. They’re well-trained, polite, careful fellows.) Today, though, the Post has changed a few spots. On its front page, it is challenging one of these slimy claims–the slimy claims that have driven our politics for lo, these many years.

That in mind, we mordantly chuckled when we saw Dan Balz’s name on this morning’s piece. (He’s listed as Shear’s co-writer.) Let’s recall the way things worked when the Post was still driving these smears.

Return to December 1999! The Bradley campaign was now sliming Gore hard, and people like Balz were all too happy to regurgitate their talking-points for them. Late in the month, Balz finally joined a long line of colleague in printing a blatantly bogus claim. This is how the Post’s elites were playing this game before growing tired of war:

BALZ (12/20/99): Gore prefers the cut-and-thrust of traditional politics and has often defined himself by criticizing his opponents. It was Gore, after all, who in 1988 introduced Willie Horton into the presidential campaign.

Except for one thing–Gore didn’t do that. As the bulk of mainstream reporters clearly knew, Gore never mentioned Willie Horton during the 1988 campaign. And he never mentioned Horton’s crimes; he later said he’d never heard of Horton at the time, and there’s absolutely no reason to doubt that. Meanwhile, major players in the press corps knew these things in 1999; you can tell by the way they couched their language as they repeated Bradley’s smear. Like Balz, they all knew the message with which they’d been tasked: Al Gore is nasty and negative, and his use of Willie Horton proved it. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/01/02, or see our detailed listing below.) But if you check the long list of reporters who pimped this smear on Bradley’s behalf, note the way the mainstream scribes used clever phrases (“the Willie Horton issue”) to keep their slime “technically accurate.” For some reason, only Balz, among mainstream colleagues, published a claim which was just flat-out wrong. The others deliberately misled readers. For some reason, Balz flat-out misstated. (Detailsbelow.)

At any rate, that’s the way this game has been played over the course of the past sixteen years. As of today, though, the culture has changed. Today, Balz is on the Post’s front page. At long last, the great Post scribe is debunking one of these stories.

After that fairly tepid start, Shear does a pretty good job laying out the facts of this case–explaining John McCain’s character problem. Of course, it remains to be seen if this piece will have legs–if pundits will reverse treasured narratives about McCain’s brilliant character. Yesterday, for example, Richard Cohen offered his latest gong-show piece about McCain’s stirring character–and he failed to mention this latest smear. Surely, Cohen understood what McCain has been doing with this slimy claim. He just forgot to mention it.

(Cohen in February 2000, describing the scene on McCain’s campaign bus: “You laugh and laugh–at least I do–and when, once, I asked him why in the world he would talk to the press hour after hour, totally on-the-record, he said it was ‘fun.’” That describes the culture under which we’ve all suffered during these smear-driven years.)

But there’s more in this morning’s Post for those with the gift of memory. Here’s Ruth Marcus, complaining about the way the Bush Admin has conducted itself in the past seven years:

MARCUS (7/30/08): This administration will leave office having trashed the place–and I'm not talking about a few "W's" pried loose from White House computer keyboards by the exiting Clinton crew. I'm referring to the myriad ways in which this administration, dismissive of the role of government, abused the enterprise it was entrusted with overseeing.

Today, Marcus rolls her eyes about the foolishness of those old stories about “a few [letters] pried loose from White House keyboards.” But uh-oh! In real time, Marcus’ cohort went to town with that nonsense, most of which turned out to be factually bogus. Darlings, this showed the Clinton camp’s character problems, the troubled press corps said. Almost no one in Marcus’ cohort complained about the inanity of this matter, given the culture that prevailed at the time. (At the time, Marcus was a staff writer, not a columnist.) How was the game being played at the time? Disgracefully, this is the sort of garbage Tom Brokaw aired on NBC Nightly News:

MITCHELL (1/25/01): One of the easier fixes: an Ohio office supply company is donating 500 W's to replace the "W"'s taken off White House keyboards by departing Clinton aides. And the Air Force will replace Air Force One glasses and four hand towels, apparently pilfered by passengers traveling with the Clintons on their last plane ride home.

Clinton officials recall that when they took over the White House from George Bush's father, computer hard drives were missing, but nothing on the scale of what the Bush White House calls an unfair parting shot from the Clinton team. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

Four towels were missing from Air Force One! Brokaw put that on the air.

(Again: Most of the claims of vandalism to the White House turned out to be Bush Admin bull-sh*t.)

Marcus is upset, today, about the way the Bush Admin played the game. When she wrote these words–about the Admin–we thought of her own gruesome cohort:

MARCUS: Most administrations find ways to keep the Goodlings under control and the grown-ups in charge. The trouble with this one is that it is riddled with Goodlings Gone Wild, incapable of or unwilling to distinguish between the proper pursuit of political aims and the responsible administration of government.

The Bush Admin was riddled with Goodlings Gone Wild? So was the Washington Post, during the years when Ceci Connolly and Michael Kelly invented those bogus claims about Gore! Truly, they were “incapable of or unwilling to distinguish between the proper pursuit of political aims and the responsible administration of [journalism].”

During the years, Dan Balz pimped that disgraceful sh*t about Gore and Willie Horton.

They lied to you, again and again, peddling these bogus stories around. And don’t forget a key ingredient: The polite, good boys of the liberal world refused to discuss the problem. (They wanted to work for the Post!) But this morning, a key part of the culture has changed, right there on the Post’s front page. To his credit, Michael Shear has debunked one of these slimy smears–one of the slimy smears the Washington Post used to love pimping around.

Crowley arrives: Also today, Michael Crowley debuts on the Post op-ed page (click here); it’s another sad day for American journalism, but it fits our rumination perfectly. Out on page one, the culture has changed; Shear is debunking one of these smears. On the op-ed page, though, Crowley appears. In the spring of 2000, Crowley (co-writing with Walter Robinson) pretended he didn’t know what Gore could have meant when he claimed seven years of journalistic experience. It was Gore’s latest weird misstatement–if you believed this latest gong-show smear, which had Crowley’s name right on it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/00). Two years later, Crowley initiated the silly complaints about John Kerry’s odd, puzzling character (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/02). Today, the gentleman finally gets his reward for all those years supporting the culture.

Pimping a smear: In the fall of 1999, the Bradley campaign was sliming Gore–and the mainstream “press corps” wanted to help. In the matter under review, the campaign had cadged an old RNC smear: It was really Al Gore who introduced the American people to Willie Horton! The claim was patently ludicrous, but the RNC had pimped it since July 1992, when Gore received the VP nomination. But now, the Bradley campaign began to pimp it–even though Bradley had specifically debunked the claim in 1996, in his own best-selling book.

(Again: For our fullest account of this remarkable episode, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/02. This is how this game has been played.)

The Bradley campaign was now contradicting Bradley’s best-selling book! (In January, Bradley would join them.) But so what? “Journalists” ran to pimp the new smear, explaining how vile Gore had been. And please note the way they couched their language. In fact, Gore never mentioned Horton during Campaign 1988; he never mentioned Horton’s crimes. And so, most mainstream “journalists” used careful language, keeping their bullsh*t “technically accurate.” Except for Balz, they carefully referred to “the Horton issue”–not to Horton himself.

At any rate, everyone knew the story-line: Al Gore showed he was nasty and negative by the way he used Willie Horton. This was the culture of the age. Mainstream journalists stood in line for the chance to recite Bradley’s bull-sh*t:

Robert Novak, Washington Post, 10/22/99: Al Gore’s mean streak was not engineered by [adviser] Bob Shrum…In his failed 1988 campaign for president, Gore nailed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the Willie Horton affair long before George Bush Sr. took up that cry.

Roger Simon, U.S. News, 10/25/99: Bradley will spend much of his prep time [for the first Gore-Bradley debate] anticipating Gore attacks. “We always expect to be attacked by Gore,” says a senior adviser to Bradley…And just as he did in 1988 when he raised the Willie Horton issue against Dukakis, Gore intends to take whatever shots he deems appropriate.

William Kristol, Newsweek, 10/25/99: Big Al can be a tough, mean player, not afraid to be tough and inaccurate himself. After all, he’s the guy who introduced Willie Horton to the American public in his primary campaign against Michael Dukakis.

Paul Gigot, Wall Street Journal, 10/29/99: One thing we know about this White House is that it plays for keeps. Recall that the candidate who first raised the prison furlough (Willie Horton) issue against Mike Dukakis in 1988 wasn’t George Bush. It was Al Gore.

Sam Donaldson, This Week, 11/28/99: Al Gore does use fear. Remember 1988, it was Al Gore when he was running in the primaries for president who found Willie Horton, and he used Willie Horton against Dukakis.

David Yepsen, Des Moines Register, 12/5/99: Gore lost to Michael Dukakis, but not before becoming the first politician to raise questions about whether Dukakis was too lenient on prison inmate Willie Horton, an example of just how hard Gore can play the game.

Andrew Cain, Washington Times, 12/7/99: Mr. Gore has never been reluctant to go for the jugular. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Mr. Gore was the first candidate to raise the Massachusetts prison furlough program and Willie Horton issue against fellow Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Jeanne Cummings, Wall Street Journal, 12/8/99: Mr. Gore’s approach shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his political history. His 1988 presidential bid foundered well short of the Democratic nomination, but not before Mr. Gore slammed...Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for supporting a controversial prison-furlough system.

Katharine “Kit” Seelye, New York Times, 12/10/99: Mr. Gore’s combativeness has been evident in the past…After all, he was the candidate who in 1988 first raised the issue of prison furloughs in Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for Vice President Bush to seize on the image of Willie Horton.

Ceci Connolly, Washington Post, 12/11/99: He is aggressive, outspoken and increasingly eager to draw sharp–some would suggest unfair–contrasts with his opponents. The approach, reminiscent of his 1988 effort, has rejuvenated the Gore team…In that race, it was Gore who first pinned rival Michael S. Dukakis for a controversial prison furlough program.

Susan Page, Late Edition, 12/12/99: We’re reminded this week…what a fierce campaigner he is. He showed us before. In 1988, he was the one who raised the issue of prison furloughs against Michael Dukakis in the primaries, before the Bush people had heard of it. He’s a very fierce campaigner.

Dan Balz, Washington Post, 12/20/99: Gore prefers the cut-and-thrust of traditional politics and has often defined himself by criticizing his opponents. It was Gore, after all, who in 1988 introduced Willie Horton into the presidential campaign.

In 1988, Gore had discussed the furlough program at one debate, for about sixty seconds. Eleven years later, this showed what a “tough, mean player” Gore was. It showed that he “does use fear.” And somehow, Willie Horton’s name kept getting dragged into the twaddle.

In October, Novak was reciting old RNC cant. By early December, Seelye and Connolly were channeling the Bradley campaign, which was now pimping this smear all around. And please note the careful language each used. Plainly, Seelye and Connolly each understood that Gore never said a word about Horton. Ditto for Susan Page. Ditto for Jeanne Cummings. Ditto for Roger Simon.

Gore had never mentioned Horton. And it showed us how nasty he was!

Yes, we know; it’s hard to believe. Denial centers in the brain insist that this can’t be the way the world works. But this is the way the game has been played for lo, these many years. No one debunked that smear on the Post’s front page; instead, the Post helped spread it around. But those were the rules of the game until now: You could say any damn thing you pleased–if you aimed it at Clinton/Gore/Kerry.