IF IT FEELS GOOD, PRETEND TO QUOTE IT: As weve often noted, the basic notions of fact and accuracy barely exist within the press corps. Weve thought of that, watching pundits opine about Obamas non-quotation quotation.
A non-quotation quotation? Jim Rutenberg hints at the shape of the problem on the front page of todays Times:
RUTENBERG (7/31/08): On Wednesday alone, the McCain campaign released a new advertisement suggestingand not in a good waythat Mr. Obama was a celebrity along the lines of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Republicans tried to portray Mr. Obama as a candidate who believed the race was all about him, relying on what Democrats said was a completely inaccurate quotation.
An inaccurate quotation? In fact, it doesnt quite rise to that level! In this unfortunate post, the Washington Posts increasingly hapless Jonathan Weisman put a bunch of words inside quotations marks and attributed them to Obamabut he had no apparent reason for thinking they were the actual words Obama had said. You see, Obama had spoken in a closed meetingand Weisman was recording recollections of what he had said, recollections which had come from two different unnamed observers. No tape of the event exists, Weisman wrote. But so what? He put two sets of words inside quotation marks anyhoo, attributing the statements to Obama.
Surely, Weisman must know, in some part of his brain, that you cant get a real quotation that way. In fact, theres no apparent reason to think that either quotation is actually accurate. But so what? This is the Washington Post! These dueling collections of words were close enough for presidential campaign work.
Weisman had obtained two recollections of what Obama had said. His two sources seemed to differ in their recollections. Youd think that anyone whose head wasnt stuck up his keister would understand a basic factthere were no real quotations here. Simply put: We dont know what Obama said in that meeting. What we really seem to have is more like a pair of dueling paraphrases. But lets repeat that one key fact: We dont really know what he said.
We dont really know what Obama said. But when has that ever stopped our pundits from opining? Last night, on The Verdict, Dan Abrams made an astounding presentation. Truly, Abrams should quittoday. There must be a nice front porch in Maine which lacks someone sitting upon it:
ABRAMS (7/30/08): Obama may have given his critics some ammo to pound him on his perceivedand this is the point that a lot of the critics have been making, is the arrogance issue.
Today, the Washington Post picked up the statement he made to fellow House Democrats, quote, "This is the moment the world is waiting for. I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions."
Since that quote appeared in the Post, Obama supporters have claimed its taken out of context, one Democratic staffer who was at the meeting says, quote, the Post left out the important first half of the sentence, It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, it`s not about me at all, it`s about America. I have just become a symbol.
Chrystia, a smart comment?
Truly, that was astounding. Abrams began by compounding Weismans bad judgment; he simply ran the two disparate, non-quotation quotations together in that second paragraph. (Even Weisman didnt present Obamas quotation in the way Abrams did.) Then, after noting that a Democratic staffer had said that the quotation in question was basically wrong, he went ahead and asked Chrystia Freeland if it had been a smart comment! Lets get clear: Abrams didnt know what Obama had said, and he seemed to know that he didnt know. But so what? He simply asked for comment anywayand Freeland dumbly opined:
FREELAND (continuing directly): Well, I think that it was a dangerous comment. I mean, I would be very careful about accusing Barack Obama of personally being arrogant or personally exhibiting hubris, but this area is his Achilles heel and, I think, its not so much about Obama as it is about the really contradictory requirements that Americans have of their president. On the one hand, they want a superman, a commander-in-chief, the most powerful person in the world. On the other hand, they want an ordinary guy, as we used to say about George W. Bushthe kind of guy you want to have a beer with. And to be both things is really hard.
Freeland blathered away, essentially saying nothing at all after that unfortunate opening comment. But do you mind if you show the answer a journalist with an IQ above 80 should have given?
CORRECT ANSWER: Dan, we dont really know what Obama said. Those quotations are dueling recollections from several people who were present. It doesnt make sense to judge a statement when we dont really know what was said. In the past, weve created lots of mischief opining about such unknown comments.
Duh! But as weve told you many times: These people have only the dimmest sense of what a fact (or a quotation) is. In their remarkably unimpressive mindsthis may be our dumbest elitetheres a very fuzzy line between a quotation and a paraphrase. They especially proved that in Campaign 2000, with the endless, inventive paraphrases they concocted from statements by Gore. (Within days, they would turn their tendentious paraphrases into quotes, replacing the actual things Gore had said.) That said, this exchanger between Abrams and Freeland was one of the dumbest weve ever seen on TV. Dan, theres a porch in Maine with your name on. Why not take Chrystia along? She can opine there all summer.
By the way: Abrams took Obamas side all night. This blunder stemmed from sheer dumbness. None of them knew what Obama had said. They gave their opinions anyway.
HARDBALLS CONFESSIONAL COFFLE: Abrams and Freeland to the side, the times they do keep a-changin! Major elements of the mainstream press are behaving as theyve never done in the past. Consider last nights closing segment on the cable adventure show, Hardball.
Mike Barnicle, the programs guest host, had behaved himself all through the program, going out of his way to challenge anti-Obama presentations. (In McCains latest ad, is the word foreign intended as a slur against Obama? Yes, Mike Barnicle asked that!) But good lord! In his last segment, all redemption broke loose! Well show you the bulk of what was said because it was so striking.
The segment began with Barnicle doing what has rarely been done in the past. He asked if his cohort, those marvelous pundits, have been a pack of whiners latelyspecifically, in their complaints about Obama, the Democratic candidate:
BARNICLE (7/30/08): Were back with the roundtable for more of the Politics Fix. This is a little off the topic of Obama and vice presidential stuff and everything. Its of interest to me. Maybe its not of interest to youwell find out.
Theres been a series of pieces in the Washington Post, New York Times, a couple of larger papers lately, increasingly taking aim at the Obama campaign for the lack of access that a lot of reporters have to the campaign. Is Obama becoming too presumptuous. Is his vanity getting in the way? Is his ego too large? The thing I notice, coming at this from a lifetime in the news business, knocking on doors, asking families of murder victims for a pictureI mean, why are we such a pack of whiners when it comes to covering candidates? Jeanne?
Good God! Confronting the complaints about Obama, Barnicle suggested his personal view; he suggested that his colleagues, the press corps, have been a pack of whiners! (Dana Milbank, come on down!) With that, he threw to Politicos Jeanne Cummingsand omigod! Head bowed low, arms pulled back, Cummings behaved like a Chinese convict confessing to a vast range of crimes. She too defended the Democratic nominee against her cohorts jibes:
CUMMINGS (continuing directly): We are whiners, its so true. So much of the campaign is reflected through our eyes and our own sensitivities. I covered the Bush White House. When they came into town, they changed a lot of rules when it came to media engagement. And it worked for them. These were lessons learned. We all need to toughen up. We arent their friends. Theyre not our friends. Its an adversarial relationship. They are out there to win. Were out there to find mistakes.
We need to get over it. Everyone says, if you want to become president, one of the first things you have to do is prove to the public that you can be presidential, that you can stand on that stage. Barack Obama is endeavoring to prove that to the voters. Thats between him and the voters. We should probably get out of the middle.
Say what? We pundits are whiners, Cummings confessed. We need to stop whining about Obama! Next, Barnicle asked where the press corps fits on a cry-baby scale. And Michelle Bernard gave quite an answer:
BARNICLE (continuing directly): Michelle, on a scale of one to ten, cry-babies, where are we on that scale?
BERNARD: Id have to give it a 20-plus on that scale...
On the cry-baby scale, the corps rates a 20-plus! (Bernard went on to defend Obama concerning the stresses of being the first black nominee.) Indeed, Michael Crowley even agreed with the group confessionthough he of course began by smooching to colleagues. That accomplished, he made a thought:
BARNICLE: Michael Crowley, you cry-baby, what do you have to say about this?
CROWLEY: I have too many friends who are daily reporters to try to knock them as whiners. Let me just make one thought, which is maybe theres a structural problem. I think we spend too much time following these candidates around in these miserable buses and planes, assessing the hour by hour. What did they feed us? What time did they come see us? Spend more time analyzing policy. Spend more time analyzing what they are proposing. That would maybe solve the problem.
Even Crowley acknowledged the problem, after hed finished admiring his friends. We need to be more policy-driven, the high-minded journalist loftily said. We need to stop spending so much time assessing the free food they give us. (Digby, over to you!)
In late 2002, Crowley was concerned by the fact that Kerry plays show tunes on his guitar. By now, even he can see that greater things are called for. But then, the pundits were all on one page last night. Im with you, buddy, Barnicle enthused after Crowley finished confessing. And with that, the evenings Hardball was, quite remarkably, over.
Lets review. A string of pundits had stood in line to defend the Democratic candidate against the clownish complaints of their cohort. When is the last time four pundits agreed: The mainstream press has been playing the fool in its critiques of the Dem nominee?
THERE WE GO AGAIN: Its 2008, an e-mailer wrote, wondering why we keep refighting 2000. With lightning speed, we sent our reply. No, it actually isnt:
E-MAIL REPLY: Regarding its 2008: Actually, noit isnt. We're all reliving an endless loop, and well likely do so until liberals do what conservatives started to do decades agountil we discuss the culture of the mainstream press. Its a recurrent affair.
That said, lets get profound here:
There are three basic lines in American politics. Happy days are here again is one. Another basic: Its time for a change. And then, theres what Candidate Reagan said:
REAGAN (10/28/80): There you go again.
There you go again, he told Carter. It only worked because people had heard his narrative about liberals before. Theyd heard it again and againand again. Whether he was right or not in the present instance, they felt they knew what he meant.
But being a liberal means never getting to say, There they go again. For the past dozen years or so, libs and Dems have lived in Groundhog Day. Within the press corps, the same things happen again and again. We keep acting like its the first time.
You cant expect voters to notice press patterns until we tell them what patterns to look for. Which brings us around to Jonathan Chait piece in the New Republic. Where go we get these guys?
Yesterday, Chait offered his view of the way the press corps presents Big Dem hopefuls. The teaser said this: Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama: All Flip-Floppers! This was how he began:
CHAIT (7/30/08) : Do you remember when conservatives used to speak warmly, and sometimes rapturously, about Barack Obama?...Since then, the right has made the horrifying discoveries that Obama is, successively, a left-wing ideologue, a coddler of anti-Americanism, a wine-sipping elitist, and, now, a shameless flip-flopper. The man will say anything, discard any position, in order to win the election.
If such a tragic tarnishing of the reputation could happen to a fresh-faced reformer like Obama, it could happen to anybody. And, in fact, it hasat least to anybody who has happened to attain the Democratic presidential nomination at any point over the last five election cycles. John Kerry, as everybody remembers, came to be defined almost exclusively as a flip-flopper. (A 2004 Wall Street Journal news article described him as "a politician with a troublesome reputation for trying to have it both ways.")
Al Gore was relentlessly attacked by Republicans for his alleged waffling. ("Mr. Gore has a bit of a reputation for flip-flopping and corner-cutting," reported The New York Times in 2000.)
Where the fark do we get these guys? Its no wonder we cant spread accurate narratives about the work of the press.
Chait is right about one thing: In 2004, Candidate Kerry plainly came to be defined as a flip-flopper. Sorry, thoughthat simply wasnt a big attack line when it came to Candidate Gore. A simple Nexis search shows the difference. In the Washington Post, Kerry AND flip-flop! (any version of the word flip-flop) produces 165 hits in the first ten months of 2004. For the same period four years earlier, Gore AND flip-flop! produces 25 hits. In only 11 of those reports was the term applied to Gore.
The numbers are similar at the New York Times: 157 hits for Kerry, 28 for Gore.
Gore was delusional and, most important, Al Gore was a big liar. He was a vicious attack dog, willing to do and say anything. (Hed lick the bathroom floor to be president.) And he was constantly reinventing himself. He wanted to do away with the automobile as we know it. But a flip-flopper? Truthfully, not all that much. Its all too typical that Chait doesnt know that. He even doctored his tell-tale quote from the New York Times a tad. (In the full quote, Johnny Apple restricted the critique to just two specific issues.)
This New Republic piece is adapted from Chaits partially groaning book, The Big Con. (Good on policy; awful on press corps.) In that book, Chaits account of the press corps approach to Candidate Gore represents one of the worst analyses of any topic weve ever seen in print. On page 170, he plainly implies that the New York Times got dragged into attacking Gore as a compulsive liarin October 2000. (By October 2000, these forays had settled so deeply into the mainstream narrative that the Times itself was now repeating them as settled fact...) In fact, the Times had played a leading role in the war against Gore from mid-1999 on. (Katherine Seelye helped create the crucial Love Canal non-lie liein December 1999. She wrote a whole piece about Gores veracityin February 2000.) Chaits overall view of the press corps conduct was puzzling, but he also littered his work with elementary factual errors. On that same page, he says that the Republican National Committee chairman, Ed Gillespie...regularly distributed what he called candy-grams or stink bombsattacks on various Gore statements that would seep into the media. In fact, Gillespie was a Bush campaign honcho during that campaign; he became RNC chair in 2003. On that same page, Chait misstates the most basic facts about the crucial Florida school desk episode. Gore never said he visited the classroom in question, thought Chait says thats what he did.
This was all on a single pageand this bungled work appears in a book, not in some off-the-cuff comment. This is the way our liberal leaders keep track of our life-changing history.
The Times itself got dragged in the stew? In October 2000? On what planet do our liberal intellectual leaders actually live?
Lets get profound here again:
We need to tell voters about the way their press corps actually worksabout the practices they need to look out for. This is very significant stuff. Error-strewn books and lazy magazine pieces are not the way well get there.
There they go again! Some day, American voters will say such things when fatuous, multimillionaire pundits launch fatuous lines of attack against Dems. But theyll never say such things until we describe their recent history. What happened to Gore? To both Clintons? To Kerry? Few topics are more significant within our modern politics (and no, they werent all treated the same). Thanks to our laziness, our bungling and our groaning self-interest, these stories just havent been told.
Obama doesnt eat enough ice cream, Dowd said. How many readers groaned and said: There she goes again!