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VINTAGE APPROACH! Back then, this gave us President Bush. Are you ready for President Rudy? // link // print // previous // next //

WE RECOMMEND THE PROFESSOR AGAIN: Once again, we strongly recommend Professor Foser’s latest column on Trivia Studies, a sadly important subject. Again, Foser discusses the way the press corps uses “trivial matters” or “telling anecdotes” to provide alleged insights into candidates’ character. Strange (and sad) as it may seem, we can think of few aspects of modern press culture which deserve more study.

Foser lays out the significant point: Journalists tend to cherry-pick “telling anecdotes” which lead to the conclusions they favor. By the way, this is also part of the way big journos tend to produce campaign bio. Biography may play a reduced role in Campaign 08, since the nominees may be fairly well-known figures. But the life story of a 60-year-old candidate provides a great deal to pick-and-choose from. For this reason, savvy voters should be very wary of the incidents that turn up in biographical profiles. Journos love to pick-and-choose the incidents which tilt a life story their way.

And make no mistake—modern journos adore “telling anecdotes!” Here was Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, interviewing Mitt Romney:
WALLACE (8/12/07): Finally, Governor, I want to ask you about two semi- personal controversies which might seem a little bit smaller but that people take seriously and I want to ask you to clear the record on. One of them is the big dog controversy. Back in 1983, you took your Irish setter, Seamus, on a 12-hour road trip tied to the roof of your car—

ROMNEY: No, no, no, no, not quite like that.

WALLACE: Let me finish. Let me finish—in a kennel, inside a kennel.
ROMNEY: Yes, yes.

WALLACE: OK. I have a yellow lab named Winston. I would no sooner put him in a kennel on the roof of my car than I would one of my children. Question: What were you thinking?
Tied to the roof of your car! And no, Wallace didn’t seem to be joking when he spoke about Winston and his unnamed kids; in fact, he seemed visibly angry. Wallace had found a “telling anecdote”—from the summer of ’83! Let me finish! Let me finish! he insisted, telling his story.

Unless we’re mistaken, pets travel in kennels all the time—in the holds of jumbo jets, in the open-air backs of speeding trucks. But then, Carl Cameron had noticed something “telling” too—and this had happened more recently:
WALLACE: Let's talk about Hillary Clinton. I'm not sure, Carl, that she would have said "I'm your girl" at the start of the campaign with all the questions about a woman president. It seems to me to show an increasing confidence.

CAMERON: There is a level of confidence and her charm offensive that has not gotten a great deal of attention. For months, Hillary Clinton has gone out of her way to be more likable. The campaign and she know full well that if there is a liability and a problem in her candidacy, it's that so many people won't think about the possibility of voting for her.

Well, we've seen stories about her showing a little bit of cleavage on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

WALLACE: Oh, boy.

CAMERON: We've seen stories about how she's brightening up the pastel colors and trying to put a little bit more of a smile on. That's clearly working...
Pastels! They may be the new earth tones!

For the record: Using Nexis, we can find zero “stories” in the past three months about how Clinton is “brightening up the pastel colors.” (We searched on “Clinton AND pastel OR pastels.”) These people are dumb as a box of rocks—and they’re so eager for “telling anecdotes” that they sometimes just dream up dream their facts.

Sadly, Trivia Studies are very important. Once again, we strongly recommend the professor’s latest work.

THE TIMES BUNGLES HEALTH CARE AGAIN: At first, the analysts cheered the Times editorial. Omigod! It had taken a week! But someone had finally criticized Giuliani’s absurd remarks about health care:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (8/12/07): Many Americans are under the delusion that we have “the best health care system in the world,” as President Bush sees it, or provide the “best medical care in the world,” as Rudolph Giuliani declared last week. That may be true at many top medical centers. But the disturbing truth is that this country lags well behind other advanced nations in delivering timely and effective care.
Finally! Last Sunday, Giuliani stood on stage at a Republican debate and made absurd remarks about world health care—remarks straight from a “denial machine” which has deceived American voters for decades (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/6/07). But the next day, excited liberals pleasured themselves with Hawthornian thoughts of Giuliani’s Daughter (for further distraction, just click here). Until this Times editorial, a full week later, we had seen no one say a word about Giuliani’s bizarre remarks. And omigod! The Times even told its readers this: “The disturbing truth is that this country lags well behind other advanced nations in delivering timely and effective care!”

In fact, the Times fleshed out this point in a lengthy, detailed editorial. It even said this, in paragraph 3: “Seven years ago, the World Health Organization made the first major effort to rank the health systems of 191 nations. France and Italy took the top two spots; the United States was a dismal 37th.” For our money, we’d like to see major news orgs challenge Giuliani about what he said—and about his ludicrous claim, at the same debate, that cutting tax rates produces more revenue. (Krugman takes a poke at that statement today.) But liberal orgs—and the mainstream press—have refused to address such nonsense for decades. Why should we get smarter now? It’s more fun to discuss the mayor’s daughter. After all, she is now 17.

So at first, the analysts wanted to cheer. But uh-oh! As they read the full editorial, their cheers turned to groans of derision.

What was wrong with this Times editorial, to which the eds devoted great effort? Let’s recall the two parts of this remarkable story, as Paul Krugman recently wrote it:
KRUGMAN (7/9/07): Now, every wealthy country except the United States already has some form of universal care. Citizens of these countries pay extra taxes as a result—but they make up for that through savings on insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical costs. The overall cost of health care in countries with universal coverage is much lower than it is here.

Meanwhile, every available indicator says that in terms of quality, access to needed care and health outcomes, the U.S. health care system does worse, not better, than other advanced countries—even Britain, which spends only about 40 percent as much per person as we do.
What makes this story so remarkable? It’s the fact that the countries in question—like Great Britain—achieve better health care than we have at massively lower cost! Somehow, Krugman managed to include both parts of this two-part story—as he did in 2005, in his series of columns on health care. But in yesterday’s editorial, the Times doesn’t say a word about costs! Readers are told that these other countries provide significantly better health care. But they’re never given that second fact, the fact which makes this story so remarkable. They’re never told that these systems have been providing this superior care at about one-half the cost!

Good God! Again, this is like reporting that BMW’s four-door sedan is superior to GM’s—while failing to note that the Buick sells for $20K, and the Beamer only costs eight grand. If Consumer Reports produced a report like that, they’d be laughed right out the door. But this is what the Times has now done—in a lengthy, detailed editorial to which the editors plainly devoted a great deal of attention.

We’ve done THE HOWLER for over nine years, and we never fail to be amazed at the press corps’ almost complete inability to explain or analyze anything. No, this isn’t a complex story—but it does have two parts. (Better health care. Lower costs.) The Times can walk—and chew gum too. But, to judge from this latest effort, it simply isn’t able to keep two thoughts in its head at one time.

Final point: The Times mentions Sicko again, in its second paragraph. We highlight a claim about Michael Moore:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: Michael Moore struck a nerve in his new documentary, “Sicko,” when he extolled the virtues of the government-run health care systems in France, England, Canada and even Cuba while deploring the failures of the largely private insurance system in this country. There is no question that Mr. Moore overstated his case by making foreign systems look almost flawless. But there is a growing body of evidence that, by an array of pertinent yardsticks, the United States is a laggard not a leader in providing good medical care.
Did Moore “overstate his case” in the manner described? We’d guess that most Sicko viewers did a reasonable job of evaluating its blend of humor, anecdote and fact. But in one major way, Moore vastly under-stated his case. Here is the Times, rewritten:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL, REWRITTEN: Michael Moore struck a nerve in his new documentary, “Sicko,” when he extolled the virtues of the government-run health care systems in France, England, Canada and even Cuba while deploring the failures of the largely private insurance system in this country. Sadly, Mr. Moore understated his case in one major way, by failing to note that European systems achieve superior results while spending much less per person on health care than we do—a truly remarkable fact. But even ignoring the issue of costs, there is a growing body of evidence that, by an array of pertinent yardsticks, the United States is a laggard not a leader in providing good medical care.
In Sicko, Moore failed to note the fact that Canada, France and England achieve their results while paying much less per-person than we do. But Moore’s just a humorist with a sharp eye and a large heart. What excuse do the editors have for this amazing omission?

VINTAGE APPROACH: Who knows? Maybe Brother Boehlert is right—maybe a more active liberal web would have debunked the endless bull-roar about Candidate Gore back in 1999 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/10/07). But even now, in Campaign 08—even after what happened in Campaign 2000!—the liberal web can be a source of deception and spin about the troubling “character problems” of the Big Dem hopefuls.

Aarrgh! On Sunday, we got another dose of Vintage Huff—the latest fact-challenged demonization of Big Phony Hillary Clinton. Does it matter which party holds the White House? If so, this sort of thing is amazingly unhelpful. And yes, this is factually wrong:
HUFFINGTON (8/12/07): This week, we learned that Hillary Clinton was, in fact, for taking nuclear weapons off the table before she was against it. When the AP pointed out the contradiction of Clinton attacking Barack Obama as "irresponsible and frankly naive" for espousing the same position she had espoused, her campaign scrambled to find its hair-splitters. The money quote came from Clinton spokesman Phil Singer, who explained that when Hillary said last year that she wouldn't use nukes she wasn't "speaking as a presidential candidate." Gee, I never realized that when it comes to hypocrisy, U.S. Senators who are members of the Armed Services Committee are held to a different standard than U.S. Senators seeking to be the commander in chief. How frankly naive of me.
If you want to know how Republicans get to the White House, this goes in chapter one of the book. Arianna did this to Gore all through Campaign 2000. At THE HOWLER, we’ve always liked The Big A. But jeez! She ought to stop doing this now.

Because no—Clinton didn’t call Obama "irresponsible and frankly naive" for his remarks about nukes. (Obama’s remarks were clumsily reported by the same AP on whose wisdom Arianna relies.) Obama made his remarks in an August 2 AP interview; shortly after the AP report hit the wire, Clinton was asked about what he’d said in a press avail shared with Boxer and Kerry. What follows are the full Q-and-As. These are the full remarks which informed the reporting about Clinton’s views on this matter:
QUESTION (8/2/07): Senator Clinton, Senator Clinton—Senator Obama today said that the use of nuclear weapons would be off the table in Afghanistan or Pakistan. I'm wondering if you agree with that?

CLINTON: Well, I'm not going to answer hypotheticals, but let's find Osama bin Laden and his leadership first. And I think that presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace.

And I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. But I think we'll leave it at that because just—I don't know the circumstances in which he was responding.
QUESTION: So it's not irresponsible then to take nuclear weapons off the table?

CLINTON: I've said what I have to say about this.
Those were Clinton’s full remarks. No further “criticisms” were lodged. Specifically invited to use the word “irresponsible,” she declined to do so. And she specifically said that she didn’t know the circumstances in which Obama had spoken. By the way: If that’s your idea of Candidate X slamming Candidate Y, you grew up in a dainty place—and you maybe haven’t left home yet.

The press corps will make a brawl out of that. Must we play this game too?

Did Clinton’s statements contradict what she said in April 2006 concerning the use of nukes in Iran? That is a matter of judgment; we think this whole alleged conflict is basically silly, as is the claim of contradiction. But at any rate, Clinton didn’t call Obama “naive and irresponsible” for his comments about using nukes. But so what? On the liberal web, net-rooters are being told that she did—and they’re getting their sense of grievance stoked against the Vile Dem Candidate.

In our view, there are two “bottom lines” to this story. One involves the simple requirement of saying things which are factually accurate. The other involves a basic question: Does it matter if Dems hold the White House?

The question of truth: Simply put, what Arianna says in that post isn’t accurate. But then, Al Gore didn’t wear four-button suits during Campaign 2000.

Dems in the White House: This brings us to a political question: Is it important to send a Dem to the White House? Different people will judge that differently, of course; for ourselves, we assume that a President Clinton, Obama or Edwards would be better than a Giuliani, Romney, McCain or Thompson. Unless you think different, it is very unwise when we wander about inventing factually bogus tales which disparage the character of Major Dem Hopefuls. In 2000, Bradley’s bogus claims about Gore’s “character problems” were endlessly used in the general election. Eight years later, we’re very foolish to walk this path again.

Back then, this gave us President Bush. Are you ready for President Rudy?