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FOR LACK OF A FRAMEWORK! Meyerson tackles pro-war scribes—and reminds us of pieces not written: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, AUGUST 18, 2005

FOR LACK OF A FRAMEWORK: The open trashing of Cindy Sheehan was in full bloom on cable last night. Gordon Liddy repeatedly called her anti-semitic during a segment on Hannity & Colmes, and Norah O’Donnell performed an appalling segment while guest-hosting on Hardball. (Chris is apparently back on vacation. More on O’Donnell’s performance below).

Yes, the trashing of Sheehan has achieved maturity—and it’s hard for liberals to place it in context. Regarding Liddy’s performance last night, why is it hard for liberals to put this trashing into a larger context? Why is it hard to say to undecided voters, There they go again? Easy! It’s hard to say this because liberals have failed, in the past dozen years, to describe (and denounce) our inane, rancid discourse. Conservatives have spent the last forty years telling undecideds about “liberal bias.” But liberals have made no attempt to tell a more important story—that undecideds have been played for total fools, year after year, by Rush, Sean and Drudge and their helpers.

At this point, if liberals said, “There they go again,” no one would know what they meant.

Earlier in the week, we thought of this failure when we perused The American Prospect’s new cover story, an excellent piece by Harold Meyerson which has received some attention on the web. Good for Meyerson! With telling logic, the scribe takes after the gang of pundits who helped sell the war in Iraq:

MEYERSON (9/10/05): [I]n the information age, an administration can’t, and doesn’t, market [its proposals] alone. It takes an army of salespeople—it takes a village, you might say—to accentuate the positive. And when an administration spreads demonstrable lies and falsehoods, or offers “evidence” that can’t be wholly refuted but for which there is nevertheless no existing proof, it takes that same army to stand up and say: “Yes! These assertions are true! Those who deny them are unpatriotic, or simpletons, or both!”...

For its war in Iraq, the Bush administration relied on and benefitted from the cheerleading of a group of pundits and public intellectuals who, at every crucial moment, subordinated the facts on the ground to their own ideological preferences and those of their allies...

Ouch! In Meyerson’s view, these pro-war pundits “went far beyond just making the kinds of mistakes that pundits make.” But somehow, despite their grinding, ideologically-driven “errors,” these pundits have paid no price:
MEYERSON: Yet by some curious code of Beltway etiquette, the war hawks are still sought out for their judgments on war and peace, geopolitics, and military and political strategy. They are, in varying degrees, the journalistic equivalents of Donald Rumsfeld—authors of disaster, spared from accountability, still bewilderingly in place.
And therefore, Meyerson provides some justice. “Herewith, five of the top offenders,” he writes—and he names famous names:
  1. William Kristol (Fox News, The Weekly Standard)
  2. Charles Krauthammer (Fox News, The Washington Post)
  3. Victor David Hanson (The National Review)
  4. Thomas Friedman (The New York Times)
  5. Christopher Hitchens (Slate)
After describing the failures of each, Meyerson proceeds to lower the boom. They should pay for their conduct, he says:
MEYERSON: The point here is not just that the pundits’ predictions were wrong—or, in the case, of Friedman, right, but he chose to ignore them—or their post-facto justifications pathetic. The point is that in the sway of ideology, or historical imperative, or loyalty to the administration’s hawks, they misrepresented supposition as fact, excused the misconduct of administration officials, and neglected to consider the predictable consequences of the war they promoted. If we truly lived in the culture of consequences that conservatives profess to support, the role of these pundits in our national conversation would be greatly, and justly, diminished.
If you accept Meyerson’s judgments about these men’s work, it’s hard to dispute his conclusion.

But uh-oh! When we read the Meyerson piece, we thought of similar earlier pieces—pieces that went unpublished by the Prospect, and by other liberal journals. After all, before Bush could start his ill-conceived war, he had to find his way to the White House—and a large gang of deeply dishonest journalists paved his way to that venue. First, they staged years of wars against President Clinton—journalistic wars which have never been explained—and then they waged an astonishing War Against Gore, the war which sent Bush to the White House. For sheer stupidity and blatant bad faith, the journalistic misconduct involved here dwarfed that of the pro-war pundits. But the Prospect? The Prospect has never listed their names, or suggested that they should be shunned by others. Jeff Gerth? His name barely registers on the Prospect’s search engines, and the notion that something peculiar happened to Gore is well beyond the journal’s ken. But President Bush was sent to the White House by a gang of major scribes who misbehaved in astonishing ways. If the Prospect had published an article about them—about the pundits who “spread demonstrable lies and falsehoods” during the assault on Gore—we’d suggest that these famous names would have led the list:

  1. Ceci Connolly (The Washington Post)
  2. Katharine Seelye/Frank Bruni (The New York Times)
  3. Chris Matthews (Hardball)
  4. Howard Fineman (Newsweek)
  5. Walter Robinson (The Boston Globe)
  6. Brian Williams (MSNBC)
Perhaps you’ll note something different about that list; all members hail from the mainstream press, the organs which actually put Bush in power. (No—no conservative journalist played a role which would merit inclusion.) Presumably, that’s why journals like the Prospect said nothing while these pundits were performing this function—and that is why the mighty Prospect has kept its mouth shut to this day.

Why is it hard for liberals to frame the current trashing of Cindy Sheehan? In part, because the liberal elite has made no effort to describe the discourse of the past twenty years. On the one hand, liberals have been too weak, too stupid, too inept, too uncaring, to discuss the cosmic lowering of discourse driven by figures like Rush, Sean and Drudge. But more strikingly, when the mainstream press corps staged its wars—first against Clinton, then against Gore—the liberal elite sat around and said nothing. Enter Gerth’s name on the Prospect’s search engine, and marvel at what hasn’t been done.

Meyerson’s piece is as it should be—but it calls to mind unwritten articles, the articles the hapless, failed Prospect didn’t write. The mighty Prospect shut its trap as its social cohort put Bush into power. And, of course, the mighty Prospect has kept its trap shut to this day.

COMING NEXT WEEK: All next week, we’ll use John Harris’ new book, The Survivor, to explore press coverage of Clinton (then Gore). And oh yes, an incomparable treat—after we’re done, we’ll show you the kind of name-naming piece your liberal journals chose not to publish as the mainstream press corps put Bush into power. Yes, we’ll show you an actual article on the War Against Gore—an article which was specifically requested by the owner of a famous liberal journal, a liberal journal which then decided not to publish the requested piece (or raise the issue in some other way). Personal niceties to the side, we think it’s time you understood the way your “liberal elite” ran and hid as their pals, their buddies, their social class was putting George Bush into power. Quite appropriately, Meyerson complains about the pundits who enabled Bush’s war. But guess what? He couldn’t have staged his war from Texas—and the pundits who put Bush into power have gotten a pass from the Prospect.

Meyerson’s article was right on the money—but earlier pieces were flushed down the toilet. And yes, it’s hard to frame the trashing of Sheehan when the trashing of Clinton and Gore have gone almost completely unexplored. But fiery publications have run and hid from this topic. For liberals, it’s easy to call out Kristol. Calling out Matthews? That’s hard.

PAINFUL TO WATCH: O’Donnell’s segment on Sheehan was painful to watch. Indeed, a transcript can’t begin to convey the combative ridicule she brought to her nine questions, in a segment she introduced like this:

O’DONNELL (8/17/05): At this hour, 1500 vigils across the country tonight will be held by left-wing supporters to honor Cindy Sheehan and support her.
Yes, you’re a “left-winger” if you support Sheehan. But then, O’Donnell had every talking-point down as she spoke with Pat Buchanan and former Senator John Breaux. (Buchanan was generally supportive of Sheehan; Breaux was more cautious and mixed.) Indeed, after Buchanan praised Sheehan’s “moral authority and authenticity,” O’Donnell posed her second “question:”
O’DONNELL: Senator Breaux, at the same time, she acknowledges that her—what started off as a grassroots movement has turned into a monster at this time. She is a grieving mother, but at the same time, has she become a tool of the left?
Snore! Has Sheehan become “a tool of the left?” Last night, there was no need to watch Hannity work as long as O’Donnell was available. In her third question, she ridiculed the notion that Bush is “supposed to invite anybody that come down to Crawford into his ranch and say I‘ll talk to you.” In Question 4, she played the Michael Moore card, rolling her eyes at the thought that Moore would link to Sheehan. (Her tone is missing from the transcript.) When Buchanan suggested a phase-out of the war, she quickly paraphrased: “Cut and run!” And of course, press coverage was “hurting [Sheehan’s] cause” because of all the dumb-ass things she’s been saying (Question 6). This was Hannity & Colmes with a smiling face as Hardball navigated its way through its latest tonal adjustment.

O’Donnell’s performance was disappointing—hard to watch. Indeed, we recalled the days, early in Campaign 2000, when the young pundit actually stood up to Matthews as he ran his nasty War Against Gore (links below). But she was openly smashed each time she did, and by now, O’Donnell has been domesticated. Her performance last night was painful—and scripted. We have no idea what produced the outing—but we’d guess the R-word was involved.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: O’Donnell was still talking back to power as late as October 28, 1999 (and getting openly ridiculed for it). To read a bit of that Hardball transcript, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/21/02 (scroll down to “HOW INANE WAS IT.”) For our money, though, O’Donnell was ridiculed most aggressively on the 7/29/99 Hardball, a program in which Matthews and guest Joe Scarborough engaged in standard ridicule of Gore—the type of thing which went on for two years, eventually putting Bush in the White House (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/20/02):

MATTHEWS (7/29/99): Is Al Gore just incapable of putting, like, one foot in front of the other in this campaign? He’s a professional politician who acts like an amateur.

SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. He’s awful.

MATTHEWS [watching tape of Gore]: I don’t get it! Did you ever see the movie “Altered States?” I mean, his face is, like, getting contorted in some of these—

SCARBOROUGH: And there—

MATTHEWS: There’s bubbles coming out of his forehead!

Ohio pol Mary Boyle tried defending Gore, who had spoken in Cleveland that day. Here’s what happened:
BOYLE: Listen, the vice president was in Cleveland today. I want to tell you just very briefly about it, because you probably would like covering the news.

MATTHEWS: What mode was he in? Was he in, was he in the quiet mode, or that sort of Clutch Cargo craziness he gets into, or was he—

SCARBOROUGH: Did he scream?

BOYLE: No—no, but he was—

MATTHEWS: Or was he in the “Altered States” where the head starts to bubble? What state was he in today?

For two years, idiots ran the asylum this way—and Mary Boyle never played Hardball again. O’Donnell was also openly trashed this night when she tried to make sensible comments. But here’s the good news: NBC’s newest star has long since learned not to do that in Matthews’ presence.

The open ridicule you see in these segments persisted on Hardball for two solid years as Matthews put George Bush in the White House. Today, Bob Kuttner publishes Meyerson’s critique of Kristol. But Kuttner is much too meek and mild to ever dare tell the truth about Matthews—or to explain how Bush ever got the chance to stage his ill-advised war.