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Daily Howler: Jim Fallows, slumbering soundly in China, offers his latest prime cant
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FALLOW FIELDS! Jim Fallows, slumbering soundly in China, offers his latest prime cant: // link // print // previous // next //

FRIENDS DON’T LET FRIENDS BELIEVE RUMORS: Up in Beaver County, Pa., Ivan Stickles has been hearing rumors. In today’s New York Times, Michael Powell describes a maddening part of our politics:

POWELL (8/21/08): Ivan Stickles, a carpenter, worked on his motorcycle in his driveway in Hopewell. Mr. Stickles, 57, is not taking what he sees as a gamble on Obama.

“There’s this e-mail that he didn’t shake hands with the troops,” Mr. Stickles said of a rumor that is false. “I don’t have the time to check out if it’s true, but if it is, it’s very offensive.”

Of course, if it’s true that John McCain has been robbing banks to finance his campaign, that’s offensive too.

False belief has played a giant role in recent presidential elections. Stickles presents an interesting case. Clearly, it has occurred to Stickles that this particular rumor might be bogus. But he seems to be acting on this bogus claim all the same.

Of course, there’s no way to keep every damn-fool voter from believing every damn-fool story he hears. But the Democratic Party has been massively harmed in the past two White House elections by false accusations against its candidates. Our question: Have you seen the party make any effort to bring this general problem to the attention of regular voters? Have you seen the party develop messaging urging voters to doubt the things they get told? Have you seen the party discuss Jerome Corsi—who is back, of course, with a new, nasty book? Have you seen the party make any effort to discuss the false claims about Gore?

Have you seen the party show any sign that it prefers to win elections?

Readers; it’s a great bumper sticker: Friends don’t let friends believe rumors! For years, we’ve urged the Democratic Party—and “career liberal” elites—to pro-actively tell people like Stickles that they are being played for fools by deliberate purveyors of falsehood and bull-roar. Most people don’t like to be deceived; we’ll guess that Stickles may be such a person. But has anyone ever told Ivan Stickles that he has been played, again and again, by powerful elites who seek to deceive him? Did it enter his head, when he met these new rumors, that these forces might be at it again?

Did it occur to Stickles to say: There they go again!

The public was vastly misled about Candidate Gore; a lot of nonsense followed about Candidate Kerry. Now, people keep hearing bogus claims about Candidate Obama. Our question: Have you ever seen a “liberal journal” attempt to address this general problem? Behave as if it understands the way Dems keep losing the White House?

False claims keep spreading about Obama? Gee whiz! What a giant surprise!

Special report: Fallow fields!

THE WORK OF THE PRESS DISAPPEARS: Every four years, we’re asked to endure it; the Atlantic dredges up Jim Fallows and asks him to preview the coming presidential debates. Eight years ago, he wrote a piece about a certain Democratic candidate—a guy who was willing to say and do anything. This synopsis sat atop that piece—a highly influential piece which helped send Bush to the White House:

THE ATLANTIC (8/00): Al Gore is the most lethal debater in politics, a ruthless combatant who will say whatever it takes to win, and who leaves opponents not just beaten but brutalized. But Gore is no natural-born killer. He studied hard to become the man he is today.

Cute. Fallows’ piece was so rank and unfair that we devoted a full week to it. On the cover, there sat Vile Gore—a fang coming out of his mouth. For the first part of our five-part series, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00.

Years later, let’s take a wild guess! Hacks like Fallows couldn’t get past the fact that Gore had defeated their darling, Saint Bradley. And Fallows’ editor—the vicious Michael Kelly—was plainly looking for ways to take Gore to defeat. As such, Fallows’ piece represented the kind of “left-right” attack Mark Penn discussed in that now-famous memo. But wouldn’t you know it? Jug-eared Josh Green forgot to cite that part of the memo in his own Atlantic report!

At any rate, eight years later, Fallows is back, shipping new worthless blather from China. He reviews the past year’s primary debates—debates he didn’t watch in real time—and he looks ahead to Obama/McCain. But when we read Fallows’ latest piece, we were most struck by his high skill level. Please remember the basic rule: Elite reporters never discuss the misconduct of their professional cohort. Fallows does a brilliant job saying this about the race between Obama and Clinton: We in the press corps weren’t really there. We in the press didn’t do it.

Let us stress: This isn’t meant as an attempt to refight Obama v. Clinton. It’s offered as a look at a basic way the press corps works—at the way the press corps disappears the misconduct of its own kind. Comically enough, the hapless Atlantic traveled to China to get an account of this primary race. Their man didn’t watch the debates in real time. Perhaps this made it easier for Fallows to miss what actually happened.

Special bonus! At the end of this post, we take a quick look at Time’s Joe Klein, disappearing press misconduct in a recent Swampland post.

First, you sigh: According to Fallows, gaffes in presidential debates have played key roles in recent elections. For at least two examples he cites, we would say his conclusion is plainly correct. We highlight one such event from this early part of his piece:

FALLOWS (9/08): There have been nine series of televised general-election debates...In all but one election, the debates produced a moment that figured in the ultimate outcome. (The exception was Clinton-Dole in 1996, when neither man said anything that changed a voter’s mind.) The dramatic exchanges that made a difference—Ronald Reagan’s amused and dismissive “There you go again” against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis’s too-composed look when asked in 1988 how he would react if his wife were raped, George H.W. Bush’s desperate “when will this end?” glance at his wristwatch during a town-hall session with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, Al Gore’s operatic sighs about George W. Bush in 2000—would have passed unnoticed in a transcript.

Did George Bush’s furtive glance at his watch really affect the 1992 race? We’re not sure, but if it did, our national politics is even more broken—even more stupid—than we might have thought. But without question, “Al Gore’s [alleged] operatic sighs” played a key role in Campaign 2000. In the wake of that first Bush-Gore debate, TV journalists put Gore’s (infrequent) sighs on a tape; jacked the volume way, way up; and played them again and again, in a loop. And yes, this seemed to affect the election. In the immediate aftermath of that debate, five polls of viewers were taken; in all five polls, viewers said that Gore had won the debate, by an average margin of ten points. But so what? After “journalists” played that loop tape—and flogged some trivial errors by Gore—judgments about the debate began changing. Within a week, Gore lost his lead in the national polls. He was forced to fight from behind right through Election Day.

By the way: To this day, if you watch the tape of NBC’s broadcast of that debate, it would never enter your head that there had been a problem with sighing. “Al Gore’s operatic sighs would have passed unnoticed in a transcript?” Trust us: Al Gore’s operatic sighs “pass unnoticed” on that tape as well—unless you’re determined to find them. The infrequent sighs can barely be heard—and only if you strain to do so. This was a manufactured outrage. It was manufactured by a professional group Jim Fallows erased from his piece. To chuckle at the way this game is played, note this later description of Gore’s troubling sighs:

FALLOWS: In the first [debate] he was hyper-aggressive, with the instantly famous sighs that signaled his displeasure. In the second, after being mocked on Saturday Night Live for the first performance, he seemed almost sedated.

Fallows actually gets something right. In fact, Saturday Night Live did mock Gore’s performance—four nights after that first debate, which occurred on a Tuesday night. But Fallows forgets to explain one thing. How did those “instantly famous sighs” manage to get so instantly famous? In fact, the press corps played an active role—but by the eternal rules of the guild, fellows like Fallows don’t mention such matters. In that passage about Gore’s “famous sighs,” he does two things we’ve long described. He disappears the press corps’ conduct, then blames the whole thing on those late-night comedians! But then, people like Fallows have always done this, as we’ve long showed you. As long as we accept such bull-roar, people like this always will.

Yes, Virginia: Yes, Virginia, the gang of hacks still known as a “press corps” has played a key role in some White House campaigns. When it comes to presidential debates, they tend to seize on trivial incidents and invest vast meaning in them. (We’ll take a guess, though we’ve never studied the incident: George Bush’s furtive glance at his watch was probably one such event.) But without any question, Al Gore’s “operatic sighs” became “instantly famous” because of the press corps’ efforts. Then too, there’s the famous incident Fallows cites from this past year’s Democratic debates. Again, there is no doubt that this particular incident played a key role in the campaign’s development. But once again, our China-watcher disappears the journalists who made that happen.

Fallows refers to the October 30 debate—the controversial debate where the late Tim Russert and his trophy bride, Brian William, chased Hillary Clinton around the stage, much as Russert had done during Campaign 2000, in another famous debate. Many people complained about Russert’s conduct in that earlier debate—but Fallows forgets to mention it here. Instead, we find his initial account of this crucial incident from Campaign 08—an incident which plainly played a key role in Clinton’s loss to Obama:

FALLOWS: For the Democrats, though, the [Campaign 2008] debates were dramatic in themselves and important in shaping the result. Hillary Clinton seriously blew only one answer of the countless hundreds she delivered. That was her fumbling response on whether she thought illegal immigrants should get driver’s licenses—delivered 100 minutes into a late-night debate in Philadelphia last October, when she looked drained. As with Gerald Ford’s famous fumbled comments about Eastern Europe when debating Jimmy Carter in 1976, what she meant to say was obvious. Ford meant to say that the Poles and others behind the Iron Curtain had an unconquerable spirit and would never accept Soviet domination. What he actually said, and dug himself in on, was that they were free.

Please note the sheer implausibility of Fallows’ statement. According to Fallows, Hillary Clinton “seriously blew only one answer” in all the debates of Campaign 08. (There were 26 such Dem debates, he says, “nearly all more than one hour long.”) And not only that: In the one lonely answer she blew, “what she meant to say was obvious!” Surely, even Fallows can see the oddness of this presentation. If what Clinton meant to say was obvious, in what way did she “seriously blow” this answer? And if this was the worst answer she gave in 26 Democratic debates—if an answer where her meaning was obvious constituted her single worst moment—how on earth could such a moment have cost her this campaign? Again, the answer to these questions is obvious, unless you’re covering up for your cohort. As with Gore’s barely audible sighs, so with Clinton’s obvious meaning: Surely, someone wanted to do her harm if harm came to her through that.

The first such person, of course, was the blustering Russert, who had been chasing Clinton around for seven years as of this particular evening. In his piece, Fallows slaps Russert around for his endless dumb questions in last year’s debates. (Translation: Russert is no longer living.) But Fallows seems to know the current rules of this game: Within the center-left press, you’re allowed to call Russert a big buffoon, but you mustn’t ever say that he went after certain candidates. You can say that Russert’s work was bad—but you have to say that he was fair. Fallows seems to know these rules. These rules are known even in China.

How hard is Fallows willing to work to avoid the obvious here? As he continues, Fallows explains what Clinton meant to say in the lone question which brought her to ruin (even though everyone knew what she meant). What did Clinton mean to say? Here is Fallows’ account in Atlantic:

FALLOWS (continuing directly from above): What Clinton meant to say was that then-Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, in proposing licenses for illegal immigrants so as to regulate their safety on the roads, was making the best of a bad situation created by the chaos of federal policy on immigration. The state of New York had no way to enforce a border-control policy of its own. So it was doing what it could to reduce the traffic risk.

According to Fallows, it was obvious what Clinton meant to say. She meant to say that Governor Spitzer “was making the best of a bad situation created by the chaos of federal policy.” Indeed, when we watched this debate in real time, that’s exactly what we thought Clinton meant. But guess what? We thought that was what she meant because that formulation is a virtual copy of what Clinton actually said. Here is her actual, initial answer to Russert:

CLINTON (10/30/07): Well, what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.

That was her original answer, in the thirty seconds she’d been allotted. As you can see, it’s a virtual match for Fallows’ account of what everyone knew she “meant.” According to Clinton, Spitzer was trying to fill the vacuum left by the failure of federal policy. But that is almost a perfect copy of what Fallows said she “meant.”

For ourselves, we’re sick of seeing losers like Fallows play these criminal, hack-worthy games. For the record, Clinton’s answer got somewhat jumbled as various candidates jumped on her back—in one case, clearly misstating what she had just said to Russert. But Russert and Williams had been hunting Clinton all night, and this utterly pointless “gotcha” question had been dredged from the swamps for precisely this purpose. Pundits then flogged Clinton’s answer for several weeks, especially on Clinton-hating MSNBC. As with Gore’s “operatic sighs,” Clinton’s answer was “instantly famous” because a certain group of pseudo-journalists quite plainly wanted her scalp.

What Fallows forgot: At the start of his Atlantic piece, Fallows makes a rare admission. “Recently I did what no sane person would,” he admits, seeming to offer a self-diagnosis—“I watched the entire set of presidential primary debates, in sequence, like a boxed set of a TV show.” In short, living in China as he does, Fallows didn’t watch these debates in real time, the way engaged Americans did; he got the whole passel sent to him later and watched the whole boxed set. But if Fallows’ admission is truthful, we find it somewhat puzzling. After all, if Fallows is telling the truth in this passage, then he watched the next Democratic debate—the November 15 event, hosted by Wolf Blitzer. And if he watched that next debate, he saw what happened when Obama was asked the very same question that Clinton had been asked—the question about driver’s licenses. If he watched, he saw Obama fumble the question much as Clinton was alleged to have done, provoking open audience laughter. Let’s say it again: He saw Obama answer this question in very much the way Clinton had done. Here’s the question as Blitzer asked it. Perhaps Fallows simply slept through this tape. Perhaps the air quality got him:

BLITZER (11/15/07): All right. I want to just press you on this point, because it's a logical follow-up, and then I want to go and ask everyone. On the issue that apparently tripped up Senator Clinton [on October 30], the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, I take it, Senator Obama, you support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Is that right?

Wow! The very same question Clinton had fumbled, “on the issue that apparently tripped her up!” And Obama had had two weeks to consider the matter—two weeks in which the nation’s pundits had pounded Clinton for her answer. (If everyone knew what Clinton had meant, very few pundits had said so.) Below, you see Obama’s full answer. Midway along, audience [LAUGHTER] occurs when the audience sees that he was stumbling in the very same way Clinton had been savaged for. If you read Clinton’s full post-answer answer (transcript below), the similarity really is startling:

OBAMA (continuing directly): When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. That was my intention.


And—but I have to make sure that people understand. The problem we have here is not driver's licenses. Undocumented workers do not come here to drive.


They don't go—they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That's not the reason they're here. They're here to work. And so instead of being distracted by what has now become a wedge issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that this administration, the Bush administration, had done nothing about it.

BLITZER: Well, let's go through everybody because I want to be precise. I want to make sure the viewers and those of us who are here fully understand all of your positions on this barring—avoiding, assuming there isn't going to be comprehensive immigration reform. Do you support or oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants?

OBAMA: I am not proposing that that's what we do. What I'm saying is that we can't—


No, no, no, no! Look—I have already said, I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver's licenses at the same level can make that happen. But what I also know—
BLITZER: All right—

OBAMA: But what I also know, Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it.

BLITZER: But—because this is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer.


Either you support it or you oppose it.


Let's go down and get a yes or no from everyone, starting with Senator Edwards.

Ouch! In perhaps the oddest moment of the whole debate season, Obama gave a fumbling answer that was stunningly similar to Clinton’s much-maligned answer from two weeks before. The audience openly laughed midway through when the similarity to Clinton’s gethsemane moment became clear—and Blitzer ended up snarking Obama due to his perceived lack of specificity. But isn’t it weird? In the wake of this debate, pundits said virtually nothing about this! How strange! Having savaged Clinton’s response, they gave a virtual pass to Obama’s! And Fallows, writing in from China, identifies Clinton’s answer as the crucial moment in the whole debate season. But he fails to note that Obama said almost exactly the same daggone thing, just about two weeks later.

This isn’t a question of who should have won the nomination; we aren’t refighting Clinton/Obama. But who knows? Maybe Fallows is auditioning to get his own MSNBC program! In his absurd account of the Dem debate season, he seems to be letting the pundit world know that he can fake it too—that he too will disappear the games that the press corps played against Clinton, as against Gore.

Clinton’s fuller answer: In the aftermath of October 30, Clinton was widely ridiculed for what she said, especially in her later comments, offered as the discussion unfolded. In particular, she was ridiculed for the comment we highlight below. This is the way the conversation continued from Clinton’s original answer. Please note: Russert didn’t seem to see a problem with what she had said:

RUSSERT (10/30/07; continuing directly from above): Does anyone here believe an illegal immigrant should not have a driver's license?

KUCINICH: Believe what?

RUSSERT: An illegal immigrant should not have a driver's license.

DODD: This is a privilege. And look, I'm as forthright and progressive on immigration policy as anyone here, but we're dealing with a serious problem here, we need to have people come forward. The idea that we're going to extend this privilege here of a driver's license, I think, is troublesome. And I think the American people are reacting to it. We need to deal with security on our borders, we need to deal with the attraction that draws people here, we need to deal fairly with those who are here; but this is a privilege. Talk about health care, I have a different opinion. That affects the public health of all of us. But a license is a privilege, and that ought not to be extended, in my view.

WILLIAMS: Who else? Senator—

CLINTON: I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it. And we have failed—

DODD: Wait a minute! No, no, no! You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it.

CLINTON: No, I didn't, Chris. But the point is, what are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are—

DODD: Well, that's a legitimate issue. But driver's license goes too far, in my view.

“I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done,” Clinton said—and she was ridiculed for that for the next few weeks. Two weeks later, Obama said something amazingly similar: “I am not proposing that that's what we do. What I'm saying is that we can't—” This comment provoked audience laughter, presumably because it was sdo like Clinton’s commwent, whjich had been assailed for weeks. But pundits savaged Clinton—and gave Obama a class. In China, Fallows didn’t notice. But that’s the way these two-bit pimps have gamed your world for years. Just go back and review the crap he pimped out in Campaign 2000—the perfect crap which sent Gore to cover with a fang coming out of his mouth.

By the way: When Dodd jumped in to contradict Clinton, what he said was flatly inaccurate. But it led to a massive denunciation of Clinton and changed the entire campaign. Way to go, Dodd! He moved to Iowa and campaigned for a full year. But he was such a hapless loser that this blatant misstatement was the only thing he said that mattered all year.

A very similar effort: In our view, Democrats need to understand the ways we fail to reach the White House. We seem to pay almost no attention to such basic blocking-and-tackling—and the press corps is always ready to misstate elementary facts. As a case in point, let’s cite Joe Klein, disappearing the role of the press corps again. At Swampland, Klein recalled the way conventions have given some hopefuls a bounce:

KLEIN (8/19/08): Last week, the New Republic published a piece by Nate Silver...measuring the so-called post-Convention bounce since, I think, 1988, and there was a pretty clear pattern: the party that went second—the incumbent party—usually had the bigger bounce. One clear exception was Bill Clinton in 1992...

But going second certainly worked for Bush in 1988, Gore—momentarily—in 2000 and, especially, Bush in 2004. It's a terrific advantage.

First, a common press corps error of method: You can’t really have “a pretty clear pattern” if you’re discussing a handful of events. We’ve had five elections since 1988. How clear could a “pattern” be?

But the particular error which caught our eye was Klein’s claim that Gore’s post-convention bounce only held “momentarily.” In fact, Gore’s bounce held for more than a month, leading insider Washington to conclude that the race with Bush was over. The Democratic convention ended on August 17, 2000—and the bounce held until September 18, when the first of two important events started bringing the race back to even.

Each event involved the press. On September 18, the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson sprang the “Gore lied about the doggy pills” story. On September 20, Walter Shapiro (USA Today) sprang the “Gore lied about the union lullaby” story. Each of these claims was absurd, inane; Gore’s remark about the union song was an obvious joke, for example. But these two events were widely pimped, and they rekindled the powerful “Gore Liar" narrative—a narrative the press corps spent two years inventing. All over Washington, insiders had said the election was over. But now, this pair of ginned-up tales brought Gore back to earth.

Why did Gore’s coverage change that week? Why did the press corps start re-trashing Gore? Later that week, Brian Williams asked—and Howard Fineman answered. Truly, an astounding statement:

FINEMAN (9/21/00): I don’t think the media was going to allow, just by its nature, the next seven weeks, the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign, to be all about Al Gore’s relentless, triumphant march to the presidency. We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it’s that we like to see a contest and we like to see it down to the end if we can.

Fineman can’t speak for the press corps, of course, although he’s a major insider. But that’s an assertion of stunning misconduct. And by the way: That’s the innocent explanation for what happened. Most likely, here’s a more accurate statement: The media didn’t want Gore to win.

These facts have been forgotten, of course. In this way, Klein’s erroneous performance is very typical. Big mainstream journalists never discuss the way their cohort intervenes in elections. In that case, Gore’s bounce actually lasted more than a month—and it ended when the press intervened. Fineman said they acted that way to make the race get close.

Final question: Have you ever heard a Democrat or career liberal complain about what the press corps did? Have you ever heard a Dem or lib tell voters about what Fineman said? (A very few have.) History gets washed away—and after that, history happens again. Bogus claims are spreading about Obama? Good lord! What a f*cking surprise!