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Daily Howler: Perlstein's readers just kept asking the world's most important question
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WHY DO WE LOSE! Perlstein’s readers just kept asking the world’s most important question: // link // print // previous // next //

Howard Kurtz should rent a plane: Howard Kurtz so loves the press corps that he and the press corps should go rent a room.

Check that! Howard Kurtz so loves the press that he should go rent a tow plane! On Labor Day, he could tow banners up and down the beach, helping sun-bathers count the ways he loves the mainstream press.

Let’s be fair. Kurtz made some accurate statements in yesterday’s piece in the Washington Post. It’s true: “Even when they report the facts, [the media] have had trouble influencing public opinion.” Let’s expand on that a bit: On their own, no matter how hard they tried, the mainstream press could never create a well-informed debate. Disinformation spreads from many sources, including the nation’s talk-radio programs. No matter how hard they tried, mainstream press organs, on their own, could never repel that vast tide.

But how hard does the mainstream press really try? At this point, Kurtz’s love for the mainstream press took over yesterday’s effort. On Olympus, the gods roared with laughter when a smitten lover typed this:

KURTZ (8/24/09): For all the sound and fury, news organizations have labored to explain the intricacies of the competing blueprints. “NBC Nightly News” ran a piece examining how Obama's public health-insurance option would work. ABC's "World News " did a fact check on the end-of-life provision in the bill. "CBS Evening News" highlighted problems with the current system by interviewing some of the 1,500 people waiting at a free makeshift clinic in Los Angeles. Time ran a cover story on health care, titled "Paging Dr. Obama.” And major newspapers have been filled with articles examining the nitty-gritty details. Those who say the media haven't dug into the details aren't looking very hard.

Good God. On Olympus, the deities roared with laughter. Here on earth, our analysts searched for the wondrous report in which NBC Nightly News examined the intricacies of the public option.

NBC’s report was Kurtz’s first example of the way the press has “labored to explain the intricacies of the competing blueprints.” And uh-oh! NBC’s report—the report to which Kurtz likely referred—was about 370 words long!

On Nexis, NBC has given its mouse a mighty title: “Making Sense of It All: The public option portion of Obama’s proposed health care overhaul.” Sadly, what follows is that full report, as offered by Tom Costello. Howard Kurtz so loves the press, he seems to regard this sort of thing as detailed coverage:

COSTELLO (8/18/09): For many Americans, the cost of health care reform could be like a bitter pill, hard to swallow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (videotape): What is national health care actually going to cost? And how much is it going to cost my kids, my grandchildren?

COSTELLO: A trillion dollars over 10 years, much of it promised through changes to Medicare and Medicaid, but also tax hikes.

DALLAS SALISBURY, CEO of Employee Benefit Research Institute (videotape): People want reform. But they want to make sure reform at the end of the day, they are better off, or no worse off, as opposed to having been harmed.

COSTELLO: Congress had considered raising taxes on the health care benefits that many Americans already get from their employers tax-free, but already that proposal is virtually dead on arrival at the White House.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (videotape): When I was campaigning, I made a promise that I would not raise your taxes if you made $250,000 a year or less.

COSTELLO: So the president has proposed raising income taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, all to pay for health care. On families or businesses with a taxable income of more than $350,000, that could mean a tax surcharge of up to $7000. On families or businesses earning $500,000, a $15,000 tax surcharge. And on families with incomes of more than a million dollars, it could mean a $54,000 increase.

But Republicans, and some Democrats, don't like that idea, saying it unfairly targets wealthier families and could force some small businesses to lay off employees. So now the House is considering raising taxes only on families making more than a million dollars. The wealthy are already slated to pay more taxes as the Bush tax cuts expire in 2011 and the top rate jumps from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. Among other proposals to pay for the public option, a 10 cent tax on sodas, a new tax on insurance companies' most extravagant health care plans, and fewer tax deductions for the wealthy.

SALISBURY (videotape): It would put a cap on your total itemized deductions and your total itemized deductions, include your charity, your home interest, your mortgage, etc.

COSTELLO: So far it's all talk. But the talk could quickly turn into tax hikes. Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.

In fact, Costello examined only one question: How much health reform might cost. Despite the NBC headline, he devoted little attention to “the public option portion of Obama's health care overhaul.”

Is this the report Kurtz had in mind? No idea. But how well has NBC covered health care? Even in exploring the limited question of costs, Costello did a rather poor job on this particular evening.

This was not a great report. Costello tilted, from start to finish, in favor of anti-tax sentiment. Right from the start, his report was offered from the point of view of the “many Americans” for whom “the cost of health care reform could be like a bitter pill.” And he tended to exaggerate the overall size of that tax hike. Please note: He never said how much of that trillion-dollar price tag might be offset by those “changes to Medicare and Medicaid.” A viewer would thus have no idea how big the overall tax hike might be.

This just wasn’t a good report, even allowing for its limited length. And yet, to Kurtz, it may have been Example The First of the way his lover has labored. “Those who say the media haven't dug into the details aren't looking very hard,” he said, balling his fists as he prepared to defend his love’s reputation.

Question: Could Kurtz have meant the August 12 Nightly News report by Kelly O’Donnell? (Headline: “Term ‘public option’ provokes strong reaction.”) This report was about the public option. But like almost all reports on network news shows, it too was very short—again, roughly 370 words. Sorry. O’Donnell’s report “dug into the details” of very few “intricacies.”

Nightly News has done no other reporting on the public option. Despite what Kurtz wrote, NBC News has dug into very few details in its reporting.

We think we know where Labor Day morning will find our love-cursed reporter. Near dawn, he’ll sneak from his motel room, shutting the door behind him softly so his love can continue to doze. (It’s the one thing she does truly well.) He’ll head for the airport and fuel up his plane. From there, it’s off to the beaches!

How much does Howard Kurtz love the press? Let his banners count the ways! Sun-bathers will glance up as he flies by, distracted from the information on their talk radio programs.

How the New York Times digs into details: How does the New York Times report the intricacies of the health care debate? The paper’s “reporting” often seems to represent a form of pure madness.

This morning, the Times offers a short but intriguing report about the possibility of “rationing” under proposed health reform. Headline: “Policy Experts Call Fear of Medical Rationing Unfounded.”

Unfounded! You see, reporter Reed Abelson spoke to some actual experts. And according to Abelson’s news report, “policy experts...say there is nothing in the current proposals in Washington to suggest that the country is likely to embark on a system of medical rationing anytime soon.”

Wow! According to Abelson’s reporting, claims of rationing look like a big bunch of bunk! But so what? Abelson’s report rates a mere 536 words. It’s crammed at the bottom of page A10. It runs as an adjunct to a much longer front-page report, in which someone who isn’t a policy expert is allowed to broadcast his outlook.

That non-expert is Bob Collier, a 62-year-old Georgia salesman who recently told his congressman, at a town hall meeting, that proposed health reform may lead to rationing! Repeat: What follows appears on this morning’s front page. Bob Collier, who isn’t a policy expert, spoke to Rep. Sanford Bishop:

SACK (8/25/09): [Collier] told Mr. Bishop that his wife of 36 years had survived breast cancer through early detection and treatment, and that he feared that her care would be rationed if the disease returned.

''She'd be on a waiting list,'' he said.

''This is about the future of our country as we know it,'' Mr. Collier warned, ''and may mean the end of our country as we know it.''

The town-hall-style meetings that have so defined the national health care debate during this month's Congressional recess have produced an endless video loop of high-decibel rants. In many instances, the din has overwhelmed the calmer, more reasoned voices of people like Bob and Susan Collier, who came to Mr. Bishop's meeting not because they had received an electronic call to action but because they had read about it in The Macon Telegraph.

Does Bob Collier know what he’s talking about? On page A10, the Times reports the apparent answer: No! But so what? Out on page one, Bob Collier’s “calmer, more reasoned voice” is telling Times readers that rationing looms. Only much later does Sack let us know where Collier gets his information:

SACK: The Colliers are committed conservatives who have voted Republican in presidential elections since 1980. They receive much of their information from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh's radio program and Matt Drudge's Web site. But they said their direct experience with the health care system had persuaded them of the need for change.

We’ll guess that Bob Collier is completely sincere. But his information comes from Rush Limbaugh! But so what? This morning, Collier is featured on the Times’ front page, where he’s praised for his calm, reasoned manner. The experts, who say he’s full of old shoes, are buried at the bottom of page A10, in a much shorter report.

Kurtz’s love affair to the side, this is the way the New York Times “labors to explain” health care.

Astonishing! Sack’s report about Bob Collier gets 1085 words. It features three photos; this includes a color photo on page one, and a very large photo of Collier inside, on page A10. Sack makes little attempt to help readers know if Collier knows what he’s talking about.

In his own report, Abelson says that Collier is most likely wrong. But so what? His report is short—and it’s buried. There are no photos of the policy experts who say Collier is full of old shoes.

This is the third long article in recent days in which the Times has presented the fears of relatively uninformed people—relatively uninformed people like Collier. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/09.) There is a definite role for this kind of reporting, but the Times doesn’t seem to know what it is. On this morning’s front page, Times readers are essentially reading the things Rush Limbaugh has recently said! Kurtz still dreams of the wonderful ways his lover has dealt with this topic.

You inhabit a crazy political culture. With apologies: For many years, your mainstream “press corps” has seemed to be mentally ill.

Special report: Why do we lose?

PART 1—THE WORLD’S MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION: Rick Perlstein did an on-line discussion at the Washington Post last week. Friend, are you a frustrated liberal or Democrat? Are you tired of seeing your keister get kicked in the nation’s political wars? If so, four of Rick’s interlocutors posed versions of the world’s most important question. (For the full discussion, click here.)

We posted three of those excellent questions last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/09). They ought to be studied in detail.

Steve had written a street-fighting piece about the “crazy” people who have appeared at recent town hall meetings. Whatever one thinks of those particular voters, support of Obama’s health care proposals has been dropping—in part, driven down by deeply demagogic claims by Republican elders. In particular, Republican leaders like Palin and Grassley have told the public that Obama’s plan contains something fairly described as “death panels.” The claim is absurd—profoundly demagogic. And it has been widely believed.

Palin and Grassley paraded about, baldly misleading the public. Talk-radio demagogues jumped into line, eager to push the claim forward. At the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt kept printing columns which seemed to say that there really was something to the “death panel” fears. (Even though the literal claim was “rubbish!”) The claim was rubbish—but continued to spread. Support for reform plans diminished.

How can Republicans win debates with such demagogic claims? If you’re a frustrated liberal or Dem, it’s the world’s most significant question.

On the day of that on-line discussion, Steve’s second questioner went right to this point. What can a “fairly sane” person do about this sort of nonsense?

Traverse City, Mich.: If one is fairly sane and doesn't believe the U. S. Government wants to eliminate senior citizens by virtue of “death panels,” what actions might an individual take? I wonder if any person's actions can even hope to help maintain some kind of equilibrium in news shows or blogs. I admit I miss the Conkite-era news where you could at least mitigate the fringe sentiments on the right and the left by not giving them airtime.

What actions might a sane person take in the face of such claims, this reader asked. Before long, a reader from Wisconsin posed a similar question:

Waukesha, Wis..: My question: How can a democratic society ever control the far right and its empty rhetoric? It is frightening to contemplate these looneys actually shooting or physically assaulting elected officials. In America it seems that the fringe too frequently determine the history of this wonderful country. If only civility could rein perhaps we could return to intelligent discourse. Thank you.

This reader added an accurate point—in the past few decades, “the fringe” have often seemed to be in charge in our political discourse. Soon, a reader in Boston took the question one step further. Why don’t Democrats know how to deal with such nonsense, this reader asked:

Boston, Mass.: Why do you suppose are the Democrats so bad at messaging and pushing back? I mean, the Republicans' way of using the same blunt talking points, repeating the same words over all interviews, is very effective. Are Democrats just really that much like a herd of cats? Or do they just not have someone to test out talking points (for example, pushing back on "death panels" should have only ever have used the term "living wills". Never should have used "end-of-life discussions".)

We ourselves had cringed as liberals and Democrats used the term “end-of-life discussions,” thus sounding like they might be confirming a charge even as they tried to deny it. For our money, a fourth questioner captured the sheer absurdity of our political discourse:

Derry, N.H.: I thoroughly appreciate your article and its historical perspective on right-wing paranoia—both the way history is replaying itself and where it now differs. One critical aspect not covered, however, is what (if anything) can be done to counter such ridiculous and blatant falsehoods in what should be a patriotic dialog rather than a hysterical diatribe. As you noted, merely repeating the falsehoods and even branding them as such merely gives them more air time and greater credence with some. If you could suggest one way to take on this foolishness, what would it be?

This writer liked Perlstein’s original article. (On balance, we didn’t.) But like the questioner from Boston, this writer seems to have noticed the liberal world’s general lack of skill in such discussions. This writer has noticed something important: In recent decades, Democrats and liberals have often been defeated by “ridiculous and blatant falsehoods!” No, there are no “death panels” in these proposed bills. But then, Al Gore never said he invented the Internet! But so what? For twenty straight months in 1999 and 2000, the public all heard something different.

For the most part, liberals and Democrats didn’t even try defending their man.

Why don’t Democrats (and liberals) know how to deal with this sort of thing? These writers all more-or-less asked the same question. But the Derry writer seemed to have noticed something else. This critical question wasn’t “covered” in Perlstein’s original article, he said.

For ourselves, we thought Perlstein’s answers to these on-line questions were weak; we’ll plan to look at those answers on Friday. We don’t mean that as a criticism of Perlstein, whose Nixonland we strongly recommend; there’s no reason why an outstanding historian should also be the world’s top expert on how to win messaging wars. But does anyone know how to answer those questions? At the upper end of the mainstream press corps, Paul Krugman has been the smartest, most important liberal voice since the late 1990s, by far. (And he holds the Nobel Prize in economics!) But alas! In Monday’s column, we thought Krugman seemed a bit weak on this question too. More on that to come.

“Death panels” are just the latest example! For decades, liberals and Dems have gotten slaughtered in the political messaging wars. Perlstein’s readers wanted to know why our side can’t seem to play this game. Why the hell do we keep getting beaten, even by “ridiculous falsehoods?”

Friend, if you’re a frustrated liberal, it’s the world’s most important question! We’ll be discussing that critical question for the next several weeks.