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PREPARE FOR NOVELIZATION! What will we do in Campaign 08 when the press corps helps voters “imagine?” // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2006

NON-FREAKIN’ FRIDAY: A major sports writer—we won’t drop his name—complained a bit about Wednesday’s post; in it, we said that sports reporters would never boo and jeer in the press room the way our political press corps once did. He thought we’d been a bit dismissive when we said that “even” a “freakin’” sports writer would know not to do such a thing. As a matter of fact, he was perfectly right; indeed, this had crossed our minds as we typed, but we failed to act on our glimmer of insight. At any rate, we’re going to scrub the offending term from our archives. No, it wasn’t Tony Kornheiser.

FULL DISCUSSION IS PART OF AMERICAN VALUES: We thought Norah O’Donnell misfired a tad when she chatted with Dan Bartlett last night. Here’s part of the exchange we have in mind, an exchange also cited by Digby:
O’DONNELL (8/31/06): Dan, do you agree that making an analogy to Hitler can be disproportionate with the current battles? While it’s extremely important, the war on terror—comparing it to World War II is overstepping?

BARTLETT: Absolutely not. The fascist movement from that era is very similar to the totalitarian ideology that al-Qaeda and other extremists, those who are wanting to pervert a very rich tradition of peaceful religion—Islam—to accomplish a certain set of objectives.

They have taken 3,000 American lives on one single morning, they've attacked country after country after country throughout the world with a very determined idoelogy, they're trying to overturn governments. They took control of Afghanistan, they're trying to take control of Iraq, they're trying to take control of Lebanon and they're doing it for a very specific reason—they have territorial ambition, they want the resources, they want the nuclear weapons, they want to destroy the west. Very similar in proportion I would argue, and many other people would argue as well.

We thought O’Donnell took the wrong road in suggesting that Rumsfeld’s recent statements were objectionable because they’d been “disproportionate.” How “important” might the current struggle be? When Bartlett cited nuclear weapons, we recalled one part of Christiane Amanpour’s recent two-hour special, In the Footsteps of Bin Laden. Near the end, she spoke with former CIA office Michael Scheuer. We’ll offer a slightly long excerpt:
SCHEUER (8/23/06): I think part of the reason that there hasn't been an attack since 9/11 is he was criticized among his peers for the attack of 9/11.

AMANPOUR: Criticized by fellow extremists for not following, as they see it, the guidance of the holy prophet Mohamed for attacking an enemy.

SCHEUER: So he's spent the last four years very much addressing those issues with his audience. From the Muslim perspective, the prophet always demanded that before you attack someone you warn them and you offer them a chance to convert to Islam.

AMANPOUR: And that's exactly what bin Laden later did.

BIN LADEN: (videotape, in translation): I'm calling you to the path of happiness on Earth. To rescue you I'm calling on you to follow Islam.

SCHEUER: Bin Laden on three occasions, Zawahiri on two occasions, have offered to be our guides in a conversion to Islam, saying that everything is forgiven if you convert.

AMANPOUR: Scheuer says bin Laden also believes he's fulfilled the prophet's last requirement for launching another, even more massive attack, a religious blessing to kill millions of Americans with weapons of mass destruction.

SCHEUER: A judgment from a young cleric in Saudi Arabia which authorizes the Mujahideen, writ large, to use nuclear weapons against the United States with—with capping the casualties at 10 million.
AMANPOUR: He's had an approval, a religious approval for 10 million deaths?

SCHEUER: Yes.
Could this conflict end up nuclear? In the press, the question is virtually never discussed—but Amanpour thought this was worth including.

In our view, the merits and the politics align on the point in question on Hardball. What was so wrong with Rumsfeld’s remarks? Not the fact that he somehow overstated the seriousness of the problem. Our own objection would be different; given the fact that this ongoing matter is serious, his demonizations reduce the chance that we can figure out how to address it. Full discussion is the American way. For ourselves, we think that Dems and libs should rush to use this rhetoric.

Special report: Imagine McCain!


BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Our press corps finds it easy to imagine the best about their great saint, John McCain. Be sure to read each installment:
PART 1—IT’S SO EASY! Another scribe finds it easy to imagine the heroics of Saint John McCain. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/06.

PART 2—HIS TWO SONS! Chris Matthews’ panel unveiled a new script about McCain’s moral greatness. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/31/06.
For our final installment (“Part 3"), see below.

PART 3—PREPARE FOR NOVELIZATION: Our analysts derived one last mordant chuckle from Glenn Frankel’s (generally unobjectionable) profile of McCain. They came to us with the following passage—a description of the way things worked the last time McCain sought the White House:
FRANKEL (8/27/06): "We knew that John could carry on a conversation with any reporter for 24 hours a day," says [McCain aide Rick] Davis. "So we based our whole campaign model on 'earned media.' If a reporter wanted to fly with him or get an interview, we'd say: 'He's going to the West Coast. You can sit next to him on the plane; you can have the hotel room next to his; you can be in the car with him the entire time.'"

The same strategy produced the campaign bus, dubbed "Straight Talk Express," in which McCain, positioned in a red leather swivel chair like a prime minister, held a running all-day news conference for the media pack. All of it was on the record, much of it lively and self-lacerating.
“All of it was on the record!” Except for more McCain’s less impressive statements—things the press took off the record! Yes, we know—it’s hard to believe. But in December 1999, Nancy Gibbs and John Dickerson, writing in Time, described the way their cohort was covering—and covering up for—their champion:
GIBBS/DICKERSON (12/13/99): And then there are the stories he tells—to which, if there's a pattern, it's to exalt other people and deflate himself. A presidential candidate is not supposed to tell you about the rules he broke or the strippers he dated, or the time he arrived so drunk that fell through the screen door of the young lady he was wooing. The candor tells you more than the content, and reporters sometimes just decide to take McCain off the record because they don't want to see him flame out and burn up a great story.
Ah yes, life on the Straight Talk Express! Reporters were getting all sorts of free donuts, and McCain kept explaining how smart they all were. So they’d simply take him “off the record” when he said things which didn’t compute. Let’s make sure we understand what that means—when McCain would say squirrelly things, reporters agreed that they wouldn’t report them. For example, the scribes weren’t reporting the fact that McCain would call his North Vietnamese captors “gooks.” On Special Report, Mara Liasson got a chance to explain the corps’ deeply-felt rationale:
LIASSON (12/8/99): I think what Fred is talking about—this whole notion that reporters aren't mentioning certain things [McCain] says, I think there's a good reason for that. They're not considered "gaffes" because reporters have a context. They talk to him for hours and they realize, when he says "gooks”—

FRED BARNES: Ohhh—

BRIT HUME: Ohhh, Mara—

LIASSON: Wait a minute, wait a minute! Let me explain this!
And Mara did go on to explain this (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/9/99). Reporters just knew that Saint John was no racist (we don’t doubt that assessment). So they decided not to report the things which might give voters pause.

To what extent did a fawning press corps hide other oddball things McCain said? Obviously, it’s hard to say, although we did more work on this matter in real time. (It goes beyond the use of “gooks,” into areas of actual substance.) But our analysts chuckled when Frankel said that McCain’s every word had been “on the record.” After all, it’s easy for a pol to speak on the record when he knows the press is so deep in the bag that they’ll airbrush all his weird comments away. But then too, things really did even out in the end. Even as the corps was hiding McCain’s weird statements, they were inventing weird statements by Gore! Voters heard the correct amount of weird statements. The corps simply changed what those weird statements were, and changed the names of who said them.

In his recent award-winning post, Charlie Pierce used a good word to describe this process. Try to spot it:
PIERCE (8/29/06): The profession lost its mind in 2000, with very unfortunate consequences. There was the War on Gore, which I witnessed first-hand when the vice president got heckled and booed by some of the people watching him on TV in the press room at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Iowa...Then there was the ongoing novelization of that trust-fund cowboy, George W. Bush. The only galloping hallucination remaining from that year seems to be John McCain, Centrist Hero, and its giggling acolytes apparently have it primed for another lap around the country.
That’s right, the word is “novelization.” But uh-oh! When the press corps adopts the procedures of fiction, voters may find it “easy to imagine” that some White House hopefuls are wonderful saints, and some are snarling villains. In March 2000, Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp offered a similar analysis, using similar language:
SHIPP (3/5/00): The Post has gone beyond [fact-based] reporting in favor of articles that try to offer context—and even conjecture—about the candidates' motives in seeking the office of president. And readers react—sometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often not—to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.
Shipp didn’t call it “novelization;” to Shipp, it was like the Post had assigned the candidates different “roles” in an unfolding “drama.” As one example of what she meant, she cited the way McCain had been taken “off the record” by some of the Post’s reporters. (Text below.)

During Campaign 2000, the liberal world didn’t seem to know how to deal with this “novelization.” And man alive, have we all paid a price, just like Charlie said! Thanks to the press corps’ novelizations, voters found it “easy to imagine” that Gore was a big phony faker, like Clinton; they also found it “easy to imagine” that McCain was the sun-god of straight-talk. And as Charlie said, the novelization of Centrist Hero McCain still seems to haunt the dreams of these people. And don’t even ask about Hillary Clinton! And so, it all comes down to us. Is it easy to imagine that we’ll know what to do with the novels they type this next time?

BEST IN SHOW: For our money, Shipp’s short column was, by far, the most insightful piece of the whole campaign. Here’s the passage in which she described the canonization of John:
SHIPP: What didn't fit the role assigned to McCain, apparently, was his frequent use of a word deemed derogatory by Asian Americans: "gook." To his credit, Howard Kurtz mentioned this usage in a December article about "the sweetly seductive relationship between the senator and the press"—one in which McCain "smothers journalists with access and they produce colorful copy." Not until last month did McCain's use of the G-word become an issue for those apparently "seduced" campaign reporters and other journalists.
There was more to this problem than just the word “gook.” And there will be more to this problem in Campaign 08. McCain will be novelized—and so will Clinton. Quite frankly, we still find it somewhat hard to imagine that we liberals and Dems will be ready.