GENERAL STRAIGHT-TALK! Kyra said that David was a straight-shooter—even though he was talking pure bunk: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2007
SPECIAL REPORT—CONSTRUCTING CHARACTER: In Part 1 of our current report, pundits vouched for the generals data. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/07.
In Part 2, we see the way the press corps vouched for the generals character all through the previous year.
PART 2—GENERAL STRAIGHT-TALK: Is General Petraeus cooking the books—fudging the facts about declines in violence? As Kevin Drum notes in this larger post, several news orgs have done good work in recent assessments of the generals data. But sorting such facts involves hard work—and long before some news orgs did it, the press corps did what it seems to do best. It made a group judgment about Petraeus character, and bruited its view to the world.
The judgment? General Petraeus is a straight-shooter! But then, such childish group judgments have driven our politics over the course of the past fifteen years. This latest assessment—bruited all year—will likely affect the current debate more than any latter-day effort to sift the generals data.
Who decided that the general is a straight-shooter? A matter like that is hard to track. But Petraeus became the honcho in Iraq in January of this year. By Memorial Day, the Dean, David Broder, was reporting a group assessment:
BRODER (5/31/07): While the rest of us enjoyed our holiday, 10 more Americans were killed in Iraq on Memorial Day—adding to the human toll of that accursed war...According to Broder, David Petraeus was widely trusted. If Broders larger assessment seems quaint today—the end [of the war] is coming into view, he said—that may be because of the way Petraeus has been widely trusted. Some news org are checking the generals data now. But all year long, Broders colleagues stampeded to say that the man is a flat-out straight-shooter.
As always with this group-thinking gang, the judgment has been widely voiced. In July, President Bush said it himself, at a press conference. (He's an honest man. Those of you who have interviewed him know that he's a straight-shooter, Bush said.) But long before Bushs statement, the mainstream press corps had voiced the same view. Indeed, the judgment was instantly voiced when Petraeus received his current assignment. On NBCs Nightly News, a handsome, hand-picked, heavenly anchor spoke with Jim Miklaszewski:
BRIAN WILLIAMS (1/24/07): Much of the attention in this part of town here in Washington was focused on a solitary hearing room. At the witness table, a three-star US Army general who has been tapped for a big job: commanding US forces in Iraq. General David Petraeus is already a veteran of this war, but this job is different. That was clear from the questions he faced today. Our report here tonight from Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. Jim, good evening.Expectations were running high—because the general was such a candid straight-shooter! Indeed, when a man is such a famous truth-teller, journos tend to affirm his honesty, even when his statements are bunk. Two CNN journos did that in April, the last time Petraeus appeared before Congress.
First to speak was Michael Ware, interviewed by Kiran Chetry. Petraeus is a straight-shooter, Ware quickly said—even though he seemed to think the general was spinning a tad:
CHETRY (4/26/07): As the political rhetoric over the war in Iraq heats up in Washington, who better to break down the security situation there than two CNN journalists who just returned from the country?... Michael [Ware], I want to just ask you, because there's been some talk and some debate about whether or not the picture we are getting from some of the officials is really what's going on on the ground. So we're going to hear right from General Petraeus about what he said when he gave his assessment yesterday. Let's listen.Can we translate? To Ware, Petraeus statement was a bit disingenuous. But so what? He called the general a straight-shooter anyhoo! Moments later, Kyra Phillips voiced the same odd pair of assessments, more comically. To Phillips, Petraeus was saying what everyone wanted to hear. But so what? He was a straight-shooter:
CHETRY (4/26/07): We asked you before to give us your take on some words from General Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. He spoke yesterday in the Capitol. Let's hear one more statement from him yesterday.Hilarious! According to Phillips, Petraeus had given an utterly PC answer; he had been saying what everyone wants. But so what? She swore that he was a straight-shooter anyhoo! You just have to know what to ask him, she said. And as she continued, she turned to Ware, and made him repeat the magic word too:
PHILLIPS (continuing directly): This is—this was such a PC answer. And I know you spent a lot of time in Diyala province. You know he's a straight-shooter, too. And he's making a good point about the setbacks in that area.But then, John Roberts, Chetrys co-anchor, was sure that the man was a straight-shooter too. His next guest this day was Senator Feingold. Go ahead—just try to believe the way he framed his question about the generals testimony:
ROBERTS (4/26/07): General Petraeus, considered a pretty straight-shooter by just about everybody who's ever had contact. Let me play just a little bit about what he said after he came out of the meeting with you folks yesterday.If you couldnt see journalists clowning this way, you wouldnt believe it could happen.
This is just a hint of the nonsense you find if you review the way the press corps has presented Petraeus this year. But this is a familiar practice in modern press coverage. Routinely, the press corps, acting as a group, decides who is—and isnt—a straight-talking straight-shooter. And omigod! Once youve made the press corps cut, everyone will assert your honesty, even if they think youre dissembling! This makes it extremely unlikely that your subsequent work will be assessed in anything like a rational way. A press corps wont be inclined to challenge a generals data, if theyve spent the prior nine months childishly asserting, en masse, that hes a candid, straight-talking straight-shooter. And from January right up to this past weekend, thats the judgment the press corps has voiced about straight-shooting Dave.
Is David Petraeus some sort of straight-shooter? We dont have the slightest idea. But everybody in the press corps seems prepared to assert that he is such a man. For example, thats how Katie Couric saw it when she spoke with Howard Kurtz last week. Everybody seems to know what to say when Petraeus is mentioned:
KURTZ (9/4/07): In a phone conversation Sunday from Baghdad, Couric said she better understands the frustrations facing U.S. troops but believes it is unrealistic for Americans to expect "instant results" from Bush's military surge. Offering a decidedly mixed picture of an unpopular war, Couric called Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, a "straight shooter" and said the escalation has produced "positive things" in some parts of the country. But, she added, Petraeus "candidly admits" that progress has been spotty.As with Miklaszewski, so with Couric. Once youve been deemed a straight-shooter, you get praised for being candid when you say that the sky is still blue.
But then, weve long paid the price for this type of journalistic group-think. When journos voice these childish group assessments of character, theyre unlikely to do the real work of their trade if unpleasant claims about the work of a favorite emerges. A generals data will get a pass from journalists who have voiced such pre-judgments all year. And heres the real problem: In the past fifteen years, the press corps has shown that it has little skill at spotting the worlds straight-shooters. The record suggests that the mainstream press corps cant tell pick straight-shooters out of a line-up. But they keep asserting their group judgments anyway. How do they pick out their favorites?
TOMORROW—PART 3: Bad judgment.