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Daily Howler: Kyra said that David was a straight-shooter--even though he was talking pure bunk
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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 general’s data. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/07.

In Part 2, we see the way the press corps vouched for the general’s 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 general’s 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 general’s 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...

But the end is coming into view—not soon enough to spare every precious life, but sooner than President Bush and Vice President Cheney may wish. The dynamic in Congress has been set in motion that will bring this war to an end -- or at least reduce the scale of American involvement and redefine the mission of U.S. troops.

The promised September evaluation from Gen. David Petraeus, the widely trusted American commander in Iraq, will be one trigger. He will report on the success of the "surge," and if present indications hold, he will say that the military has achieved some objectives but that Iraqi politics are still stuck in neutral, with sectarian divisions blocking needed reforms.

That will be the setting for a debate on the Pentagon spending bill, a time of decision.
According to Broder, David Petraeus was “widely trusted.” If Broder’s 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 general’s data now. But all year long, Broder’s 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 Bush’s statement, the mainstream press corps had voiced the same view. Indeed, the judgment was instantly voiced when Petraeus received his current assignment. On NBC’s 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.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Brian, this will be General Petraeus' third tour in Iraq. This time, to save the Bush administration's new strategy for the war. And expectations are running high. With a solid reputation as a straight-shooter, Lieutenant General Petraeus candidly laid out the problems in Iraq that he's now expected to fix.
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.

PETRAEUS (videotape): As you know, literally over the last two months, Anbar has gone—or certainly over the last six months—from being assessed as being lost to a situation that now is quite heartening.

CHETRY: The Anbar province, one of the most deadly Michael.

WARE: Absolutely. Look, I know General David Petraeus personally and he is a straight-shooter. In fact, what he is saying there is true, but what we are not hearing is how that was achieved. Anbar province, the violence is coming down, al Qaeda is under a lot of pressure. It's not because of U.S. forces. The Marines last year admitted they didn't have enough troops. The way they've done it is they've cut a deal with the Baathist insurgents and unleashed the insurgents from Iraq on the foreign al Qaeda fighters. They cut a deal.
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.

PETRAEUS (videotape): What I would like to see Iraq end as, of course, is a government, a country that is one Iraq, with a government that is representative of and responsive to the people, all the people of Iraq that can defend itself, at peace with itself, and ideally an ally in the global war on terror.

CHETRY: That's a lot. I mean, that's a lofty goal. Is it possible, Kyra?

PHILLIPS: I have to tell you, I heard that quote. And I thought, “OK, General, would you stop being so PC and stop saying what everybody wants?” Of course everybody wants peace in Iraq. And I even sent him an e-mail this morning. We've been having correspondence. And I said, "Give me a break. Tell me what you really were saying."

And he said right here—he said, "I'm not going to lie. I talk about the setbacks as well. There have also been the sensational car-bomb attacks, the tragic loss of the combat outpost three days ago, and the challenges in Diyala province, which, understandably, have tended to overshadow the sense of slow progress on the ground in Baghdad, Anbar and some other locations."

He's a straight-shooter. You've just got to know what to ask him and how to pick at him.
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.

WARE: Yes, absolutely.
But then, John Roberts, Chetry’s 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 general’s 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.

PETRAEUS (videotape): I'm not being pressured by the president to say anything. I am a soldier and I'm going to give a forthright assessment, and that's all that I will provide, and I'm not going to be pressured by political leaders of either party.

ROBERTS: So he is insisting that what he told you yesterday is his genuine, down-to-earth, fully frank assessment, not spin.
If you couldn’t see “journalists” clowning this way, you wouldn’t 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 isn’t—a straight-talking straight-shooter. And omigod! Once you’ve made the press corps’ cut, everyone will assert your honesty, even if they think you’re dissembling! This makes it extremely unlikely that your subsequent work will be assessed in anything like a rational way. A press corps won’t be inclined to challenge a general’s data, if they’ve spent the prior nine months childishly asserting, en masse, that he’s a candid, straight-talking straight-shooter. And from January right up to this past weekend, that’s the judgment the press corps has voiced about straight-shooting Dave.

Is David Petraeus some sort of straight-shooter? We don’t have the slightest idea. But everybody in the press corps seems prepared to assert that he is such a man. For example, that’s 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 you’ve been deemed a “straight-shooter,” you get praised for being “candid” when you say that the sky is still blue.

But then, we’ve long paid the price for this type of journalistic group-think. When journos voice these childish group assessments of character, they’re unlikely to do the real work of their trade if unpleasant claims about the work of a favorite emerges. A general’s data will get a pass from journalists who have voiced such pre-judgments all year. And here’s the real problem: In the past fifteen years, the press corps has shown that it has little skill at spotting the world’s straight-shooters. The record suggests that the mainstream press corps can’t 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.