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Daily Howler: Rather is part of a fallen press culture. On cable, pundits know not to tell
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A FALLEN CULTURE! Rather is part of a fallen press culture. On cable, pundits know not to tell: // link // print //

A FALLEN CULTURE: Yes, the Rather story is somewhat remarkable. From Jim Rutenberg’s story in today’s New York Times:
RUTENBERG (9/21/04): [CBS] officials yesterday admitted that the man who gave them the documents had lied about where he got them, and that inconsistencies in the cloak-and-dagger account he gave them in the past few days had left CBS unable to say definitively where they came from. Moreover, CBS never contacted the person originally said to be the source.
(Well, that’s what it says in our hard-copy paper. As usual, Nexis has a different version of this article. So does the New York Times web site.)

So CBS never contacted the person Burkett identified as his source. They aired this story without even hearing a confirmation of this part of Burkett’s story.

Let’s face it—that is quite a lapse. So why is this story only somewhat remarkable? The story is only somewhat remarkable because of something you won’t learn on cable TV. On cable, all good pundits must pretend to be shocked—just shocked—at what has occurred. In fact, slipshod, lazy, incompetent work has long been the norm for America’s press corps. As we’ve noted again and again, bungled stories were also the norm in our last three White House elections. Despite what trained pundits tell you on cable, this latest bungling is the norm. Rather’s bungling is not the exception.

Why do pundits pretend they don’t know about the fake stories on Clinton and Gore? On that matter, we can’t instruct you. But we thought David Gergen made an excellent point on last evening’s Hardball. Gergen drew back, surveyed the scene, and began an oblique rumination:

GERGEN (9/20/04): You can call it a mistake or you can call it a plunge into—a reckless plunge. But what we're facing, Chris, and what I think is astonishing to all of us is how many news organizations and how often our own government is plunging into things without first thinking it through.
“You mean like the war in Iraq?” Matthews quipped. “Like the war in Iraq with no weapons of mass destruction?” That may be one part of what Gergen meant. Without saying, he continued his point:
GERGEN: How is it we're getting so—how is it professionals are so often getting it so badly, so desperately wrong? What is it in our culture that causes people to do that?...This is still a professional news organization after all. And her’'s the Tiffany of the broadcast networks suddenly with egg all over its face.
And there you see the seminal question, the question we’ve asked for the past seven years. How can it be that our mainstream “press corps” is so inept, so incompetent, so reckless? All good pundits will know to pretend that the CBS incident in an outlier. But in our press corps, crazy incompetence has long been the norm, although trained cable pundits deny it.

Yes, all good pundits will know to act like this is some sort of puzzling outlier. And when trained seals slap their mitts and shout “liberal bias,” all good pundits will know not to mention the crackpot stories about Clinton and Gore. Only Gergen’s formless question suggested the shape of what lies beneath. “What is it in our culture?” he asked. “How is it that professionals are so often getting it so badly, so desperately wrong?” That is the question that needs to be asked—but it’s the question cable pundits all know to avoid. If you watched cable TV last night, you didn’t hear a single person mention those other bungled stories. Instead, you heard the trained seals as they yelled “liberal bias,” and you heard good pundits who knew the rules—who knew that they must never mention how foolish that cry really is.

As a famous film-maker said, we happen to live in fictitious times. Last night, those fictions were played out all over cable. Gergen’s question suggested the long string of fictions all good pundits know to avoid.

A FALLEN CULTURE IN ACTION: If you watched cable last night, you got a long look at the fallen culture to which Gergen’s question referred. Few pundits could even pronounce Burkett’s name; as always, they were founts of mis- and disinformation. On Hardball, for example, Pat Buchanan made a false factual statement—and everyone knew not to notice:

BUCHANAN (9/20/04): All right, look, here's the thing. CBS has been pursuing this for five years...Ben Barnes was set up to go on that—

MATTHEWS: The former lieutenant governor.

BUCHANAN: The former lieutenant governor who was the golden boy of Texas politics, was going to be a future president. He was set up to go on that Dan Rather show and to say, reverse what he had said before under oath and say that he used influence to get him in the Guard.

On MSNBC, Buchanan says this virtually every night—that Barnes was “reversing what he had said under oath” when he said he helped Bush get into the Guard. This statement flies in the face of the known facts, but Buchanan just keeps saying it anyway—and last night, Matthews knew not to notice. Or maybe the hapless Hardball host doesn’t know the facts himself. As we’ve noted, Matthews rarely seems to know basic facts about his prime stories.

But the celebrity press corps’ fallen culture runs on more than pleasing, false facts. It also runs on speculation. Buchanan kept making insinuations based on the fact that Barnes and Kerry both own homes on Nantucket. After all, readers, just use your heads! If Barnes owns a home on Nantucket—like Kerry—that surely means that Kerry himself was part of his neighbor’s alleged reversal! Finally, Matthews—who is also a landed squire on Nantucket—challenged the gentleman’s logic:

BUCHANAN: Look, all I'm saying is, when you have got a neighbor of John Kerry, a Nantucket neighbor who said—

MATTHEWS: You have said that three times now. It doesn’t exactly establish guilt here.


And that fallen culture runs on sheer stupidity. The first time Buchanan played this card, he referred to Barnes as “a Nantucket neighbor of the wind-surfer, Mr. Kerry.” Remember the rule of this fallen culture—nothing is too stupid to be said.

But there is one more rule, of course—you must assert the thing you don’t know. Did Rather assume the docs were valid? In his very first statement last evening, Buchanan reversed the dumb game:

MATTHEWS: Pat, your take on the Rather mess today. It is a mess for CBS and for Rather.

BUCHANAN: I think what Dan is exhibiting today is the modified limited hangout. It is extraordinary that he would make a statement, “We haven't been able to authenticate these documents.” These documents are fakes and forgeries! CBS has been a witting or unwitting partner to what is a criminal felony, forging documents to bring down a president of the United States.

Of course, Buchanan doesn’t know that the docs are forged. He may assume that is likely the case. (That’s the bet that we would make, too.) But the loud assertion of unproven fact is the very essence of the corps’ fallen culture. Rather, unknowing, said the docs were real. Buchanan, unknowing, yelled the opposite. If you say it loud enough, on cable that makes the fact true.

This is the soul of the fallen culture to which Gergen’s question obliquely referred. But all over cable, that culture persisted as pundits yammered and blathered last evening. In particular, last evening’s hour in Scarborough Country was a trip to an utterly fake, fallen world. Everyone knew to pretend that this story was novel. Everyone knew to yell “liberal bias.” Everyone knew to persist in the culture to which Gergen had vaguely referred.

By the way: How thorough is the fallen culture? Last night, Buchanan appeared on one short segment of Hardball. He worked all that foolishness into five minutes! And, except for the crack about fair Nantucket, Matthews knew to give him free rein.

Oh, by the way, one final note: The emergence of the CBS story kills any last chance we may have had for an intelligent campaign discourse. This detective story will supersede Iraq, as Gary Condit superseded everything else in the delicious summer before 9/11. It’s part of your nation’s fallen culture; you’re now part of a vacuous nation, a country incapable of conducting real discourse. (For the records, the obsession with Bush’s Nat Guard service is as dumb as the focus on Rather.) Everything changed on September 11—everything changed except for that! And guess what, readers? When al Qaeda destroys New York with a bomb, we’ll be debating the latest irrelevance. The next day, well-trained pundits will yell “liberal bias” when some news outlet short-waves the thought that things in New York look quite bad.

KING SCHNEIDER CONQUERS THE POLLS: When William Schneider ponders the polls, you can see why we’ve dubbed him King Hopeless. (We’re scrubbing our language.) Last Friday, CNN had some time to kill on NewsNight, so they dragged their top pundit onto the air. The topic? Guest host Frederika Whitfield was wondering why the Bush-Kerry polls have been so odd. Why do several polls call the White House race even, with Gallup saying something quite different? We’ll show you Whitfield’s sensible query—and the tortured reply from her liege:

SCHNEIDER (9/17/04): We have three national polls that show the race a sudden dead heat. One shows Bush ahead by a point, one shows Kerry ahead by a point and one shows an absolute tie...One, the Gallup poll, does show Bush significantly ahead, 13 points among likely voters, eight points among registered voters, but that poll appears to be the outlier.

WHITFIELD: One point versus 13 points, huge difference there. Is there a reasonable explanation for these disparities?

SCHNEIDER: Well, the most reasonable explanation that I can figure out is that the polls that show a close race all ask people how they would vote after they ask voters a series of questions about the issues, how they feel about the economy, about the war in Iraq, about health care, about the candidates and at the end of that, they ask people, “Now, how will you vote in this election if you had to vote right now, Bush or Kerry?” In those polls, the race is very close. The Gallup poll, which is the only one that shows Bush significantly ahead, asks people how they would vote right at the outset. They ask people before they investigate the issues.

What does that suggest? It suggests that when people think about the issues, they’re more inclined to vote for John Kerry and we've seen that before. Voters who say their decision is based on the issues, tend to favor Kerry. Voters who say they are voting for candidates on person grounds tend to favor Bush.

That was the best the king could do. And let’s go ahead and state the obvious—it’s a tortured, far-fetched explanation. Of course, we were especially struck by Schneider’s musings because of what we already knew. Earlier in the day—much earlier in the day—Steve Soto laid out surprising facts about that Gallup poll’s sample. Among “likely voters” whom Gallup had polled, 40 percent were Republicans and just 33 percent were Democrats—a healthy tilt, and a puzzling leg up for Bush. After all, how does turnout normally run? In 1996 and 2000, turnout was 39 percent Dem each time, and 34/35 percent Republican. Nor was Soto the first to note that Bush-leaning polls have been over-sampling Republicans. At Donkey Rising, Ruy Texeira has also noted the pro-GOP tilt in polls that show Bush far ahead.

Does this explain why Gallup is the “outlier?” Here at THE HOWLER, we’ll defer to those who are more expert. But at CNN, they deferred to King Hopeless—the brilliant man who once told the nation that Candidate Gore had perspired on purpose. (No, we’re really not making that up. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/02. Schneider’s statement was part of the fallen culture to which Gergen referred.) Unsurprisingly, Schneider didn’t seem to have heard that Gallup was reporting this unbalanced sample. By the way, Gallup’s poll is co-sponsored by CNN. Plainly, the over-sampling of the GOP is another sign of the net’s “liberal bias.”

Readers, throw back your heads and laugh like the gods! Kings like Schneider dance and play, making an utter joke of your lives. On Olympus, laughter rings off Zeus’ walls. Why can’t we throw back our heads too, and laugh at our nation’s broken culture?

Smile-a-while: Kerry’s dumb comment

WHO AMONG US DOESN’T LOVE FUNNY COMMENTS: Of course, we all know what a big dumb-ass John Kerry is! We know because Frank Rich told us in his September 5 column:

RICH (9/5/04): Mr. Kerry, having joined the macho game with Mr. Bush on the president's own cheesy terms, is hardly innocent in his own diminishment. From the get-go he’s tried to match his opponent in stupid male tricks. If Mr. Bush clears brush in Crawford, then Mr. Kerry rides a Harley-Davidson onto Jay Leno’s set. When the Democrat asks “Who among us does not love Nascar?”...he is asking to be ridiculed as an ''International Man of Mystery.”
Kerry was “asking to be ridiculed,” Rich said, and the mighty Times has been there to oblige him. “Who among us doesn’t love NASCAR!” A Times reporter, Timothy Egan, also mocked Kerry’s comical line on August 22. Indeed, the plummy line was such vintage Kerry that Sheryl Gay Stolberg couldn’t forget it. She couldn’t get the line out of her head. She said so on July 30:
STOLBERG (7/30/04): To anyone who has listened to Mr. Kerry extemporize at length—who among us can forget his “Who among us doesn’t like Nascar?” remark?—the thought of the Brahmin from Boston disdaining speechwriters and trying humor seemed odd, shall we say, for the most important address of his career.
It was simply delish to see the scribe wittily playing on Kerry’s remark! Five days earlier, John Tierney had cited the Kerry quote too, as part of a comical quiz on the solon. And of course, no one tweaks the high-and-plummy quite the way Maureen Dowd does. At the Times, she was first to mock Kerry’s silly locution, noting it in her March 18 column. Dowd, of course, is a brilliant scholar. For her, the solon’s comical quote quickly brought Austen to mind:
DOWD (3/18/04): Mr. Kerry is Pride...

Even when he puts on that barn jacket over his expensive suit to look less lockjaw—and says things like, “Who among us doesn't like Nascar?”—he can come across like Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet’s pretentious cousin in “Pride and Prejudice.”

Dowd clued us to Kerry’s “smugness” and “stupidity” this day. She was the first to savage his statement—the stupid statement that, alas, John Kerry may not have made.

Yes, according to the Nexis archive, this statement seems to start with Dowd. There is no prior record of Kerry saying “Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR” or “Who among us doesn’t love NASCAR,” the variants which have floated around among the Times’ witty scriveners. If Kerry actually made this statement, no one ever told them at Nexis. But my dear Mr. Bennet! A month before Dowd’s column appeared, Kerry did make a NASCAR remark. On February 15, Bush had traveled to Daytona, where he pretended to enjoy the big race. The next day, Kerry sagely rebutted. Tape of Kerry’s statement was played on that day’s Inside Politics:

KERRY (2/16/04): George Bush went down to Daytona yesterday to do a photo opportunity at NASCAR. Now, I happen to like NASCAR, and I'm particularly pleased that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race, for a lot of reasons that many of you who follow it will understand.

Let me tell you something, we don't need a president who just says, “Gentlemen start your engines.” We need a president who says “America, let's start our economy and put people back to work.”

“I happen to like NASCAR.” According to the Nexis record, that’s the closest Kerry has come to the comic locution they’ve flogged at the Times. Who knows? Maybe Dowd, Stolberg, Tierney, Egan and Rich have some other moment in mind. (For a partial Times explanation, keep reading.) But given this mangy gang’s track record, we find ourselves driven to doubt.

After all, Dowd and Rich are the fallen creatures who invented the Love Story lunacy—the stupid, bogus tale about Gore that helped decide Campaign 2000. We’ve discussed the role the twin terrors played in the invention of this plupotent myth. And we’ve discussed what Time’s Karen Tumulty said about such dumb-ass colleagues:

TUMULTY (9/5/00): I am the reporter to whom Al Gore claimed that Love Story was based on him and Tipper...I was sort of appalled to see the way it played in the media.
Tumulty knew what Gore had said. And she said she was “sort of appalled” at the way fallen colleagues like Dowd and Rich spun it. “I thought [it] was very unfair,” she said. For a fuller record of Tumulty’s statement, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/5/04.

No, this NASCAR moment hasn’t changed the outcome of the current race. But did Kerry really voice the pleasing statement the Times keeps quoting and re-quoting? The Times has run the quote five times; each time, a clever scribe has put the wood to the silly solon for his utterly comical comment. But did Kerry actually utter this statement? Or have Times quote-improvers been up to old tricks, again showing their dread liberal bias?

WHY WE ASK: We raise this topic because Atrios mentioned it yesterday, linking to a site which once asked us about it. (We had never pursued the topic ourselves.) In a follow-up post, Atrios notes that Arthur Bovino (Times public editor’s office) has explained the origin of the troubling quotation. According to Bovino, “Dowd got the quote from someone who had been at a Kerry rally and confirmed it with a reporter who had been there. The quote later appeared in The Times in a political points column. The reporter was not quoting Ms. Dowd but working from her own notes.”

Obviously, that reporter is Stolberg. (We quote her “political points” piece above.) And guess what? Stolberg was traveling with Kerry on February 16, the day he made his NASCAR remark! She didn’t mention the remark in her next-day story. But other scribes did quote the un-funny comment, the one which was played on Inside Politics.

No, none of this makes a bit of difference, except as a portrait of high press corps culture. But on what day did Lockjaw Kerry make the comment that called out for ridicule? As Atrios notes, isn’t it strange that no one else ever mentioned the silly remark—that there is no record of the comment, except the record the Times has established? Given the way Kerry’s persona has been spun, wouldn’t a pleasing remark like this have received a wider airing?

So when did Kerry make this remark? When, aside from February 16, did Kerry ever comment on NASCAR? Cough it up, Bovino! Lay out the facts! Remember what we’re telling Dan Rather—the cover-up is always worse than the crime! Just as a point of curiosity, the Times does need to lay out the facts about this repeated story.