MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2002
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WHY WE HAVE FOCUSED ON SHONEYS: In most respects, the Shoneys incident was No Big Deal, except for the individuals involved. But weve spent Big Time on the Shoneys matter for a particular reason. The press corps coverage of the event provides a good look at the way the corps works. In particular, the coverage shows an essential fact: The press tells the stories it likes.
If you doubt that, consider again Peggy Noonans column in last Fridays OpinionJournal (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/20/02). At one point, Noonan wrote the following passage. To all appearances, she describes what occurred when the three Muslim students ate at that Shoneys in Georgia:
NOONAN: [T]he Southerners eyeball the young Muslim males, and the young Muslim males feel the vibe.
Noonan paints an exceptionally unflattering portrait of the three medical students. (She ends up describing them as bigots.) But did any part of this story actually occur? Noonan has no way of knowing. In fact, she isnt describing events and thoughts she can actually show to be true. Early on in this startling column, she describes her bizarre, corrupt method:
And they dont like it. They resent it.
Here they had two clear choices: Try to understand the emotions of the people around thempeople whove been bruised, whove seen their country take a roundhouse right from historyand choose to be polite and friendly. The young Muslim males could smile and nod, for instance. This probably would have gone far in making progress between peoples, for one thing weve all read about the terrorists of Sept. 11 is that they never bothered to be nice. They tended to treat the Americans with whom they interacted with Sullen Dead Facethe inexpressive look young men put on so it will be hard for you to read them. Because they dont want to be read. Because they want to convey an air of some menace.
They could have introduced themselves to the waitress, mentioned they're on their way to medical school. They could have been quiet, minded their business, chatted softly.
But they didnt bother to be nice. They wanted things on their terms.
So they took option two.
They sensed the questioning within the gazes, and they thought it would be amusing to show these stupid and uneducated Southern people, these dumb crackers, these yokels, who was boss. You think were bad guys? Well show you bad guys.
And so one of them or a few of them said the things Eunice Stone says she overheard. Talk about explosions, references to Sept. 11, talk about how Sept. 13 will be even bigger.
NOONAN: I wasnt there, but I listened to everyone who spoke of it and watched the story closely. And its not hard to imagine what probably happened that day at Shoneys.
Its not hard to imagine what probably happened? It certainly isnt. Indeed, all over the world, lynch mobs have found it easy to imagine what probably happened since before human history began.
As noted, Noonan goes on to slime the students as bigots, although that is based on imagination too. This raises an obvious question: How on earth have we reached the point where a major pundit can behave in this manner?
It isnt easy to answer that question, but Noonans conduct is hardly unusual. In fact, our journalists invented Preferred Press Corps Stories all throughout Campaign 2000, and repeatedly told those tales as a group. Over and over, we saw pundits recite invented tales with no oneno onedaring to note that the corps preferred stories were bogus. We recently saw the same behavior in the case of the ludicrous NEA smear. Noonan is simply the person who comes out and tells you the truthher press corps now makes up the news.
Its stunning to see a major pundit acknowledge that she imagines the news. But you can be sure of one thing: In our major press corps, no oneno onewill say a word about Noonans ugly, stunning column. Howard Kurtz wont say a word about her admission: Peggy Noonan simply makes up the news.
THE STORY THEY LIKE: How much do some news orgs like the Shoneys story? Consider Jonah Goldbergs column on the incident, which ran in Saturdays Washington Times.
In an e-mail, Goldberg tells us that he wrote the column last Tuesday morning. But the Times put his column in print five days later, when emerging facts had overtaken a number of his suppositions. Consider this part of the column:
GOLDBERG (pgh 4): The polite interpretation of all this is that nobody did anything wrong. [Eunice] Stone simply misheard the young men. Perhaps theyd had a long conversation about Sept. 11 and how tourism had bombed in Miami as a result, and she heard something about a terrorism bombing in Miami.
Writing on Tuesday, Goldberg crafted an ironic account of what the three men may have said: Maybe they were talking about tourism bombing, and Stone misunderstood their remarks. But by Saturday, the three men had long since offered an actual account of what they had said; they had said that they were bringing down a car to Miami, and Stone may have misunderstood that. Indeed, Stone had acknowledged, on Tuesday nights Donahue, that this explanation by the men might be valid:
DONAHUE (9/17/02): [The three students] are going to say here on this program, in just a moment
bring it down meant a car, bring a car down from Kansas City. He has a frienddo you believe them?
I dont know, Stone said. It was tidbits. But five days after this televised exchange, the Times was still putting Goldbergs supposition into print, while printing a column which pictured the men engaging in rank misconduct. Personally, I think
the young men are lying, Goldberg wrote. By Saturday morning, there was no excuse for printing this charge without including the relevant facts which had emerged as the week went along.
STONE: At this point, I really dont know what to believe. I just couldntI dont know. It was tidbits, like I told the police.
This is nasty work on the part of the Times. But so it goes when our big news orgs are handed a story they like.
BOOK LEARNIN: For the record, heres another part of the column which was dated by Saturday, when the Times ran it:
GOLDBERG (pgh 6): Its understandable that everyone wants to forget the whole day ever happened, even the cops who did everything by the book. If Stone told the truth, shes still probably a little embarrassed for being snookered and causing such a fuss. And if she lied, shes probably doubly eager to move on. And, similarly, if the medical students are lying about what would have been a criminally stupid prank, they certainly dont need any more attention.
The cops did everything by the book? As of Wednesday afternoon, we knew that police had falsely charged the men with evading a toll, and had bruited the bogus charge to the press. Is that doing everything by the book? But four days after these facts became known, Times readers wouldnt have to consider them. The Times had a story it very much liked: Dangerous Muslim men misbehave. White people and authorities behave just like champs. And because the Times liked the story so much, it kept on printing it past the point where new facts had overrun its suppositions.
By the way, the AP finally reported the fact that the toll booth charges were bogus. It finally reported this fact on Friday, two days after the fact became known. But why, oh why, did the medical students get charged with evading that toll in the first place? Of one thing you can be fairly sureno one in the mainstream press corps will ever examine that naughty question. That question could lead to a brand new storyone that the boys and girls of your press corps very much wouldnt like.
A STORY ANDREW SULLIVAN LIKES: On Saturday, Andrew Sullivan told a story he liked. Here it is, just as he told it:
Sullivan linked to an unsigned report on (sigh) the Fox News web site. The report described last Thursdays testimony before the House/Senate intelligence committees. Here is the paragraph in question:
WAS TIME WRONG? Sandy Berger says the Clinton administration did not hand over an al Qaeda document to the new Bush administration, as claimed in Times recent cover-story. Was Mike Elliott wrong? Will Time address this discrepancy?
FOX NEWS: Former President Bushs national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and his Clinton counterpart Sandy Berger also testified. Berger said that after 1998, the Clinton administration took numerous steps to kill Usama bin Laden and crush Al Qaeda, but he contradicted published reports that the outgoing Clinton administration offered the incoming Bush team a war plan to go after Al Qaeda.
But is it true? Did Berger say that there was no plan? We have found no other news organization reporting that Berger said this. At the Washington Times, for example, Bill Gertz wrote a pair of reports on Thursdays testimonybut he didnt even mention Berger. Is it likely that Sandy Berger made such a statement, and the Washington Times simply skipped it?
At the hearings, Bushman Richard Armitage did testify that the Bush team wasnt given a plan. But did Berger say this too? Only Foxs web site seems to think so.
Was the Fox News Channels web site wrong? Will Andrew Sullivan address this discrepancy? We dont know what Berger said, but after the recent NEA hoax, do you really think there are any restraints on scribes who tell stories they like?
THIS JUST IN: Now we do know what Berger said, and the Fox News web site had it right! A famous spin-basher sent us the passage from Bergers testimony last Thursday:
BERGER: Now, the second question you asked—which comes off of the Time magazine story, I think—was there a plan that we turned over to the Bush administration during the transition? I could address that.
As we were saying to ourselves just moments ago, Will Time address this discrepancy?
The transition, as you will recall, was condensed by virtue of the election in November. I was very focused on using the time that we had—I had been on the other side of a transition with General Scowcroft in 1992. But we used that time very efficiently to convey to my successor the most important information—what was going on and what situations they faced.
Number one among those was terrorism and Al Qaida. And I told that to my successor. She has acknowledged that publicly, so Im not violating any private conversation. We briefed them fully on what we were doing—on what else was under consideration and what the threat was. I personally attended part of that briefing to emphasize how important that was. But there was no war plan that we turned over to the Bush administration during the transition. And the reports of that are just incorrect.
TRAVEL GAP: No HOWLER tomorrow. Were workin.