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REPEAT AFTER KERRY! Kerry’s answer was slightly odd. But your press corps can’t even repeat it: // link // print //
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2004

THE PRETENDERS: With the time we’ve spent on Unfit for Command (more next week), we’ve missed some other unfolding topics. Today, we’ll touch a few topics we have short-changed. We’ll postpone again our “Week That Was” segment on Campaign 2000, although we still plan to present it. What happened to people who bungled stories about Candidate Gore in September 2000? They sure didn’t get the Rather Treatment! As talk-show conservatives boo-hoo-hoo about the media’s “liberal bias,” they ought to take a wider look at the way the modern press really works.

With that in mind, we offer a quote from Lawrence O’Donnell on last night’s Scarborough Country. Has Dan Rather’s work been driven by liberal bias? O’Donnell suggested that’s bunk:

O'DONNELL (9/24/04): Joe, the notion that there is this bias at CBS and that the cure is to replace it with another bias doesn't seem to me to advance the ball very much. And let's just remember, this same program...60 Minutes II examined the Vietnam-era experience of another politician several years ago, Bob Kerrey, a Democrat. And that account, that was presented by Dan Rather, to me was not believable. I didn't like the way it was put together. And, in effect, it alleged that Bob Kerrey was in effect a war criminal. And they were using the testimony of one soldier who was present with Bob Kerrey, against the testimony of all the other soldiers who were present with Bob Kerrey.

Now, Bob Kerrey is a Democrat. Someone needs to explain to me what the bias was that put that story together.

Uh-oh! O’Donnell had slid off the reservation, pointing to a tough Rather story that went after major Dem Kerrey quite hard. Worried ants ran out of the ant hill. But they were too frazzled to fix up the damage. As they engaged in frantic [CROSSTALK], O’Donnell moved on to point 2:
SCARBOROUGH: Are you really telling me that you don't think Dan Rather has a 30-year history of leaning left of center? You don't think that's the case?

O'DONNELL: I don't think Dan Rather has a 30-year history of demonstrating political bias on the air. No, I don't. And when they show the questions of Dan Rather questioning President Nixon and we pretend that there is something outrageous with Dan Rather saying to him, "Mr. President, how does it feel when people talk to you about resigning and leaving your office?" let's remember, the guy did have to leave office. He was under the threat of impeachment. He was a proven criminal by the time he left office and had to be pardoned by the next president.

O’Donnell is right about that silly footage they’ve played all week in Scarborough Country. In the segment, Rather is shown asking Nixon the most obvious question on the face of the earth. What comes next? All the panelists know to pretend that Rather was way out of line.

You can read the whole transcript for yourself. But let’s applaud O’Donnell for that one key locution—we pretend. All over cable, store-bought pundits know to pretend that up is down and black is white. This, of course, is especially true in the benighted land known as Scarborough Country. But we’re not sure we’ve ever seen a pundit adopt this piece of prime HOWLER-Speak. Pundits never tell the truth about what happens in Pundit Land. When he used the magic words “we pretend,” O’Donnell told the truth just last night.

REPEAT AFTER KERRY: How weak are the press corps’ analytical skills? If Kerry loses, his August 9 statement about Iraq will likely be seen as a campaign turning-point. That was the statement Kerry made at the Grand Canyon, when he said that—well, let’s put the Q-and-A on the record. On the September 12 Meet the Press, Tim Russert finally provided the actual text of the question Kerry was asked. (In real time, the text of the question was missing in action. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/12/04). We can now present the full Q-and-A. This exchange has hurt Kerry badly:

QUESTION (8/9/04): The president last week challenged you to answer yes or no to the question of whether if, knowing what you know now, you would still have voted to go to war? Are you going to take that challenge up?

KERRY: I’m ready for any challenge, and I'll answer it directly. Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it is the right authority for a president to have, but I would have used that authority, as I have said throughout this campaign, effectively. I would have done this very differently from the way President Bush has. And my question to President Bush is, Why did he rush to war without a plan to win the peace? Why did he rush to war on faulty intelligence and not do the hard work necessary to give America the truth? Why did he mislead America about how he would go to war? Why has he not brought other countries to the table in order to support American troops in the way that we deserve and relieve a pressure from the American people?

To this day, that’s the fullest transcript of this exchange available in the Nexis records. We don’t know if Kerry’s response ended there. We don’t know what the next question was.

But what did Kerry say that day? He said that, knowing what he knows now, he “would have voted for the authority”—for the authorization to go to war if necessary. But he “would have done this very differently from the way President Bush has,” he said. Specifically, he implied that Bush “rushed to war without a plan to win the peace” and failed to “bring other countries to the table in order to support American troops in the way that we deserve.”

We think that’s a slightly odd statement, although Kerry has fleshed it out since then. He has said that it was good for Bush to have “the authority” because that gave him the clout to go to the UN and force Iraq to allow inspections. Of course, if Kerry knew then what he knows now, it’s unclear why those inspections would have been necessary. If our country actually had books about public logic, this Q-and-A would go in the chapter that explains why pols shouldn’t answer hypothetical questions.

But if Kerry’s answer was slightly odd, it shouldn’t be hard to relate. It shouldn’t be hard to repeat what Kerry said. But then, of course, we have to deal with handsome members of the national press corps! NBC’s Carl Quintanilla is quite telegenic. But he made a hopeless (if typical) presentation last night about this crucial statement by Kerry. On Hardball, Quintanilla described relations between the two hopefuls and the press:

QUINTANILLA (9/24/04): Candidates try to forge a bond with their traveling press, but Kerry's been more distant since his last press conference in August, when he was challenged and admitted he'd still support the war even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction.
KERRY (videotape from August 9): Yes, I would have voted for the authority.

QUINTANILLA: The president has given fewer than half the number of campaign trail Q and A’s as his father, because reporters questions can be tough, even hostile, and throw candidates off message.

Hopeless. Quintanilla plays the actual tape of Kerry saying he would have “voted for the authority.” But even as he plays the actual tape of this statement, Quintanilla describes a different statement. Viewers are told that Kerry “admitted” that he’d “still support the war.”

Here are the two statements in question. And no—they aren’t the same thing:

KERRY: I would have voted for the authority.
QUINTANILLA: Kerry said he would still support the war.
No, those two statements aren’t equivalent—especially since Kerry immediately listed major things he didn’t support about the way the war was conducted.

Quintanilla looks great on camera. But in a nation of 300 million souls, how can it be that important players at our greatest news orgs have such weak logical skills? More specifically, how hard can it be for TV scribes to repeat basic things that a candidate says? In this case, it should have been easy to start with what Kerry said—that he would have voted for the authority—and go from there to an account of what he seems to have meant by his statement. But no! Kerry said “authority” three separate times. But Quintanilla had a better word—war.

But then, your hapless press corps has offered this paraphrase ever since Kerry’s August 9 statement. Yes, we think Kerry’s statement was somewhat inept. But it isn’t hard to repeat what he said. Why can’t the gorgeous lads and ladies of your national press corps just do it?

BUT WHO WILL CORRECT THE CORRECTIONS: In this morning’s column, Nicholas Kristof corrects a correction from last Wednesday’s column. It concerns a matter we noted this week—the error he made in last Saturday’s column about Kerry’s Bronze Star award:

KRISTOF (9/25/04): Aargh. My last column ended with a jet-lagged correction that repeated the error it was meant to fix. William Rood saw John Kerry's Silver Star incident, not the Bronze Star episode. Mea culpa squared.
So you can keep track of all the action, here is Kristof’s original text, and his first failed attempt at correction:
KRISTOF (9/18/04): Did Mr. Kerry deserve his Bronze Star? Yes. The Swift Boat Veterans claim that he was not facing enemy fire when he rescued a Green Beret, Jim Rassmann, but that is contradicted by those who were there, like William Rood and Mr. Rassmann (a Republican). In fact, Mr. Rassmann recommended Mr. Kerry for a Silver Star.

KRISTOF (9/22/04): In the spirit of taking a tough look at one's own shortcomings: on Saturday, I referred to William Rood as a witness for Mr. Kerry's Silver Star incident. It was the Bronze Star episode that he saw. Mea culpa.

Kristof’s original column was wrong about Rood, as was his first attempt at correction. Third time apparently being the charm, the Times gets this fact right today.

We say that “the Times” gets the fact right today because we want to move beyond Kristof. Anyone can compose a mistaken correction the way he did on Wednesday. But might we note an obvious fact? Presumably, someone other than Kristof himself reads the text of his twice-weekly columns. With that in mind, let’s note the terminal laziness the Times seems to have brought to the crucial matters involved in this piece.

Last Saturday, Kristof was writing, a month too late, about matters that may have decided this election. And since the Swift Boat Vets have actually challenged a very small number of medal awards—only three events are in real dispute—it was unimpressive when Kristof bungled the facts about two of those incidents (link below). But it wasn’t just Kristof who seemed to be dozing when it came to these crucial matters. Kristof’s editor also failed to notice that he had this basic fact wrong about Rood. And that editor also failed to notice the bungling of the gentleman’s first correction.

As noted, Kristof’s problems went beyond Rood. As we’ve noted, he bungled another aspect of the Bronze Star matter and he bungled the first Purple Heart event too (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/22/04). But we think it’s instructive that neither he nor his editor noticed the gentleman’s two-time bungling RE Rood. The Swift Boat Veterans have transformed this race; the charges they lodged have been deeply important. But does your celebrity press corps really care? Even when he was trying to challenge the Vets, Chris Matthews was plainly unaware of the simplest facts, and no one at the New York Times seems to give a big enough damn to get clear on these simple facts either.

Lazy; inept; uninvolved, unaware—your press corps dozes its way toward election. They draw nice salaries; have nice summer homes; and very much like to get out to the Hamptons. Do they care about matters that transform your lives? When it comes to events which transformed this election, third-time’s-the-charm seems to be the great rule that prevails at the slumbering Times. Are you really surprised that you have to come here for the dope on John O’Neill’s kooky book?