FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2002
KEEPING A GOOD SITCOM GOING: Is it true? In the aftermath of the Gulf War, did Al Gore protest the first Bush administrations hasty departure from the battlefield, even as Saddam began to renew his persecution of the Kurds of the North and the Shiites of the Southgroups we had encouraged to rise up against Saddam? Duh. In 1991, Gore defended President Bushs decision not to pursue Saddam into Baghdad. But at the same time, he criticized Bush for not doing more to defend the Kurds and weaken Saddam. And this isnt exactly hidden info. On April 18, 1991, for example, Gore appeared on ABCs Nightline. Heres part of what was said:
TED KOPPEL: So you would cite as the long-term objective of the United States, then, to do everything but a ground attack against Baghdad to bring about the overthrown or the dissolution of Saddam Husseins government?
Somehow, Koppel got Gores distinctionBush was right to avoid toppling Saddam by direct force, but he should have been pursuing everything but a ground attack against Baghdad to weaken or destroy Saddams power. As the conversation continued, Gore and Senator Mitch McConnell agreed that U.S. forces should stay in Iraq to protect the Kurds and keep the sanctions in place (McConnells words). Gore went farther, saying that it is [the Iraqi] people who are now suffering. We should speak in their behalf and advocate democracy and the values that are so important to us for the Iraqi people. Gore listed many options at our disposal which he said Bush ought to pursue.
GORE: I think weve got to bring about his removal from power and, more than that, the removal of his lieutenants and this government which he now controls. Our principal mistake in this postwar period has been the de facto assumption that our interests lie in facilitating the ability of Saddams governmentwith or without him as an individualin reconsolidating the nation-state of Iraq. We ought to try to get rid of his power.
None of this has much to do with the crucial decisions we face today. None of this has much to do with the key claim in Gores recent speech. But it does shed light on the gonzo work which occurred on Tuesdays Special Report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/26/02). On that program, Gores Monday statement was nicely clipped, obscuring the point he had actually made. Then a team of pundits called Gore a Big Liarfor a part of his speech which was accurate.
But then, is it really surprising to see Humes crew reinvent the AL GORE, LIAR tale? In fact, the American press corps invented this tale back in March 1999; since that time, it has created a stream of bogus stories to keep the treasured sitcom alive. On Tuesday night, Hume and his crew played the game again. AL GORE, LIAR is this groups favorite show. Theyre skilled at inventing new scripts.
Can a democracy function without a real press corps? Were coming close to finding out. What does it mean when pundits feel free to invent such stupid tales? And what does it mean that no oneno onein the insider press cares to notice?
QUESTION: ARE PUNDITS BIG LIARS? A reader sent an obvious question: Do we think that these pundits are liars?
The truth is, we dont have a clue. Given the state of pundit culture, one rarely knows if mistaken pundits are lying or just uninformed. The more important point is this: The very notion of accuracy seems to play little role in our current, devolving pundit culture. Increasingly, pundits tell you the stories they likestories on which they have all long agreed. Facts no longer seem to play a key role in their odd pundit culture.
Did Humes all-stars know their presentation was bogus? Increasingly, there is little sign that Americans pundits pay heed to such tired ideas.
Years ago, we called this practice the novelization of news. Later, we adopted a simpler phrasethey tell you the stories they like. In March 2000, Washington Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp used a similar metaphorshe said it was less like the Post was reporting the news, and more like the paper was typecasting a drama. (All news must fit the roles
assigned to the actors, Shipp said. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/9/02.) And last week, Peggy Noonan described the process; according to Noonan, todays pundit finds that it isnt hard to imagine what probably happened. Noonan, of course, didnt seem to know that there was something bad wrong with that practice.
At any rate, those are four ways to describe pundit culture. But lets sum it upchecking facts plays little role in much of todays pundit culture. Do pundits still struggle to get it right? Most often, the only thing they want to get right is the script their strange cohort likes best.
Oh by the waywas Gore correct in his principal claim? Was he right when he said that a unilateral War on Saddam could harm the current War on Terror? Brit and the boys didnt bother deciding. Even the prospect of mighty war cant make these men focus on matters of substance. But then, these dudes have been at this a very long time. Dont expect them to change what theyre doing.
IN THE TANK: On Thursday, Andrew Sullivan stated the obvious; President Bush went over the line in his comments about Senate Democrats. Is there any pundit on the face of the earth who doesnt know this is accurate? It doesnt mean that Bush is evil. It doesnt mean that he must be impeached. But what could possibly be more clear? What could be more clear than the obvious fact that Bush made an inappropriate comment?
The point might be obvious, but on Special Report, trained seals struggled hard to avoid it. On Wednesdays program, Daschle was the total focus; pundits struggled to figure out why Tommy had been so upset. But none of the all-stars stated the obviousBushs remark went over the line. Indeed, everyone knew enough not to repeat the thing which Bush actually said.
Mara Liasson began the exchange, explaining what I think Tom Daschle was reacting to. And what was Daschle reacting to? None of the pundits, at any point, seemed to think hed reacted to Bushs remark! And none ever stated the obvious pointBushs comment went over the line. Instead, the graybeards struggled, strained and strove, trying to puzzle out Daschles weird conduct. Daschle was being motivated by a bunch of unhappy Democrats. Daschle was upset because were talking about Iraq. Daschle was convinced hes being outfoxed. But was Daschle upset because Bush made a dumb comment? Viewers wouldnt have to ponder that thoroughly inappropriate thought.
Can we function with seals instead of a press corps? Throw them some fish, and this fin-slapping crew will give you the chance to find out.
IN THE TANK, WANNABE EDITION: At CNN, Chung and Greenfield also strained to avoid saying that Bush went over the line. Note how many ways they found to avoid ever having to say it.