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Daily Howler: How empty is modern press corps culture? Tom Brokaw put Cox on the air
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BROKAW'S NEW LOW! How empty is modern press corps culture? Tom Brokaw put Cox on the air: // link // print //

A MINOR MISSTATEMENT: For the most part, we’ll withhold comment on coverage of last night’s debate until we study tapes and transcripts. But a few events did catch our eye. Let’s start with an obvious irony: Cheney’s claim that he never met Edwards before last evening’s session. To all appearances, this claim is false. And no, this isn’t a major misstatement—unlike Cheney’s ludicrous claim that he never tried to link Saddam to 9/11. But it’s precisely the kind of small, pointless error that Gore made in his first debate with Bush. More specifically, when Gore said he had been to a Texas fire with FEMA director James Lee Witt, the pundit corps howled about it for a week. (He had actually gone with Witt’s top assistant.) Pundits swore that the troubling misstatement showed us that Gore had a character problem. By comparison, reaction to Cheney’s misstatement will be mild. This reduced reaction will be appropriate. But once again, this reduced reaction will help you understand the farce that was Campaign 2000.

By the way: Cheney’s misstatement was more serious than Gore’s in one way. Gore’s remark was clearly delivered off the cuff, in reaction to a point that was brought up by Bush. By contrast, Cheney’s statement fit right into an ongoing attack line, and was most likely pre-prepared.

SEEMING IS BELIEVING: This morning’s New York Times editorial must have pleased New Republic scribe Michelle Cottle (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/5/04). Fairly quickly, the editors—taking Cottle’s advice—instruct us about style, not substance:

NEW YORK TIMES (10/6/04): Mr. Cheney, who won over many voters four years ago with his grandfatherly demeanor during a debate with Joseph Lieberman, seemed tired and angry. He was particularly dyspeptic when he responded to criticism of his relationship with Halliburton by claiming that Mr. Edwards had a bad attendance record in the Senate.
Readers, does Dick Cheney even know who he is? According to the worried eds, Cheney adopted a new demeanor last night; he “seemed tired and angry” during the session, where once he had seemed like a grandpa! But is that really how Cheney “seemed” last night? We don’t plan to vote for the veep, but it didn’t occur to us, at any point, that he seemed either tired or angry. And did Cheney seem “particularly dyspeptic” when he responded to criticism of Halliburton? As we noted yesterday, judgments like these are extremely subjective, and editors at the New York Times have no particular expertise when they make them. If you watched the debate last night, you could see for yourself how Cheney “seemed.” Except in extreme cases, it’s hard to see why scribes should want to spend much time making these judgments.

For the record, the eds also know how Edwards seemed: “Mr. Edwards is normally known for his wide grin and boyish appearance, but he was serious and tough last night.” There! You’ve now been informed.

Presumably, journalists have real expertise in matters of substance; presumably, they can sort out factual matters in a way which normal voters can’t. Again, consider the matter of Halliburton. Were Edwards’ criticisms of Halliburton factually valid? Did he stray from the facts in the charges he made? Presumably, someone on the Times ed board could shed some light on these obvious questions. But Cottle warns colleagues not to go there. Cottle wants eds to say how the two hopefuls seemed—things you can judge for yourselves.

Did Cheney “seem angry?” Did Edwards “seem serious?” Did one seem “dyspeptic” while the other seemed “tough?” Frankly, my dears, we don’t give a dang. We would like some help with facts and context—things Cottle scorns as “ridiculous.” We can see for ourselves how the hopefuls seem. We’d like help with those boring old facts.

BROKAW’S NEW LOW: We’ll likely have more to say about the NBC post-debate coverage. But let’s quickly note a new low for Tom Brokaw—his inclusion of Ana Marie Cox in his brief post-debate session.

How vacuous has your “press corps” become? Last Thursday, Cox appeared with Glenn Reynolds on CNBC’S Kudlow & Cramer. The pair of “bloggers” were asked to preview the evening’s Bush-Kerry debate. Quite sensibly, Reynolds said that Kerry “absolutely” had to get across the idea “that he can be trusted to defend the country and to smite its enemies.” And then, Jim Cramer made a mistake. He asked Cox for a comment:

CRAMER (9/30/04): Are we back with Ana now? Will [Kerry] be able to get it across?

COX: You know, I only heard a little bit of Glenn's response. It sounded like it was really smart. And I was going to talk about drinking games. So I'm not sure if—but I think it's relevant. I think that one of the things I noticed today is there are about twenty different drinking games going around the Internet about tonight's debates. And to me, what that says is that even, like, college students have really internalized already all of the talking-points that both John Kerry and George Bush have. And it's almost like the debate itself is incidental. I mean, John Kerry will probably do what he's going to do. But it just seems like unless someone, like, is able to, like, break the rules of the debate and actually confront the other person, we're just going to get two side-by-side speeches. Of course, John Kerry's going to do fine. Of course W’s going to do fine. The AP’s already literally written their story on tonight’s debate.

It’s hard to get much dumber than that. But when Kudlow posed a follow-up question, Cox was up to the challenge:
KUDLOW (continuing directly): But, Ana, you know, I'm interested in your social point. I think it's a good one, about the drinking parties, and associated with that is a certain boredom with the debate. Is it your view that this election is over; that folks have actually decided?

COX: It's not over yet, but I guess you need to drink in order to get through it. I know it helps me; in fact, I've been drinking up to the debate.

In other words, it isn’t like Brokaw and his team didn’t know what they were getting. But so what? Increasingly, your discourse is broken, a joke on a joke. Given a mere half-hour to review this debate, Brokaw threw Cox on his net’s once-precious air.

This time, Cox was paired with John Hinderaker, from the conservative Powerline site. After Hinderaker praised Cheney’s brilliant performance, Brokaw threw to Cox. He asked for her comments on “style:”

BROKAW (10/5/04): Now, let's go to Ana Cox. Ana Cox, give us a stylistic reading on what happened here tonight and how you read this debate.

COX: Well, I think it's sort of easy to say that Edwards tried his best to land some blows on Dick Cheney, but fighting with Dick Cheney, arguing with him is sort of like fighting with the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man. You can stick your hand in there, but you're not going to get much substance when it comes out. And I think that, uh [pause, then laughter]—I think for that reason, probably Edwards didn't do as well as he should have.

All right then! The Sta-Puff Man!

Why was Cox on the air last night? For the same reason that she appeared on the cover of the September 26 New York Times Magazine. The Times put Cox on the cover because she plays The Vacuous Girl—even better, The Vacuous Girl Who’s Prepared To Talk Dirty. For the same reason, the Washington Post put Jessica Cutler on its August 15 magazine cover. (“Blog Interrupted,” the headline/summary said. “When Jessica Cutler put her dirty secrets on the Web, she lost her job, signed a book deal, posed for Playboy—and raised a ton of questions about where America is headed.”) If you don’t understand that this is why these attractive, potty-mouthed Girls were featured on those magazine covers, you really need to go back to school and repeat Life on Earth 101.

Last night, NBC’s coverage struck us as strange; we’ll study the transcripts before commenting further. But how low will your press corps’ cultural horizon go? Last night, Brokaw embarrassed himself when he put the vacuous Cox on the air. She was there because she’s young and attractive—and, of course, because she talks dirty. Given thirty minutes to discuss your nation’s future, Brokaw let you rub your thighs by putting this simpering clown on the air. But then, the nets still love The Dirty Girl. Everything changed on September 11. Everything changed except that.

WHY COX WAS THERE: In case you don’t know why Cox was on that magazine cover, let’s note that Matthews Klam clearly does. Klam wrote that New York Times magazine piece. Here were his introductory nuggets on Cox:

KLAM (9/26/04): In January, a serious-minded former editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education named Ana Marie Cox reinvented herself online as the Wonkette, a foulmouthed, hard-drinking, sex-obsessed politics junkie...

Ana Marie Cox has peachy cream skin and eyes of a very bright blue, strawberry blond hair and a filthy mind; she likes to analyze our nation’s leaders in their most private, ah, parts. She has been talking this way all her life. Until January, no one listened.

By the way: “Until January, no one listened” because Cox doesn’t have a thing to say. They listen now because Cox talks dirty. Of course, Fallen Culture loves The Dirty Girl—and Cox is willing to play the part. Last night, Brokaw, insulting your interests, put her sad act on his air. The “serious-minded” former editor was soon talking about Mr. Sta-Puff.

“Wonkette,” by the way, seems to be an amalgam of two words: “Wonk” and “Tourette’s.”

NO LONGER SO SWIFT: What ever happened to Michael Kinsley? He was the brightest scribe of the 80s and early 90s, but now often seems to have lost his desire, as we saw in a recent exchange with CampaignDesk’s Brian Montopoli. Quite appropriately, Brian lobbed Michael an open-ender: “What's the biggest problem with campaign journalism right now—particularly what appears on page A1?” As we read Kinsley’s reply, we got the impression that, for at least one past major star, analysis has turned into hard work:

KINSLEY: The biggest problem is—and I don't know what the solution is, so it's not a criticism, as much as it is a puzzle—is that the conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie. And they require balance, which is often just not justified by reality. The classic thing is the Swift Boats. If you follow what all the papers say, they inch close to saying what they really think by saying, “it’s controversial,” or “many have challenged it,” euphemisms like that. And then they always need to pair it with something else. “Candidate X murdered three people at a rally yesterday, and Candidate Y sneezed without using a Kleenex. This is why many people are saying this is the roughest campaign ever.”
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! But this answer is weak and undemanding. To all appearances, Michael Kinsley doesn’t care all that much any more.

Consider the first part of Kinsley’s answer. “The conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie,” he says. But so what? As a matter of fact, it’s inherently difficult “to say that something is a lie.” A lie is a knowing false statement, and it’s hard to get into someone’s head and settle the question of knowledge and intent. Beyond that, very few pols ever actually lie; the public can be thoroughly misled by statements that are technically accurate. As anyone can see, deception seems to be all around us as this hopeless campaign marches on. But Kinsley’s lament is lazy and lame. The gentleman seems to go through the motions.

Can campaign journalism point out lies? That is a difficult assignment. But plainly, campaign journalists can let us know when a statement is false or misleading. Consider yesterday’s Washington Post. Jim Vandehei deftly dealt with some new Bush attacks on Kerry:

VANDEHEI (10/5/04): Bush said the only way Kerry can afford to finance his health care, education and other plans is to tax the middle class. “You may have noticed he changes positions quite frequently—but not on taxes,” Bush said. “During his 20 years in the Senate, he's voted to raise taxes 98 times.”

In a new ad called "Thinking Mom," the Bush campaign recycles similar charges about Kerry's tax record while a mother is heard reacting with dismay. "John Kerry and the liberals in Congress have voted to raise gas taxes 10 times," the narrator says. Both charges are technically true but somewhat misleading. Many of the votes were on procedural motions or part of larger budget packages, and Kerry has also voted many times to lower taxes during his Senate career.

Vandehei took a simple approach. Confronted with several misleading charges, he said that the charges were misleading. As he continued, the scribe continued limning Bush’s claims:
VANDEHEI (continuing directly): In a preview of charges Bush plans to level during the final two debates, he accused Kerry of advocating a nationalized health care system and economic isolationism—positions Kerry has never embraced during the campaign. Bush said Kerry's health care plan, which would combine tax breaks and new government spending to lower costs and provide coverage to the uninsured, is "creeping towards Hillary-care," a reference to Hillary Clinton's failed health care plan during President Bill Clinton's first term. Kerry has vowed to never replicate that plan.
Is Bush “lying?” Is he simply mistaken? Vandehei doesn’t try to read Bush’s mind. He does say that Bush’s first charge is untrue, and that his second charge is shaky. We think Vandehei could have done more with the silly “Hillary-care” charge. But the Post scribe does make one thing clear; correcting misstatements is amazingly easy. If a campaign statement is false or “somewhat misleading,” you can go to your keyboard and say that.

In the second part of his statement, Kinsley describes a more difficult problem. What should major papers have done about those damaging Swift Boat charges? The Swift Boat Vets made nasty claims about 36-year-old events. Their charges seemed to transform the campaign, but were, in some cases, quite hard to judge. What should a news org do when confronted with this situation?

This is tougher than the question of what to do about simple misstatements. Here at THE HOWLER, we’ll soon return to our Swift Boat series—a series in which we hope to show how to deal with such accusers. In our view, newspapers should have pursued the Swift Vets hard. But unlike Kinsley, we don’t plan to stare into space and say that we have no solution. That’s fine for slumbering former stars. But we plan to offer something more. We plan to offer real answers.