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WHO BUT THE TIMES! No one but the New York Times shows such woeful bad judgment. Also: Bush-Kerry II! // link // print //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2004

DEBATE WATCH CONTINUES: Again today, we’re doing an hour on the Marc Steiner Show, reviewing the progress of the debates. As always, we’ll share air with Perfesser Richard Vatz, our favorite dancing partner. WYPR Baltimore; 12 noon Eastern. To listen along, just click here.

WEEKEND TROUBLES: Oops. We had computer problems on Saturday. In today’s HOWLER, therefore, we provide our initial review of Bush-Kerry Debate 2. Scroll down to find our report. Independent analysts have generally said that they find the work incomparable.

WHO BUT THE TIMES: The New York Times’ bad judgment is endless. Absent systematic study, we won’t necessarily argue with public editor Daniel Okrent, who opined, in yesterday’s column, that the Times has not been “systematically biased toward either candidate” in the current White House race. But if systematic bias isn’t necessarily clear, systematic bad judgment surely is. It defines the great paper’s lost soul.

Example: Who but the Times would publish a piece like Scott Dadich’s Saturday op-ed effort? Amazingly, the Times devoted almost half its op-ed page to Dadich’s laughable analysis of Bush and Kerry’s bumper stickers! Who but the Times would ever publish something so silly, so daft?

DADICH (10/9/04): Perhaps because of my Texas roots, I have a weakness for the big and the bold, and the main 2004 Bush-Cheney logo, basically a holdover from the 2000 presidential race, fulfills my expectations. It's brash and snazzy: a field of powerful, militaristic navy blue punctuated with the four letters of his surname spelled out in white in what appears to be Folio Extra-Bold Italic letters. (Even the name of the font sounds forceful, doesn't it?)

The effect is striking, simple and progressive. The rightward lilt of the wide, capital letters reinforces Mr. Bush's ideology while at the same time portraying a buoyant sense of forward movement, energy and positive change...

The rightward tilt of the letters reinforces Bush’s ideology! By normal standards, one would think this must be a joke, but on balance, the piece does seem to be serious. Indeed, who but the Times would even dream of putting such nonsense in print? Do you see why we often revert to a classical image—to the image, drawn from greatest Homer, of the Olympian gods as they lounge about, laughing at vast human folly?

And who but the Times would have the bad judgment to publish Robert Worth’s front-page report three weeks before an election? In yesterday’s paper, Worth went on (and on; and on) about how rich and patrician Kerry is. Who but the Times would print such rank subjectivity, without seeming to have the slightest idea that the judgments expressed are subjective?

WORTH (10/10/04): Mr. Bush, despite his own family's legacy of wealth and political power, manages to come off as a simple-hearted Texan who likes to clear brush and go bass fishing in his spare time, a man whose indulgences are barbecue and nonalcoholic beer.

Mr. Kerry, by contrast, exudes a Brahmin reserve. His accent is no longer the upper-class drawl of his youth, but his soft vowels and formal diction still hint at a privileged lineage. On the campaign trail, he sometimes calls people “man,” a habit that may grow from his 1960's youth but now sounds like a strained effort to connect with ordinary folk.

Does Kerry “exude a Brahmin reserve?” That is a statement of rank subjectivity, presented on the paper’s front page as if it were a reported fact. Meanwhile, does Kerry’s diction “hint at a privileged lineage?” It hints at this to Robert Worth—and to three other people alive on the planet. And when Kerry dares to call people “man,” does this really “sound like a strained effort to connect with ordinary folk?” Did the “habit” “grow from Kerry’s 1960's youth?” Who but the Times would publish such foolishness, let alone on a Sunday front-page, three weeks before a White House election? And by the way: Does Bush “manage to come off as a simple-hearted Texan?” To some he does—but to others, he doesn’t. But so what? Worth doesn’t offer a hint of evidence for the sweeping judgments he renders. Who but the Times is so inane as to put such utter cant into print? (Does Bush “come off as a simple-hearted Texan?” Worth might want to read the anti-Bush e-mails Okrent cites at the end of his piece.)

This would have been a deeply silly piece had it been published in July. After all, who but the Times is empty enough to publish a passage like this:

WORTH (10/9/04): Inside, the Heinz-Kerry houses are elegantly decorated but comfortable and unpretentious, and full of details that express the personalities of their owners, visitors say. “There are not huge bathrooms with Jacuzzis,” said Wren Wirth, an old friend of Ms. Heinz Kerry's whose husband is former Senator Tim Wirth. “They are modest by current standards, and sensible and cozy.”
Kerry’s bathrooms are modest by current standards! Who but the Times would publish such nonsense? But this article wasn’t published in July, when it would have been merely daft; it was published on a Sunday front-page, in October, as voters were making their final decisions, and it will fuel an endless Republican effort to present Kerry as a rich, wealthy, fake, phony swell. And Worth understands how these images work, because he says so right in his piece. “Class is not a new weapon in American politics,” he notes, as he hands Kerry’s foes their new cudgels. For the record, Worth makes this observation this right after he describes the way “a Massachusetts cartoonist portrayed [Kerry] sitting in an armchair at the Yale Club in New York, with a butler visible in the background,” and shortly before he lets us know how much Kerry’s wind-surf gear costs. Yes, we have to read that garbage again! Millionaires now run your press corps. Deep down, they care about the cost of Kerry’s possessions—and about nothing else.

Of course, the Times has been interested in these topics all year long. In an earlier example of woeful bad judgment, the image of Kerry with his “butler” was pushed into a Times front-page headline (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/04), and an earlier “news report” seemed obsessed with the cost of every item he owns (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/04). In these articles, the Times gives us a look at its vacuous soul—at the values of a millionaire-dominated, post-affluence press corps. But only the Times would put this cant on its front page, on October 9.

Only the Times would have such bad judgment. And no, Worth doesn’t fail to reward Times readers with the ultimate emblem of journalistic bad faith—an emblem routinely found in reports of this type. “Mr. Kerry has never been able to escape the aroma of class privilege that clings to him,” the journalist types. Surely the gods must howl with glee as Worth—spritzing this “aroma” across the land—sadly says that the aroma has proved to be inescapable.

Read every word of this sorry piece, and gaze on the soul of a vacuous press corps. They’re angry because Kerry has nice things, and their empty souls would scream with rage if you ever got to have a real discourse.

WHO BUT THE POST: Let’s be fair-and-balanced here. Who but the Post would publish this op-ed column three weeks before this crucial election? Three weeks before the Big Bush-Kerry Vote, what has William Raspberry steamed? People use cell phones too often on airplanes! “Is there no way out?” the troubled scribe asks. Funny—many readers ask us the same question!

Debate coverage

THE WRECK OF THE OLD 98: It’s embarrassing to see a president stoop to the type of deception displayed Friday evening. In the first half of the Great Debate, Bush was faring rather poorly. And so, in answer to Question 9 (of 18), he turned to a potent, discredited claim. “Let me see where to start,” he mused. And then he had it! He knew where to start! He started with a fake old deception:

BUSH (10/8/04): Let me see where to start here. First, the National Journal named Senator Kennedy [sic] the most liberal senator—of all! And that’s saying something with that bunch. You might say that took a lot of hard work.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ! Except Kerry isn’t “the most liberal senator,” and the National Journal hasn’t said otherwise. Indeed, how misleading was the president’s claim? When Bush began making this claim back in March, the Journal quickly published an article noting that the claim was vastly misleading. Indeed, Kerry’s lifetime voting record doesn’t place him among the Journal’s ten most liberal senators, as the mag pointed out (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/6/04). But so what? Facing disaster on Question 9, Bush went ahead and pimped the charge anyway. And then, as he struggled with Question 11, he made the claim a second time. But not before the struggling hopeful had voiced another old groaner:
BUSH (10/8/04): He’s got a record! He’s been there for twenty years! You can run but you cannot hide! He voted 98 times to raise taxes! I mean, these aren’t make-up figures. And so people are going to have to look at the record. Look at the record of the man running for the president! [sic] They don’t name him the most liberal in the United States Senate because he hasn’t shown up to many meetings! They name him because of his votes. And it’s reality!
Except it isn’t “reality,” and those are “make-up figures.” How recently have journalists scotched the claim about Kerry “voting 98 times to raise taxes?” Just two days before the debate, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post had summarized FactCheck.org’s earlier assessment. “Nearly half [of the 98 votes] were not for tax increases and many others were [votes] on procedural matters,” Kessler noted (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/04). In short, journalists all know how fake Bush’s claim really is. But so what! Bush went ahead and made it anyway. Viewers had no way of knowing how fake his “reality” really was.

Yes, it’s embarrassing, at this stage of the race, to see a president making such claims. But this raises a test for the national press—and highlights the press corps’ lack of past action. How will the press corps treat these twin claims—claims the president put to good use as he moved to paint Kerry as the “top liberal?” And even more important: Why are these tortured claims still viable? Why didn’t the press corps drive a stake through these silly, fake claims long ago?

The answer to that second question is clear. As we’ve noted again and again, the national press has made little attempt to fact-check or truth-squad the Bush campaign’s claims, going all the way back to March, when the attacks on Kerry began. Indeed, have we ever suffered a White House campaign driven by so many tortured assertions? Kerry voted 98 times for tax increases! And not only that: He voted for higher taxes more than 350 times! And there’s more: Kerry voted against every major weapons system! But don’t go away: Kerry voted to gut the intelligence budget! These tortured claims have all been discredited—but the point is rarely addressed or revisited by the press. Result? The Bush campaign keeps making the claims in TV ads, and Bush keeps reciting the claims in his speeches. Indeed, the claims don’t even have to jibe; in the kooky atmosphere of the current race, Kerry can simultaneously be said to have voted 98 times for tax increases and 350 times for higher taxes! Slumbering pundits stare into air as these claims are offered again and again. And, as late as October 8, Bush feels free to restate these claims while the entire press corps looks on!

Yes, the Washington press corps has slumbered and snored as bogus claims have driven this race. Which brings us to the Good News and Bad News—and to a preview of an incomparable series we’ll kick off tomorrow morning.

The Good News: In last Friday’s New York Times, Adam Nagourney and Richard Stevenson noted Bush’s vast dissembling (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/8/04). “Bush Pushes Limits on the Facts,” the headline said. Yes, this report came much too late—seven months after the dissembling began. But the piece did offer a good review of the president’s recent deceptions.

But then, alas, we have the Bad News—and the Bad News involves Josh Marshall. As we have recently said, we read Josh’s site every day; we read it because we expect to learn from Marshall’s work, and we’re almost never disappointed. But on Friday, Josh penned a critique of Nagourney’s piece that does cry out for review. Speaking as a fan of Josh’s, let us state what is merely obvious: Nagourney’s article was far better reasoned, and far more savvy, than Josh’s underwhelming critique. And we cringed when Marshall gave Requisite Praise to Michael Kinsley for his work in this area. Egad! Josh even linked to a recent interview in which Kinsley acknowledged that he has no idea how to handle matters like this. In our view, Kinsley stopped being a leader long ago—and this interview just provided more proof. But many of our brightest young liberal scribes still feel they’re required to praise him.

Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes! And not only that: The National Journal named him the most liberal senator! Of all! Democrats simply have to learn how to deal with tortured claims of this type. During Campaign 2000, fake, phony claims put Bush in the White House, and the fake, phony claims which Nagourney cites may keep him there through 2009. How can Democrats deal with this syndrome? Kinsley has nothing to say on this subject—and Marshall still feels that he has to be praised! Meanwhile, Nagourney’s piece is far more advanced than Marshall’s surprisingly weak critique. Democrats simply have to learn the ins and outs of this killing terrain. As we’ve said, we’re big fans of Marshall, and we once hugely admired Kinsley, the brightest man of the 1980s. But Democrats need to get their sh*t straight about the matters Nagourney discussed. We’ll examine Nagourney’s report—and Marshall’s critique—starting bright and early tomorrow. The described dissembling will not go away until press and pols learn how to thwart it.

Finally, don’t minimize one key point—the twin claims we cite above are crucially important. Bush is now moving to paint Kerry as a Big Liberal, and these were the two key claims he used to paint that pleasing portrait. He cited the Journal twice for a reason. But journalists and “bloggers” alike have shown little sense, throughout the year, of the type of claims that drive modern races. In his fact-check of Bush-Kerry II, for example, Brooks Jackson debunked the “98 votes” yet again, but he didn’t even mention that “top liberal in the Senate” groaner. The claims may seem too silly to mention. But Gore was defeated by silly claims, and Kerry may be defeated that way too.

THE FOX AND THE PEACOCK: Are the networks driven by liberal bias? On Friday night, you had to go to the Fox News Channel to learn how well John Kerry had done. Listen in on a few of the comments offered by Fox’s conservative pundits. Note—these comments are not sequential:

MORT KONDRACKE (10/8/04): I think [Kerry] was very effective. I think that he was also on the attack a lot and frankly, I think the president seemed to be on the defensive a lot.

FRED BARNES (10/8/04): We already knew what a great debater Kerry is and he was good again tonight.

BRIT HUME (10/8/04): Is it now fair to say that in each of these debates, in terms of marshaling arguments and remembering and presenting them, that this is something that John Kerry has proved he is very good at and that it doesn’t play to the president’s strong suit?

No one challenged Hume’s implied assessment. Later, Bill Kristol entered the scrum, producing this exchange:
KRISTOL (10/8/04): I guess I think—if you think the president was doing OK and didn’t need a win in this debate, he did fine. But I think, if one thinks Bush missed an awful lot of opportunities to go after Kerry in the first debate, he had to make some of them up in this debate, I’m not sure he really succeeded in doing so.

HUME: Mort?

KONDRACKE: I agree. I think Kerry won this debate as he won the first debate.

That’s what Big Pundits were saying at Fox! But over at NBC/MSNBC, the tone was again quite different. Does “liberal bias” drive the big networks? After Debate I, CBS pundits were much harder on Kerry than than their counterparts at Fox (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/8/04). And Friday, the pattern obtained once again. Foxes praised Kerry to the skies. Peacocks, though, sounded quite different.

For the record, Brokaw and Russert were on best behavior. NBC took a beating all week because of the net’s Cheney/Edwards clowning, and its co-anchors were explicitly trying not to judge the outcome this time. But do you think the stars at NBC are actually driven by liberal bias? At 11 PM Eastern, Tom and Tim crossed over to MSNBC, where Chris Matthews was running the usual shout-fest. Brokaw was still trying not to opine, but when prodded, he voiced a limited view. Go ahead—see if you can spot the “liberal bias:”

MATTHEWS (10/8/04) I guess I have to ask you the big question. How did you see the debate tonight? Do you think it was decisive or not?

[LAUGHTER]

BROKAW: There you go again.

MATTHEWS: I know.

BROKAW: Well, I think the president stepped up his game tonight. And I think that he came with a game plan in mind and tried to execute it on that stage.

It really did remind me of a prizefight. They were off the stool and into the middle of the ring before the bell rang on a couple of occasions. But you had a real clear distinction here tonight about where these candidates stand on a wide range of issues, not just Iraq and terrorism, but social issues as well, including taxes and deficits and Medicare and prescription drugs.

And I thought it was the most useful debate that I have seen in a long, long time.

“The president stepped up his game tonight,” Brokaw said. Beyond that, you could tell that another candidate had been present, but Brokaw didn’t even mention his name. When his turn came, Russert gave an even more cautious assessment. But can you spot the liberal bias?
RUSSERT (10/8/04): They were right to the point. They came from the heart. And you could hear people all around the country saying, yes, that's what I wanted to ask, nodding your heads.

And these candidates didn't try to morph their answers or their differences. This is where I stand on taxes, I stand on Iraq, I stand on stem cell research. The country now has to make a decision. It couldn't be clearer. I think George Bush was more energetic this debate, played to his base. I think Senator Kerry appealed to his base.

George Bush was more energetic. Kerry? He was there too.

No, we wouldn’t accuse Tom and Tim of bias based on these limited comments, but if there was bias in their remarks, it wasn’t the liberal variety. Meanwhile, Matthews was running the usual circus, cleaned up a bit from Tuesday night’s kegger. Liberal bias? His four-member panel included two flat-out Republican spinners—Pat Buchanan and Ben Ginsberg—“balanced” by neutral reporter Andrea Mitchell and non-partisan pundit Ron Reagan. And what line was the program’s excited host pushing? Near the end of the 10:30 half-hour, Matthews tried to establish a group assessment. Mitchell and Reagan had to speak up to say that they didn’t agree:

MATTHEWS (10/8/04): Yes, let me ask you about the Kerry strategy. Everybody has been very cheerful here so far in anointing the president the victor here.

[CROSSTALK]

MITCHELL: I didn't!

[CROSSTALK]

MATTHEWS: I call it the Brokaw rule of waiting two days now.

The “Brokaw rule”—the great man’s reaction to NBC’s trashing. For the record, Mitchell made clear what was already obvious—she hadn’t declared Bush the winner:

MITCHELL (10/8/04): I'm not ready to award either of them the victory here. I said that the debate was good. It was a good, strong exchange of views, that Charlie Gibson did a great job. I thought the questions were excellent, but I'm not sure yet who really won this thing.

But Ginsberg and Buchanan dominated the conversation in the 10:30 half-hour. And Matthews interviewed only one outside guest—Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew, with no Dem to balance him off. Eskew said he thought Bush won.

Meanwhile, what was the view of Matthews himself? Throughout the evening, he kept trying to claim that Kerry had disturbingly invaded Bush’s space. Plainly, it was the evening’s key moment. He brought it up a number of times. With apologies for the length of our excerpt, here was the first iteration:

MATTHEWS (10/8/04): Let me ask you this. And let me ask you about the opponent's strategy. He didn't quite walk into his sort of personal space the way Al Gore did four years ago, but it was a very aggressive, forward-leaning, as Don Rumsfeld would say, a forward-leaning stance. He came very close to the president, I would say within eight feet. He definitely faced him down. Pat, you love this stuff. Andrea, too. Was that too aggressive for most men?

BUCHANAN: No, it was, it was—go ahead, Andrea.

MITCHELL: I think it was on the edge, because he was confronting him. “Mr. President, you're wrong about this.” It was very confrontational, very direct, not at all through the moderator or to the questioner.

MATTHEWS: Right.

MITCHELL: And that was obviously—

GINSBERG: Haughty, not angry.

MITCHELL: Not angry.

REAGAN: Not angry. Tough, but not angry.

MATTHEWS: Is that the way—

[CROSSTALK]

MATTHEWS: —behave in the Oval Office?

GINSBERG: John Kerry will be characterized, I think, in this debate as haughty. And that sort of going into the president's face, glowering at him, all fits into that impression people are going to have.

BUCHANAN: Chris, there was a purpose there. They know the president's got a temper and he kept going in his face, going in his face.

MATTHEWS: Taunting him.

BUCHANAN: He was taunting him. And you could see the president was holding back.

MATTHEWS: He was.

BUCHANAN: And he would come out of the chair very quick. The president held it very well, but I think Kerry did it too much. It's one thing to make one point and say, Mr. President, like that, but every time he's sitting there sort of lecturing him.

MATTHEWS: He needed to modulate.

BUCHANAN: Exactly. He was lecturing him.

For the record—otherwise, it would be hard to know—Matthews seems to refer to part of Kerry’s answer to Question 2, when he directly addressed Bush. At any rate, if that conversation shows bias, it’s clearly not of the liberal variety. (Ginsberg, of course, kept reciting “haughty,” an official RNC spin-point.) From 10:30 Eastern right through to midnight, the excitable Matthews kept churning this incident—an incident mentioned almost nowhere else—trying hard to turn it into the most important event of the night.

On Fox, the pundits were praising Kerry. But over at NBC/MSNBC, the sound of things was quite different. Brokaw had established an important new rule, but nothing stops his excitable side-kick. Yes, spinners will decry the nets’ liberal bias (see below). But, incomparably, here at THE HOWLER, we let you gaze on the plain truth.

TOMORROW: Jim Pinkerton spots liberal bias. And, of course: Who is Bob Schieffer?