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Daily Howler: The New York Times broke out the soft soap for a front-page profile of Bachmann
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WHERE’S THE BEEF! The New York Times broke out the soft soap for a front-page profile of Bachmann: // link // print // previous // next //

Don’t ask, don’t force her to tell: On Sunday, the Washington Post “Outlook” section presented an (edited) interview with Olympia Snowe.

It was part of Outlook’s “OUTSPOKEN” series. But Outlook seems to have worked rather hard to shelter Snowe against the need to engage in any such conduct.

(To read the full feature, click here.)

Darlings! In such lofty journalistic preserves, Serious People do not rock the boat. They don’t embarrass or challenge senators who have agreed to be interviewed. We thought of this Abiding Law of Village Decorum when we scanned two of the first four questions published in the Post.

(Repeat: This feature is edited. It presents “edited excerpts.”)

In Question 2, Snowe was given the chance to wax about the great work of the Gang of Six. Here’s the full Q-and-A as it appears in the Post:

OUTLOOK (10/18/09): You mentioned the "Gang of Six," the bipartisan group of senators on the committee who negotiated on the legislation. Looking back, do you consider that process a success or a failure?

SNOWE: It was an outstanding process. I think that if the American people had had a window into those deliberations, people would have felt very encouraged. It's a rarity today in many ways to have that opportunity to sit down with your colleagues, face to face, several days a week for multiple hours, just working through issues. It didn't culminate in agreement, but it did establish the foundation and essence for the legislation that was ultimately reported to the Senate Finance Committee.

There! Snowe got a chance to wax about her colleagues’—and her own—vast greatness. But two questions later, she was asked about a troubling matter. In response, she mounted her high horse again. Then, she changed the subject:

OUTLOOK: Was it strange to turn on the TV in August and hear Glenn Beck spinning wild tales about "death panels"?

SNOWE: I was stunned. And I still am stunned. It's reflective of the discourse. People want us to reform the health-care system, but they're not sure we can get it right. And that's understandable, to be honest with you. I don't think Congress has lived up to the standards that elected officials in the U.S. Congress should have in these monumental times. If I think back to Social Security and Medicare, for example, they did garner broader support in terms of passage.

Snowe said she was “stunned” by Beck’s wild tales. And then, she basically changed the subject—something the Post allowed.

Let’s state the obvious. Even the kid who hid in the attic would have thought of the obvious follow-up: If Snowe was so stunned by Beck’s vile conduct, what did she think about Senator Grassley, one of the lordly “Gang of Six” whom she had just praised to the skies? After all his grand/glorious work on the bill, Grassley scurried home to Iowa—and he declaimed about those “death panels” too! In Question 2, Snowe had praised Grassley’s encouraging conduct. But what the heck had she thought when this great solon behaved just like vile Beck?

Choosing not to rock the boat, the Post interviewer never asked. Or who knows? Perhaps he did ask! If he did, his editor wisely cut that unmannered crap out.

The interviewer was Ezra Klein. Klein was once a promising comer, seemingly careful not to say the wrong things. Today, he’s perilously close to being accepted in The Order of Serious People.

What did Senator Snowe think of Grassley? More to the point: Was she asked?

Gagging us softly: The feature appeared beneath a gag-worthy headline: “A Conversation With Olympia Snowe, Reform Rebel.”

Special report: The soft soap files!

PART 1—WHERE’S THE BEEF: We were struck by a lengthy profile on the front page of last Thursday’s New York Times.

The profile, written by Monica Davey, examined second-term Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The profile appeared beneath a rather innocuous headline: “GOP Has a Lightning Rod, And Her Name Is Not Palin.”

Just a guess: Many Times readers had never heard of this new “lightning rod” before they saw the profile by Davey. Another guess: And after they read the profile by Davey, these people still had no real idea what the big fuss is about.

That there is a big fuss surrounding Bachmann is fairly clear just from the size of the piece. Davey’s profile covered some 26 paragraphs, stretching to 1150 words. It was accompanied by a second piece, totaling 405 words, in which Davey which fact-checked some statements by Bachmann. (Headline: “Fact Checker Finds Falsehoods in Remarks.”) The twin pieces included one small photo on the front page—and three larger photos on page A20.

(To read the profile, just click this. For the “Fact Check” feature, click here.)

The profile started on the front page; its lay-out inside the paper was huge. But after reading Davey’s twin pieces, it’s doubtful that a New York Times reader would have understood why this little-known, second-term congresswoman had generated such a big fuss.

Why was the New York Times profiling Bachmann? As she started, Davey offered a familiar, rather innocuous framework:

DAVEY (10/15/09): Representative Michele Bachmann will appear in the 2010 calendar of ''Great American Conservative Women'' (she will be November). Her likeness has been transformed into an action figure. And, so far in 2009, she has been interviewed on a national cable news show every nine days, on average, an analysis by Smart Politics, a nonpartisan blog affiliated with the University of Minnesota shows.

Not bad for someone less than three years on the job.

Here in Ms. Bachmann's district, and in much of the country, that outsized celebrity has boiled down to this: They adore her or they loathe her.

“Not bad” for a newcomer, Davey said, describing Bachmann’s cable exposure. She then offered a familiar construct: Some people love Bachmann, others loathe her. But why is Rep. Bachmann so loathed? Go ahead! Read the whole Times lay-out! If you didn’t know the answer coming in, you’ll still have little idea.

Why is Michele Bachmann loathed? As she continues, Davey quotes the DNC making a strong assertion:

DAVEY (continuing directly): As the health care overhaul moves closer to a full debate in Congress, Ms. Bachmann is under attack from the Democratic National Committee for spreading ''reckless lies'' about the overhaul, one of a handful of Republicans singled out as part of the committee's ''Call 'Em Out'' campaign. Back home, two Democrats already say they are seeking Ms. Bachmann's seat in next year's election, and are raising a lot of money to do so.

Bachmann has been spreading “reckless lies,” the DNC has said. But there’s more: In paragraph 6, Davey quotes Sean Hannnity; he calls Bachmann “the second-most-hated Republican woman in the country, second to Governor Palin.” In paragraph 12, Davey extends this theme:

DAVEY: On Capitol Hill, Ms. Bachmann is viewed with disdain by Democrats who see her as a wacky purveyor of outrageous claims and criticisms. Leading Republicans wince occasionally at her appearances on the floor and on television, but they also see her as someone with telegenic appeal who can energize conservatives and aggravate Democrats and they are not likely to rein her in.

At this point, we’ve read twelve paragraphs. We’ve been told that Democrats accuse Bachmann of “reckless lies” and outrageous claims.” We’ve been told that Democrats think she is “wacky.” She’s America’s second-most-hated Republican woman, according to a major talker.

Not bad!

Clearly, there’s a big fuss about Bachmann. But does Davey let Times readers know what the big fuss is all about? In our view, the scribe works rather hard in this piece to under-report the statements by Bachmann which have created this fuss.

In our view, Davey took out a big tub of soft soap as she constructed her profile.

In a profile like this, it isn’t Davey’s job to agree/disagree with Democratic criticisms. It is her job to let readers know what the big fuss is about. But is the New York Times willing to tell the truth about a “reckless” figure like Bachmann? Or is the New York Times bending again to fear of attacks from the right?

Tomorrow—Part 2: Get out the soap