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ROOTS (PART 1 OF 2)! Heroic reporters bravely insist—they refuse to be swayed by the web: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2004

ROOTS (PART 1): They started out as low, mordant chuckles. But soon, laughter boomed through the HOWLER’s great halls, just as laughter once was heard in Zeus’ great halls on Olympus. What was the source of our deep, throaty roars? We chuckled at the press corps’ heroic reaction to criticism from our likes on the web. In this morning’s New York Times, Jim Rutenberg records the way his inspiring colleagues “insist” that they’re still being fair:
RUTENBERG (10/28/04): Bob Somerby, a comedian who runs a Web site called The Daily Howler that often accuses the news media of being shallow, lazy, bullied by Republicans and unfairly critical of Democrats, said a more genteel approach would not be effective. (He has referred to this reporter on his Web site as “dumb” and in “over his head” for being blind or turning a blind eye to Republican spin.)

“I’ve come to feel the only way you can really deal with the press corps is to beat up on them,” Mr. Somerby said. Most political reporters interviewed for this article insisted that outside forces did not sway them from being fair, though a couple admitted they could not rule out having pulled punches in small and even subconscious ways.

So there was the good news! Rutenberg writes a full piece today about press criticism on the web. There has been a lot of such action, he says. But don’t you worry about this, dear readers! Reporters “insist” that these “outside forces” don’t “sway them from being fair!”

Good grief! No wonder the gods have always roared at the clowning affairs of we mortals!

Before we explain our reaction to that remark, let’s lay out, in a bit more detail, what Rutenberg’s article says. There’s a lot of press criticism on the web, the scribe notes. Here is his basic overview:

RUTENBERG: The criticism comes from both sides of the political spectrum and from an array of perspectives—middle-of-the-road independent critics like those at the Columbia Journalism Review; unabashedly partisan blog authors; and even from within the mainstream news media. ABC's political Web site, The Note, frequently critiques individual reporters.

The harshest criticism comes from sites with openly political leanings.

Who are those “openly political” sites, the ones which offer the harshest criticism? Rutenberg cites a pair of well-financed sites—the venerable Media Research Center and spanking-new Media Matters of America. “But the most personal critiques originate among the political blogs—especially from the left—run by individuals who use news media reports for their often-heated discussions,” he says. He names three sites and lists some of their insults; for example, one site has called Newsweek’s Howard Fineman “‘wimpy,’ a ‘slime’ and worse,” he notes. In a quotation, Fineman correctly says that some web writers “go after people’s physical characteristics, they’ll say somebody’s ugly” (fuller quote below). For the record, the placement of our own quotation—the quotation we render above—may make it sound as if we voiced approval of sites which employ “crude personal insults.” But again, for the record, that isn’t the case. In our discussion with Rutenberg, we only discussed our own approach, not that of other sites or other writers.

Why did we chuckle at Rutenberg’s piece? Much of the article is accurate and reasonable; we enjoyed our discussion with the scribe, and he quoted our conversation accurately and fairly. Beyond that, we thought Fineman’s quoted statement was reasonable, balanced and fair (see below). But our chuckling began with the passage quoted above—the passage in which reporters insist that critics won’t “sway them from being fair.” Incomparably, we read back through the full report, and found this other heroic passage right at the very outset:

RUTENBERG (pgh 2): The accused in this case are not the candidates, but the mainstream news media. And the accusers are an ever-growing army of Internet writers, many of them partisans, who reach hundreds of thousands of people a day.

(3) Journalists covering the campaign believe the intent is often to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way, though others worry the criticism could eventually have a chilling effect.

Heroically, the journalists “insist” that critics on the web “have not swayed them in any significant way.” The scribes insist they won’t be “bullied.” But alas! They do worry that the work on the web might eventually “have a chilling effect.”

Why did we chuckle at this construction? Because of a certain well-groomed dog which notably doesn’t seem to have barked! Rutenberg seems like a very nice guy, but he seems to bring a limited perspective to his review of the war on the web. He seems to have asked the various scribes if critics have “swayed them from being fair.” Indeed, when reporters “insist” that web writers’ efforts “have not swayed them in any significant way,” the only influence they (or he) can imagine is some sort of “chilling effect.” But there seems to be a question the scribe didn’t ask—and that is the question we’ll turn to tomorrow. Rutenberg seems to have asked his embattled colleagues if critics have bullied them into unfairness. But can you hear the dog that didn’t bark? The question the scribe didn’t ask?

Meanwhile, why in the world would we at THE HOWLER have come to the puzzling conclusion we mentioned? Why would we have come to feel that “the only way you can really deal with the press corps is to beat up on them?” We gave an example when we spoke with Jim, and we think our example is truly incomparable. What dis reporters say about it? Alas! It doesn’t seem they were asked.

TOMORROW: Rutenberg skips an obvious question. We’ll go ahead and present it.

FINEMAN SPEAKS: Among much-maligned scribes, only Fineman is quoted. Whatever one may think of his work, we think his statement was balanced and fair:

RUTENBERG: “Most of us now realize that this is a constant conversation, and I think that largely that part of it is good,” said Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent for Newsweek. “Some of the stuff includes very personal and nasty things about people—they go after people's physical characteristics, they'll say somebody's ugly—and you just have to ignore that.''

Still, he said, “I would be lying if I didn't say it could be hurtful.”

Some of the criticism is hurtful, Fineman says. But—although his quoted statement is murky—he also says that “largely” this “conversation” with the web is “good.” Huh! What might the pundit have meant by that? We’ll examine that question tomorrow.

O’DONNELL’S FOLLY: Yesterday, readers began to pre-complain about our review of Lawrence O’Donnell and John O’Neill. Sorry—we think O’Donnell was utterly strange on Scarborough Country last Friday. The transcript can’t begin to convey how odd his interruptions and name-calling were. And not only odd, but ineffective. Indeed, his performance this night was so over-the-top that he helped make O’Neill a pitiable victim (video links below). Meanwhile, is John O’Neill a lying liar? O’Donnell interrupted and yelled so much that an open-minded Scarborough viewer would have had no real chance to find out.

We’ve never seem O’Donnell perform this way, but it’s the flip side of the hopeless press conduct that has allowed O’Neill’s oddball book to go almost wholly unchallenged. Have major pundits completely lost the ability to conduct an insightful critique? Within the past two weeks, we’ve seen Ted Koppel go on the air with O’Neill completely unprepared for the challenge (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/XX/04). And then, the other side of the coin: We get O’Donnell yelling, interrupting, calling names—and eliciting exactly no information, just as Koppel failed to do when faced with O’Neill’s groaning statements.

By the way— at this time four years ago, O’Donnell was still assuring the world that Al Gore was a Big Ridiculous Liar. Here was a gruesome October outing on the McLaughlin Group:

O’DONNELL (10/10/00): John, his most ridiculous and his most relevant untruths are his claims of legislative achievement. He told Time magazine last year that he enacted the Earned Income Tax Credit, which of course went into law before he was ever in Congress.
“Which of course went into law before he was ever in Congress!” (Read on!) And note the plural when O’Donnell laments the candidate’s “ridiculous untruths.”

We’ll spare you the group’s full discussion of gimmicked-up lies—the type of discussion which handed the White House to Bush. By October 2000, this discussion had been constant for nineteen months, and O’Donnell—on the air as a “liberal”—was happy to add a bogus example from the fall of 1999. Gore’s remark to Time (11/1/99) had clearly concerned a proposal for “the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit;” clearly, Gore hadn’t said that he enacted the venerable policy. But so what? The press corps’ gang of resident hacks pimped the bogus alternate claim, and a full year later, election on the line, O’Donnell dragged it out again, earning the McLaughlin Group’s [LAUGHTER]. And yes—this is how your “liberal” pundits were conducting themselves just four years ago. In Scarborough Country last Friday night, O’Donnell’s yelling and interrupting were a reversal, but only marginally better. We’re surprised when our readers are willing to settle for such meager, un-nourishing fare.

SEE LARRY YELL: A six-minute set of excerpts from the Scarborough show is available here. The excitement begins about two minutes in. A shorter set of excerpts is available here; though shorter, it includes some footage which shows that the alleged research on one factual matter has now gone beyond the apparent state of O’Donnell’s knowledge.