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Daily Howler: Our young analysts spit-took their bagels when Herbert praised Clinton's fine run
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HEY, RUBES! Our young analysts spit-took their bagels when Herbert praised Clinton’s fine run: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2008

The Project for Excellence—not: Howard Kurtz makes a few minor points in his report in this morning’s Post. But our analysts spit-took their bagels when they fell upon this:

KURTZ (10/28/08): Critics, including many conservatives, say the media have been too easy on Obama, and bias cannot be discounted as a factor. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that from the end of the conventions through the debates, McCain's coverage was more than three times as negative than Obama's.

That’s an unfortunate reference by Kurtz—to an unfortunate “study.”

What’s wrong with Kurtz’s reference? The Pew report is almost totally useless, but it doesn’t even purport to be a study of media “bias.” On last Thursday’s NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown asked Pew’s Mark Jurkowitz about that very point:

BROWN (10/23/08): Mark, what, I mean, may be the biggest question here is what your study tells us about perceived or actual bias in the coverage.

JURKOWITZ: Well, everybody, of course has asked that question. And the one thing that's important to say is, although terms like negative and positive coverage seem loaded, we're not saying that's the same thing as unfair coverage.

We're not suggesting that all coverage should be neutral. Those are two completely different things.

We've been asked a lot about, is there bias? Throughout this campaign there have been allegations of bias. There were allegations, frankly, from the Clinton campaign in the primary season that the media were favoring Barack Obama.

The truth is complex and nuanced. And what we really do say in the study is, the data don't give us a conclusive answer to that. What the data do suggest—and to use the word "bias" loosely—is that the bias here does tend toward the sort of winning strategic narrative.

And what we actually saw in the arc of John McCain's coverage was, when our study began, right after the convention, he was having—he was doing well strategically. He had gotten a bounce in the polls. He was ahead. Sarah Palin energized the base.

That week, he got positive—more positive than negative coverage. Obama’s coverage was more negative than positive.

Once the economic crisis hit and set off sort of a link of reactions—and some actions by McCain, some actions by Obama—changes in the poll, that's when the tone of the coverage began to change for John McCain.

If Brown had asked a follow-up question, we might have been able to sort through this murky answer, gaining knowledge about what this study does purport to measure. (Sorry—this “complex and nuanced” answer.) But Brown had two other guests this night—and instead of questioning Jurkowitz further, he moved on to ask irrelevant questions of those irrelevant guests. Jurkowitz is bright—and he might have shed light. But he got no further queries.

This morning, Kurtz makes a casual conflation, acting as if the Pew study is a study of bias. But Jurkowitz, despite all the nuance, did at least seem to reject that conflation: “The one thing that's important to say is, although terms like negative and positive coverage seem loaded, we're not saying that's the same thing as unfair coverage.” Presumably, that comes close to saying that this study is not a measure of “bias.” A similar statement is found near the end of the study’s first page. (See the penultimate paragraph.)

What then does this study measure? As we’ve noted many times in the past, it’s almost always hard to say when Pew presents one of its studies. In truth, these studies are far from “excellent.” Typically, they do a very poor job of explaining what it is they’re trying to measure—and they typically lack even basic transparency. As always, this new study does a very poor job of explaining what is meant by “negative coverage” (and “positive coverage”). This is as close as it comes:

PEW REPORT (10/08): To examine tone, the Project takes a particularly cautious and conservative approach. Unlike some researchers, we examine not just whether assertions in stories are positive or negative, but also whether they are inherently neutral. This, we believe, provides a much clearer and fairer sense of the tone of coverage than ignoring those balanced or mixed evaluations. Second, we do not simply tally up all the evaluative assertions in stories and compile them into a single pile to measure. Journalists and audiences think about press coverage in stories or segments. They ask themselves, is this story positive or negative or neutral? Hence the Project measures coverage by story, and for a story to be deemed as having a negative or positive tone, it must be clearly so, not a close call: for example, the negative assertions in a story must outweigh positive assertions by a margin of at least 1.5 to 1 for that story to be deemed negative.

Pew “examines not just whether assertions in stories are positive or negative, but also whether they are inherently neutral.” We don’t have the slightest idea what that puzzling statement means. Nor are we reassured by the self-parodic claim that “negative assertions in a story must outweigh positive assertions by a margin of at least 1.5 to 1 for that story to be deemed negative.” Indeed, since Pew provides no examples of negative assertions at all, we have no way to examine statements or stories which Pew has judged to be “negative” (or “positive”). What does a “negative assertion” look like? How about a full-blown “negative story?” Pew provides examples of neither. For that reason, we have little idea what these terms actually mean.

According to Pew, McCain has been hit with a bunch of “negative stories” in the six weeks under review (September 6 through October 16). But what do these “negative stories” look like? In the age of the simple electronic link, it’s incredible that Pew provides no examples. Question: Does a purely factual story about falling poll numbers count as a “negative story?” There’s no way to tell from Pew’s report. In fact, there’s almost no way to tell anything at all from the report Pew has posted.

These Pew reports let the insider press corps pretend that it somehow keeps tabs on itself, through its various pipe-puffing adjuncts. In practice, these reports serve one main purpose; they give us a rough idea of what the insider press corps thinks of as “excellence.” The press corps’ standard for that is quite low. But then, you may have known that.

HEY, RUBES: Here at THE HOWLER, we have no real idea why Bob Herbert says what he says this morning. “The heyday of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove is over,” he says in this premature piece.

We’re not sure we agree with that. In 1993, the heyday of GOP attack politics began on the day Bill Clinton took office; similar efforts will occur if Obama reaches the White House. We don’t know why Herbert thinks that such attacks won’t work again, given the fullness of time. It’s true: Washington power won’t hunt Obama in quite the way it hunted Bill Clinton—at least, not in the short run. (In the short run, Washington power is too concerned with its 401Ks. Finally! Something they care about!) But will power chase him down in the end? Will past techniques prove effective again? Herbert seem to say that they won’t.

Why won’t Rove-style attacks work again? In this passage, Herbert defines the glorious day that’s unfolding:

HERBERT (10/28/08): This election is hardly over, despite the impulse of the pundits to write the McCain campaign’s obituary. But Senator McCain has diminished his chances of winning the presidency in many ways, the most important of which was his failure to grasp the most significant new trend in American politics.

With the country facing enormous problems (even before the meltdown of the credit and financial markets in recent months), the voters wanted more substance from their candidates. They wanted a greater sense of maturity and a more civil approach to campaigning. They were tired of the politics of personal destruction and the playbook that counseled “attack, attack, attack.”

Senator Obama was perfectly suited to this new approach.

Sorry, but that seems pretty silly—and not just because Obama is out there “attacking” McCain every day. (There’s no reason why he shouldn’t.) In fact, this campaign has been stunningly substance-free—largely thanks to a feckless press corps—and very few voters are manning the ramparts, demanding to be informed more. On September 15, when the nation’s finances melted away, McCain was slightly ahead in some national polls—a tribute, in part, to those old-fashioned politics. Herbert is writing a paean to New Glory Days—a paean which makes little sense.

But good God! We really had to laugh out loud when the scribe began to gush about the uplifting Hillary Clinton! Yes, Sarah Palin has been a horrible candidate—the worst ever on the national stage, in our own estimation. But how much do pseudo-liberals love to attack her? This passage made us throw our heads back and roar with mordant laughter:

HERBERT (10/28/08): The heyday of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove is over. Yet Senator McCain handed the reins of his campaign to Rove’s worshipful acolytes. With the nation in a high state of anxiety over the conflagration in the credit and financial markets, Senator McCain traveled the country ranting Rovelike about Bill Ayers, trying to instill a bogus belief that the onetime ’60s radical and Senator Obama were good buddies and perhaps involved in some nefarious doings together. Senator Obama was about 8 years old when Mr. Ayers was engaged in his nefarious doings.

It was the classic fear card that the Republicans have played to such brilliant effect for years. But times have changed. (Lately Senator McCain has been obsessively invoking the name of “Joe the Plumber” at his campaign appearances, as if that might be the phrase that finally sways the electorate in a way that the Bill Ayers mantra did not.)

Senator Hillary Clinton helped define the new political atmosphere with her own historic run for the White House. Senator McCain, demonstrating again his tone-deafness to the new reality, tried to capitalize on Mrs. Clinton’s remarkable achievement by cynically selecting Sarah Palin, the anti-Hillary, as his running mate.

Truly, that’s astounding. Surely, your country will never prosper in the hands of “progressives” like these.

Hillary Clinton helped define the new political atmosphere with her own historic run for the White House! Can no one recall what Herbert said about Clinton in real time? What he said, rightly or wrongly?

On January 26, Herbert went way off his meds, writing a piece about Clinton that we regarded as deeply unwise (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/29/08). You may have judged that column differently. But here’s a key chunk of what Herbert said:

HERBERT (1/26/08): The Clinton camp knows what it's doing, and its slimy maneuvers have been working.

[...]

[I]t's legitimate to ask, given the destructive developments of the last few weeks, whether the Clintons are capable of being anything but divisive. The electorate seems more polarized now than it was just a few weeks ago, and the Clintons have seemed positively gleeful in that atmosphere.

It makes one wonder whether they have any understanding or regard for the corrosive long-term effects—on their party and the nation—of pitting people bitterly and unnecessarily against one another.

We thought Herbert’s column was deeply unfair, and remarkably foolish; he even resorted to a type of nut-picking, quoting a stupid comment someone wrote on “a mainstream news blog,” then acting like it was Clinton’s fault. You may have judged that column differently. But go ahead! Just laugh out loud as he tells you today that Clinton helped define this uplifting new atmosphere—in contrast to Vile Palin, of course. Oh by the way: Just four days earlier, Herbert had written this about the uplifting Clinton:

HERBERT (1/22/08): The Democrats are here this week fighting over the black vote. It's ironic that in a state so racially polarized, there is so little serious discussion among the candidates of the race issue.

Senator Barack Obama, with his message of unity and healing (and not wanting to be seen solely as a black candidate), has tried to avoid addressing the issue of race head-on. Bill and Hillary Clinton have worked hard at turning that posture into a negative, aggressively courting the black vote, while at the same time spotlighting (directly and through surrogates) the fact that Mr. Obama is black.

Where was the uplifting Clinton then? Where was the uplifting Clinton in March, when Herbert wrote a column (“Confronting the Kitchen Sink”) which went after “the trash-and-thrash tactics that helped Senator Clinton defeat [Obama] in Ohio and Texas?” As he closed that particular column, Herbert described the way Clinton was helping define the new political atmosphere with her own historic run:

HERBERT (3/8/08): We have seen election after election in which candidates have won by fanning the anxieties of voters. Elect me, or something terrible will happen to you!

That is now the Clinton mantra, which is a measure of how grim our politics have become.

B-Herb! You wrote that this year!

On balance, we disagreed with Herbert’s criticisms in that column; you may have viewed them differently. But in real time, where was the glorious Clinton, the one about whom Herbert gushes today? In real time—in Herbert’s actual columns—that person didn’t exist. Even as late as Memorial Day, Herbert opened a column in the following manner. In this piece, he approvingly banged the drums for one of the most appalling attack-attack-attacks we’ve ever seen dumped on a candidate. We thought this was inexcusable stuff (though KeithO had pimped it much harder):

HERBERT (5/27/08): On Friday morning, Joe Biden gave us an example of a leading national politician exhibiting decency and class. Later in the day, Hillary Clinton gave us an example of something else.

Sadly, that was the start of the column in which Herbert wet his pants about—well, let’s recall how Clinton was helping define the new political atmosphere with her own historic run. After praising Biden’s decency, Herbert declaimed like this:

HERBERT (5/27/08): Later that day, Senator Clinton made her now infamous reference to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. If you give her every benefit of the doubt, you still have a candidate making a tasteless and purely self-serving comment that she should have understood would send a shiver of dread through millions.

In our view, Herbert played the fool that day—and he’d had four days to reconsider the nonsense surrounding that particular attack-attack-attack against Clinton. (Ugly nonsense Obama’s campaign had pushed, attack-attack-attacking its foe.)

In short, Herbert trashed Clinton’s conduct and character all year long—crying, wailing, imagining, dreaming, promoting the ugliest possible charges. We thought his claims were usually wrong; you may have judged them differently. But today, he treats you like a gang of fools—as our lords so typically do. Today, he throws you Scalp of Palin—using the ploy to reverse himself about Vile Clinton’s vile conduct.

Suddenly, Clinton’s a force of light—unlike his new pleasing miscreant.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t think very highly of Herbert, although we’d like to think different. In the 1990s, he ran with power—ran with the crowd—trashing Bill Clinton for his endless vile conduct. And sure enough! By the end of the decade, he even seemed to be working hard to put George Bush in the White House. Herbert should crawl on his knees to explain. Instead, he still plays you like toys.

Hey, rubes! Herbert’s column today is almost spectacularly disingenuous. But then, so was the garbage he pimped about Gore as the world’s destiny hung in the balance. Progressive interests simply can’t prosper with leaders like this in our march.

Here comes an unflattering view: Herbert and Rich sold your interests in the 1990s, caving to power—to Rove and Atwater. Remind us again, so we’re all reassured: Why won’t these gentlemen flip-flop again, when power comes to call—as it will?

A postscript: If even one of these guys would explain his past conduct, we’d treat him like a conquering hero. But have you ever seen a single scribe explain why he, and the rest of the gang, did the sick things they all did in that era? Their wars have all been disappeared—and as of today, with this new bright column, so has Vile Clinton’s more recent vile conduct. Attack-attack-attack? It’s all so yesterday, Herbert explains—having attack-attacked this whole year.