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ROOTS (PART 3 OF 4)! The press dodges valid critiques, we told Jim. And we gave him a striking example: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2004

ROOTS (PART 3): As usual, the Washington press corps was walking tall—standing up to an “army of partisans” who had been trying “to totally politicize journalism and totally politicize press criticism.” On the web, rude press critics were trying “to bully [reporters] into caving to a particular point of view.” But the nation’s scribes were bravely resisting. “They insist the efforts [of their critics] have not swayed them in any significant way,” Jim Rutenberg wrote in the New York Times. Later, Rutenberg described their heroism again. “Most political reporters interviewed for this article insisted that outside forces did not sway them from being fair,” the Times correspondent said.

Yes, Rutenberg’s colleagues were bravely resisting “crude personal insults” from bullying critics. Repeatedly, Rutenberg posed them as defenders of the faith—defenders of fairness itself! But we emitted low chuckles at a question the corps wasn’t asked to address. Had web-based critics of the mainstream press corps ever offered any valid critiques? Rutenberg didn’t seem to have asked. And his colleagues didn’t seem to have answered.

Yep! Rutenberg’s colleagues got a chance to complain—but they hadn’t been asked if critiques had been valid. And yes, when mainstream scribes “insist” that efforts of their critics “have not swayed them in any significant way,” we just shake our heads and chuckle. After all, that’s exactly the point that we have long made as we’ve continued our incomparable critique of this group of committed self-dealers!

Have web press critics made valid critiques? Should reporters have been swayed by these critics? Since Rutenberg quoted us in passing, let’s review what he quotes us saying—and let’s consider an example we gave him as we explained what we meant.

Midway through his report, Rutenberg says that many web critics engage in “crude personal insults”—insults described by Howard Fineman as “hurtful.” As he concludes this part of his report, Rutenberg even quotes us, saying this:

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.

We’ll discuss our past comments on Rutenberg below. But what did we mean when we told the scribe that we had “come to feel the only way you can really deal with the press corps is to beat up on them?” Easy! We told him we’d come to feel that way because we had learned, through the years, that the mainstream press corps simply refuses to respond to valid critiques. The mainstream press corps, we told Jim, will only respond to power. (We’ve expressed this view in these pages before.) And sure enough—what did Rutenberg’s colleagues tell him in their interviews? According to Rutenberg, they “insisted” that the efforts of their critics “have not swayed them in any significant way.” But that’s exactly why we told Jim that it’s pointless to reason with his colleagues—that “the only real way you can deal with the press corps is to beat up on them” in some sort of way.

Yes, you might even say that we called the Root’s shot! His colleagues refuse to respond to valid critiques, we told him—the very point they indirectly made as they “insisted” that their critics won’t sway them. And we even gave an incomparable example. Why have we come to feel, over the years, that it’s pointless to “correct” the press corps? The example we offered over the phone involved that old Love Story nonsense.

Does the press corps respond to valid critiques? Starting in March 1999, Rutenberg’s colleagues began to bash Candidate Gore over a meaningless comment from November 1997. And just that quickly, we began to lay out the actual facts about this pointless remark. We won’t revisit that issue here; we’ll link below to a fuller discussion. But as we pointed out to Rutenberg, only two reporters were present in 1997 to see and hear what Gore really said. One of them was Time’s Karen Tumulty, who made an admirable statement in the fall of 2000—a statement about how absurd the press corps’ conduct had been in this matter! Tumulty had been there to see and hear Gore. And here’s the review she offered of her colleagues, the ones who insist that they won’t be swayed by the words of their bullying critics:

TUMULTY (9/7/00): I am the reporter to whom Al Gore claimed that Love Story was based on him and Tipper...I was sort of appalled to see the way it played in the media. I mean, it was an offhand comment made during a two-and-a-half hour conversation that was mostly about other things and it was a comment that was, you know, true in most respects. I mean, he was a model, Erich Segal said, for the preppy character in Love Story, and it had been reported in Tennessee newspapers that it was modeled on both of them. But all of that got lost in, again, this kind of snowball—I think that there was probably something there worth gigging him about, but the degree to which it became a symbol of the man’s integrity I thought was very unfair. And I say that as the person to whom he made the comment and who wrote it.
So there was Tumulty, the reporter of record, saying that she was “sort of appalled” at the “very unfair” way Gore’s comment had been played in the media. But then, we had been making these points for eighteen months at the time Tumulty made these remarks, and our valid critiques had produced no discernible change in the way the corps was flogging this nonsense. (And yes, major scribes had been reading THE HOWLER, and yes, these scribes were well aware of the points we had endlessly made.) But our point to Rutenberg went beyond that. To her great credit, Tumulty had first told us in the spring of 1999 that Gore’s Love Story comment had been quite fleeting, and she always stressed that she was willing to be quoted about the matter, on the record. But when, we asked Rutenberg,, had Time, her employer, ever called this to the public’s attention? For twenty straight months, the brave fearless press corps battered Gore about this utterly ridiculous story. During that entire period, Tumulty—one of only two reporters who had actually heard Gore’s remarks—thought the coverage was something like “very unfair.” And this means that Time had a big, top-notch story—a story the magazine chose not to publish! Eventually, in September 2000, Tumulty gave a public assessment of her colleagues’ “very unfair” conduct. But she did so in a forum at American University; Time magazine had never seen fit to publish her story in some sort of “I was there” format. When we spoke with Rutenberg, we offered this an example of the press corps’ refusal to play the game fair. Should anyone really be surprised when Rutenberg quotes his fearless colleagues “insisting” that they won’t be swayed by web critics? Even when the critic is someone like Tumulty—an experienced, high-ranking, insider scribe—even then, criticism of the great, brilliant press is disappeared. But then, it’s just as we have told you, for years: The press corps tells you the stories it likes. Let’s just say it: Unfortunately, Rutenberg’s colleagues are a gang of hacks, as they proved in the Love Story matter, and as they seem to have proved once again this week with their new, laughable comments.

So yes, we told Jim that we’ve come to see the obvious; we’ve come to see that it’s basically pointless to reason with the celebrity press corps. Sadly, this “press corps” responds to one thing—power—and any effective critique of this gang has to be driven by politics. Sad but true—if you want to affect the press corps’ work, you can’t expect to do so with reasoned critique. Unfortunately, you have to make the corps hear footsteps. Unfortunately, you have to make them fear that they’ll be loudly yelled at when they compare Democrat hopefuls to hamsters (or to weasels; or to “small caged animals”). You have to make them fear they’ll be yelled at when they invent silly tales sand repeat them for two solid years. You have to make them fear they’ll be yelled at when they publish idiot pieces saying that Kerry has a character problem because he wind-surfs and plays show tunes on the guitar. No, we didn’t start this site planning to yell. But over the years, the press corps has made it abundantly clear that other approaches are pointless.

Do we approve of “crude personal insults?” Actually, no, we do not. We don’t think we traffic in such insults, and we note that Rutenberg didn’t say otherwise. But we had to laugh when the Times reporter bravely quoted his brave, fearless colleagues. “They insist the efforts [of their critics] have not swayed them in any significant way?” Yo! Jim! That’s the problem! The efforts of their critics haven’t swayed them? That’s the problem, Jim! That’s what we said!!

MONDAY: An incomparable Part 4! Who is the Washington press corps?

ABOUT THOSE CRUDE PERSONAL INSULTS: Let’s say it again—we enjoyed our conversation with Rutenberg, who seems like a perfectly decent guy (in fact, we have no doubt that that is the case). But did we call him “dumb” and “over his head?” In the incomparable piece to which he refers, the cruel word “dumb” appears three times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/15/04). Each time, we said precisely this:

THE DAILY HOWLER (4/15/04): Can Rutenberg possibly be this dumb?
In fact, we were suggesting that he probably isn’t. But it’s hard to know where odd journalism comes from. Read our piece and see if our exasperation was justified this day.

Meanwhile, did we say that Root was “over his head?” Readers, here is what we actually said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/04): “If he’s really trying his best, Rutenberg seems to be over his head with this important subject.” Readers! Where are standards? Incomparably, we offered a nuanced appraisal, which Root reduced to a crude, brutish insult! But then, that seems to be the drift of his piece on the bullying critics his press corps so bravely resists.