MARCUS, CONSTRUCTIVE: Ruth Marcus fights back on Social Security in todays column. Though her format today is a bit murky, wed say that her piece is constructive.
Marcus argues six different points (five myths and a slur). Our basic rankings:
In her first segment, shes basically right (unless shes wrong in her fourth segment). The same is true of her second segment. Her third segment is plainly aimed at Paul Krugman; well admit that we didnt understand this part of Krugmans rebuttal last week.
Her fourth claim—that the trustees projections are not unduly pessimistic—is highly technical, but important. Wed love to see it discussed further, by people who understand the facts and know how to limn them clearly.
Her fifth point is basically right—but a great deal more is involved in this matter. Hidden here is a welter of familiar, mistaken ideas invented by devious right-wing spin-tanks. (The trust fund is just worthless IOUs. The trust fund has already been spent.) This point should be fleshed out in much more detail if were ever going to move beyond the deceptions these slick orgs have crafted.
Her sixth point (her slur) is basically fair.
None of this speaks to the absurdity of Democratic candidates reciting right-wing canards about colleges students never getting Social Security; calling Social Security a crisis; or attacking the character of some other Dem who wont adopt such views. (There is nothing wrong with Obamas current position. Theres also nothing wrong with Clintons position—which Obama held until roughly last week. You know—Obama? The honest one?) Meanwhile, in her columns biggest failure, Marcus avoids the problem which has made this issue a mine-field for Dems—the successful generation, by right-wing tanks, of endless misunderstandings. (Social Security will go bankrupt in 2041.) But if we want a discussion of a serious policy matter, Marcus offers a workable framework. She shouldnt have cherry-picked Krugmans quotes (and she did). But this piece is a vast improvement.
JACK WELCHS POTEMKIN NEWS ORG: Three cheers for Greg Sargent, who offered this instructive post about the Zogby poll we cited in yesterdays HOWLER. This was an on-line Zogby poll; that doesnt necessarily mean that its results are wrong, but it was a clear outlier, and Charles Franklin seemed puzzled by its technical oddities in this technical post. Meanwhile, the latest Gallup poll was also released yesterday; it showed Clinton with her (fairly standard) five-point lead over Giuliani. This result has persisted since the late spring—although the press corps has worked very hard to keep voters from knowing about it.
That has been especially true at NBC—which brings us to the latest groaning misconduct from The House Jack Welch Built.
By last night, everyone knew that there might be troubles with the Zogby poll—the outlier poll, the on-line effort. And everyone knew about the Gallup poll—the one which showed the more typical result. But so what? In the past month, Hardball has become a place for pure, unvarnished press propaganda. And last night, despite knowing about the two polls, its loathsome host kept it up:
MATTHEWS (11/27/07): Time for the Hardball Big Number, that tells a big story. Tonight, our Big Number is the number five. Thats the number of Republican presidential candidates that Hillary Clinton trails in the November match-ups, according to a new Zogby poll—Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, and, believe it or not, Mike Huckabee. Thats five, count them, five Republicans all now beating, yes, Hillary Clinton in the match-up for next November. Its tonights Big Number.
Now to the round table. Matt Continetti is with the Weekly Standard. Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post, hes on the editorial board. And Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle.
Predictably, none of Matthews paper-trained panelists said a word about that Big Number. And lets be clear: Matthews knew about the Gallup poll. He knew about the questions surrounding the Zogby poll—but he only cited the Zogby! As weve told you, this man—a clannish descendant of Tail-Gunner Joe—is now pushing pure propaganda. But then, its what he did for two solid years in the matter of Candidate Gore.
Matthews doesnt seem very American, even, when he plays the public for fools in this manner. (On the other hand, he does hark back to a long line of native-born swindlers and demagogues.) But this game was played all day and all night on MSNBC, The House Welch Built. We ourselves got sold this shaky poll on yesterdays Morning Joe (as did many other misled voters).Again, three cheers for Greg Sargent!
For the record, the discussion on yesterdays Morning Joe included a truly stunning exchange. No, we really arent making this up; Mika Brzezinski really did say these things about the results of the Zogby poll (the exchange began at 6:07 Eastern)—and so did Scarborough side-kick Willie Geist, formerly Tucker Carlsons winsome boy-toy. Gaze on the utter, cosmic cluelessness of the group we still describe as a press corps:
BRZEZINSKI (11/27/07): Is this a shift? I mean, has this question been asked before? Because I think its an interesting question. I think its one weve been asking. But Ive never seen it in numbers before. I dont think.
GEIST: These head-to-head match-ups?
BRZEZINSKI: Yeah. And whether or not she [Clinton] would make it against the Republicans.
SCARBOROUGH: Oh yeah, she does well—she has done very well.
GEIST: She swept through in the past one. It was in September, I believe? She beat all the Republicans—including Giuliani, by I think it was six points.
SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, easily.
GEIST: So its a ten-point swing.
Yes, that really is what they said; there seemed to be no misunderstanding. Brzezinski seemed to have no idea that Clinton/Giuliani had ever been polled. Geist, the bright one, believed the last such poll had taken place in September.
Truly, at some point, you run out of words. In fact, Clinton and Giuliani have been endlessly polled in the past six months, with Clinton persistently running ahead. Examples: On November 13-14, she beat Giuliani 47-43 in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll. A few days before that, she beat Giuliani 46-43 in a Cook Report poll. In early November, she led Giuliani by six points in a CNN poll; by four points in a Newsweek poll; and by one point in an NBC poll. (Perhaps Geist and Brzezinski have heard of that network.) And yet, to all appearances, Brzezinski had no earthly idea that Clinton and Giuliani had ever been polled, and Geist, the bright one, said theyd last been polled in September. Truly, at some point, you run out of words. There are no words for the sheer stupidity—for the endless refusal to serve—of this Potemkin press corps.
But then, should it really be surprising to see Brzezinski so clueless? The lady works for NBC News, whose big tribunes have worked quite hard to deceive the public about this years polling (as they did once again on last nights Hardball). In particular, Tim Russert has never stopped misreporting the state of various polls, always in ways that down-play Clinton; its long past the point where a sensible person could think this was being done by mistake. But can there be any other cohort where highly-paid, six-figure employees know so little about their work? Yesterday morning, Brzezinski said how amazing it was to see Clinton trailing all five Republicans. And she seemed to have no idea that any other polling exists.
Ten hours later, Matthews deceived the voters again, showing the face of the pure press corps demagogue. But then, he did this to Gore—and we liberals let him. And go ahead! Look around the career liberal web! Our fiery career liberals—store-bought losers all—are letting him do it all over again! Have you ever seen such a fake, phony group? In all your long years on this planet?
Special report: Flat earth liberals!
PART 2—THE USES OF TRIVIA: A long-time reader offered advice after perusing yesterdays HOWLER, the one in which we tore our hair over the latest nonsense from Kevin Dum (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/27/07). When ripping heart-in-the-right-place bloggers like Drum, he suggested, I think you should always preface your critique with something nice to say. In the past, you've usually mentioned your high regard for Drum's work on Social Security.
Well have to agree to disagree with our long-time correspondent. Weve endlessly praised Kevins policy work—but is he really a heart-in-the-right-place blogger when it comes to describing the work of the press corps? In the passage which follows, Kevin explains, or pretends to explain, why the press corps covers presidential campaigns in so fatuous a manner. Frankly, we find this passage astounding. Its clearly the work of a Flat Earth Liberal—a person who is unable to see, or unwilling to describe, the shape of the actual world:
DRUM (11/25/07): Contemporary campaigns may be even more grueling than they were a few decades ago—thanks to modern technology, longer primary seasons, and a bigger press corps—but I doubt that [Richard Ben Cramers] What It Takes is really responsible for the media's current fascination with personality and horserace journalism. That's always been there.
And the reason for this is pretty simple, too: campaigns are boring. When you cover a candidate every day for months on end, listening to interchangeable stump speeches hundreds of times and being bustled around like cattle to anonymous coffee klatsches and flesh pressing events 16 hours a day, you're going to seize on almost anything to break the monotony. The candidates mostly won't talk to you, after all, and there are only so many times you can write 3,000-word thumbsuckers comparing the various healthcare plans on offer. What's more, the code of objectivity in American journalism actively prevents reporters from writing about whether the various nominees "have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world." That would be too much like taking sides. Unless and until that changes, they'll continue to relieve their boredom by writing about supposedly more neutral topics like polls, insider strategy, and what "many people" are saying.
We understand our readers desire to see the whole team play nicely together. But we liberals and Dems have been much too polite for too long. At some point, we have to stop tolerating nonsense like that. If Kevins heart is in the right place, then someone needs to examine his head. And we all need to stop saying otherwise.
Lets examine the remarkable claims made in that ludicrous passage.
According to Kevin, the current media has a fascination with personality because there are only so many times you can write 3,000-word [reports] comparing the various healthcare plans. And not only that: Since their code of objectivity...prevents reporters from writing about who has what it takes, they end up reliev[ing] their boredom by writing about supposedly more neutral topics. When reporters display their fascination with personality, theyre doing so to break the monotony. Theyre doing this because they arent allowed to tell you which hopeful is better.
There are elements of that account which are true. But as a general matter, that must be the most delusional description weve ever encountered on earth. Where in the world does the Monthly go to find people who are willing to write that?
Lets start with the obvious: Modern newspapers almost never present 3000-word reports about health care. In the real world, our newspapers flee substantive reporting as vampires have long fled the light. Examples: In the past two months, the Kyl-Lieberman amendment has played a major role in the Democratic primaries. Have you seen a single report examining the merits of this amendment? Drivers licenses for illegal immigrants have turned the Democratic race upside down. Have you seen any reports, of any length, about the states which already allow this? (About New Mexico, whose governor is one of the Democratic candidates?) In fact, our modern press is notable for the way it avoids substantive reporting. But on Neptune, Kevin still pretends that reporters exhaust these topics before theyre driven to less weighty affairs.
Meanwhile, Kevin is right about one other thing: By the official rules of the game, modern reporters are not allowed to come out and say who would make the best president. But that doesnt mean that theyre driven to trivia because they arent allowed to stae their view and have nothing else to discuss. Do you mind if we state the obvious facts concerning what actually happens on earth? Heres what happens: Forbidden to tell you directly whos best, reporters use elements of trivia and personality to convince you, indirectly, about who would make the best president. Surely, everyone knows that they do this by now—unless they believe the earth is flat.
The pattern has been abundantly clear, for decades: Reporters use tortured facts about trivial matters to persuade you of their hidden judgments about who has what it takes. (They often do this as a pack.) Lets consider two famous examples: One from the history-changing Campaign 2000, one from 1972.
Late in 1997, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd invented the fatuous Love Story narrative. But duh! They didnt do this because they had written too many reports about health care, or because they were forbidden to tell you who had what it takes. Duh! They did it because they had reached a judgment—Al Gore has a problem with the truth, just like Clinton—and they were looking for ways to convince you of that view. And so, presto! They used bungled facts about utter trivia to express their pre-established judgment. Disingenuousness, not stiffness, is [Gores] real character problem, the amazingly stupid Rich wrote in his column. And he ginned up a factually-bungled tale to convince you of that view.
Lets say it again: Dowd and Rich used bungled facts about utter trivia to convince you of their judgment. Al Gore didnt have what it takes, they had judged—and they wanted you thinking that way too. But then, this is how this press corps has functioned for lo, these many decades. Consider a momentous bit of personality reporting from 1972. Its a very famous incident. Surely Kevin has heard.
Early in 1972, Democratic front-runner Ed Muskie appeared in front of the offices of the super-conservative Manchester Union-Leader. He angrily denounced the newspapers editorials about his supposedly loathsome wife. (You might say that the Union-Leader had engaged in some early Dowdism.) Result? David Broder wrote a news report in the Washington Post—a news report which may have decided the outcome of Campaign 72. In 1996, James McCartney recalled the famous incident for the American Journalism Review:
MCCARTNEY (10/96): David Broder's contribution to history has become known in press corps legend as "The Great Ed Muskie Crying Incident."
It was New Hampshire primary time in 1972 and Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine was the unquestioned Democratic front-runner. He had become enraged at editorials attacking him and impugning his wife's character in the arch- conservative Manchester Union Leader and had decided to confront the paper's publisher from a flatbed truck positioned in front of the paper's building.
Broder's story on page one of the Washington Post's Sunday paper began:
"With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stood in the snow outside the Manchester Union Leader this morning and accused its publisher of making vicious attacks on him and his wife, Jane."
In defending his wife, Broder said in his lede, Muskie "broke down three times in as many minutes."
Broder went on and on about the way the emotional candidate boo-hoo-hooed. But uh-oh! As McCartney noted, no one else reported that Muskie had cried (had tears streaming down his face)—and Muskie always denied that hed done so. Beyond that, McCartney noted Broders later confessions concerning this crucial incident. Broder has publicly brooded that this one story has caused him more second thoughts than any other in his long and distinguished career, McCartney wrote. He has suggested in retrospect that he may have gone too far, drawn too many unwarranted conclusions from his own preconceptions.
May have drawn too many unwarranted conclusions from his own preconceptions! Indeed, in this lengthy 1987 piece in the Washington Monthly, Broder himself explained why he stressed Muskies alleged crying. Lets simplify before we quote: As it turns out, Broder and some other reporters had already decided that Muskie had a troubling temper problem; Broder was trying to promote that judgment when he concocted his news report. As we pick up, Broder is describing the way his know-it-all cohort had formed their judgment about Muskies character—the judgment that front-runner Muskie didnt have what it takes. Laughably, a poker game was involved in the press corps brilliant musings:
BRODER (2/87): Lou Cannon...gained further insight into the state of Muskie's temper when he was invited to join in a friendly poker game aboard a Muskie charter. As Cannon described in his book, Reporting: An Inside View, "On the first hand Muskie was dealt four cards to an inside straight and threw down his hand with an oath when he failed to make the straight on the fifth card. I liked Muskie just fine, but I made a personal decision right then that he seemed a little temperamental to be president of the United States.
Cannon asked the right question:
What does a political reporter do with this kind of insight? As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises. Most reporters have a healthy reluctance to play amateur psychiatrist. Often, the incidents are trivial in themselves. Sometimes, as with the poker game, they occur in semiprivate settings, which many reporters—myself included—feel uncomfortable in exploiting directly for journalistic purposes.
What we tend to do is to store such incidents in our minds and then use them to interpret major incidents when they occur.
Good God. Theres more, much more, to Saint Broders Confessions, but lets just stop the embarrassment here. (In the next paragraph, Broder describes the way Muskie once acted during a private dinner.) In short, Broder and others had decided, based on private events, that Muskie had a temper problem. Working around the official code of objectivity, Broder seized on Muskies non-crying crying to get readers to agree with that judgment—sorry, to pass on this kind of insight. Twenty-five years later, Rich and Dowd played the same game with Gore. Starting in March 1999, the whole press corps did this for two years.
According to Drum, the press corps code of objectivity...prevents reporters from writing about who has what it takes. In fact, Broder used the cult of trivia (and the cult of embellishment) to turn that official code on its head—to pass on his deathless insights. But good God! In our own age, when the press corps savaged Al Gores clothes and endlessly reinvented his statements, did Kevin think they were doing this to avoid telling readers who had what it takes? (Secret answer: No. He didnt.) In fact, the press corps was jumping up and down, saying that Gore didnt have what it takes; they kept this up for two solid years, using bungled facts about total trivia to pass on their addled Group Judgment. But to this day, Kevin—and the others like him—are still prepared to pretend that some better world exists. In this imaginary realm, reporters spend their waking hours writing long reports about health care. After that, theyre forced to talk about personality—to avoid saying who has what it takes.
Back to that e-mail: When it comes to describing the press, is Kevin Drum a heart-in-the-right-place blogger? Sorry. If Kevin believes the things he keeps writing, then lets say it—the man needs help. But either way, hes a Flat Earth Liberal—someone who will never tell the truth about the way the press works. Dems and libs will play on a tilted field as long as this bullsh*t is accepted.
TOMORROW—PART 3: Swearing he was off the sauce, Halperin reached for the bottle.
TRY TO REMEMBER THE FORMULA: Duh. The formula isnt hard—and its perfectly obvious:
Often working as a group, the press corps uses bogus facts about consummate trivia to offer sweeping assessments of character. To tell you who has what it takes!
Weirdly, thats how the modern press corps works! Unless youre typing from Neptune, of course, or are sure that the earth must be flat.