Point. Click. Search.
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
A companion site.
Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to
|FIRST STEP! Al Gore said the sky was blue. And an outraged Jeff Birnbaum said, Bunk!:
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2002
A NEEDED FIRST STEP: Americas public discourse got a whole lot more interesting with Gores remarks to the New York Observer this week. In the wake of this months election, weve heard that the DNC finally knows that it has a major problem with the press. In our general view, the Dems now stand where conservative stood in the late 50s and early 60s, when Bill Buckley began to build a movementand when the charge of liberal bias almost surely had merit. Its dangerous for a pol to challenge the press, but the public interest was extremely well served when Gore took the first step in his interview.
For the record, we note that Gore offered a two-part critique; only one point is being discussed. First, Gore said that certain orgs (Fox; Rush; the Washington Times) are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party. But he also said this: Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranksthat is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of whats objective as stated by the news media as a whole. Only Gores first point is being discussed. When Judy Woodruff reported Gores remarks on Wednesdays Inside Politics, she remembered to mention Gores first point, but she omitted the second. Ditto on Wednesday nights Crossfire. But for the record, Gore didnt just mention conservative orgs. He mentioned the mainstream press too.
Do Republican talking points rule todays media? The phenomenon was quite apparent all through Campaign 2000. On Monday and Tuesday, well discuss two well-known incidents in that campaignincidents in which the entire pundit corps recited the RNC talking points. This pattern was observed again and again, from March 99 right on to election. The public interest will be vastly served by discussion of this phenomenon. In the process, by the way, well get a fascinating look at individual pundits. Some scribes have recently told the truth (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/02). Many will be inclined to do otherwise.
Why is it good that Gore spoke up? Simple. The coverage described in News you can lose is intolerable in a democracy (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/26/02 and 11/27/02). So is the rancid, dissembling punditry recently peddled by Rich (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/02). Even at a time of national peril, your insider press corps wont stop its dissembling. As they try to stifle and manage debate, they put the interests of every American in danger. Fifth column? You pick the term. But every citizen will be well served by the brawling which has just now begun.
And make no mistakethere will be brawling. On Wednesday nights Special Report, Fred Barnes was completely perplexed by Gores deeply puzzling statement:
FRED BARNES: He said somethingthere was another quote I wish youd put in there because it is the most conspiratorial one in the entire interview. And its this: Something will start at the Republican National Committee inside the building and it will explode the next day on the right wing talk show networks and Fox News and in newspapers that play this game, the Washington Times and the others. In other words, theres a conspiracy. It starts at the Republican National Committee, spreads over here and elsewhere. Well, now this is nutty. This is nutty. This is along the lines with you know, President Bush killed Paul Wellstone, and the White House knew before 9/11 that the attacks were going to happen. This isI mean, this is conspiratorial stuff.
Wheres an example? What does Gore mean? On Monday and Tuesday, well lay out examples. In Campaign 2000, the Washington press corpsmainstream and conservativeroutinely recited those RNC points. As usual, Fred Barnes is the last to know. What on earth is Gore talking about? Well answer Freds question, starting Monday.
MORT KONDRACKE: Well
BARNES: Wheres an example of this? What is he talking about? I mean, this is, the only thing thats more alarming than Gore saying this is I think this is what most Democrats actually believe is happening.
CONFESSORE WONT: Nicholas Confessore must be smokin something! His much-discussed piece in Washington Monthly is subtitled, How Paul Krugman became the most important columnist in America. Before were done, well help you see just how absurd that tag really is.
To his credit, Confessore does ask the right question. Here is his dead-on tease, posed at the start of his piece:
CONFESSORE: As an economist, of course, Krugman surely has an edge over most liberal pundits; his sterling academic reputation gives his critiques a punch that few Democratic politicians or liberal editorialists could hope for. But in truth, little that Krugman writes about has relied on his academic expertise. His columns arent about trade theory or stochastic calculus, but about flagrant deceptions and fourth-grade arithmetic. What makes Krugman interesting, in short, is not just why he writes what he writes. Its why nobody else does.
Why does Krugman stand alone in the press? That has long been a crucial question; lets frame it as weve done in the past. In September 2000, Krugman devoted three separate columns to a key point. Candidate Bush was grossly misstating his own budget plan, Krugman explained in all three columns. Bushs basic presentation of his budget plan was, simply put, grossly wrong. And what happened next? At the fateful Bush-Gore Debate I, Candidate Bush repeated his groaning construction, right in his opening statement. Result? Although Krugman had explained the matter three times, the pundit corps didnt say Boo about it. Instead, troubled pundits searched their souls about that school desk down in Florida.
Why does no one run with Krugman? Thats a seminal question. But as insider journalists typically do, Confessore succeeds in only one thingavoiding his own salient query. After an informative profile of Krugman, Confessore returns to his basic question. And, as insider scribes always do, he dishes complete, utter nonsense:
CONFESSORE: On balance, Krugmans record stands up pretty well. On the topics he writes about most often and most angrilytax cuts, Social Security, and the budgethis record is nearly perfect. The reason hes gotten under the White Houses skin so much, says Robert Shapiro, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, is that hes right. None of it is rocket science.
Krugman is right, Shapiro says. So why does no one follow his lead? The answer were given is laughable. Liberal journalists have some strict but informal rules, Confessore says. First, such writers dont call a spade a spade unless the matter at hand is trivial. And second, such writers dont report key facts because they think that to do so would be gauche. Why werent voters told the truth about Bushs groaner in Debate I? According to Confessore, the press corps didnt report the truth because Bushs misstatement was just too substantive! And the press corps didnt report the truth because they felt that it would have been gauche.
So if dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bushs tax cut is so easy to doand makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the countrywhy dont any other reporters or columnists do it themselves? Because doing so would violate some of the informal, but strict, rules under which Washington journalists operate. Reporters usually dont call a spade a spade, unless the lie is small or something personal. When it comes to big policy disagreements, most reporters prefer a he-said, she-said approachand any policy with a white paper or press release behind it is presumed to be plausible and sincere, no matter how farfetched or deceptive it may be.
Similarly, among pundits of the broad center-left, its considered gauche to criticize the right too persistently, no matter the merits of ones argument. The only worse sin is to defend a politician too persistently; then you become not a bore, but a disgrace to the profession and its independenceeven if youre correct. Thus, in Washington circles, liberal Times columnist Bob Herbert is written off as a predictable hack, while The New York Observer's Joe Conason, who vigorously defended the Clintons during the now-defunct Whitewater affair, is derided as shrill and embarrassing.
This, of course, is an explanation in appearance only. Its the kind of pseudo-explanation that raises more questions that it tries to answer. Why in the world would liberal pundits set up two strict rules like that? But remember what weve always told you: The Washington press corps will never tell you the truth about its own outlook and practices. The press corps is made up of insider careerists. They simply dont discuss their own cohort. Confessores laughable piece gives you the latest hard proof.
Whats the real answer to Confessores question? Why didnt pundits blow the whistle about Bushs misstatements at that crucial debate? Is there any chance that those pundits are cowardsthat they dont want to be slammed and slimed by prevailing power, the way that Krugman and Conason are? Such a thought never comes to mindwhen Confessore tells the story. Remember, your insider press corps is good at one thingconcocting a string of innocent explanations for its own egregious misconduct. Whatever Confessore is smoking, it fills him with warm feelings for his own dysfunctional breed.
By the way, is Krugman the most important columnist in America? Obviously, no, he is not. According to Confessores article, no one else repeats Krugmans line, and hes reviled at all Washington gatherings. In some ways, Krugman may the most accurate columnist; but more than anything, hes most ignored. The claim that Krugman is most important may please liberal Monthly readers. But it simply reeks of denial. Its just the latest way to avoid the real truth about Washingtons press corps.
ANGLE MAKES HIS POINT: Do pundits recite RNC talking-points? On Wednesday nights Special Report, the all-stars all swore it was bunk. As usual, Jeff Birnbaum spoke most bravely. Gores claim was completely false, he insisted. I mean, I dont know, we can take a poll here of who takes their cue from the Republican National Committee. I certainly dont. I dont take a cue from any party whatsoever, and never have. Nor does anyone at this news channel that I know of, nor would I work at this news channel if that were the case. What a brave and pious fellow this all-star will frequently be.
But lets get back to the basic question: Do Fox pundits sing-song them points? Comically, here was guest host Jim Angle only a few moments later:
KONDRACKE: [Gores statement] tracks with what Tom Daschle said the other day about Rush Limbaugh. You know, that there is this movement afoot that Rush Limbaugh is all a part of it.
Rush Limbaugh is entertainment, Angle says, neatly chirping the latest key spin-point. In fact, in case you didnt hear him say it, he states the prize point two times. Readers, is Rush Limbaugh an entertainer? You knowlike the Olson twins, or like Seigfried and Roy? The notion is utterly stupid. As everyone living on earth surely knows, Rush Limbaugh is one of the most influential voices in Americas political discourse. Listeners dont call themselves ditto-heads because they recite Limbaughs jokes. But whenever Rush gets into trouble, he runs and hides behind the idea that hes really just an entertainer. (Circus clown, John McCain once corrected.) Never mind the sheer absurdity of acting like Rush is just there for Big Fun. In the wake of the Daschle flap, Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer is the latest, dumb-ass conservative spin-point. So Angle knew to work it in, twicein just the way that Gore describes. And Birnbaum knew to insult your intelligenceswearing that this doesnt happen.
ANGLE: Ill tell you what happens though, if I can. Gore goes a lot further than Daschle. Daschle was suggesting that a conservative pundit on the radio talks about politics in a way that is entertainment, and somehow incites people who dont understand its entertainment to go out and do things. Gore is saying something entirely different. Hes saying the media are now being manipulated by conservatives starting at the RNC.
Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer is a minor example of the subject at hand. Next week, some striking examples from Campaign 2000. Prepared to be a bit surprised at the way your press corps really functions.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Does the press corps recite RNC talking-points? Even when theyre baldly false? For one remarkable example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/02. By the way, what inspired that days DAILY HOWLER? The previous evening, a spinner from Fox had once again recited a long-standing point. This is exactly the process described by Gore in his recent statement. But Ssssssshhh! Dearest readers, keep it under your hat. We wouldnt want Fred Barnes to know.