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FIRST STEP! Al Gore said the sky was blue. And an outraged Jeff Birnbaum said, “Bunk!”:


A NEEDED FIRST STEP: America’s public discourse got a whole lot more interesting with Gore’s remarks to the New York Observer this week. In the wake of this month’s election, we’ve 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 movement—and when the charge of “liberal bias” almost surely had merit. It’s 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 ranks—that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what’s objective as stated by the news media as a whole.” Only Gore’s first point is being discussed. When Judy Woodruff reported Gore’s remarks on Wednesday’s Inside Politics, she remembered to mention Gore’s first point, but she omitted the second. Ditto on Wednesday night’s Crossfire. But for the record, Gore didn’t just mention conservative orgs. He mentioned the mainstream press too.

Do Republican talking points rule today’s media? The phenomenon was quite apparent all through Campaign 2000. On Monday and Tuesday, we’ll discuss two well-known incidents in that campaign—incidents 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, we’ll 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 won’t 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 mistake—there will be brawling. On Wednesday night’s Special Report, Fred Barnes was completely perplexed by Gore’s deeply puzzling statement:

FRED BARNES: He said something—there was another quote I wish you’d put in there because it is the most conspiratorial one in the entire interview. And it’s 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, there’s 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 is—I mean, this is conspiratorial stuff.


BARNES: Where’s an example of this? What is he talking about? I mean, this is, the only thing that’s more alarming than Gore saying this is I think this is what most Democrats actually believe is happening.

Where’s an example? What does Gore mean? On Monday and Tuesday, we’ll lay out examples. In Campaign 2000, the Washington press corps—mainstream and conservative—routinely recited those RNC points. As usual, Fred Barnes is the last to know. What on earth is Gore talking about? We’ll answer Fred’s question, starting Monday.

CONFESSORE WON’T: 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 we’re done, we’ll 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 aren’t 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. It’s why nobody else does.
Why does Krugman stand alone in the press? That has long been a crucial question; let’s frame it as we’ve 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. Bush’s 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 didn’t say Boo about it. Instead, troubled pundits searched their souls about that school desk down in Florida.

Why does no one run with Krugman? That’s a seminal question. But as insider journalists typically do, Confessore succeeds in only one thing—avoiding 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, Krugman’s record stands up pretty well. On the topics he writes about most often and most angrily—tax cuts, Social Security, and the budget—his record is nearly perfect. “The reason he’s gotten under the White House’s skin so much,” says Robert Shapiro, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, “is that he’s right. None of it is rocket science.”

So if dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bush’s tax cut is so easy to do—and makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the country—why don’t 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 don’t 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 approach—and 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, it’s considered gauche to criticize the right too persistently, no matter the merits of one’s 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 independence—even if you’re 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.

Krugman is right, Shapiro says. So why does no one follow his lead? The answer we’re given is laughable. Liberal journalists have some strict but informal rules, Confessore says. First, such writers don’t “call a spade a spade” unless the matter at hand is trivial. And second, such writers don’t report key facts because they think that to do so would be gauche. Why weren’t voters told the truth about Bush’s groaner in Debate I? According to Confessore, the press corps didn’t report the truth because Bush’s misstatement was just too substantive! And the press corps didn’t report the truth because they felt that it would have been gauche.

This, of course, is an explanation in appearance only. It’s 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 we’ve 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 don’t discuss their own cohort. Confessore’s laughable piece gives you the latest hard proof.

What’s the real answer to Confessore’s question? Why didn’t pundits blow the whistle about Bush’s misstatements at that crucial debate? Is there any chance that those pundits are cowards—that they don’t want to be slammed and slimed by prevailing power, the way that Krugman and Conason are? Such a thought never comes to mind—when Confessore tells the story. Remember, your insider press corps is good at one thing—concocting 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 Confessore’s article, no one else repeats Krugman’s line, and he’s reviled at all Washington gatherings. In some ways, Krugman may the most accurate columnist; but more than anything, he’s most ignored. The claim that Krugman is “most important” may please liberal Monthly readers. But it simply reeks of denial. It’s just the latest way to avoid the real truth about Washington’s press corps.

ANGLE MAKES HIS POINT: Do pundits recite RNC talking-points? On Wednesday night’s Special Report, the all-stars all swore it was bunk. As usual, Jeff Birnbaum spoke most bravely. Gore’s claim was “completely false,” he insisted. “I mean, I don’t know, we can take a poll here of who takes their cue from the Republican National Committee. I certainly don’t. I don’t 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 let’s 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: [Gore’s 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.

ANGLE: I’ll 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 don’t understand it’s entertainment to go out and do things. Gore is saying something entirely different. He’s saying the media are now being manipulated by conservatives starting at the RNC.

Rush Limbaugh “is entertainment,” Angle says, neatly chirping the latest key spin-point. In fact, in case you didn’t hear him say it, he states the prize point two times. Readers, is Rush Limbaugh “an entertainer?” You know—like 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 America’s political discourse. Listeners don’t call themselves “ditto-heads” because they recite Limbaugh’s jokes. But whenever Rush gets into trouble, he runs and hides behind the idea that he’s 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, twice—in just the way that Gore describes. And Birnbaum knew to insult your intelligence—swearing that this doesn’t happen.

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 they’re baldly false? For one remarkable example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/02. By the way, what inspired that day’s 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 wouldn’t want Fred Barnes to know.