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DRINKING OUR FORMULA! Saint McCain gets a pass in the Times—and our nation gets dumbed a bit more: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2009

Mike Dugan’s brilliant joke: On this morning’s Morning Joe, Afghanistan got its first (fleeting) mention at 6:15—fifteen minutes in.

What had the gang been discussing instead? Mainly, Tiger’s love life.

We recalled Mike Dugan’s brilliant joke, which we came to admire during the 1990s.

For various reasons, it’s a joke we ourselves wouldn’t tell. That said, the joke, which concerns the right to choose, was—and is—quite brilliant. As we recall, the punch line went something like this: Personally, I think life begins at the point when you learn how to mind your own business.

We wouldn’t tell that joke ourselves—but it’s brilliant all the same. (There are also brilliant “conservative” jokes.) We thought of that joke as we watched the fools cluck about Tiger this morning.

A nation can’t survive this way. Have you noticed your nation is dying?

As presented by Comedy Central: To see Dugan’s joke as presented by Comedy Central, you know what to do: Just click here.

DRINKING OUR FORMULA: We recalled the days before THE HOWLER when we read David Herszenhorn’s fumbling piece in today’s New York Times.

(For a longer version of Herszenhorn’s piece, just click this. Below, we present the text as it appears in today’s hard-copy Times.)

In his report, Herszenhorn discusses the cuts to future Medicare spending which are proposed in the Senate health bill. But first, he discusses the spending cuts Candidate McCain proposed last year. Essentially, the piece considers a basic question: Are McCain and Obama behaving like hypocrites on this matter? Have they simply swapped sides in this part of the health care debate, now that Obama is president?

“MEDICARE: Role Reversal,” says the hard-copy headline. Herszenhorn’s report isn’t all that long. But we groaned every step of the way.

How poorly do journalists know how to explain things? How well do they know how to stick to a formula? Let’s walk through this short hard-copy report, which starts with these two paragraphs:

HERSZENHORN (12/3/09): If older Americans think they hear an echo in all of the warnings coming out of Washington about frightful cuts to Medicare, they are right.

Just 14 months ago, Senator Barack Obama accused his Republican rival in the presidential race, John McCain, of proposing “drastic cuts to Medicare.” The Obama campaign asserted that Mr. McCain’s health care plan posed a serious risk for Medicare beneficiaries, by proposing savings that would total $882 billion over 10 years and very likely require “cuts in benefits, eligibility or both.”

Basic info: As a candidate, McCain proposed spending cuts of $882 billion over ten years. As a candidate, Obama said those spending cuts would likely require “cuts in benefits, eligibility or both.”

So far, so good—although a rather basic piece of information has already been excluded (see below). The problem begins when Herszenhorn describes what Obama is supporting now:

HERSZENHORN (continuing directly): Now the tables are turned.

Senate Democrats have proposed reducing government spending on Medicare by nearly $500 billion over 10 years to help pay for their health care legislation. And it is President Obama and his aides who are insisting that benefits would not be pared—because, they say, the changes would focus on eliminating waste—while Mr. McCain is attacking the Democrats for seeking some of the very same reductions in Medicare that he endorsed during his presidential campaign.

Absent some sort of explanation, McCain certainly seems like a hypocrite here. He proposed spending cuts which were nearly twice the size of those found in the current bill. Now, he is attacking the Democrats for seeking much smaller spending cuts—including some of the very same cuts he proposed last year!

Absent some sort of explanation, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t regard McCain as a hypocrite. But quite plainly, Herszenhorn’s piece isn’t about McCain—it’s about McCain and Obama, the participants in his headlined, alleged “Role Reversal.” Alas! Herszenhorn’s piece follows a familiar “journalistic” template, in which the weary reporter sighs about the phoniness of All These Pols, Who Are Exactly The Same. To maintain this tired old format, Herszenhorn must sigh about Obama too. Obama must be McCain’s equal-but-opposite. And so, we get this presentation about Obama: He complained about spending cuts back then. But he’s proposing them now!

Absent some sort of explanation, McCain does look like a hypocrite. But should Obama be paired with McCain, as Herszenhorn so plainly has done? Absent some sort of explanation, we can’t imagine why. As Herszenhorn notes, McCain’s proposed spending cuts were much larger than those now being proposed. Isn’t it possible that McCain’s spending cuts would have led to cuts in Medicare services—while the smaller Senate spending cuts will not?

Obviously, that’s entirely possible. But Herszenhorn is applying a formula—a tired old formula at that. In order for his formula to obtain, he has to pair the former rivals—throw them together into the briars. McCain has flipped, the weary scribe writes—but then too, so has Obama! This pairing sustains a tired old formula—and produces a gong-show report.

Question: Why didn’t the New York Times present a report about McCain alone? The depth of McCain’s apparent hypocrisy seems evident as Herszenhorn labors on:

HERSZENHORN (continuing directly): [McCain’s] amendment would send the bill back to the Senate Finance Committee with instructions to strip out all the cuts in Medicare spending.

Among those cuts is a reduction in government subsidies for Medicare Advantage plans, privately administered policies that tend to cost the government more than traditional Medicare. Mr. McCain is among the Republicans who are howling over the provision, even though eliminating subsidies for Medicare Advantage plans was a core component of his health care plan when he ran for president.

Clearly, McCain is behaving like a major hypocrite, absent some further explanation. But the Times didn’t run a stand-alone piece examining McCain’s behavior. Instead, they threw Obama into the stew, suggesting that his conduct is somehow the equivalent of McCain’s. Sorry. Absent further explanation, it simply isn’t.

When we read this groaning report, we recalled the bungled, two-year Medicare debate of the mid-1990s. At the time, President Clinton had proposed future spending cuts to the program—and the Republican Congress had proposed much larger spending cuts. Clinton argued that the GOP’s spending cuts were too large—that they would force unacceptable cuts in Medicare services. But instead of examining Clinton’s claim, the press corps spent two gruesome years in a ludicrous semantic debate, a debate which was directly hatched within the RNC. Hmmmm: Were Republicans really proposing Medicare “cuts?” Or were they simply “slowing the rate at which the program would grow?” Night after night, for two solid years, compliant, low-IQ mainstream “journalists” went on TV and tried to puzzle that out—with no success, we might add.

(In a brilliant piece of reporting, Maraniss and Weisskopf described the way the GOP bullied the press corps into this nonsense in their clumsily-titled 1996 book, “Tell Newt to Shut Up.” Their on-the-record interviews went all the way up to Haley Barbour, then the RNC’s chairman. They produced a brilliant report about the way a compliant Washington “press corps” was bending to GOP power. For three reports on this two-year gong-show, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99.)

Herszenhorn’s piece today is a groaner. It’s possible that Obama is being a hypocrite here—but absent some further explanation, it seems clear that McCain is. If a news org were willing to play it straight, it would present a stand-alone report about McCain’s remarkable reversal—McCain’s conduct, nobody else’s. The report would offer a bit more detail about the solon’s apparent flip-flop. It would report the explanations he gave when he was asked about his reversal.

But alas! Two things are missing from Herszenhorn’s report, aside from the courage to challenge McCain straight up and the intelligence required to do a competent report on this fascinating topic:

First, McCain’s explanations aren’t offered at all! Indeed, there is no sign that the great Saint McCain was ever asked to explain his conduct! Just a guess: McCain still rides the Straight Talk Express in the hearts of some reporters and news orgs. A further guess: The GOP power to which news orgs bowed in the mid-1990s is still haunting their sleep.

For the record, something else is missing here—an obvious bit of context. The Senate bill proposes spending cuts of almost $500 billion over ten years. McCain proposed cuts of $882 billion. But just how large are those proposed cuts, when compared to the overall size of the Medicare program?

You can’t start to answer that obvious question unless someone tells you how much money will be spent on Medicare overall during that ten-year period. Question: Have you ever seen anyone include that basic information when they discuss this matter? Projected ten-year Medicare spending is an obvious part of this story. Except for one thing: Your “press corps” can’t explain sh*t.

Saint McCain gets a pass today—and Sinner Obama gets thrown in a stew. A tired old formula get doled out again. And your nation gets dumbed a bit more.