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CARLSON STRIKES AGAIN! Once again, a remarkable pundit shows us the soul of her press corps: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2006

ANOTHER POSTPONEMENT: We’ve been called on a mission of national import. Before leaving, we considered a recent Digby post—and a pundit’s latest reinvention.

THREE CHEERS FOR DIGBY: Digby gets it wonderfully right in the second paragraph quoted below. It would be a very good thing if we all labored hard to help American voters understand this part of their recent history. Digby is discussing Jeff Greenfield’s recent essay about Barack Obama’s clothes:
DIGBY (12/13/06): Is it a sin, in and of itself, that Greenfield trivialized Barack Obama for his wardrobe and compared him to a holocaust denying psychopath? Not really. Is it a major goof for Jeanne Moos to simultaneously go out on the street and ask people if they think his "weird" middle name means that he can't be elected? Probably not.

But you'll have to excuse us hotheads for reacting strongly when we see these things because the last time the media decided to have "fun" and tell “jokes,” this way, enough people believed them that it ended up changing the world in the most dramatic and violent way possible. We are in this mess today at least partly because these people failed to do their duty and approached their jobs as if it were a seventh grade slumber party instead of the serious business of the most powerful nation on earth.

We’ll disagree slightly about the Moos goof; adult journalists should have enough sense to stay away from “weird middle names,” especially when there’s an ethnic component. At some point, people like Moos simply have to be told: You’re no longer seven years old. But American citizens need to hear the story Digby is discussing. When the press corps conducted its bizarre campaigns against Clinton and Gore, we had very few real liberal institutions—and those few we had were deeply connected to the mainstream press organs which were staging those wars. (No, the Whitewater folderol was not a product of “the right-wing noise machine.”) Our journals took a pass on Fools for Scandal; then they sat around and stared while the press corps went after Candidate Gore. And yes—the world has been dramatically changed because of the clownish misconduct our liberal institutions chose to ignore. For that reason, it has been amazing to see how reluctant we liberals remain when it comes to telling that story. In part, that’s because of what Digby said next:
DIGBY (continuing directly): I don't know what is wrong with them and their social construct that makes them so susceptible to this, or why they fail to see how this bias toward phony Republican machismo distorts political reporting, but it's a big problem for this country. Whatever their psychological or political motivations, we cannot take the chance that these narratives will go unchallenged again. Bad things happen. Wars. Torture. Dead people.
“I don't know what is wrong with them,” Digby says—and we have increasingly come to suspect that this helps explain ongoing liberal silence about aspects of the mainstream press. Their conduct in the past decade has been so strange that it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around it. We sometimes refer to the “corporate media,” but that has been a fairly dry talking-point (although it surely explains a good chunk of what has happened). But especially in the presidential arena, we liberals have utterly failed to take the Clinton-Gore challenge. We have failed to explain what was done to Clinton, then to Gore—have failed to explain this to average voters. The story begins with Fools for Scandal, then runs up into Campaign 2000. But many liberals still recite the press corps’ talking points about Clinton and Gore. (Al Gore ran a lousy campaign! Good grief. We’re so easily scripted!)

It’s sad and embarrassing to see it continue. But the press corps’ narratives can’t go unchallenged again. Digby said it, and we sign on—and we all have to look for the metaphors which make this story comprehensible. Yes, it’s hard to describe the work of the fraternal order we still call a “press corps.” But they seem ready to “Love Boat” the next campaign. It’s up to us to scream and yell—and to demand that we get something better.

POSTSCRIPT: How endlessly inane is their work, by the way? Here’s NBC’s Mike Viqueira, near the end of last evening’s Hardball:
VIQUEIRA (12/14/06): Let`s look at the macro picture here though. We`re talking about a 2008— from the Democratic Party—a woman and a man named Barack Obama—whose middle name, incidentally, is Hussein—running for president. So there`s a great deal of diversity we`re talking about. And we`re not even mentioning that that might be the indication of how far American politics have come in that regard. Anyway.

Of course, Barack Obama is a smoker. That`s something that he said is an obvious detriment. But he’s going to try to quit.
There’s always a tendency to assume they were joking. Sorry—no hint of that here.

CARLSON STRIKES AGAIN: Like Jeff Greenfield, Margaret Carlson doesn’t quite get it—or she prefers to remain a pretender. In her latest column at the Huffington Post, she recalls a famous, and famously under-reported, incident from Campaign 2000. She recalls the time Bush flunked his “pop quiz”—and the way Ol’ Dumb-Ass spun it:
CARLSON (12/14/06): Intelligence matters. If Bush had known more, would he have barged into Iraq and risked the creation of a Shiite theocracy aligned with a nuclear-obsessed Iran? In the 2000 campaign, Bush derided a reporter's request that he name four world leaders in a pop quiz as an example of “gotcha journalism.'' That's after Bush only managed to come up with ``Lee'' for Taiwan's president at the time, Lee Teng-hui, and identified Pakistan's leader as “General.''

That episode got lumped in with other Bush lapses, like calling the East Timorese, Timorians and Greeks, Grecians, as in the hair color for men, all of a piece with the non-elite image he fostered. Details are for chumps.

Then came 9/11. It desperately mattered that General-what's-his-name was heading Pakistan, and Pervez Musharraf became essential in the war against al-Qaeda...
Her story is accurate—as far as it goes. On November 3, 1999, Bush did struggle with Andy Hiller’s “pop quiz”—and the awkward session was captured on tape. Did Bush reject the quiz as “gotcha journalism?” On November 5, the AP quoted him saying that. Meanwhile, Bush spokesman Karen Hughes had issued a fuller statement. The AP’s Glen Johnson reported what Hughes had said:
JOHNSON (11/5/99): A Bush campaign official defended his performance.

"The person who is running for president is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy contestant," said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.

"I would venture to guess that 99.9 percent of most Americans and probably most candidates could not answer who is the president of Chechnya," Hughes added.
Bush was reported calling it “gotcha.” Beyond that, Hughes compared the quiz to a Jeopardy contest—and she said that few other people could have answered Hiller’s questions. Result? With blinding speed, a long string of Carlson’s colleagues got into line to recite the same points. They even recited the Jeopardy line—in their own voices, with no attribution. Carlson omits this minor detail, mocking Bush for what her colleagues all said. But it’s a startling part of this story.

Hiller was widely attacked for his quiz, by pundits reciting the Bush camp’s trio of scripts. On the Friday, November 5 Today show, the late David Bloom interviewed Larry Sabato, the respected mainstream media critic. Sabato said, of the pop quiz, “It really is pure, unadulterated, gotcha journalism. We’re electing a president, not a Jeopardy champ.” Sabato had neatly recited two Bush scripts—but all three scripts would be widely echoed on the weekend talk shows. On Friday’s NewsHour, for example, Paul Gigot, Mark Shields, and Jim Lehrer agreed—there was an “ambush, gotcha quality” to Hiller’s “ankle-biting” questions, which “gave journalism another black eye.” Lehrer referred to Hiller’s “Jeopardy question[s];” Shields voiced “a sense of relief that I wasn’t asked” them. “Well, you join millions with that one,” Lehrer said. Indeed, all over Washington, pundits were swearing that they would have failed the pop quiz too, the very point Hughes had made. On PBS’ Washington Week, Jeff Birnbaum accused Hiller of “gotcha” journalism, and Alan Murray (Wall Street Journal) said that he would have flunked the quiz. On the November 6 Capital Gang, Robert Novak called Hiller a “wise guy reporter” who had engaged in “gotcha journalism.” “The real problem,” Novak said, “is that winning Jeopardy games and leading the nation require different skills.” On Meet the Press the following day, William Safire also said “gotcha.”

As usual, mainstream pundits all said the same things in a textbook display of Group Thinking. But this time, the press corps took the candidate’s side, reciting the Bush campaign’s points. On Sunday, November 7, for example, a range of journalists took turns saying it: We couldn’t have answered those hard questions either. Steve Roberts said it on Late Edition. Ditto his wife, Cokie Roberts, on This Week. David Maraniss said it on Meet the Press. And needless to say, at Fox News Sunday, all the pundits professed their rank ignorance. Four days had passed since Hiller’s pop quiz. But Hiller’s questions had been so fiendish, the scribes couldn’t answer them still:
TONY SNOW (11/7/99): Let’s begin with a pop quiz. First, can anybody here at this moment name the prime minister of Chechnya?

BRIT HUME: No.

MARA LIASSON: No.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Absolutely not.

SNOW: I’m clueless, too.

HUME: I heard it the other day, I read the name—I still can’t say it!
The questions still couldn’t be answered! For the record, the pop quiz was called “gotcha” journalism by Fred Barnes, Juan Williams, Deborah Orin, Al Hunt, and Martin Schram; they joined Lehrer, Sabato, Birnbaum and Novak in this group assessment. Amazingly, Jeopardy comparisons were also widespread, voiced by Morton Kondracke, Clarence Page, Michael Barone and Howard Kurtz, along with Lehrer, Sabato and Novak. Your pundits routinely speak with one voice; in this case, though, that voice spoke for Bush. A string of scribes said the same three things the Bush campaign had said. (No, there were no attributions.)

And oh, by the way, one more scribe must be mentioned—and yes, her name is Carlson. Today, Carlson rolls her eyes at Dumb-Ass Bush for having called the pop quiz “gotcha.” But that weekend, Carlson appeared on Capital Gang. And Andy Hiller’s “gotcha name game” was part of her “Outrage of the Week:”
MARK SHIELDS (11/6/99): Margaret Carlson?

CARLSON: Speak for yourself, Bob. You're half right. The reporter shouldn't have played the gotcha name game with Bush. But isn't anybody alarmed that Bush thinks a military coup in Pakistan is a good thing? Perhaps Bush also thinks Saddam Hussein is just a misunderstood despot and Milosevic just an innocent victim of the United States. Bush better start improving on the C average he was proud to have gotten in college or he may risk looking like a less intellectual Dan Quayle.
Principally, Carlson was troubled because Bush had said that Musharraf’s coup might be a good thing. But Hiller’s pop quiz was a “gotcha name game;” the reporter shouldn’t have played it. (By the way: Note what Carlson says this week about Musharraf’s ascendance.)

Should Andy Hiller have staged his pop quiz? In general, we’re opposed to such stunts. But Margaret Carlson—ol’ reliable—has shown us the heart of the press corps again. In real time, she called it a “gotcha name game;” today, she slams Bush for having said the same thing. But so it goes—sic semper the fatuous—in our remarkable “press corps.”

THE FULLER TRANSCRIPT: Here’s the fuller transcript from Capital Gang. Note the truly amazing way Novak ticks off the campaign’s three points (which we enumerate). But then, his colleagues were reciting these points quite widely—and no, it wasn’t just the “conservatives.” Mainstream pundits stampeded that week to recite the Bush campaign’s points:
SHIELDS (11/6/99): Bob Novak?

NOVAK: A wise guy Boston TV reporter embarrassed George W. Bush with a pop quiz in which he couldn't name the rulers of Pakistan, India and, if you believe it, Chechnya. Al Gore immediately advised that he could name them all, but Bill Bradley told me he couldn’t do much better than Bush. [1] Neither could I, or I dare say my colleagues on Capital Gang. Bush was the victim of [2] gotcha journalism but the real problem is that [3] winning Jeopardy games and leading the nation require different skills. [Editor’s note: A perfect recitation!]

SHIELDS: Margaret Carlson?

CARLSON: Speak for yourself, Bob. You're half right. The reporter shouldn't have played the gotcha name game with Bush. But isn't anybody alarmed that Bush thinks a military coup in Pakistan is a good thing?
For the record, this week also marked the start of the press corps’ four-week obsession with Naomi Wolf. Regarding that matter, one thing is clear—their scripts, which were varied and deeply inane, hadn’t been swiped from Al Gore.

AS USUAL, STIFF AND WOODEN: The next week, Gore had some fun with the quiz during a rare appearance on Imus. The AP’s Sandra Sobieraj recorded part of Gore’s “deadpan parody of the foreign policy pop quiz that tripped up Republican rival George W. Bush last week.” As we start, Gore is speaking to Imus:
SOBIERAJ (11/9/99): “The other day I was talking to Utkir Sultanov—you know, the prime minister of Uzbekistan? And he asked me, 'Did you send a birthday card to Hamed?' That's of course Hamed Karoui, the prime minister of Tunisia," Gore told a chuckling Don Imus.

"I thought, 'God I forgot,"' continued the Democratic presidential candidate. "I had just been talking about him with Ion Sturza, the prime minister of Moldova. We're old friends. We actually met through a mutual friend, Lennart Meri, the president of Estonia of course."

But seriously, Gore added that he didn't necessarily fault Bush, whom Gore hopes to meet in next year's general election, for coming up blank on the names of foreign leaders. "I sympathize with those who say that that's not really a fair test," said Gore.
Sobieraj, knowing her requisite scripture, also called this “a bit of smarty-pants bravura” by Gore. According to the established script, Gore always acted “like the smartest kid in the class” (acceptable variant: “like a kid asking the teacher for extra homework”). Result? Even before explaining that Gore’s outing was comic, Sobieraj used the word “smarty-pants” to get herself right with the gods.