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Caveat lector

TAPPING BACK! Tapped sent Straw Men off to war. Incomparably, THE HOWLER taps back:


BREATH-TAKING: We didn’t see Reliable Sources this Saturday. But just try to make yourself believe that John Harwood (WSJ) actually said this (official CNN transcript). He was being asked about the nasty press that had been aimed at Al Gore:

HOWARD KURTZ: So recalling the nice, warm relationship that John McCain had with the press during his run in 2000, it sounds like sucking up to reporters is an important part of running for president.

HARWOOD: I think it’s a great thing. I wish more politicians did it.

KURTZ: You’re in favor of this?


HARWOOD: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that Bill Frist brings to his job as majority leader. He has very, very good relations with the press. That’s one of the reasons why he’s going to get a good initial ride.

We’re not even saying that Harwood is wrong. But try to believe that you live in a world where that comment will pass without notice.

WHY GOOD GUYS SLEPT (BRIEF SEQUEL): Dems need to take a long, hard look at their party’s problem with the press. Of the last two Dem leaders, one was impeached and the other has now been forced to retire from public life—just two years after winning the popular vote for the White House! And why did Gore’s retirement occur? Just in the past week, two major observers have said that Gore was forced to step aside because his trashing by the press corps would have continued (Paul Waldman in American Prospect; Neal Gabler on Fox NewsWatch). But Waldman and Gabler are both outsiders; many insider journalists will still downplay the press corps’ long-standing War Against Gore. They will recite the Standard Press Corps Account, in which Gore lost the White House because he was a horrible candidate—a Standard Tale in which the press corps’ misconduct is simply never mentioned. Don’t be fooled by these self-serving courtiers. Gore’s forced retirement is truly remarkable—and so are the statements by Waldman and Gabler, which we excerpt below. According to rising star Michelle Cottle, of course, none of this silly smack ever happened. Rising stars always know what to do to maintain their status within the elites. In every possible sense of the word, they are truly “reliable” sources.

One learns to tip-toe around the tyros at Tapped. Last week, though, Tapped sent armies of Straw Men across the plains, eager to battle the blundering Somerby. I’ll stay away from the Tappers’ hyperbolics, but I’ll try to address their major complaints. And I’ve sent the analysts off to shop so I can speak in my own voice.

First: I’m unaware of having offered a lot of Large Stupid Blunderbuss Arguments, as the Tappers seem eager to say I have done. What sort of things do I say as a pundit? First, I say that the Washington press corps has clearly become “a much more conservative entity.” And I have argued, again and again, that the modern press corps is clearly not driven by some overwhelming “liberal bias.” In the episode which I have examined at greatest length, I have said that Election 2000 was a press corps debacle in which the corps conducted a War Against Gore, apparently driven in large part by self-confessed “Clinton payback.” I take these three claims to be blindingly obvious. Indeed, even as Tapped rails against my idiocy, it promotes Waldman’s article in the Prospect—an article taken, point by point, straight from THE DAILY HOWLER (more below). How often do you see such consummate foolishness? How often does a magazine send Straw Men off to attack a writer—even as it prints a major piece drawn straight from that writer’s own work? Tapped may be breaking new ground here.

Second: I have never said that the press corps is driven by “conservative media bias.” That is, I have never offered a simple-minded, bumper-sticker theory to replace the simple-minded theory I have attacked. Indeed, when I wrote at great length about Bernard Goldberg’s Bias, I said this: “Is there liberal bias and error in the media? Of course there is; bias and error of every description virtually defines the work of this press corps” (emphases from the original; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/2/02). Later in that piece, I wrote this: “Yes, there’s liberal bias and error. But there’s conservative bias and error too, and if scribes want to engage in good-faith discussions, they need to make a good-faith effort to identify where it all lies.” I have never tried to play the fool and quantify the types of error. But as I said above, I do believe what is wholly obvious; the press corps has clearly become a more conservative entity, an entity in which timorous pundits and timorous editors routinely bow to conservative power. By now, everyone on the face of the earth has heard this—except the typists at Tapped.

Third: I have not said that the Trent Lott matter should have been reported sooner or with greater fervor. In fact, I expressed misgivings about the story, describing it as a typical, fake, press feeding frenzy. What I said came in an if-then format, and may, therefore, have been too complex for some to follow. I said this: The press corps’ initial foot-dragging on Lott’s remark contradicts the theory of dominant “liberal bias.” I asked a question: When Andrew Sullivan has to badger NPR on this story, where is the “liberal bias?” Most readers were able to see this for what it was: An observation about the press corps’ apparent lack of “liberal” fervor. A “liberal” corps would have jumped on Lott hard. At Tapped, this failed to compute.

Fourth: I have often defended Candidate Bush and then President Bush, and will happily do so again. I first did so in a week of reports in early July 1999 (work which took vast amounts of time); I most recently did so in the matter of Harken. However, anyone wanting to defend this prez against press corps attacks will have a good deal of spare time on his hands. This shouldn’t be hard for Tapped to grasp; Waldman makes this obvious point too. But why have I spent so much time discussing the press corps’ War Against Gore? Duh. Because it’s one of the most startling press episodes in many years, as should be clear from Waldman’s presentation. Of course, there is one obvious distinction between my work and Waldman’s. I discussed this story from Day One, when it actually mattered; in Waldman’s otherwise excellent piece, the Prospect discusses it four years too late! Make no mistake: Because entities like the Prospect slept in real time, Gore has been driven to a startling retirement, and Candidate Bush—whom I defended when appropriate—is now, yes it’s true, in the White House.

Fifth: Here’s a bit of hyperbole from Tapped: “Somerby, for his part, seems to imagine that half the reporters in Washington sit around in a room together, drinking coffee and figuring out ways to screw Al Gore.” Another Straw Man marches to battle. Let’s leave aside the schoolboy clowning and get to the obvious point. In fact, I didn’t “imagine” that a powerful group dynamic routinely drives the work of the press corps; I have demonstrated that obvious fact, through years of documentation. For example, see the recent pieces on invented the Internet (THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/02) and the Bush pop quiz (THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/02) and tell me that the modern press corps doesn’t routinely exhibit a strange group dynamic. I didn’t “imagine” this troubling dynamic; this group dynamic plainly exists, and was endlessly aimed straight at Gore. Indeed, in this morning’s Post, Howard Kurtz quotes ABC’s Mark Halperin on this very phenomenon. “Somewhere along the line,” Halperin says, “the dominant political reporters for most dominant news organizations decided they didn’t like [Gore], and they thought the story line on any given day was about his being a phony or a liar or a waffler. Within the subculture of political reporting, there was almost peer pressure not to say something neutral, let alone nice, about his ideas, his political skills, his motivations.” I described this process in real time, while Tapped’s “good guy” colleagues hid behind desks, too frightened—and too lacking in character—to tell you what was happening. Even today, the Tappers pretend this dynamic was “imagined.” Meanwhile, did half the press corps “sit around in a room” and hatch vile plans against Hated Gore? I have never offered a general account of the way this group dynamic works. (In the case of invented the Internet, it’s obvious. The RNC handed out its spin-points, and the press corps ran to recite them.) But in October 1999, 300 reporters did, in fact, “sit around in a room” and boo and jeer Gore as he battled Saint Bradley—a stunning incident that is also stressed in Waldman’s report in the Prospect. At any rate, this press corps does, in fact, routinely behave as a tightly “scripted” group. I state that as an obvious fact, not as something “imagined.”

It’s depressing to read work as silly as Tapped’s critique—but as I’ve tried to show you for the past five years, we live at a time when silly work is the simple life’s blood of our press corps. Your Washington press corps is almost defiant in its lack of serious purpose. But rarely have we seen work as silly as this critique by Tapped, which sends Straw Men marching off to war even as it promotes a report drawn straight from the work of THE HOWLER! It certainly isn’t Waldman’s fault that his excellent piece is promoted so foolishly. But last Thursday, the Tappers told you I was nuts—then they told you to read Waldman’s piece. How silly was that pair of posts? To find out, just keep reading.

THE HOWLER WAS RIGHT FROM THE START: We applaud Waldman’s piece in the Prospect. Indeed, how could we find fault with such work—work in which so many passages could have come straight from our archives? How comical is it that, even as Tapped rails at our blundering, they promote a work which is drawn, point by point, from the very work we’ve put forward? Here’s a segment from Waldman’s piece, with our own annotation:

WALDMAN (pgh 14): Time magazine writer Margaret Carlson, who serves as a “liberal” on various Beltway gabfests, admitted to radio host Don Imus during the campaign that although Bush was lying with regularity, reporters simply enjoyed exposing Gore’s fabrications more. “You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator, or you look at his record in Texas,” Carlson said. “But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.” [Carlson’s quote was transcribed from tape and reported by THE DAILY HOWLER] Other journalists described the ill will their colleagues held toward the vice president. “There was a fair amount of animus as time wore on with Gore,” the Chicago Tribune’s James Warren told Rolling Stone.

(15) At one primary debate with Bill Bradley, reporters watching in an adjacent room actually booed and hissed at Gore’s answers [Starting with a phone call from that very room, this information was developed and reported by THE DAILY HOWLER] (although it should be noted that Gore’s responses were at their most pedantic in certain instances). columnist Mickey Kaus, no liberal by any stretch of the imagination, was surprised when he went to New Hampshire during the primaries and began talking with other reporters. “What I underestimated,” Kaus wrote, “what, indeed, has startled me—is the extent to which reporters aren’t simply boosting Bradley for their own sake (or Bradley’s). It’s also something else: They hate Gore. They really do think he’s a liar. And a phony.” [Kaus’ valuable report has been repeatedly cited by THE HOWLER.]

(16) After the same debate in which reporters booed Gore, CNN’s William Schneider attributed even the vice president’s bodily functions to manipulative calculation. Gore, Schneider said, “even perspired, perhaps that was planned, to make himself look like a fighter.” Gore must be the only human being who can sweat at will. [Schneider’s absurd comment was first cited by THE DAILY HOWLER. It had been cited by no one else until now.]

Waldman cites four revealing incidents. But what role did we play in reporting these incidents? In all likelihood, the booing incident would have gone unnoticed without THE DAILY HOWLER. And no one would have known about Carlson’s comment; by the fall of 2000, we had come to see that journalists speak more freely on Imus than anywhere else, and we were taping the program each morning. We reported Carlson’s remark in our 10/12/00 column for (links inactive), and the remark has been passed on from there. Meanwhile, would anyone else have noticed Schneider’s absurd bit of punditry? According to Nexis, no one else ever did; the comment was made on 10/26/99, and no one else cited it until we did, just this past summer (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/02). This passage by Waldman makes valuable points. But those points all came from THE HOWLER—where the theme of Waldman’s piece was discussed in real time, starting in March 1999.

Indeed, how closely does Waldman’s article track THE HOWLER? All points cited in this passage appeared in THE HOWLER just this past summer! Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with using THE HOWLER as a source, if that’s what Waldman did. But for the record, here’s a point-by-point rundown:

  1. Kaus’ comment: Headlined the 8/7/02 DAILY HOWLER
  2. Carlson’s comment to Imus: Headlined the 8/23/02 DAILY HOWLER
  3. The booing of Gore: Described in detail in the 10/7/02 DAILY HOWLER
  4. The Schneider comment: Featured in the 10/7/02 DAILY HOWLER, the same one which featured the booing of Gore
Simply put, Waldman’s passage could have been compiled just from this summer’s HOWLERs. And once again for the record, here is his paragraph 17:
WALDMAN (17): Gore also suffered because the rigidity of the press’ twin accounts meant that Bush was free to lie without consequence. “The story line is Bush isn’t smart enough and Gore isn’t straight enough,” said Cokie Roberts…“In Bush’s case, you know he’s just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator.” A false statement by Bush was assumed to be a mistake, while one by Gore was assumed to be a willful deception.
Where did Waldman see that quote? We don’t know, but it closed Eric Alterman’s 8/5/02 column in The Nation. On the other hand, we discussed the quote in real time, in our 10/16/00 column for (links inactive; it had been reported by Howard Kurtz the previous day). But then, you always read it first in THE HOWLER. Waldman cites a string of revealing incidents. But they were revealed long ago in THE HOWLER.

Should American Prospect have cited THE HOWLER? That is a matter of judgment. It’s not like sourcing never occurs to the Prospect’s eds. One source is cited in Waldman’s piece. Here is the passage in question:

WALDMAN (8): No one flogged the Gore-is-a-liar horse with more enthusiasm than the two reporters who had the most power to shape what other journalists thought and wrote: Katharine Seelye of The New York Times and Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post. Their writing dripped with a contempt unusual for establishment newspapers devoted to the ideal of objectivity. And no incident better demonstrates how harshly Seelye and Connolly treated Gore than the time they both misquoted him at a late 1999 event at a high school in New Hampshire, as Robert Parry chronicled in The Washington Monthly in April of 2000.
It’s true. Robert Parry—an excellent and highly principled journalist—did “chronicle [the Connolly/Seelye misquote] in The Washington Monthly in April of 2000.” But THE DAILY HOWLER had chronicled this telling event in real time, starting two days after the misquotation occurred. For our real-time reports, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99, 12/6/99, 12/6/99 (second article), 12/7/99, 12/7/99 (second article), 12/8/99, 12/8/99 (second article), 12/9/99 and 12/18/99. In fact, Parry’s report first appeared in his own magazine—and it was heavily sourced to THE HOWLER. Indeed, the generous Parry even included a separate article describing our overall work. But when the article later appeared in the Monthly, all but one highly tangential citation had been removed from its text. At the time, we spoke with Parry and with the Monthly’s editors; the citations were dropped by the Monthly, not Parry. At any rate, paragraphs 8-12 of Waldman’s piece are basically sourced to Parry’s article—and the original version of Parry’s piece was heavily sourced to our work. Our point again is very simple: The Waldman piece which Tapped recommends closely tracks the long-ignored work which was done in real time by THE HOWLER. Now that it doesn’t make a lick of difference, the Prospect is rushing you the news.

Waldman’s work is right on point. But again and again, cited events would never have seen the light of day without THE DAILY HOWLER. In our view, the Prospect should develop a bit of respect for the little people who have done the real work. But readers, just imagine a progressive mag like that! Now that would be real “liberal bias!”

QUOTE OF THE YEAR: Inveterate risk-takers that we are, we’re picking our quote one week early:

BILL CLINTON, 12/3/02: They have an increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press. And we have an increasingly docile establishment press. We also saw our people attacked by extreme right-wing elements in the media without any penalty at all…
We’ve been making such statements for years. Luckily, major Dems are now speaking.

WALDMAN AND GABLER: What would have happened if Gore had run? Here’s Waldman’s view on Gore’s decision not to run in 04:

WALDMAN: Left unsaid was how much Gore’s decision was affected by his treatment from the press. In his 2000 campaign, Gore was dogged by his image as a “phony.” Coverage of his recent re-emergence on the public scene continued that story line…

Gore would have started another campaign with significant advantages—such as his standing in the polls—that would have led the press to anoint him the front-runner. But ultimately journalists’ visceral feelings about him would have balanced out those advantages, and the coverage in 2004 probably wouldn’t have differed much from 2000. The answer to the question of whether Gore could get a fair shake from journalists would likely have been “no.”

And here is Gabler, on this weekend’s Fox NewsWatch:
GABLER: Can I make a final point? And that is, the reason, I think, the real reason why he isn’t running is because he couldn’t fight through this kind of media hostility. He knew that no matter what he did, he was always going to be the liar, the guy who was always reinventing himself. That was going to be the story. There would be no other story.
In Cottle’s renditions, such thoughts won’t occur. Tapped will tell you that Gabler is “imagining.” But concerned Americans will wonder why intelligent observers are making such statements. And they’ll wonder how a deeply dysfunctional insider press corps gained such control of our lives.

OUR ENTIRE STAFF IS OFF TO THE GRANITE STATE: Next HOWLER? Not this week. We’re aiming for December 30 and 31.