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4 January 2000

Our current howler (part I): H2K problems

Synopsis: A dead-on piece by the Standard’s Fred Barnes helps us ring in the Year of the Howler.

Penny Serenade
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 1/1/00

John McCain, Winging It
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 1/3/00

Commentary by Claire Shipman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 1/3/00

Maybe it's wrong to critique sainted mothers; we have a sainted mother ourselves. But we couldn't help being struck by Maureen Dowd's column kicking off the exciting new millenium. Dowd asked her mom to review the past century. Here was Mom's take on the 1990s (Dowd is quoting her mom):

DOWD (1/1): 1990-2000: "I feel sorry for Clinton. He reminds me of myself, wanting so much to be liked. I think Monica is very pretty. And Hillary looks great.

"How does the Web work?"

That was Mom's total take on the decade. It's instructive to see that Dowd comes by her narrow focus so honestly; indeed, it's a family tradition. But why does the Times put Dowd's pointless outlook in print? That's something we'll continue to ponder. (Dowd's first full column, on January 2, concerned—who else—Linda and Monica.)

But here at THE HOWLER, we start a new year with words of praise for a piece by Fred Barnes. Writing in the Weekly Standard about coverage of the McCain campaign, he painted a portrait that helped us define our new year's ruminations. You really should read every word of Barnes' piece to grasp the serious questions it raises. But to give you a taste of the mess Barnes describes, here are his opening paragraphs:

BARNES: In the Republican presidential debate on December 13, George W. Bush asked John McCain why he hadn't proposed a tax cut for single moms with two kids making $40,000 a year. McCain responded that his plan to extend the 15 percent income tax bracket—all the way to $70,000—would "go a long way in that direction." After that debate, a reporter asked McCain for his appraisal of Bush's scheme for reducing the tax burden on single moms with kids. He reiterated that he, McCain, would help them by boosting the 15 percent bracket.

At this point, columnist Robert Novak stepped forward, noting that the single moms in question already paid at the 15 percent rate. Thus they wouldn't get a tax cut from McCain, but would from Bush's proposal to drop the rate to 10 percent. Well, McCain said, he'd ease their taxes by eliminating the marriage penalty. But we're talking about single moms, not married mothers, said Novak. Oh, McCain shot back, then I'd cut their taxes by broadening the earned income tax credit for the working poor.

To Barnes, "McCain was playing fast and loose with tax policy." But McCain's confusion—and the fact that he "sounded unserious" about the subject—was ignored by the mainstream media. "They gave McCain a free ride on taxes, as they have on virtually every substantive issue," Barnes wrote. Barnes reviewed recent media pandering to McCain. In the course of his review, he said this:

BARNES: Normally the agenda of a major candidate like McCain would be subjected to sharp and relentless scrutiny. Bush and Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley wouldn't dream of free-lancing on domestic policy, if only because the press would clobber them for even minor mistakes. This doesn't happen with McCain.

According to Barnes, McCain "has gotten by with a seat-of-the-pants policy operation because political writers adore him too much to mention his shortcomings."

We'll disagree with some of what Barnes said; we can't picture the press corps subjecting anything to scrutiny that's "sharp," for example. But Barnes—without stating the conclusion himself—paints a picture of a mainstream press corps that is wholly incompetent and corrupt. They don't tell you when McCain flunks a pop quiz, for example, because they like the guy so much. When he flounders on matters of basic policy, the press corps doesn't report that either. His statements on defense spending don't make any sense, but you don't see much about that in the papers. In December, McCain is unable to explain his own health plan; that finds its way down the memory hole, too.

This is the press corps Barnes describes, a corps in the can for McCain. Again—and we think it should be said twice—the press corps Barnes describes is, by any normal standard, thoroughly corrupt and incompetent.

Two questions: How can it be that the mainstream press corps behaves in the manner described? And how can it be that this sort of conduct excites so little comment? Again, even Barnes, in describing the conduct, fails to become fully exercised by it. He barely bats an eye at conduct that undermines every aspect of democratic public discourse.

We refuse to spend the coming year as we have spent the year just past—detailing here, again and again, the incompetence of the press corps. It is time to move on to ask larger questions that are raised by the chaos Barnes describes. How is it possible that the modern press corps can behave in the ways that Barnes describes? How can our discourse be in the hands of the fixers portrayed in this piece? We spent last year showing, again and again, the puzzling incompetence and corruption Barnes limns. As we start off on an exciting new year, it's time for some large meta-questions.


Tomorrow: Sorry, Freddy—when Bush unveiled his tax cut plan, the press bungled that story too.

New millenium. Tired old story: It didn't take long for a favored story to get re-aired on the News with Brian. Here was Claire Shipman, long a favorite of ours, discussing yesterday's speeches by Bradley and Gore:

SHIPMAN: The first contest, the Iowa caucuses, is just three weeks away...That's why, on a day when Bradley tries to stay above the fray, his team hands out a flyer to reporters, claiming Gore's budget breaks the bank by $350 billion...

There is nothing wrong with the Bradley campaign passing out such a flyer. But the press corps long ago committed to a story: Bradley, the authentic, who's above mortal conduct, simply refuses to fight. Shipman continues this silly tale, telling us here—all in one sentence—that Bradley "stays above the fray" while "his team" hands out a criticism. There's nothing wrong with criticizing Gore, but Bradley is clearly not staying "above the fray" (nor should he be asked to). Silly stories like this show why we're all better off when scribes are told not to interpret.