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4 March 2002

Our current howler (part III): Easy to be hard

Synopsis: How easy is it to yell "liberal bias?" A blast from the past tells the tale.

Joe Klein, Newsweek, 11/14/94

Pooh-poohing election results
Brent Bozell, The Washington Times, 11/26/94

A bit of background: In chapter 12 of his best-seller, Bias, Bernie Goldberg presents a list of "Notable Quotables" from the Media Research Center. (The MRC is Brent Bozell’s conservative press watchdog group.) Goldberg’s first listing is an iconic quote from Peter Jennings, attributed to "his radio commentary after the GOP won the House, November 14, 1994." Here’s the quote as Goldberg presents it:

JENNINGS QUOTE, AS PRESENTED BY GOLDBERG: Some thoughts on those angry voters. Ask parents of any two-year-old and they can tell you about those temper tantrums: the stomping feet, the rolling eyes, the screaming…Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week…Parenting and governing don’t have to be dirty words: the nation can’t be run by an angry two-year-old.

Ellipses and all, this is the way the quote appears in Bias. As presented, it sounds like Jennings compared GOP voters in the 1994 congressional election to angry two-year-old children.

But has the quote been edited fairly? Because the statement came from a radio commentary that isn’t preserved by LEXIS, we haven’t been able to track down the full Jennings transcript. And how easy is it to yell "liberal bias" in ways that are baldly misleading? It’s very, very easy. Indeed, consider the "Notable Quotable" which appeared right below the Jennings quote on the 1994 MRC list:

MRC NOTABLE QUOTABLE: "The public seemed more intolerant than involved, uninterested in what the candidates have had to say, blindly voting against....The President might argue, with some justification, that it’s the media’s fault: we’re allergic to good news."—Newsweek Senior Editor Joe Klein, November 14.

Word-for-word, that is the quote, exactly as it still appears in the archives of the MRC site.

But how easy is it to yell "liberal bias?" It’s amazingly easy to yell "liberal bias"—if you’re willing to mislead your readers. Klein’s quote came from a Newsweek piece which can, of course, be examined in full. Prepare to see how far the MRC went in order to yell "liberal bias."

How much "liberal bias" did Klein display? The headline on the piece was "AN AWFUL YEAR." Sub-headline? "Both parties have run dismal, ultra-retro campaigns." That’s right, kids. Klein was so full of liberal bias that he trashed "both parties" in his piece. For the record, Klein’s article was dated 11/14, but it appeared on November 7, the day before the historic election in which the GOP regained control of the House. When he wrote his Newsweek piece, Klein had no way of knowing how the election would turn out.

Klein began with an overview of Election 94. "A truly awful election year," he wrote. "Dismal, depressing and despicable. Especially after 1992, which was pretty good (as these things go). Serious ideas were discussed in 1992…The public was involved, concerned and hopeful. Not this time. The public has seemed more intolerant than involved, uninterested in what the candidates have had to say, blindly voting against." Though that may sound like a clipped quote, that’s how the first paragraph ended.

In paragraph two, Klein started slamming the pols. "Then again, the candidates haven’t had all that much to say," he began. "The most striking thing about this election has been the utter absence of new ideas. I can’t think of one." After noting the anti-government mood found in many surveys, Klein began to play his assigned role. He criticized the GOP:

KLEIN (pgh 2): All right, then: it falls to Republicans—the natural beneficiaries of this trend—to come up with creative ideas for cutting back government and restoring order (which was the other great voter concern). They haven’t. They’ve shouted "fire" in our public theater. They’ve run on cutting taxes rather than cutting spending. They’ve run on symbols—the death penalty, immigrant-bashing—rather than cogent antidotes to the family disintegration that caused the anarchy.

If Klein had stopped his piece right there, the MRC might have had a slim point. There would be no sign of actual "bias," but at least they could have said that Klein had written a piece which slammed the GOP.

But Klein, of course, didn’t stop there. "But the Democrats haven’t been any better," he continued, showing off the startling "liberal bias" that made the MRC shed big crocodile ears. Indeed, get a load of the "liberal bias" Klein displayed in his very next sentence:

KLEIN (pgh 3): In fact, one of the few times that a Republican made a bold and responsible suggestion for cutting spending—William Kristol’s notion that agricultural subsidies should go—Democratic dinosaurs massed and pounced, led by the president of the United States.

You could just see the "liberal bias" there! Indeed, after a few more jibes at Clinton’s performance, Klein went on to say this:

KLEIN (pgh 3): Which raises the second distinguishing characteristic of this awful year: it was ultra-retro. Most of these campaigns could easily have been waged in the mid-1970s. The Republican "Contract With America" was circa 1980: cut taxes, raise military spending, balance the budget. The president spent most of his time campaigning with Democrats who left their best days in the 1960s, the Kennedys and Cuomos of the party; he moved his cable show, effectively, from MTV to the Nostalgia network.

If you can see "liberal bias" in that passage, you’re as daft—or as phony—as the MRC. Indeed, who was ultimately at fault for the AWFUL YEAR? You guessed it, boys and girls! Bill Clinton:

KLEIN (pgh 4): How could so much change in a mere two years? In two words: Bill Clinton. A skeptical public gave him the opportunity to show that activist government was still plausible—and he blew it. There have been many accounts of how and why he blew it; the grisly details do not bear repeating here. But one grisly detail has been largely overlooked or misinterpreted: the impact of health-care reform on this election. It has been devastating. The conventional explanation—that Clinton didn’t "win" and therefore suffered—does not suffice. The problem wasn’t gridlock, but the nature of the plan itself—an old-fashioned, liberal, bureaucratic mess of the very sort that voters find implausible in this straitened, competitive era. Health care defined Bill Clinton as an old Democrat, just as gays-in-the-military defined him as a lifestyle liberal.

We want to stop and remind you now—this is an article which the MRC hailed at the latest example of "liberal bias." The cattle came to graze at the MRC site, and went away, mooing and shuddering, at the way the "liberal media" had done it again. But what was the greatest complaint Klein expressed? His greatest complaint was with Bill Clinton, for presenting a lousy health care plan which Klein specifically derided as liberal! According to Klein, Clinton had devised "an old-fashioned, liberal, bureaucratic mess"—the very kind of liberal mess "that voters find implausible" today. (He had also let himself seem like "a lifestyle liberal.") "[M]ake no mistake," Klein said in closing, "the ugliness of this election year is a direct result of public anger at a president who lost touch and lost his way."

What can one say about an act of deception as vast as that by the MRC? After reading Klein’s piece, the MRC was weeping, boohooing and shedding big tears. It was also baldly deceiving its readers. A number of things surely must be said about a discourse conducted this way.

First, how much "liberal bias" can there actually be if the MRC has to make up such examples? Simply put, this was a case of outright fraud. One can only suppose that the MRC could find no real liberal bias.

But second, what can one say about a mainstream press corps which puts up with such gross deceptions? In this case, the MRC didn’t content itself with deceiving citizens who came to their site. The deceptive "quote" from the Joe Klein piece was also flogged by Bozell himself, in an 11/26/94 op-ed column in the Washington Times. ("The liberal national news media knows its agenda was soundly repudiated by the electorate," Bozell wrote. Bozell listed Klein’s misleading "quote" as Exhibit B, right after the Jennings quotation.) But have you ever heard the mainstream press complain about such ludicrous accusations of "liberal bias?" For the past decade, an aggressive, attack-dog conservative press has faced a complacent mainstream corps—a group too indifferent and craven to speak up in protest even when the public is grossly misled.

So what did Jennings really say? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But yelling "liberal bias" is amazingly easy to do—if you’re willing to butcher a quote. Klein trashed Clinton up and down—and still was guilty of "liberal bias." The nonsense persists to this very day. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we ask you one question: Where are standards?

MRsee-ing things: Other quotes from the 1994 "Notable" list were puzzling as examples of liberal bias. Here, for example, was a post-election quote attributed to Tim Russert:

MRC NOTABLE QUOTABLE: If Bill Clinton and the Democrats were given a blow on Tuesday because they moved to the left, if the Republicans govern only from the right and abandon the center, my guess is the public will pay them back in the very near future....The American people aren’t ideological. They don’t want a liberal government, a conservative government. They want a centrist, moderate government, maybe tilt a bit right of center. They don’t want extremes.—Tim Russert, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief, November 13, Today.

Why was Russert guilty of "liberal bias?" Because he said that the public only wanted the government to tilt "a bit right of center." Russert’s prediction, of course, turned out to be accurate, as judged by public reaction to the 1995 government shutdown. Of course, coverage of the government shutdown was all "liberal bias" too.


The Daily update (3/4/02)

It all evens out in the end: We aren’t going to reveal the name of Andrew Sullivan’s "anonymous economist" from last Monday, but we couldn’t help chuckling when several talented sleuths brought her name and CV to THE DAILY HOWLER’S attention. As you may recall, Sullivan’s burqa’ed correspondent shook her head and tsk-tsked sadly about the way Paul Krugman had been all wet about dereg (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/02). Her complaints, of course, were so utterly vague that there was simply no way to confirm or deny them. It was just Sullivan’s latest cowardly attack on Krugman’s competence and character—no criticism of his correspondent intended.

Here’s the humor—Sully’s anonymous economist is a honcho at the Reason Public Policy Institute. You’d never learn that from Sullivan, of course—and you’d never learn that the RPPI is funded by every oil company currently found on the face of the earth. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Sully’s anonymous economist is wrong in her views, whatever they may be. But didn’t this whole thing get underway with Sully complaining that Krugman needed to be more open about a past funding matter? How big a clown is Andrew Sullivan? This big: He complains when Krugman fails to tell us every cent that he ever was paid. In rebuttal, he presents another economist—and doesn’t even disclose her name, let alone her own funding issues. We’ll say again to the invaluable Jonathan Chait—if you can believe that this utter nonsense is being carried on in good faith, you’re a far better man than we.

But we guess it all evens out in the end. Some press types seem to have no standards. But Sullivan neatly balances them off; he has standards, and indeed they’re all double.