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14 March 2001

Our current howler (part I): Why ask?

Synopsis: Gloria Borger asked a good question. Next time, she should try for an answer.

Commentary by Gloria Borger, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME)
Face the Nation, CBS, 3/11/01

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Bernard Kalb, James Carville, Mike Murphy
Reliable Sources, CNN, 3/10/01

Gloria Borger asked a good question. On Face the Nation, she and Bob Schieffer were hosting a segment on Bush's proposed tax cut. Does the president's tax cut really "add up?" Late in the segment, Borger posed this query to New Mexico's crafty Pete Domenici:

BORGER: Senator Domenici, I just want to switch to the budget for a moment—


BORGER: —if, if I can. You have said that the four percent increase in spending that President Bush has talked about is not adequate. This morning, Senator Trent Lott says that it's more than adequate, that you'll be able to work with that. What's your response to that?

Borger had asked a good question. Bush's budget blueprint calls for four percent growth in overall spending—right around the rate of inflation. Domenici, an influential Republican, has said that four percent just ain't enough. But if Congress budgets substantially more, that's another problem with Bush's plan. If Congress budgets Domenici's recommended six percent instead of budgeting Bush's four, that's one more way this important proposal won't come close to adding up.

Here at the incomparable DAILY HOWLER, we know a good question when we hear one. Our analysts leaned forward for Domenici's reply. But here's what he served up instead:

DOMENICI (continuing directly): Well, first, my response is that—and I'm going to talk about, for a minute about something Kent Conrad said, and then I'll tell you the four percent. But frankly, we've heard this rhetoric about spending the Social Security fund, spending Medicare. You know, every time we get close to a tax cut, the Democrats come up with something like that. It's just a lot of rhetoric. You know, it's kind of no—all sizzle and no steak, which I borrowed from somebody because I'm not good at those kind of words.

So the truth of the matter is, the president looked everybody in the eye and said, "Medicare—we will spend every penny of Medicare's money on Medicare." So I don't think those, those issues are the real issues. If they are what we adopt, then it means we're back to the tax-and-spend era, the era of bigger government rather than littler because the surplus is going to be spent on government. A little teeny piece of it should go back to the people.

Conrad, in case you're keeping score, had complained about Bush's refusal to use the Medicare surplus to pay down the national debt. Just for the record, Conrad had said that Bush "takes every penny of the Medicare trust fund and uses it for a so-called contingency fund to be used for other purposes. That's double counting. That's exactly how we'll get this country in deep financial trouble."

Domenici doesn't seem to agree with Conrad on the Medicare question. But perhaps eagle-eyed readers have noticed a detail—Domenici didn't direct a single word to the question which Borger had asked. Borger asked if Bush's four percent would be enough. Though Domenici's final two sentences are nearly indecipherable—nothing new from this cagey craftsman—he answered a totally different question, right from beginning to end. Surely Borger came back at Pete again, presenting her question on spending again? Sorry—this is Sunday morning. Hosts are courteous—here's what happened next:

SCHIEFFER (continuing directly): Senator Snowe, let me ask you, because I think you—

SNOWE: Yeah.

SCHIEFFER: —and some of the Republican moderates will be the key here as to what finally happens. Do you think at the end of the year, the American people are going to get a tax cut or not?

Schieffer moved on to a different question. He didn't make the slightest effort to get Domenici to address what Borger had asked.

Should key points about this proposal be clarified? If that's the sort of dialogue you want, Sunday morning may not be for you. Last week, we saw Tim Russert pose a question to Paul O'Neill—and accept a completely unresponsive "reply" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/01). On Sunday, Borger and Schieffer pulled the same routine when Borger asked Domenici about Bush's spending. Do pols have to answer any questions when they go on the Sunday shows? To all appearances, the Schieffers and Russerts are simply too lazy to require real answers.

Tomorrow, we'll visit Meet the Press again, one week after the O'Neill debacle. And uh-oh—one week after O'Neill ate Russert for lunch, Russert's method hadn't gotten much better.

Tomorrow: George Allen enjoys a light snack.


The occasional update (3/14/01)

Hardball, Saturday edition: Howie said it, just like always: "Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media." The able scribe makes the pledge every week, at the start of CNN's media show. This week, though, he clearly was kidding. On Saturday, Howie and Bernie's opening segment dealt with the coverage of those vile Clinton pardons. Was there any chance that the press was overdoing the coverage? Please! Here was the opening "question:"

KURTZ: James Carville, everyone knows you're a diehard Clinton loyalist. But even you can't possibly sit there and tell us that the pardon scandal is not important, that it's somehow being over-covered.

What an approach on a program like this! In reply, Carville said the impossible: "Well, sure I could tell you it's being over-covered." Carville said the pardons were a fully "legitimate story," but "I mean, it's just gone to crazy, insane lengths." Here was Howie's follow-up comment. The host wasn't changing his story:

KURTZ: But even if cable television, which I know you've been critical of, is squeezing every last ratings point out of this Clinton story, it's got abuse of power, big donors, it's got payoffs to relatives. It's a hell of a story.

Carville—who had nothing to say he hadn't said a hundred times before—simply restated his view. It is "completely legitimate and fair to question [Clinton's] judgment on this," he said again, but he did "have a problem with the complete crazed coverage." That brought in the other host. A worried Bernie Kalb offered this:

KALB: Mike [Murphy], is it true? Has the media gone overboard on this? James is indicting the media for wild excess in this particular case and the word "fugitive" has not crossed his lips.

That's right. Bernie was so afraid that Murphy might forget a key soundbite that he prompted it, right in his "question!"

Hay-yo! We've said it before and we'll say it again—just because you do media criticism, that doesn't mean that the press corps will always be wrong. But you at least should be able to imagine the possibility, and Howie and Bernie couldn't do it this day. Kalb's next comment, to Carville:

KALB: You're turning, you're turning the whole argument into some sort of a circus, a journalistic circus. And in fact, it is not.

So there! Kalb brought up the matter of "Bush Senior's pardons"—but only to assert they were different from Clinton's. When Carville argued they weren't all that different, Kurtz jumped in again: "This is the everybody-does-it argument," he complained. In fact, Kurtz and Kalb flacked for the press corps' good intentions every step of the way in this segment. Kurtz finally scolded Carville with this:

KURTZ: In the past—one second. In the past, you have come on television and you've attacked Ken Starr. You've attacked—

CARVILLE: How can I go attacking people—

KURTZ: You have nobody to attack in this story, so you beat up on the media.

That Carville! How dare he come on Reliable Sources and try to "beat up" on the media!!?? Kurtz and Kalb loudly defended the press corps all throughout the session. Frankly, it's hard to know why they scheduled the topic if the coverage had been so exemplary. Think about it: CNN devotes 22 minutes of air time each week to critical comment on the press corps. Think how great the press corps must be if the network has to fill time like this.

But even worse than the hosts' endless flacking was their utter, complete lack of preparation. Neither Kurtz nor Kalb had a thing to say that hasn't been said a hundred times before. (Nor did either one of their guests.) Even in a single segment, K&K had to prompt Carville into stating and restating his theme, just to get to the end of the time slot. And it wasn't just that Kurtz and Kalb had nothing to say about the pardons. They had nothing to say about other things too:

KURTZ: Let me turn to Mike Murphy, because, doesn't George W. Bush have a problem? Not just that he's being overshadowed by the former president but, I mean, the vice president, Dick Cheney, gets more coverage than Bush. Even before his health problem this week, his heart scare, you know, front page story on USA Today, "Cheney, the Power of the Administration."

MURPHY: Well, one of the frustrations when you're president is you can't control the media. You try to set a policy agenda and push it forward. The Bush—

KURTZ: But you've got an awfully loud megaphone.

Now Kurtz wasn't "turning a lens on the media"—he was turning a critical lens on the White House. By the way, Kurtz and Kalb could only imagine Bush being hurt by the focus on Clinton. It never seemed to have crossed their mind that the focus on Clinton might be helping Bush—by turning the press corps' critical functions away from his tax cut, for example.

But the segment's ultimate weakness showed when Murphy began grilling Carville. At one point, he asked for specifics:

MURPHY: But I want to engage James on something here. What is the excess? I mean, this story grows every day because there's a new wrinkle every day.

Here's where the weakness of this program's format again became all too clear. Murphy wanted Carville to say just who in the press corps was being excessive. But Carville is part of the Washington establishment, like all other guests who appear on this show. Carville isn't about to go on TV and openly criticize major pundits by name (Tim Russert, for example). So he had to offer a worthless jibe, and we were soon (mercifully) at the end of the segment.

Does CNN pay Kurtz and Kalb for this show? If so, they shouldn't have to pay them much for preparation this day. If the pair spent more than ten seconds prepping, they need to hook up with efficiency experts. The hosts had nothing to say on the pardon topic; had absolutely no worthwhile questions to ask; and did nothing but flack for the press corps' good works. When it comes to the press corps' recent Group Wisdom, Howard and Bernie knew what to do. The hapless tandem, shilling hard, turned a critical lens on Vile Clinton.