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Caveat lector

22 September 2001

Our current howler: The MRC gets it right!

Synopsis: Bravely setting its world-view aside, the MRC—defending Jennings—got it right.

Inside Politics
Greg Pierce, The Washington Times, 9/20/01

Bush’s press detractors reveal sudden about-face
Jennifer Harper, The Washington Times, 9/18/01

Appalled watchers remained glued to terrorism coverage
Jennifer Harper, The Washington Times, 9/20/01

The Media Research Center did a good thing this week; it cleared Peter Jennings of bogus charges concerning his September 11 broadcasts. Greg Pierce broke the news in Thursday’s Washington Times. "The Media Research Center, which is always on alert for liberal bias, says ABC anchorman Peter Jennings is getting a bad rap in some quarters," Pierce wrote. He then provided the details:

PIERCE: "Amid the horrible pictures and beyond-belief carnage on Sept. 11, some ABC viewers thought they heard Peter Jennings take a couple of cheap shots at President Bush, and they let us know about it," the media watchdog group’s Rich Noyes wrote yesterday in a Media Reality Check at

"Jennings was on the air for 17 hours, from shortly after 9 a.m. EDT through 2 a.m. the next day. Media Research Center analysts reviewed tapes of the entire awful day, and found no insults or disrespectful comments by the ABC anchor, although he did fret about why the president had not returned to Washington in the middle of the day," Mr. Noyes said.

Trust us–when the MRC watches seventeen hours of tape and finds no liberal bias, the liberal bias isn’t here. The MRC deserves big credit for reporting the truth in the face of its normal suppositions. But where had the griping come from? One source was Washington Times media reporter Jennifer Harper. On Tuesday, Harper was fanning the flames, reporting "quotes" which it seems just weren’t here:

HARPER (9/18): In the past few days, outraged viewers railed against ABC’s Peter Jennings after he said the president was "hiding behind the CIA" and questioned the legality of Mr. Bush’s decision to muster troops, implying the president had not been properly elected. ABC correspondent Ann Compton also infuriated viewers when she said "you can run, but you can’t hide" after Air Force One was diverted last Tuesday for security reasons.

Unfortunately, Harper was still at it on Thursday. Even as Pierce reported the MRC statement, Harper continued to shovel:

HARPER (9/20): On-camera correspondents have received both applause and condemnation for their work as the terrorist siege unfolded. Radio talk-show host Lucianne Goldberg suggested that CBS’ Dan Rather and ABC’s Peter Jennings should retire, noting that they did not know if they were "journalist or performers."

That was Harper’s complete take on the subject. Harper, who can always be counted on for work of this caliber, was still busily giving the impression that Jennings and Rather had done something horrid. The Times should ask her to explain the source of her "quotes" from Jennings and Compton. Meanwhile, other columns had appeared on conservative websites, blasting Jennings for his naughty conduct. Here, for example, was David Limbaugh, irately shaking his fist in the air at

LIMBAUGH: ABC’s Peter Jennings has led the pack of detractors, beginning with his hackneyed derision of Bush’s verbal skills. Then he displayed his disgust with Bush’s initial absence from media viewing. Finally, he questioned the president's credibility concerning the reasons for his circuitous route back to the White House on Air Force One.

After chiding Bush all day for not connecting him directly to the presidential hotline ("Where is the President"), Jennings said, in so many words, "Some presidents are better than others at expressing themselves. Maybe it’s wise that certain presidents just not try to address the people of this country." And after reports that ten additional suspected hijackers had been detained at New York City airports, Jennings was openly irritated because the White House wouldn’t confirm the reports fast enough to suit him.

As usual, Limbaugh provides a lot of paraphrase and not too many quotes. "Where is the president" is the kind of chump-quote hacks love to toss in a well-spiced spin stew. As an example of denigration, the quote is meaningless outside its context, which Limbaugh, of course, withholds. But did Jennings really utter the longer quote Limbaugh cites? We’re puzzled as to how the MRC could have missed it. NatRev, did it actually happen?

Unfortunately, those who love to cry "liberal bias" had a richer apparent target at the Washington Post. On September 13, Mary McGrory wrote her usual snide and worthless column about Bush’s leadership in the first several days. Limbaugh quoted her closing passage: "Bush said the attack was a ‘test’ for the country. It was also one for him. He flunked. But he says he believes in education and he has three years to take a makeup exam in leadership." As usual, McGrory nit-picked every imaginable flaw, displaying her contempt for those who aren’t up to the standards of herself and her friends. But those who want to cry "liberal bias" needs to get it on with reality. McGrory also wrote every snide column there was to write about Gore in the course of the two-year election. When you read McGrory, you find out what is being said right this instant in the inner salons of the press corps elite. Usually, what’s being said there isn’t worth reading. But before the Limbaughs scream about "liberal bias," they ought to take a minute to explain McGrory’s sneering, nit-picking columns in which she dissected venal Gore.

In fact, a number of people should take a lesson from the MRC’s disclaimer. There’s just no point in micromanaging every word Bush says at this point; and the knee-jerk screams of "liberal bias" have never seemed quite so reptilian. Tribal jihad is a worldwide impulse, but at the MRC, they wisely gave it a rest. Where they’ve led, we hope others will follow.


The Daily update (9/22/01)

War fever: Of all the mini-frenzies of the past ten days, the assault on Bill Maher has been the biggest and silliest. Maher used the word "cowardly" to describe certain American war conduct of the past decade. "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly," Maher said on his ABC show, Politically Incorrect. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly," Maher said of last week’s suicide bombers.

Maher has been widely reviled for calling U.S. bombing practices "cowardly." But a wide range of commentators said exactly the same thing during the U.S.-led NATO campaign in Kosovo. We’ll supply three or four, then call it quits. Here’s Robert Manning in the Washington Times, 6/28/99:

MANNING: On the plus side, it must be said the U.S. military technology itself was certainly something to behold. The improvements on precision-guided weapons since the Gulf war, and the efficacy of the B-2 bomber evidenced in the bombardment was so impressive that one may argue it changes the nature of air war. Yet there was something cowardly about a war that was important enough to kill for but not for us to die for. The death and destruction, not just to Kosovars, but to Serbian civilians whose crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, must be weighed against the savagery of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime.

A few weeks before, Howard Kurtz had quoted Rich Lowry:

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, which has urged the use of ground troops, said: "Even if Clinton wins a decent deal from Milosevic, he’s not going to go down as our Churchill or Eisenhower. It’s been a creepy and cowardly war... The original goal, saving the Kosovars, was lost in the first several weeks. When 90 percent of the people were chased out of their homes, that was what the war was designed to stop."
But then, the National Review was high on this critique. Mark Steyn, on May 31, 1999:
STEYN: After six weeks, the dead are everywhere–in Kosovo villages, Serb TV stations–except on the NATO side: Our top guns sit around playing poker on mildly cloudy nights; the Apache helicopters are rusting in the mud of Tirana; and there’s no one to give medals to except the only three Americans who’ve come within 15,000 feet of the enemy. In a cowardly little one-sided war, the glorification of these men was especially unseemly.
In the same issue, Roger Scruton voiced the same judgment:

SCRUTON: In effect, the war in Serbia is an exercise in sanitized aggression–force without the risk of force, violence without tears, destruction from a place of safety. Not only is this cowardly: It is profoundly counter-productive, as we are beginning to see.
Indeed, this was such a common critique of the Kosovo bombing, Rita Braver asked William Cohen about it on the June 27 CBS Sunday Morning:

BRAVER: (Voiceover) But as we talked aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Cohen insisted that it was also his view that an air war was the only option in Kosovo, given what both the American public and the NATO allies would accept.

What’s your response to people who say that this kind of an air campaign was a cowardly way to fight a war?

COHEN: I would ask them to come and talk to these pilots. I would ask them to say, "Do you think that you were lacking in bravery in flying these missions in the middle of the night over territory that was heavily armed with surface-to-air missiles, with anti-aircraft fire?" I’d ask them to come to these pilots and ask them whether they thought they were cowards.

Cohen didn’t think it was cowardly. But this judgment was routinely voiced during Kosozo, and major commentators said the same thing about the missile attack on Sudan. We’re not surprised when major pundits like Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson show no sign of knowing this; they sounded off in classic know-nothing fashion on the September 20 CBS Early Show. (Maybe they could speak with Braver and have her brief them on recent events.) But for the record, many people have said what Maher said. While Maher is publicly brought to heel like a defendant in a Chinese show trial, maybe Rich Lowry should go on TV and repent for his non-Mao-thought too.