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Caveat lector

29 November 2000

Our current howler: Con text

Synopsis: Perpetually-furious Michael Kelly forgot to provide simple context.

Send in the Thugs
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 11/22/00

What Michael Kelly left out in his "dishonest attack"
Joe Conason (letter),, 11/22/00

Burn That Village
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 11/29/00

Can We Trust TV?
Marvin Kalb, The Washington Post, 11/29/00

Perpetually-furious Michael Kelly was having his weekly meltdown (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/00). He spoke of "hacks" and "thugs" and "oily" men. That made him think of Begala:

KELLY (11/22): In this last regard, we must especially thank Paul Begala. Begala, a Clinton-Gore operative who is both a lawyer and a political thug, and who is not a journalist but who plays one on television, wrote this on the other day:

"Yes...tens of millions of good people in Middle America voted Republican. But if you look closely at that map [showing states won by George W. Bush in red] you see a more complex picture. You see the state where James Byrd was lynched—dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart—it's red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay—it's red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees—it's red. The state where an Army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: they're all red too."

"Mr. Begala can be counted on to spelunk to the lowest level of the sewer," Kelly said.

Luckily, someone put Kelly's words in perspective. He also put Begala's comments in context. It was Joe Conason, with a letter at Here was Joe's opening paragraph:

CONASON: Michael Kelly frequently misuses his column space for name-calling rants that are bereft of fact and reason, but today he went further than usual. In the course of attacking Paul Begala as a "political thug," Kelly lifts out of context and grossly distorts a portion of a piece Begala wrote for Begala's article was responding to remarks on MSNBC by Mike Barnicle—to the effect that the "red" states in the middle and south of the election map, which voted for George W. Bush, represent a more devout and admirable segment of the American people than the "blue" states on the coasts and in the north which preferred Al Gore. "Family values versus entitlement," intoned Barnicle.

Oops! Kelly had said nothing about Barnicle's comments. Conason labored on:

CONASON (continuing directly): But Kelly completely omits that context, and simply quotes a single paragraph from Begala's article arguing that the red portion of the electoral map presents "a more complex picture. You see the state where James Byrd was lynched...You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified...You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building...and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry." Having chopped away the context, Kelly then accuses Begala of descending into the sewer with this "ultimate smear," attributing to him the notion that the votes won by Bush were "really not legitimate (and therefore neither is a President Bush) because, you see, that vote came from states (29 of them) populated by murderers and bigots and homophobes and neo-Nazis and terrorists."

Begala, of course, had never said that votes won by Bush were "really not legitimate." But excited paraphrase is a staple of Kelly Thought; through it, the scribe has degraded the discourse for years. Conason noted something else that Kelly left out of his account of Begala's column:

CONASON (continuing directly): This does violence to what Begala actually wrote, as Kelly must have known when he wrote his dishonest attack. Innocent readers of Kelly's column would have no way of knowing he had left out the sentence that immediately followed that recitation of horrors. "But that's not the whole story either," Begala wrote, adding, "My point is that Middle America is a far more complicated place than even a gifted commentator like Mike Barnicle gives us credit for. It's not all just red and blue—or black and white."

Just how warped is Kelly's vision? Get this—in a column which called Mike Barnicle "a gifted commentator," the irate pundit found fault with something else!

It's absurd to say that red states favor "family values" and blue states favor "entitlements." We ourselves wouldn't have answered Barnicle in the way Begala did. But how surprising to read the parts of Begala's piece which Kelly simply forget to mention—in an angry rant which said that Begala "is not a journalist" but only "plays one!"

It's true—the Washington Post misled readers again when it put Kelly's column into print. But the Post makes this choice again and again when it publishes its angry-man Kelly. Kelly baldly deceived readers in March 1999 with his remarkably disingenuous piece, "Farmer Al" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/99, 4/5/99, 4/7/99). When the Post continued to publish the scribe after that, it helped us see that it really was true—the 2000 election would be about public figures with character problems.

If you want to understand the modern press corps, look at "Send in the Thugs" and "Farmer Al." And ask yourself one other thing—except for Conason's letter last week, you have never heard a single scribe comment on Kelly's performance? For example, no one ever said a word about the press corps' startling dissembling about the farm chores. E. J Dionne? Al Hunt? William Raspberry? All stood politely by—silent.

The celebrity press corps has it made. They know enough not to rock the boat. They put their interests ahead of yours. Their Code of Silence is the structural problem afflicting our listing democracy.


The Daily update (11/29/00)

Brother act: This morning, the Furious One is at it again, informing the nation that Gore's Monday speech was "certainly among the most dishonest in political history." Hay-yo! Lounging Olympians surely chuckled to read the angry-man's latest logic:

KELLY (11/29): It's worth taking a look at the counting in Broward County...There are three members of the Broward board: Robert W. Lee, a Democrat and its chairman; Suzanne N. Gunzburger, another Democrat; and Robert Rosenberg, a Republican. When these three had finished [hand] counting the dubious ballots, Gore had netted 567 votes.

The New York Times described how it worked. "Time and again," reported the Times, the Democrat Gunzburger "saw a Gore vote" where the Republican Rosenberg "saw none. And time, after time, Judge Lee, a Democrat, cast the deciding vote—often in Mr. Gore's favor." So there it is—two Democratic officials steadfastly outvoting one Republican to allot questionable ballots overwhelmingly to the Democratic candidate. This is the process Gore depicts as a disinterested effort to count every vote, and may the best man win. Does it strike you that way?

Hand-counting punch cards is far from ideal. But Kelly jumps from "often" to "steadfastly" to tell you the story he likes. How "often" did Lee decide in Gore's favor? More "often" than he decided in Bush's favor? More "often" than a disinterested judge would have done? The Times article, you will note, doesn't know and doesn't say, so Kelly simply improves its story. So it goes in a Washington press corps corrupted by lack of accountability and a slick Code of Silence. Kelly knows he can write what he likes, and that no one will ever say squat.

With that in mind, our eye was caught by Marvin Kalb's opening stanza this morning. Kalb, guesting on the Post op-ed page, talks about the networks' agony since election night:

KALB: Ever since Election Night, when the news networks goofed "big time," as Dick Cheney might say, they have been engaged in an agonizing process of self-criticism, doubt and recrimination. How could we have blown such a story?

They have? Have you seen anything in the past few weeks that would make you think this is true? Where has this agonizing process taken place? "The anchors have apologized," Kalb says, but they did that at 3 A.M. on election night. Kalb quotes Walter Isaacson of Time: The networks "have lost their baritone of authority," he says. Does that sound like an agonized man? The cry of a scribe agonistes?

But then, powder-puff punditry will always ensue when the press corps is judged by its brothers and friends. We don't mean—in any way—to impugn the current scribe's intentions or character. But real press critique is soundly defeated by Brother, Sister and Colleague Acts. In our society, only the press corps judges itself. On election night—on every night of the year—the problem is quite clearly visible.

SCHEDULE: Yikes! We've been away, and we're going away again. Who knew? We had prior obligations.