Monthly Archives: September 2004

I think press stories can sometimes declare someone is guilty by association. By association I mean where a person’s quote appears in a story.

Take, for example, this morning’s Dana Milbank’s analysis piece in this morning’s Washington Post about the Bush campaign’s low-life effort to say a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorism.

This year, the accusations began at lower levels. In March, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told a group of Republicans: “If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election.” Republicans say Democrats, while not suggesting Bush is guilty of treason, have indulged in questionable rhetoric themselves; they point to a tasteless performance at a Kerry fundraiser by performer Whoopi Goldberg (which the candidate did not disavow) and by Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), who on a visit to Baghdad two years ago defended Iraq and said Bush was misleading the public.

On Fox News, conservative commentator Ann Coulter said, “It’s unquestionable that Republicans are more likely to prevent the next attack.” Kerry, she said, “will improve the economy in the emergency services and body bag industry.”

Whatever the merits, the charges that terrorists prefer Democrats have been echoed by independent commentators and journalists. CNN analyst Bill Schneider, asked about Hastert’s remarks, agreed that al Qaeda “would very much like to defeat President Bush.”

Sure, Milbank calls Bill Schneider an “independent commentator” but Milbank must know that Schneider is considered by many to be biased. Putting his comment next to Ann Coulter, a certifiable nut case, I think was done by Milbank with a wink and a nod.

Milbank surely knows that CJR’s Campaign Desk pointed out that Schneider is anything but.

First, Schneider — whose own credentials as a “neutral” include his employment as a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a book co-authored with the now largely discredited foreign policy analyst Richard Perle — makes clear that he agrees with Hastert. Al Qaeda, Schneider says, “would very much like to defeat President Bush.” Schneider, like Hastert, can believe whatever he wants. But in his alleged role as a supposed non-partisan analyst, he might think twice before endorsing a charge as incendiary as Hastert’s in front of millions of viewers.

To be sure, in the latter part of his comments, Schneider seemed to realize this, and tacked abruptly to the left, claiming that Hastert was merely trying to argue that, in the event of a terror attack before the election, voters would rally around the president. That’s a far cry from saying that al Qaeda wants Kerry to win. Unfortunately, it’s also a far cry from what Hastert actually said. In short, after first endorsing what Hastert had to say, Schneider completely reinvented Hastert’s point — to make it seem less objectionable.

More than one John Kerry partisan has argued that al Qaeda might want President Bush re-elected, given that his prosecution of the war on terror has been a boon to terrorist recruitment efforts. But it’s hard to imagine a “neutral” political analyst on any major news outlet feeling confident enough to express agreement with such a darkly conspiratorial view. For some reason, though, the reverse is perfectly acceptable.

Another Bush Flip-Flop

Bush backed away from saying the CIA was “just guessing” in a gloomy July forecast for Iraq, but again dismissed the US intelligence community’s warnings that the country might at best only cling to tenuous stability.

“This is a report that talks about possibilities about what can happen in Iraq, not probabilities. I used an unfortunate word, ‘guess.’ I should have used, ‘estimate,” he said.

“The CIA came and said, ‘This is a possibility, this is a possibility, and this is a possibility.’ But what’s important for the American people to hear is reality,” said Bush.


Kerry should ignore this, just like the Bush campaign ignores Kerry when he explains or clarifies his position. “Just guessing” should be repeated at every chance. It could be used sarcastically, such as “Bush thinks things are going well in Iraq. I think he’s out of touch with reality. I don’t know that for sure. I’m just guessing.”

Update: Kevin Drum thinks it’s not so much a “misspeak” by Bush but a “misthink” or more precisely, a “nothink.”

Another Bush Flip-Flop

Bush backed away from saying the CIA was “just guessing” in a gloomy July forecast for Iraq, but again dismissed the US intelligence community’s warnings that the country might at best only cling to tenuous stability.

“This is a report that talks about possibilities about what can happen in Iraq, not probabilities. I used an unfortunate word, ‘guess.’ I should have used, ‘estimate,” he said.

“The CIA came and said, ‘This is a possibility, this is a possibility, and this is a possibility.’ But what’s important for the American people to hear is reality,” said Bush.


Are We Better Off?

I don’t think so.

A closely watched gauge of future business activity fell in August for a third consecutive month, evidence that companies and consumers continue to navigate an uncertain economic climate. Meanwhile, more Americans filed new claims for unemployment benefits last week following the hurricanes that hit Florida.

The Conference Board said Thursday its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators fell 0.3 percent in August to 115.7, following a decline of 0.3 percent in July.

The August reading was the third month of decline in the index, after more than a year in which it gained steady ground. The drop last month was larger than the 0.2 percent decrease forecast by analysts.

Curtains Drawn on the Campaign Bus

Call it what you will, the bottom line is the press – the objective, truth-seeking kind that we think of as the mainstream media – is failing American democracy to a far greater degree than the shills on cable TV or talk radio.

We see Bill O’Reilly and Al Franken for what they are: partisans with varying degrees of professional integrity and few journalistic skills or ethics. We flock to them for information that confirms our own views.

But we turn to the mainstream media with some hope of objectivity, some hope that we’ll get the facts we need to make an informed opinion.

The CBS memo scandal undermines that hope, but Philip Gourevitch, who writes books about issues largely ignored or abandoned by the press, suggests the mainstream press following the candidates are failing us to a much greater degree than we might realize.

“A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,” he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event.

The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. The bubble is a physical thing: a threshold your body crosses. If you are part of the traveling press corps, sticking with the candidate through the swing states, then you have to be swept–screened for weapons and explosives–or you cannot be on the bus. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand.

But just as real, and interacting with the security bubble, is another kind, more akin to a thought bubble above a cartoon character’s head.

“The press moving as a pack confirms its own take on things,” Gourevitch said. (That’s as well as I have heard anyone put it.) There are many names for this take. It’s called pack journalism. Conventional wisdom. The herd mentality. The script. The frame. Master narrative. It’s the story you agree to accept because it tells you and everybody else what you (and everybody else) are doing on the bus.

Cheesy package tour. That was Gourevitch’s first impression about traveling with the campaigns. You sign up. You get on the bus. It hits all the major sights. Crowds of people get off at each one. Then they get back on. The campaigns tell you what the schedule is. The campaigns tell you where the pick up will be. The campaigns feed you, get you to the airport, take you from the airport.

“Right there they have you,” Gourevitch told our crowd of about 50 journalism students and faculty. “Outside the bubble you cannot go because then you’re dirty again and have to be checked by the Secret Service.” Under these conditions, he said, “no spontaneous reporting is possible.”

You cannot jump into the crowd with an audio recorder and find out why those people were chanting what they were chanting before they were shown away by security guards. Accepting this limitation–a big one–becomes part of the bubble.

It must have struck Gourevitch at a certain point that he had seen these conditions before: in the captive press of other countries he had reported from. For if the people on it do not have freedom of movement, in what sense is the campaign bus the carrier of a free press? The reporters who travel with the candidates come close to being captives in a “campaign machine,” as Gourevitch several times called it.

“There’s a lot of fear in the press,” he said. Fear of editors, of audiences, of losing access, feeling isolated, being out of step. “Part of the problem for the campaign press is, this is your social world”– which is a different kind of bubble. Journalists hang out with journalists and politicos. They marry each other, and many are also wedded to the game, to politics. These are just factors, he said. Atmospherics that favor outcomes but cause nothing to happen.

The Note calls them the Gang of 500. I say tribe. Gourevitch tended to say pack. The pack way is not a form of journalism, really. It’s a state of mind that competes with journalism. Sometimes what people in their occupation most want is not to look like a jerk in front of peers. Not to be the one who gets caught out. Bigger factor than you think, he said. Especially around George W. Bush, but not only then.

Gourevitch said the President was a master of school yard bullying disguised as amusing banter (to which no one can object without sounding like a prig.) “Which means we laugh at his cruelty,” he said. A lot of reporters, including many liberal journalists, “have a weird fatalism about the election– that Bush and the Republicans just know how to do all this.”

The excerpts above from a post by Jay Rosen, whose Press Think blog provides one of the most thoughtful – if protracted — insights on today’s news media, has much more on Gourevitch’s talk to NYU journalism students. I recommend the entire piece.

Gourevitch also confirms a point I’ve made before.

I’ve heard from a number of people – usually those criticizing my references to the latest campaign scandal – saying that I should be more concerned about the important, overarching issues of the day. But when scratching the surface of some of these criticisms, I find little interest in learning about theses issues. They sometimes seems interested in only hearing “discussion” that confirms there own prejudices. In short, the point that Gourevitch confirms is that the principal enemy to an informed discussion is us. We’re not considered too smart or curious enough to tolerate the ways of the wonk.

[Journalists] feel the answers to most policy questions require a language and knowledge base “that are essentially the property of elites.” That is why there is limited interest in issues that connect to our troubles.

Gourevitch believes that nobody involved in the system wants included in presidential campaigning–at this stage–the kind of engaged and informed debate that would tax the viewer, cause the readers eyes to glaze over, repel the listener, push buttons in the wrong voters, screw up the schedule. The candidates, the staffs, and the press all have their reasons–stated and never stated–for maintaining a “pretend” discussion.

Sure, the press may think they’re the elite, but we accept the “’pretend’ discussion” because if we didn’t – if we really wanted analyses of issues, the media would give it to us. After all, whatever it takes to increase circulation or subscribers is what media companies will deliver.

How do we do that? I have no silver bullets. But with email so convenient, it seems it would make sense that we at least fire one off, with some regularity, to the top editors or ombudsmen at media companies asking for such coverage. We could alert our friends to the few good articles on issues they should read. And we should thank the media that provides the coverage we’re looking for.

But if we ask but don’t read, plead but don’t watch, their numbers will show it, and we’ll go back to coverage from lazy elitists behind drawn curtains on the campaign bus.


Why DickThornburgh?

Mr. Rather considers Mr. Thornburgh a confounding choice in part because he served two Republican presidents, Mr. Bush’s father, and Richard M. Nixon, with whom Mr. Rather publicly clashed, the colleagues and associates said.

Mr. Thornburgh also has his own rocky history with CBS. In 1989, as attorney general, he drew the ire of CBS News and other news media organizations when the Justice Department was reportedly considering subpoenas for the telephone records of a CBS News correspondent in an investigation of leaks about an inquiry about a congressman’s office. A spokeswoman for CBS News, Sandra Genelius, described Mr. Thornburgh and Mr. Boccardi as having “uncommon integrity and ability.” But Ms. Genelius declined to elaborate on the reasoning of two CBS officials primarily responsible for naming the panel, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS Television and co-president of the CBS parent, Viacom.

Dems Outflanked Again

The Bush campaign has found a way to increase its ad budget by exploiting a loophole in campaign finance laws. The Dems were unaware of the loophole until a reporter pointed it out for this story.

Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager, said in an interview that federal election law allows the campaign access to party money “provided that your message is broader than the individual candidate and includes a discussion of the overall agenda and the message of the party.” The Republican National Committee has $93 million on hand.

This month the Republicans began airing television and radio commercials paid for jointly by the president’s re-election campaign and the RNC and including the words “our leaders in Congress.”

The ads say Bush and congressional leaders have plans to strengthen homeland security, expand the economy and reduce health care costs. Some also attack Kerry and “the liberals in Congress.”
The president appears briefly in each of the TV ads and his voice is heard in the radio commercials

It’s frustrating to be on the side that’s always a day late and a dollar short.

Thanks to Kos for highlighting this story.

Post Pontificates

Mindful of its own past failing (i.e., Janet Cooke) The Washington Post editorializes today about the “poor judgement” at CBS. Not surprising that the cable talk shows are having a field day with it, with both ABC and NBC apparently enjoying every minute of it.

But then The Post editorial concludes with “[m]eanwhile, we continue to entertain the notion that there are subjects more important in this presidential campaign than even Swift boats or the Alabama National Guard.”

Then exactly why has The Post given Howard Kurtz acres of newsprint over the past week? He can’t seem to get enough of the story. Kurtz, whose columns are now sometimes slugged by The Post as “Politics” and whose ties to the Republican party through his wife give at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, seems to fuel the fire by his apparent bias. In his online chat Monday, he was asked about the Bush campaign ties to the Swift Boat Veteran. He replies, “Sure the Swifties drew funding from Republicans and Bush supporters, but that doesn’t mean the Bush campaign can be held responsible for the attack, any more than Kerry can be held responsible for some of the harsher MoveOn ads.”

Such a comment suggests that MoveOn ads were in the same league as the Swifties. But that is so far from the truth that it again begs the question of whether Kurtz can ever be trusted to be fair. Just which ad does he think was so personal an attack that was has been so thoroughly discredited as the Swifties ad? You can see all the MoveOn ads here. Kurtz then goes on to say

Clinton’s active avoidance of the draft was a legitimate political issue, as is Cheney’s (though he got pretty standard college and parental deferments). In the case of Bush, despite the fact that he obviously had some help getting into the Guard and benefited from being a congressman’s son, he did serve and flew airplanes, which is not like pushing paper.

This apparent judgement that there should be no questions about Bush’s lack of Vietnam service and that Cheney’s deferrals were standard procedure and therefore beyond reproach reveal a clear bias, in my view.

But now that Kurtz has attacked CBS and impugned its integrity for more than a week now, I guess I should move on to “subjects more important.” Perhaps like The Post’s hypocrisy.

The CIA Wings It

Now I’m not convinced, because after all this is just a hunch. But our president is not very smart. Again, I don’t know. But after reading this, I’m just guessing.


Fifty veterans show up for a Bush rally in Richmond and The Washington Post does a story about it. Turns out some of the 50 weren’t Bush fans but put stickers on suggesting they were and then debated the pro-Bushies after the rally. Still, I can get 50 people to show up to watch grass grow. The Post going to do a story about it?