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  • The myth of the "Russert Primary"

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    With NBC's hugely important announcement that David Gregory will be the guy who asks questions on Meet The Press, the press has been in full, MTP worship mode. (It's not just a TV show people, it's an institution) Leading the charge, Howard Kurtz at the WaPo:

    In what was dubbed the Russert Primary, a presidential candidate's stock would rise or fall depending on how he or she handled the interrogation.

    This is beyond Beltway CW, it's official mythology. What Kurtz left out was the fact that the Russert Primary was often quite different depending on whether you were a Democratic or Republican candidate, as I quote from Lapdogs:

    During the hour-long sit-down, [Howard] Dean faced off against a clearly combative host, Tim Russert, who prepared for the interview in part by asking the Bush Treasury Department to produce what the Washington Post later called a "highly selective" analysis of the Democratic candidate's proposed tax program. The GOP-friendly analysis prompted Russert to ask incredulously to Dean, "Can you honestly go across the country and say, "I'm going to raise your taxes 4,000 percent or 107 percent" and be elected?"

    That was Russert's second substantive question of the interview. His first was about the then-recent arrest of Dean's son for helping steal beer from a country club. Russert though, famed for his pre-show prep, botched the facts and erroneously informed viewers that Dean's teenage son had been "indicted." Deep into the interview Russert asked how many men and women were currently serving in the U.S. military, a gotcha-style question designed solely to put Dean on the spot. When Dean said he didn't know the exact number, Russert lectured the candidate, "As commander in chief, you should know that." Dean answered the question by saying there were between 1 and 2 million men and women in active duty; according to the Pentagon, there were in fact 1.4 million.

    But travel back in time to November, 1999 when Russert had a far more civil sit-down with then-candidate Bush. (Russert: "Can kids avoid sex?" Bush: "I hope so. I think so.") Russert, in a rare move, even agreed to leave his NBC studio and to travel to Bush's home turf in Texas to conduct the interview, thereby giving the Texas governor a sort of home-field advantage. In fact, Russert first flew down to Austin in April 1999 to "get to know the governor of Texas," as the moderator put it, and to begin lobbying Bush for a Meet the Press appearance. (There's no indication Russert ever traveled up to Vermont in 2003 to "get to know" Dean or to persuade him to appear on the Sunday talk show.)

    For nearly 60 minutes Bush and Russert talked about key issues, but Russert never tried to pin the Republican candidate down the way he did Dean. When the host did spring a specific policy question on Bush, asking how many missiles would still be in place if a new START II nuclear weapons treaty were signed, a stumped Bush simply answered: "I can't remember the exact number." But unlike his session with Dean, Russert dropped the topic without lecturing Bush that "as commander in chief, you should know that."

  • Has Murdoch revitalized the WSJ?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    It's debatable. The Journal was a great paper when Murdoch bought it last year and it's still a great daily. (Minus, the often loopy editorial page, of course.) Has the Journal changed? Yes. The articles are often shorter. There's a lot more lifestyle and political coverage, although we're not sure the political coverage is any better.

    Anyway, this week Newsweek makes a very big deal about how Murdoch is reviving the Journal (even though the paper is still a drag on Murdoch's bottom line.) The part that we couldn't quite believe though, was when Newsweek made this claim:

    Whatever else one may think of the 77-year-old's splashy journalistic sensibilities-and there are plenty of traditionalists who don't love the new Journal-few in the media business aren't impressed that Murdoch is at least trying to revitalize and extend an old-media brand. "The New York Times has been regarded as the best newspaper in the world," says Dow Jones CEO Leslie Hinton, a veteran Murdoch executive. "That's a reputation we don't believe is deserved. We're now a real alternative."

    Um, notice something odd about that paragraph? Newsweek claims pretty much everyone in the media business is impressed with Murdoch's turn at the Journal. So who does Newsweek quote to prove the point? Newsweek quotes a veteran Murdoch executive.

    Seems that if Murdoch were really working miracles at the Journal, than Newsweek would be able to find somebody who doesn't cash a Murdoch paycheck to say so.

  • Politico's Ben Smith gets defensive

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Yesterday, Media Matters noted that Politico's Ben Smith followed in the footsteps of his colleagues Jonathan Martin and Carol Lee in noting that Barack Obama has not attended church since being elected president without noting that President Bush rarely attends church.

    Today, Smith responds ... sort of:

    John Judis and Media Matters make much of a short blog item I did noting that Obama's schedule hasn't included church visits.

    [...]

    If nothing else, the tone of the responses reflect how defensive the left still is on faith. The Media Matters post was four times longer than my item, and I don't really think that a single story and a blog item constitute "such a big deal."

    It is pretty much impossible to deny that you're being defensive without appearing defensive, so I'll leave it to readers to decide whether that adjective fits our post.

    For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that "the left" is "defensive ... on faith." Here's what Ben Smith misses: In this case, at least, "the left" is "defensive" because journalists like Ben Smith are unfairly advancing the false caricature of progressives as lacking faith. Smith and his Politico colleagues are going out of their way to point out that Barack Obama, a Democrat and a person of faith, has not attended church in the past few weeks - while ignoring the fact that President Bush, a Republican and a person of faith, rarely attends church.

    If "the left" is being "defensive," it is because Ben Smith and others at the Politico are giving them reason to defend themselves. For Smith to sneer that liberals are being defensive after he gives them reason to be literally adds insult to injury.

    In defending his, and his colleagues', focus on Obama's church attendance, Smith wrote: "Obama doesn't seem to consider his faith private: He talked about it all the time on the campaign trail, wrote about it in searing detail, and campaigned on it before Rick Warren's megachurch in a forum broadcast live on CNN. ... So it doesn't seem particularly unreasonable to note his habits of observance."

    But Media Matters didn't say it was unreasonable to note Obama's "habits of observance." We pointed out that Smith and his colleagues failed to note that Bush - who also cannot be said to have behaved as though he "considers his faith private" -- has rarely attended church over the past eight years.

    It doesn't seem particularly unreasonable to expect a reporter who purports to compare the church attendance of Bush and Obama to note the infrequency of Bush's attendance over the past eight years.

    Which is probably why Smith chose not to even try to defend himself on this point. He didn't even acknowledge that point - the entire point of Media Matters' item - even exists. He offered no explanation or defense of his decision to omit the information that Bush rarely attends church. Indeed, he neither quoted nor responded to a single word of Media Matters' critique. He simply sniffed that the Media Matters post "was four times longer" than his item.

    If nothing else, the tone of Smith's response reflects how defensive some journalists are when their shoddy and one-sided reporting is demonstrated.

    I'll save Smith the trouble of counting words: This particular post is more than twice as long as his post. I'll be happy to make my next post on this topic shorter -- if Smith makes his next post better.

  • Nixon and the press

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    From just released tapes, April 4, 1972 [emphasis added]:

    NIXON: "Return the calls to those poor dumb bastards ... who I know are our friends. Now do it ... We made the same mistake [Dwight] Eisenhower made, but not as bad as Eisenhower made, because he sucked the Times too much ... G-d damn it, don't talk to them for a while. Will you enforce that now?'

    Note how Nixon wanted to freeze out the Times. Sort of like Bush has frozen out the Times. The more things change...

    UPDATE: Listen to Nixon repeat like a mantra, "The press is the enemy."

  • It's always sunny at CNBC

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The Great Recession really has been, among other things, a rather large embarrassment for large parts of the professional business press, which has spent so many years simply cheerleading Wall Street while missing the economic Story of the Decade.

    Oh well, seems CNBC is still bullish. Or, to be more precise, CNBC's favorite economists and analysts remain bullish. Note the online headline: "Huge Job Losses Could Be Signal That Worst Is Over." The article itself is pretty much non-stop, happy-days-will-be-here-again:

    "This is history," says veteran Wall Street economist Ram Bhagavatula. "December payrolls will be weak as well. The leading indicators will come from a slow re-activation of the credit markets and increases in consumer spending. You should begin to see that in the next couple of months."

    Bhagavatula is among a growing number of economists who say the seeds of recovery are already in place, even if they are revising their forecasts for GDP contraction in the fourth quarter to show an even greater decline.

    "Every recession has its worst day, and this is probably the worst day," says Chris Rupkey of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

    And this:

    Economists say there's a lot of tailwind to drive an economic recovery and already emerging signs of one. "There's now starting to be some visibility about how this might end." Says David Resler, chief economist at Nomura International.

    We noted last week that the media's favorite analysts, when polled about predictions for what November's job loss numbers would be, were only off by 200,000 jobs. The same type of analysts who reporters liked to quote in the spring about the chance of a "mild recession."

    We think AmericaBlog got it right: "Everything is fine and as long as you close your eyes, don't listen and talk loudly over everyone else you'll be fine. Just ask CNBC."

  • Wallace and Stephanopoulos play dumb with Condoleezza Rice

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Rice made the rounds on Sunday for likely the last time as SoS and she reiterated the WH's final talking point about Iraq and how everyone just wished they had had better intel before launching America's unprecedented pre-emptive invasion.

    As we noted last week, Bush, Rove and Kristol have each echoed that point recently. The media's reaction to the blatant falsehood what somehow it was unknowable in 2003 that Iraq didn't have WMD's? The press has done almost nothing. We suggested the press might be sleep-walking this story because it just brings back bad memories about how it so eagerly signed off on the bogus rationale for war.

    Meanwhile, Rice's series of Sunday interviews simply confirmed that the unspoken rule among Beltway elites is that nobody, and we mean nobody, is supposed to ask Rice truly uncomfortable questions about a war she helped engineer.

    It literally is a game. The TV hosts ask innocuous questions about Iraq. Rice responds with misleading information knowing full well that her host is never going to call her on it. And then the two dance onto another topic. And by the way, Rice also appeared on CNN's Late Edition, but host Wolf Blitzer didn't even bother to ask the out-going SoS about Iraq. Talk about a gracious host.

    For the Sunday low point, we'd have to point to this answer Rice gave to Wallace on Fox News about the intel [emphasis added]:

    The fact is, at the time, we believed that they were - that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted this biological and chemical weapons program and was likely making progress on his nuclear program. And that was the assessment of the intelligence community. Now, we have reformed the way that information gets to principals. And if I had it to do over again, yes, I'd have the system in place that we have now, not the system that we had then. But this system of alternative views that are put forward in a more - a crisper and clearer way is important to understanding intelligence...And so while it's fine to go back and say what might we have done differently, the truth of the matter is we don't have that luxury. And we didn't at the time.

    See, it was the system's fault. Principals in the WH weren't getting the right intel about Iraq. But fear not, the system has been fixed. Slight problem with Rice's fictionalization of history, and slight problem with Chris Wallace's playing dumb about Rice's answer: The intel system in place for the run-up to Iraq was specifically created by Donald Rumsfeld, and supported by VP Dick Cheney, in order to cherry pick information to make sure principals inside the WH were mislead. Or at least could later claim to have been misled.

    A topic worthy of debate, right? But that's not a question Rice is going to have answer on TV.

  • Michael Medved misremembers right-wing radio's past

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The good news about Medved's opinion piece in the USA Today, was that it called out the talk radio genre for its growing irrelevance. A GOP talker himself, Medved was quite straight forward:

    But if the new president [Obama] makes credible efforts to govern from the center, then talk radio can't afford long-term marginalization as a sulking, sniping, angry irrelevancy. It makes no sense to react with pre-emptive rage (and an odd obsession over Obama's birth certificate) to a president-elect who has remained pointedly vague on policy.

    The bad news was Medved kept peddling this notion that right-wing radio hit its nadir--the "Golden Age"-during the Clinton years and that GOP radio played a crucial, deeply important role in the political life of America during the 1990's:

    With no Republican power base in the federal bureaucracy, dispirited conservatives turned to talk radio as a sort of government in exile. Deploying wit, passion and ferocious focus, Rush (and his many followers and imitators) rallied GOP loyalists to fight back against the Clinton agenda, from gays in the military to Hillary's health care scheme. Within two years, Republicans came roaring back to capture GOP control of both houses of Congress and pointedly acknowledged the role of radio - naming Rush the "Majority Maker" and making him an honorary member of their caucus.

    Technically, that's all true. But Medved is talking about a period that ran from approximately June 1993 to November 1994; 16 months. The question is what did right-wing radio do the rest of decade? How did right-wing radio defeat the Clintons? How did it "change minds," as Medved claimed? Answer: It didn't. Bill Clinton won re-election with ease and left office as the most popular president in modern history.

    The irony is that Medved is urging talk radio today not to become half-cocked in its pursuit of Obama--not to become unhinged--or it'll end up irrelevant. But wasn't that what right-wing radio did from, say 1995 to 2000?

  • The LA Times awaits Bush's comeback

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    It's hard to laugh when you see the Beltway press, yet again, type up stories about how Bush is set for a job approval ratings comeback. Like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin, the Beltway press has been sure--just positive--that Bush is gonna rebound any minute now. And hey, if it happens as Bush boards Air Forces one for the last time, than the press wants to make sure it's there to capture the magic.

    Believe it or not, two Times writers online recently set aside space to alert readers how Bush's job approval ratings are bound to go up between now and January. i.e. "Bush may well be buffing up those numbers before he departs for Texas." The news hook was a report from Gallup which noted lame duck presidents have often enjoyed a modest gain in approval rating during their last two months in office. And because, according to Gallup, Bush's God-awful approval ratings have gone from 24% to 28% recently, the Times suggested Bush was in line for a boost.

    Two things. The LA Times' analysis completely ignored the fact that America the just entered the Great Recession and that might, just might, stand in the way of Bush's big bounce. (Jobless people tend to dislike the president.) And second, the Times writers remained mostly blissfully unaware that Bush is the most consistently unpopular president in the history of 20th century polling. Oh sure, they make passing reference to his unpopularity. But the Times makes no effort to highlight the fact that Bush remains an absolute freak of job approval nature.

    It's true that Harry Truman and Richard Nixon dropped down into the 20's in terms of job approval ratings. But Truman's was a quick dip and then he was back to the races. Nixon's fall, of course, came courtesy of a sweeping criminal enterprise he was running out of the White House. No president in the history of modern America has ever come close to posting the type of unimaginably bad job approval ratings, and do it for as long as Bush has.

    But hey, he's due for a comeback!

    Meanwhile, here's the Times Andrew Malcolm writing about Bush: "His popularity has jumped to 28%. Still not that great." I'm almost certain Malcolm, who once worked as Laura Bush's flack, was not being facetious. He was being serious. He was serious that Bush had jumped to 28%. And he was serious that no, 28% is "still not that great."

    The real punchline came in the form of headline to Malcom's post post [emphasis added]: "With only 46 days left, Americans start re-liking George W. Bush."