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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Papal Cliffhanger

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; 10:15 AM

This is a job for Ron Brownstein, Adam Nagourney, Dan Balz and John Harwood, but even they might be mystified over how to cover the campaign.

There are no primaries. No polls. No debates. No focus groups. No party leaders to interview. There are no PACs, no 527s, no fundraisers, no 30-second ads. There are no rallies, no news conferences, no photo ops. There isn't even a list of declared candidates.

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How on earth is a political reporter supposed to cover the race to be the next pope?

As much as I read about this mysterious process, I can't quite fathom it. Talk about a smoke-filled room! This closed-door conclave -- 117 cardinals have to stay in there until they pick someone? -- may have been great for the 12th century, but for the Internet age?

What I don't get is, how do the cardinals decide if they can't interview the candidates, since no one is allowed to say he's a candidate, which would be so unseemly as to invite disqualification? Is it all just geopolitical horse-trading? And imagine how reporters who complain about the tightly scripted, stage-managed Republican and Democratic conventions would feel -- if they actually had access -- covering days and days of burning ballots in the Sistine Chapel that ends with a puff of white smoke?

The prize, of course, is not a mere four-year presidential term but a lifetime appointment as a spiritual leader, with free Vatican housing and a new name.

One thing that's no different than Campaign 2004: Journalists are speculating about who's in the running. A pope from Africa? Or Latin America? Or will the Italians reclaim the title they held for 455 years before John Paul? (Talk about a winning streak.)

USA Today ran pictures of 10 leading contenders, from Francis Arinze of Nigeria to Dionigi Tettamanzi of Italy. How do they know? Divine inspiration?

Imagine if some of the players agreed to be interviewed?

"I've got great strength in the red countries, as the media would know if the reporters ever bothered to get out of Rome."

"We have worked very, very hard at turning out our base and are going to surprise a lot of people in that chapel."

"Our private polling says there's going to be a deadlock, and after all the black smoke I'm the candidate who will be most acceptable to all factions."

"My good friend the cardinal is blowing smoke if he thinks he's going to get the white smoke."

"We're feeling very good about where we are, and the cardinals know there is no truth to those ugly rumors about my diocese."

"I'm going to wage a positive campaign and not mention that unfortunate incident about my opponent and the plagiarized speech."

"It's not over till it's over."

Dream on.

All right, a Major Talking Points Update here -- it turns out the infamous Schiavo memo was written by a Republican Senate staffer after all!

You may recall, as I wrote last week, that The Washington Post and ABC News have been pounded by conservative bloggers for implying that the unsigned talking points -- on how the GOP could score politically on the Schiavo case -- was a Republican document. ABC's Linda Douglass and The Post's Mike Allen can claim a meaure of vindication with the news. Here's Allen's story.

"The legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) admitted yesterday that he was the author of a memo citing the political advantage to Republicans of intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo, the senator said in an interview last night.

"Brian H. Darling, 39, a former lobbyist for the Alexander Strategy Group on gun rights and other issues, offered his resignation and it was immediately accepted, Martinez said.

"Martinez, the GOP's Senate point man on the issue, said he earlier had been assured by aides that his office had nothing to do with producing the memo. 'I never did an investigation, as such," he said. "I just took it for granted that we wouldn't be that stupid. It was never my intention to in any way politicize this issue.'"

Apparently, taking it for granted that we wouldn't be that stupid was not a good strategy.

Earlier, Allen had said only that the memo was distributed to Republican senators, although a first draft that went out on the Post wire service did say it was given out by party leaders.

Powerline blogger John Hinderaker still isn't satisfied:

"The latest story also confirms how absurd it was for ABC, the Post, and other news outlets to label the anonymous memo a 'GOP talking points memo.' We have no idea who the unidentified Martinez staffer is, but he apparently was not authorized to speak for his boss, and most certainly was not empowered to speak for the leadership of the Republican party." Hinderaker wrote this before Allen's piece ID'd the Martinez aide.

The Hammer is hitting back against the MSM:

"Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, on Wednesday angrily dismissed newspaper accounts that focused on payments to his wife and daughter as well as on additional trips taken by him that have come under scrutiny," says the New York Times.

"In an interview with CNN, Mr. DeLay criticized an article in The New York Times on Wednesday that said his wife, Christine A. DeLay, and his daughter, Dani Ferro, had received more than $500,000 since 2001 from his political action and campaign committees. He called the article 'just another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me,' contending that his wife and daughter had legitimately earned the money by working as valued members of his political team.

"'My wife and daughter have any right, just like any other American, to be employed and be compensated for their employment,' Mr. DeLay said. 'It's pretty disgusting, particularly when my wife and daughter are singled out and others are not, in similar situations in the Senate and as well as the House.'

"His Republican colleagues continued on Wednesday to rally to his defense, although a few have begun to question how long the leadership can withstand such withering coverage."

Florida Rep. Dave Weldon added this: ""There are certain liberal newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, that are out to get Tom DeLay."

Well, maybe. But were the papers less liberal when they jumped on stories about Democratic congressional leaders Jim Wright and Tony Coelho that led to their resignations?

The blogosphere is buzzing about the latest DeLay stories, and David Frum picks them apart:

"Seems to me that yesterday morning's front-page attack on Tom DeLay by the Washington Post isn't a story about Tom DeLay at all. The story makes clear that DeLay did nothing wrong. In 1997, he took a trip to Russia paid for (as far as he had any reason to be aware) by the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas. The Center's president, Amy Ridenour, even came along for the trip...

"These dots can certainly be connected in a way that presents an ugly picture of Jack Abramoff's activities. It could easily be suggested that he was trying to circumvent bans on lobbyist-paid travel in order to gain access to a powerful member of the House of Representatives, just the latest in a long list of unsettling allegations about the longtime conservative activist turned multimillionaire lobbyist. But the Post is not satisfied with bagging Abramoff. They want DeLay too, or rather, they want DeLay more. Instead of seeing DeLay as Abramoff's target, they want to insinuate that Abramoff was DeLay's tool. And that case has not even begun to be made. . . .

"Meanwhile, by amazing coincidence, the Times yesterday morning also offers a big attack feature on DeLay. The Times story makes the point that DeLay's campaign and political action committees - ie, his contributor-funded organizations, not his taxpayer-funded office - employed his wife and daughter at various times, paying them some $4,000 a month each. This practice is not illegal nor is it, alas, even all that uncommon, as the Times itself acknowledges in its story."

Jerome Armstrong at MyDD sees DeLay hanging in:

"Is he toast? Out of here? It looks like the Whitehouse has turned on DeLay, but will he go away? I don't think so, not without an electoral defeat-- not without losing seats in 2006. A quick look around the rightwing blogs, and there's been no mention against DeLay. And the DrudgeReport hardly moves the Republican machine like it used too. So what if it's in the NYTimes that DeLay paid his wife $500K over the past 5 years, that's not the sort of corruption that Republicans will yield for-- too par for the course. A 3rd DeLay Travel Controversy? Ok, WaPost, but is it on Fox News?"

Eric Pfeiffer at Beltway Buzz says the NYT account is incomplete:

"The New York Times failed to mention two critical points in their story. First and foremost, the practice of paying family members to work on campaigns is not illegal. Several members of both parties do so.

"Secondly, the Times may defend itself by pointing out that DeLay is a high-profile member of Congress deserving more attention. That's their best defense, but it does not hold up. Harry Reid has done the same thing and receives zero mention in the story, as have House members Jesse Jackson Jr., Bart Stupak and Gene Taylor, all Democrats."

For the record, the story does say in the fifth graph that "several members of Congress employ family members as campaign managers or on their political action committees," although advocates say the payments to the DeLay relatives were "unusually generous." The Times story also mentions Democratic Rep. Howard Berman paying 50K to a consulting firm owned by his son and Barbara Boxer turning over 15K to a consulting firm run by her son.

Kos has a theory about where these stories are coming from:

"Now, it would be nice if we could say these things are coming to light thanks to the intrepid reporting of the WaPo and NYT. But who'd be kidding who?

"DeLay's opponents inside the GOP are offering reporters the dirt, aiming to take him down. They don't want him as the party's albatross in 2006.

"I'm actually rooting for him to survive another six months, but things don't look so good."

I don't know who the sources are, and partisans give reporters tips all the time, but isn't it at least possible that the journalists dug up these stories from records on their own?

I wrote the other day that "Republicans Split on X" was becoming an increasingly common headline, and now the Wall Street Journal reports that the same is true for GOP voters:

"Almost three months into President Bush's second term, a raft of economic and social issues -- Social Security, immigration, gay marriage and the recent national debate over Terri Schiavo -- is splintering the Republican base.

"After winning re-election on the strength of support from nine in 10 Republican voters, the president is seeing significant chunks of that base balk at major initiatives, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows. One-third of Republicans say Democrats in Congress should prevent Mr. Bush and party leaders from 'going too far in pushing their agenda,' and 41% oppose eliminating filibusters against Mr. Bush's judicial nominees -- the 'nuclear option' that Senate Republican leaders are considering."

And in the Schiavo case, "39% of Republicans said removing the tube was 'the right thing to do,' while 48% said it was wrong. About 18% of Republicans say they lost respect for Mr. Bush on the issue and 41% lost respect for Congress."

Sobering numbers, it seems to me, though respect for Congress probably wasn't that high in the first place.

The Patriot Act is in play again:

"The Bush administration on Tuesday launched its campaign to preserve and expand the USA Patriot Act, the much-debated anti-terrorism legislation enacted after Sept. 11," says the Los Angeles Times.

"In unusually strong language before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales defended the administration's use of the law and warned that any effort to dismantle it would be tantamount to 'unilateral disarmament' in the war on terrorism. "The law, portions of which will expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts, has drawn opposition across the political spectrum, including civil liberties groups and libertarian conservatives concerned that it gives the government too much power to intrude into citizens' lives."

There's been so many glowing pieces about the Pope this week that I thought I'd toss in this rather sharply worded screed from noted Catholic Andrew Sullivan:

"Under John Paul II (and his predecessors), the Roman Catholic church presided over the rape and molestation of thousands of children and teenagers. Under John Paul II, the church at first did all it could to protect its own and to impugn and threaten the victims of this abuse. Rome never acknowledged, let alone take responsibility for, the scale of the moral betrayal. I was staggered to see Cardinal Bernard Law holding press conferences in Rome this week, and appearing on television next to the man who announced the Pope's death. But that was the central reaction of the late Pope to this scandal: he sided with the perpetrators, because they were integral to his maintenance of power. When you hear about this Pope's compassion, his concern for the victims of society, his love of children, it's important to recall that when it came to walking the walk in his own life and with his own responsibility, he walked away. He all but ignored his church's violation of the most basic morality - that you don't use the prestige of the church to rape innocent children.

"Here was a man who lectured American married couples that they could not take the pill, who told committed gay couples that they were part of an 'ideology of evil,' but acquiesced and covered up the rape of minors. When truth met power, John Paul II chose truth. When truth met his power, John Paul II defended his own prerogatives at the expense of the innocent. Many have forgotten. That's not an option for the victims of this clerical criminality."

I wrote the other day about the absurdity of Canada trying to punish its media for linking to an American blogger who ignored the country's ban on reporting on a corruption probe. Republican blogger Patrick Ruffini uses this to slap the left:

"One of the aspects of the Canadian Adscam scandal and its Orwellian 'publication ban' that will most assuredly be overlooked are its implications for all those liberals looking to flee to Canada after last November's election, or at least looking wistfully in that direction. Remember that map divvying up territory between Canada and Jesusland? Well, compare the two, and Jesusland is looking more and more like the haven of free expression and civil liberties.

"The 'publication ban' only underscores the fact that Canada and Western Europe are much, much, much more repressive in terms of civil liberties and criminal justice than the ACLU's vision of what a John Ashcroft-run America would look like. You wonder why bloggers get so worked up about even the most minor threats to free speech? Our worst nightmare is already fully functional in Canada, where incorrect political speech by bloggers is already a criminal offense."

Nick Denton, the man behind Gawker Media and Wonkette, has a new site called Sploid in the British tabloid style. Sample headlines: "Congress Porkers Waste $27.3 Billion." "Right-Wing Pundits Talked Terri to Death." "Texas Mom's Claim: 'My Boy's a Vampire.'"

Kind of makes the rest of us seem so...staid.

But the flashy headlines seem to link mostly to AP stories and other sites.

Finally, Google has a pretty cool new feature: maps that, if you click on the word "satellite," give you the view from way up in the sky.


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