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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Lock-Step Pundits

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2005; 9:31 AM

When Armstrong Williams appears on television, he is predictably pro-Bush. And he was that way well before he got a $241,000 contract from the Bush administration to promote the president's education policy.

On "Crossfire," where Williams was usually paired with an anti-Bush guest, the same division applied to the hosts: Paul Begala and James Carville are proud Democrats who advised John Kerry, while Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson largely backed the president.

_____More Media Notes_____
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Praise From the Pundits (washingtonpost.com, Feb 3, 2005)
Still Angry After All These Years (washingtonpost.com, Feb 2, 2005)
Iraq's Moment of Truth (washingtonpost.com, Feb 1, 2005)
Iraq, The Morning After (washingtonpost.com, Jan 31, 2005)
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Taking money from the government without disclosing it is dumb, but too many pundits these days shill for free. The world of opinion now resembles a choose-up-sides playground, with the players rarely straying from their assigned spots. The only real motion is when they jump back and forth between politics and journalism, or demonstrate agility by keeping a foot in both camps.

"Everyone's more partisan now -- magazines, pundits, individuals," says Washington Monthly Editor Paul Glastris. But he offers a frankly partisan explanation, that it's "largely driven by the extreme partisanship on the right."

Says Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes, who wrote a piece last week calling Democrats "The Ruthless Party": "We live in a more polarized time. There are so many people who've come into journalism from politics and other fields rather than straight reporting. . . . As Republicans and Democrats divide more, commentators who are sympathetic to one party or the other divide more, and I'm no exception."

Are people tired of lockstep loyalty? CNN is canceling "Crossfire," but ideological bookings -- left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, Bush-basher vs. Clinton-basher -- remain a staple at that and the other networks.

Although some columnists retain the capacity to surprise, you don't often find Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd or Bob Herbert saying a nice word about Bush on the Times's op-ed page any more than George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Novak had much good to say in The Washington Post about John Kerry. And the cable pugilists -- Donna Brazile vs. Bay Buchanan, National Review's Rich Lowry vs. the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel -- are booked to ensure constant disagreement.

The commentariat is increasingly populated by political refugees. From Bush 41's White House and campaign, Tony Snow joined Fox, Mary Matalin went to CNN and Bill Kristol, who happily advises the current administration, launched the Weekly Standard. From the Hill, Newt Gingrich became a Fox commentator, his spokesman Tony Blankley took over the Washington Times editorial page, and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough became an MSNBC talk show host. From the Clinton White House, George Stephanopoulos became host of ABC's "This Week," Dee Dee Myers signed with NBC and Vanity Fair, and Carville and Begala joined CNN.

Glastris, who worked in the Clinton White House, notes that he ran a cover story slamming big-name Democratic consultants. But, he says, "we're more partisan and gloves-off" and "much more aggressive in seeking out stories that attack the administration and Republicans."

New Republic Editor Peter Beinart says there's "a temptation to be partisan," in part because TV bookers don't want guests "if your point of view is really out of step with your 'side.' " His magazine seems less ideologically diverse than in the late 1980s, when then-Editor Michael Kinsley employed the likes of Barnes and Krauthammer.

"I think of us as a liberal magazine very willing to criticize Democrats," says Beinart, noting that this week's issue features a debate about whether U.S. troops should withdraw from Iraq. "Is the balance hostile to Bush? No question about it." Barnes calls the New Republic "a pretty hard-core Bush-hating magazine," but the Weekly Standard doesn't exactly open its pages to left-of-center types. "We always conceived it as a conservative magazine," Barnes says.

Some pundits, of course, do stray from the reservation now and then. Carlson and Novak opposed the Iraq war, while the New Republic supported it. Kristol called for the dumping of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Peggy Noonan, who took a leave from the Wall Street Journal to work for Bush's reelection, said his inaugural speech was overly religious and suffered from "mission inebriation."

As the battle lines harden, the admittedly flawed mainstream media are increasingly viewed as just as partisan as those who parade their opinions. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, interviewed for a New Yorker article out today, says that during the presidential campaign, Bush strategist Karl Rove "pounded on us for two cocktails' worth of conversation" about unfair coverage. At the same time, Keller told author Nicholas Lemann, "liberals perceive us, or claim to perceive us, as lapdogs of the Bush administration, instigators of the war in Iraq, sellouts to big business and panderers to red-state prejudices."

Keller says the Times needs to work harder at not caricaturing opponents of abortion, gay marriage and gun control.

It was hard not to notice the question at last month's presidential news conference.

Invoking Hillary Rodham Clinton and Harry Reid, reporter Jeff Gannon said: "Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. . . . How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

Gannon writes for Talon News, a Web site whose reports also appear on another site, GOPUSA, whose self-declared mission is "Bringing the Conservative Message to America." But White House spokesman Scott McClellan says President Bush didn't know who Gannon was and that it's "nonsense" to suggest the president was trying to get a sympathetic question. Gannon got a day pass to the White House, available to any journalist, commentator or blogger who writes for an audience. "I don't think it's the role of the press secretary to get into the business of being a media critic or picking and choosing who gets credentials," McClellan says.

Gannon, who uses a pseudonym -- he declines to reveal his real name -- sees a "double standard" in criticism from such liberal groups as Media Matters. "I am admittedly a conservative journalist, and that point of view is not represented in the briefing room at all," says Gannon, who also hosts an online radio show for the Rightalk network. Other White House reporters "come from a decidedly liberal perspective, certainly left of center. . . . Call me partisan, fine, but don't let my colleagues off the hook. They're partisan too, but they don't admit it."

There was a whopping inaccuracy in Gannon's question when he told Bush that "Harry Reid was talking about soup lines." Jim Manley, a spokesman for the Senate minority leader, calls that "outrageous" and a "lie." Gannon concedes he picked up the characterization of Reid's views from a Rush Limbaugh monologue and that Reid never referred to soup lines, but he is unapologetic about using the phrase.

Talon and GOPUSA are headed by Bobby Eberle, a Texas Republican activist, who says: "We make no bones about it: It's a partisan site." Eberle says he hired Gannon two years ago, when he was a "writer of conservative commentary," as his only Washington reporter, and that Talon deals in "facts," not editorializing.

Gannon, who was turned down for a congressional press pass, says he's been stalked and threatened by some "nuts" on the left. "I'm a pioneer," he says. "Guys on the front lines, they get shot at, and hey, I'm willing to take it."

Another Poll Is In

Newsweek's got some fresh numbers on the SS debate:

"Memo to George W. Bush. The good news, Mr. President: the American people are with you today on Social Security; it's in crisis and needs to be fixed. The bad news, Mr. President: move in any one direction to fix the system and you'll lose the backing of at least half the nation. . . .

"An overwhelming 65 percent of Americans agree with his pronouncement that Social Security is facing a funding crisis, according to a new NEWSWEEK poll. But early indications are that the president will have to spend a lot of time selling his plan to fix the system. Right now, just 26 percent of Americans favor the president's proposed changes, 36 percent oppose them and 30 percent aren't familiar with the plan's basic outlines. The poll shows that Americans are as divided on this issue -- by party and by generation -- as they are on any other in American politics..

"According to the NEWSWEEK poll, 56 percent of Americans think investing Social Security money in the stock market is 'too big a risk;' 36 percent say it's 'a necessary risk to improve the rate of return' on Social Security funds."

You'll not be shocked to learn that many younger people like private accounts and most older folks don't.

Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times is practically playing taps for the Bush effort:

"Is it already time for the White House to unveil Plan B on Social Security?

"That may seem premature, given both the infancy of the debate and President Bush's track record in passing his agenda. But he's facing a potentially decisive shortage of two ingredients indispensable to a cause as big as restructuring Social Security: money and trust. Without more of both, Bush appears to be headed for a crackup.

"Bush still has important assets in this fight. He has shown he can unify Republicans behind his agenda. . . . But even many of Bush's staunchest allies are expressing open pessimism about his prospects on Social Security. GOP strategist Grover Norquist, the maestro of a broad alliance of conservative groups, talks about restructuring Social Security as a long-term goal that could require years of Republican electoral gains."

Slate's Jack Shafer takes off the gloves and likens Bush to North Korea's Kim Jong Il in his approach to propaganda:

"The administration's idea of a conversation is a long, platitudinous presidential monologue. Every administration has warred with reporters, but Bush's is the first to challenge the very legitimacy of the press. Inside the White House briefing room, press secretary Scott McClellan controls the topics discussed by playing rope-a-dope with reporters, absorbing and ignoring the tough questions until they give up. When Vice President Dick Cheney didn't like the campaign coverage he read in the New York Times, the Times reporter was tossed off the plane. In the February/March American Journalism Review, Los Angeles Times reporter Edwin Chen complains that his newspaper has yet to score an interview with President Bush. 'This White House doesn't need California, has no use for California politically,' says Chen, 'so we carry no clout.'

"Bush regards the press as a filter -- an unnecessary one. "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people," he said in October 2003 during a media push in which he gave interviews to five regional broadcasters about his Iraq policy because he disliked the national news coverage.

"It's been George II's good fortune to launch his campaign against the nattering nabobs of the media at a time when the Jayson Blair/Jack Kelley/60 Minutes Wednesday scandals have turned journalists into inviting targets of scorn. At this point, the average citizen thinks the average Washington reporter is a full-of-himself jackass. The Bush administration probably figures that if the press swings at it and connects, 1) the blow won't hurt and 2) over-aggressive reporting will only play to the White House's favor."

John Kerry sits down with the Boston Globe for some post-election musings:

"Kerry offered a wide-ranging assessment of an election he lost by about 3 million popular votes and 35 electoral votes. He said he was determined to play a leading role in his party's efforts to integrate values and religion into its message, especially as directed at his fellow Catholics.

"He also said he'd be eager to work at improving the party's grass-roots organizations alongside his former rival Howard Dean, now in line to head the Democratic National Committee, a man he said won his respect by campaigning tirelessly for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

"During the two-hour interview on Thursday, Kerry cited some impediments to his election as president, including the gay marriage referendums in 11 states ('I can certainly tell you it had an impact'), the financial disadvantage of the early convention ('We had a 13-week general election and they had an eight-week'), and surveys showing half of Bush voters believed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had helped plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks ('Now, did I scratch my head over that? You better believe it.')

"Kerry also said he hopes to sit down with President Bush to talk about foreign affairs before Bush's trip to Europe at the end of this month, in what would be the first meeting between the two since their final presidential debate."

American Prospect's Harold Meyerson gets off a good punchline:

"Last year's State of the Union is memorable for abandoning Mars and declaring war on steroids. Now, it's the Bush agenda that's on steroids. . . .

"Indeed, after two decades during which the right waged a concerted and largely unanswered campaign to convince the American people that Social Security was bound to go belly up, it's heartening that editorials and even news stories have begun to point out that Social Security isn't really facing a crisis at all. Bush's privatization campaign is embattled even at the point of its premise, and the Democrats are rightly determined to fight this battle right there. It's not the only line of Democratic attack, but in exposing privatization as driven not by actuarial tables but by ideological and political hubris, it's a highly effective one."

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber is already writing Bush off:

"Since almost immediately after the presidential election, we've been hearing that Bush has already, in some sense, become a lame duck, and that he grows lamer by the day. (I think I scoffed at the notion when Bob Novak first suggested it. Though you can't hate me for scoffing at Bob Novak.) Now I'm starting to think there's something to it. And I guess it becomes self-fulfilling if enough people feel that way.

"The question is whether this is the fastest a second-term president has ever begun to feel the effects of lame-duckness. I think it is. I don't remember Bill Clinton facing anything even remotely analogous. (Though you could argue that Clinton began feeling the effects of lame-duckness midway through his first term, before nearly-miraculously reviving his presidential career.) And lame duckness didn't seem to set in as quickly for Reagan either. The 1986 tax reform act is sufficient to refute that idea on its own.

"The second question is what we can attribute this to. Some people have suggested it reflects the fact that Bush's vice president isn't likely to follow in his footsteps, so no one has an incentive to avoid crossing the White House. That sounds plausible."

Um, what exactly did we have the election about? The idea that a reelected Bush, with bigger GOP majorities in both houses, has lost his clout seems loopy to me. Or at least premature.

Uh-oh--The Note is getting bored:

"Can we stop reading those repetitive, boring, and incomplete journalistic Q&As on how private accounts would work, blah blah blah, how the system is currently funded blah blah blah, what the President is proposing, blah blah blah?"


Bad sign. If their eyes are glazing over, what about our normal readers?

Less than shocking news from the veep on "Fox News Sunday":

"Dick Cheney says he won't be running for anything after finishing his term as vice president, except maybe to the river with his grandchildren," the AP reports.

Finally, John Dean has a column in the L.A. Times about the secret source that continues to fascinate everyone in journalism:

"Bob Woodward, a reporter on the team that covered the Watergate story, has advised his executive editor at the Washington Post that Throat is ill. And Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Post and one of the few people to whom Woodward confided his source's identity, has publicly acknowledged that he has written Throat's obituary. When that posthumous profile reveals the secret name, it will be flash powder on the long-simmering debate about reporters' use of anonymous sources."

How does Dean know this? He's got his own Deep Throat, he says. Woodward wouldn't comment on any alleged illness, and the current executive editor, Len Downie, tells me he hasn't had any such conversation with Woodward.

Some day, of course, the story will turn out to be right, unless Throat outlives us all.

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