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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Department of Self-Defense

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2005; 9:53 AM

In a desperate attempt to save my job, I'm going to defend my writing against those who are, alas, going negative on me.

I think I can probably hang on by my fingernails.

_____More Media Notes_____
Inauguration Under Fire? (washingtonpost.com, Jan 6, 2005)
Pretty Ugly, Pretty Fast (washingtonpost.com, Jan 5, 2005)
Tsunami Politics (washingtonpost.com, Jan 4, 2005)
Social Insecurity (washingtonpost.com, Dec 17, 2004)
Open Season on Rummy? (washingtonpost.com, Dec 16, 2004)
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Of course, if you respond to every whack someone takes at you on the Web, you'd never have time to eat, let alone do any reporting. But there's an important point here somewhere.

Back on Oct. 20, in my role as The Post's ad-watch guy, I wrote a front-page story about exaggerations and distortions in the campaign commercials by President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. This, I believe, is preferable to just reporting the charges by each side with no attempt to provide a reality check for readers.

Much of the critique involved allegations by the president's campaign. But one eleventh-hour Kerry ad said: "Now Bush has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent." I wrote: "But the president, while favoring allowing younger workers to put part of their benefits in private accounts, has never put forth a plan -- and has vowed that any change would not affect current retirees."

Now that did not mean Bush didn't have a secret plan, or that he wouldn't decide to cut benefits after the election. But the Kerry camp didn't have any evidence that the administration had a confidential "plan," just a mathematical argument that it was likely. And I cling to the old-fashioned belief that politicians who make charges ought to be able to back them up.

Fast-forward to Tuesday, when The Post reported that the administration "has signaled that it will propose changing the formula that sets initial Social Security benefit levels" in a way that would reduce those levels. For those retiring in eight years, the cut would be 0.9 percent. In 18 years, 9.9 percent. It reaches 45.9 percent if you retire in 2075.

This prompted blogger Brad DeLong to question why I am allowed to keep my job after such obvious incompetence.

Fortunately for me, Tom Maguire, on his JustOneMinute blog, says he agrees with what I wrote and I can continue to draw a paycheck.

Leaving aside the fact that the proposal is not final, the Kerry ad and accompanying rhetoric clearly suggested that the secret cutbacks were coming any day now, not decades from now. The ad "does not put a date on the benefit cuts," Maguire writes. "But since this came out two weeks before the election, and came from the same side that insisted that Bush was planning to bring back the draft, I think we can assume that Kerry was being deliberately misleading."

Of course, John Kerry was right about a number of things, including that the military effort in Iraq was unsustainable (Bush didn't send an additional 12,000 troops until, you guessed it, after the election). But saying your opponent has a plan to do something should require having some evidence of such a plan. Journalists, at least, should insist on such evidence.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

On the Alberto Gonzalez hearings, I know congressional hearings can get tedious after awhile, having covered zillions of them. But couldn't the cable networks have found time to do more than dip in and out? I mean, it's no Scott Peterson trial, but the Bush confidant named to head the Justice Department was facing tough questioning about his role in legal writings that justified the use of torture against prisoners until the White House backed off last week. CNN, Fox and MSNBC all went live with a news conference by the attorney for Andrea Yates, whose conviction for killing her children was overturned by an appeals court. (MS gave it 17 minutes.) That's more important than the record of the next attorney general of the United States? I'll bet Amber Frey got more time on "Hannity & Colmes" than the confirmation hearing got on cable (except for the subsequent arguing about it, as opposed to the actual showing of it).

How is Gonzales playing in the press?

"President Bush's nominee to be attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, offered a lawyerly defense Thursday to allegations that as President Bush's senior legal aide, he had helped craft administration policies that contributed to abuses of military detainees in Cuba and Iraq," says the Los Angeles Times. "He said that while he participated in discussions about the outer bounds of the use of torture, it was ultimately the job of others to develop final policies and procedures. . . .

"He denied that administration policies, including the Justice Department memo, which the department itself repudiated last week, contributed to the litany of abuses that have been reported in recent weeks and months. He said it was always Bush administration policy that the detainees be treated humanely.

"The hearings for the longtime Bush confidante illustrated both the profound concern about his nomination among human rights groups as well as the realities of the newly-enhanced Republican majority in Congress."

I can't recall another confirmation hearing where a nominee had to insist he wasn't pro-torture. Can you?

New York Times: "Alberto R. Gonzales, nominated by President Bush to be attorney general, denounced the use of torture against terrorism suspects on Thursday and pledged to abide by all international law, even as he came under sharp attack from Democrats and some Republicans over the administration's treatment of prisoners. . . .

"Mr. Gonzales's confirmation does not appear in doubt. But his appearance before the Senate panel turned into an open forum on the Bush administration's legal policies in fighting terrorism, with skeptical questioning even from some Republicans about his role as an architect of many key policies in his four years as White House counsel.

"Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, accused the Bush administration of 'playing cute with the law' in its treatment of prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere. That approach, he told Mr. Gonzales, has 'dramatically undermined' the campaign against terrorism by yielding the moral high ground and has endangered the lives of American troops who may themselves be taken into custody."

Wall Street Journal: "Facing criticism from Senate Democrats over his role in developing Bush-administration policy on interrogating suspects in the war on terrorism, Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales condemned the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and said he would prosecute such abuses as attorney general.

"During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Gonzales sought to reassure lawmakers that as head of the Justice Department he would work to make certain that civil liberties aren't eroded and that he would abide by the Geneva Conventions in protecting prisoners of war."

This just in: President Bush has won the election.

"A small band of Democratic lawmakers yesterday objected to the results of the presidential election in Ohio, triggering an extraordinary debate where Democrats pleaded for an overhaul of election laws, and Republicans accused them of seeking to overturn the will of the people," reports the Boston Globe.

"Both the House and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to accept the results of the presidential election in Ohio. The votes turned back the last-ditch effort by the Democrats to force a full investigation of voting irregularities in the state before President Bush's reelection was formally endorsed by Congress.

"Though the outcome was never in doubt -- even most of the Democrats who spoke out on Ohio voting irregularities ended up voting to accept the electoral votes -- the bitter debate on the subject set a combative tone for the new Congress."

Well, the Bush team has found one way to get good press coverage, according to USA Today:

"Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

"The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams 'to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,' and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

"Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but 'I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in.' "

Believed in enough to take political money and not disclose it?

"The contract, detailed in documents obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request, also shows that the Education Department, through the Ketchum public relations firm, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America's Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, 'to encourage the producers to periodically address' NCLB. He persuaded radio and TV personality Steve Harvey to invite Paige onto his show twice."

American Prospect Co-Editor Robert Kuttner revives the stinginess charge:

"The U.S. government ranks near the bottom of tsunami aid givers when national income is measured against assistance. So President Bush, in line with his general view of privatization as panacea, is enlisting private charity to fill the gap.

"A parade of corporations has lined up to reap some easy publicity. Citigroup, with profits of $17.85 billion in 2003, will donate $3 million, or an infinitesimal proportion of its profits. The same Citigroup got $4.6 billion in tax breaks in 2001-03. That's billion.

"The $350 million pledged by the Bush administration, some of which will be diverted from other relief needs, represents 0.003 percent of our national income. Europe, on average, is spending about triple that.

" 'The greatest source of America's generosity is not our government,' the president intoned as he drafted Bill Clinton and his own dad to pass the tin cup. 'It's the good heart of the American people.' Herewith, a different view:

"The good heart of the American people can be expressed both by personal charitable giving and by national policy. Bush's version of America's good heart is pass the buck and the responsibility. His version of bipartisanship is that good old Bill Clinton gets to shill for private money that a decent government would be providing."

Andrew Sullivan picks up on a National Review posting about the governor of Massachusetts, a likely '08 prospect:

"Mitt Romney is going to have a hard time connecting with the social conservative base of the party given his Mormon faith -- just a fact of life. For what it's worth. . . . " -- a GOP insider as reported by Rich Lowry in NRO. Lowry clarified with another less pronounced euphemism: 'Yes, the point that insider I cited earlier was making was that a Mormon would have trouble connecting with the evangelical Christian base of the party.'

"It's not a big deal, but it is interesting as an indicator of what the GOP now is: a sectarian base with political outreach. 'Trouble connecting . . . ?' Translation: a Mormon would not be accepted by the evangelical Christian base of the GOP because he's a . . . Mormon. When your base is sectarian, it's not surprising they have sectarian preferences. A simple question: will someone not 'born again' be able to be a Republican candidate for president in the near future? The answer isn't obvious."

Roger Simon can make even the race for DNC chair sound interesting, especially when he invokes flirting-with-running Howard Dean:

"Dean's high profile, if not his performance in the primaries (he won only one state, his home state of Vermont, and that only after he had ended active campaigning), would seem to give him an advantage should he choose to run.

"I am having a hard time believing he will actually run for the job, however. He has said if he is elected Democratic chair he will not run for president in 2008. And I can't believe he won't run in 2008.

"There is really no reason for him to sit out 2008. Yes, he lost badly last year, but the knowledge you gain from running for president is invaluable, and if Dean can learn, mature and adapt as a candidate, he would certainly be a credible contender next time.

"I had assumed there were three Democrats sure to run in 2008: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Howard Dean. (Others will probably run and John Kerry might run again, even though the Democrats do not have much of a record for re-nominating people who have lost: Adlai Stevenson was the last and he ended up losing twice to Dwight Eisenhower.)

"So why would Dean consider running for DNC chair? Dean, who is a former chair of the Democratic Governors Association and the National Governors Association, is very proud of the work he did for those bodies and believes he has the skills to transform the Democratic Party.

"Also, it would make him a major player in national politics for the next four years."

By the way, this NYT report about drug researchers who found that lowering a protein called CRP could reduce the risk of heart disease contains a paragraph that smells like a new Times policy -- and should be standard in all such stories.

"(They, like most researchers in this field, have received support from drug companies, and Dr. Ridker is also an inventor of a test for CRP that his institution licensed. He and his laboratory profit from the use of the test.)"

Michael Moore gave a talk at a New York luncheon the other day, and Nation Editor Katrina van den Heuvel provides these quotes:

"Okay, here's one thing we need to do now: Find our Arnold. Who is our Arnold? Yes. The Dems need to embrace Hollywood because they don't know how to tell a compelling story that people connect to in a visceral way. The Republicans love Hollywood. They run to it (and they run it). The Republicans discovered that America loves Hollywood, loves actors, and when given a chance they vote for actors. Reagan, Arnold, that guy from the Love Boat, Sonny Bono.

"The Republicans run professional actors and really good amateur ones, like the one in the White House. That bumbling Gilligan, the genius at his craft.

"If I hear the word Evan Bayh one more time (and, hey, I don't have anything personal against the guy) -- or anyone from that pool . . . well, we're not going to win with that kind of candidate.

"I'm not saying we need an actor from Hollywood, but someone who connects with people.

"How about Caroline Kennedy?

"Or Obama?"

Finally, I can't resist this Buzz Machine item about Jeff Jarvis calling in to Howard Stern because of the closing imagery:

"Moore also said Tom Hanks would be a good choice. He'd certainly be good for ratings.

"Had a nice chat with Howard this morning.

"He had asked me to file another Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC to find out what the FCC had proving that Viacom executives knew about Janet Jackson's entertainment malfunction before it happened. He asked me to report back, so yesterday, I sent email to Gary Dell'Abate offering to call. This morning, Will from the show called me in the car. Howard hates talking to people on cell phones, so I said I'd call as soon as I got to the office. But suddenly, I hear Howard reading my email on the air. My phone rings and I accidentally hang it up. Damn. I pull over on the worst possible spot on the interstate, call back, and get on the air as trucks and buses are speeding six inches to my left me at 80 mph.

"I think this would be a most ignominious way to die: hit by a speeding bus while talking to Howard Stern. That's one sure way to make sure your obit gets carried by the New York Post."

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