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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Turning on DeLay

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; 8:37 AM

In media terms, it's an earthquake almost as loud as Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War.

Tom DeLay has got to be thinking: Et tu, Wall Street Journal?

_____More Media Notes_____
TV Dogs Learning New Tricks (washingtonpost.com, Mar 28, 2005)
Culture War (washingtonpost.com, Mar 25, 2005)
Singling Out Schiavo (washingtonpost.com, Mar 24, 2005)
Shouting Over Schiavo (washingtonpost.com, Mar 23, 2005)
Retooling the Nation's Newspaper (washingtonpost.com, Mar 21, 2005)
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Let's be clear: The Journal's editorial page, champion of conservatives and scourge of liberals, has a biblical quality for many on the right. They look to it for guidance, if not divine inspiration.

And the page, run by Paul Gigot after the long reign of Robert Bartley, does not come from the we-believe-this-but-the-other-side-has-a-good-point school. In sharp, sometimes caustic language, it almost always backs conservatives and Republicans over liberals and Democrats. The Journal ran so many anti-Clinton editorials on Whitewater that they were turned into several books.

Which is why yesterday's editorial slapping the Texas congressman is likely to reverberate for some time to come, and perhaps embolden DeLay's critics. The Republican Party has been solidly behind DeLay (except for the likes of the former House ethics chairman who got bounced by the leadership after the panel admonished the majority leader three times last year). The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times have written numerous pieces about ethics allegations involving DeLay, from fundraising questions (three of his associates are under indictment back home) to lobbyist-financed foreign junkets. But it hasn't been much of a television story--too complicated and all that--and conservative commentators haven't really broken ranks, until now.

The Journal editorial summarizes what it calls the "rap sheet" against DeLay: The earlier citations, such as offering to endorse then-congressman Nick Smith's son for office if Smith would vote for the Medicare prescription drug bill. The fundraising probe by a Texas prosecutor (a "partisan Democrat"). The junkets, such as one to the Northern Marianas Islands with lobbyist-under-investigation Jack Abramoff, who represented the garment industry there. And guess what? DeLay later led an effort to extend the Islands' exemption from U.S. immigration and labor laws.

"By now," says the Journal, "you have surely read about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's ethics troubles. Probably, too, you aren't entirely clear as to what those troubles are--something to do with questionable junkets, Indian casino money, funny business on the House Ethics Committee, stuff down in Texas. In Beltway-speak, what this means is that Mr. DeLay has an 'odor': nothing too incriminating, nothing actually criminal, just an unsavory whiff that could have GOP loyalists reaching for the political Glade if it gets any worse.

"The Beltway wisdom is right. Mr. DeLay does have odor issues. Increasingly, he smells just like the Beltway itself."

It gets more pungent as it goes on:

"The problem, rather, is that Mr. DeLay, who rode to power in 1994 on a wave of revulsion at the everyday ways of big government, has become the living exemplar of some of its worst habits. Mr. DeLay's ties to Mr. Abramoff might be innocent, in a strictly legal sense, but it strains credulity to believe that Mr. DeLay found nothing strange with being included in Mr. Abramoff's lavish junkets.

"Nor does it seem very plausible that Mr. DeLay never considered the possibility that the mega-lucrative careers his former staffers Michael Scanlon and [Ed] Buckham achieved after leaving his office had something to do with their perceived proximity to him. These people became rich as influence-peddlers in a government in which legislators like Mr. DeLay could make or break fortunes by tinkering with obscure rules and dispensing scads of money to this or that constituency. Rather than buck this system as he promised to do while in the minority, Mr. DeLay has become its undisputed and unapologetic master as Majority Leader.

"Whether Mr. DeLay violated the small print of House Ethics or campaign-finance rules is thus largely beside the point. His real fault lies in betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office, and which, if he continues as before, sooner or later will sweep him out."

Hmmm. Maybe I mixed things up and this was actually a New York Times editorial.

DeLay emerged as a champion of keeping Terri Schiavo alive, in what some critics said was an attempt to deflect attention from his own problems. Here's a NYT report on the latest strange twist in that case:

"The parents of Terri Schiavo have authorized a conservative direct-mailing firm to sell a list of their financial supporters, making it likely that thousands of strangers moved by her plight will receive a steady stream of solicitations from anti-abortion and conservative groups.

"'These compassionate pro-lifers donated toward Bob Schindler's legal battle to keep Terri's estranged husband from removing the feeding tube from Terri,' says a description of the list on the Web site of the firm, Response Unlimited, which is asking $150 a month for 6,000 names and $500 a month for 4,000 e-mail addresses of people who responded last month to an e-mail plea from Ms. Schiavo's father. 'These individuals are passionate about the way they value human life, adamantly oppose euthanasia and are pro-life in every sense of the word!'

"Privacy experts said the sale of the list was legal and even predictable, if ghoulish."

Have the Dems been ducking on Schiavo? That's a smart move, says the New Republic's Michelle Cottle:

"With public sentiment against religious conservatives and their GOP lapdogs, some prominent liberals--including columnists Maureen Dowd and Richard Cohen--have been grumbling about the Dems' failure to take a tough stand on this issue. Democrats are being urged to bash Republicans for exploiting a private tragedy, for hypocritically abandoning their typical obsession with states' rights, and for, as Dowd sees it, pushing to turn this great republic into an intolerant theocracy. If ever they hope to shed their image as quivering girly men, so the argument goes, the Democratic Party cannot stand around letting Republicans hog the spotlight on an issue where most Americans disagree with them.

"Bad advice. Terrible. Political madness. Regardless of what the polls show, Terri Schiavo is a no-win issue for Democrats, and their best course of action is to lie low and wait for the media storm to pass.

"For starters, this issue offers none of the emotional oomph for the Democrats' base that it does for Republicans'. As politically self-serving as they may look to you and me, Tom DeLay et al. are storing up major brownie points with social conservatives for this impassioned display of their commitment to the 'culture of life.' Unfortunately, Democrats, by contrast, are unlikely to set many moderate or liberal hearts aflutter by blathering on about spousal rights, the sanctity of the courts, or even privacy rights. Such talk comes across as too wonkish, too legalistic, too much like John Kerry. And while the right to die may be a worthy cause, is it really something to be championed at this particular moment by a party already freaked out about its morally relativistic if not downright godless image?

"What's more, while the made-for-TV theatrics of the 'Save Terri' folks have made them an easy object of ridicule for non-conservatives, the reality is that there are enough questions about Michael Schiavo's behavior over the past decade to make you wonder if he's really the sort of hero a political party should hitch its wagon to."

In Slate, Michael Crowley says one group of Republicans are no longer superheroes:

"To them, pay-as-you-go is a means of restoring sanity to the budget. They are the Senate's plucky band of Republican moderates: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and John McCain of Arizona.

"In recent years these moderates have become heroes to Democrats -- paragons of conscience and bravery -- and pariahs to conservatives -- heretic "Daschle Republicans." As the GOP has moved to the right, the moderates have struggled valiantly to stand firm in the center, voting repeatedly with Democrats on key issues. I've heard some Democrats fawningly dub them the Fantastic Four, after the team of comic-book superheroes who unwittingly acquired supernatural powers from the cosmic ray of a solar flare. OK, McCain may not be much like the Thing, Chafee isn't as hot as the Human Torch, and neither Collins nor Snowe would want to be dubbed the Invisible Woman (crafty as she was!). But by the standards of hyper-partisan Washington, there has been something almost supernatural about the way these senators defy their party's aggressive right wing on behalf of their principles. In the recent past, the Fantastic Four have been a useful check on congressional GOP excesses. Of late, however, their powers are waning.

"Hopes were high for last week's pay-as-you-go vote, because the moderates succeeded in pushing through just such a measure a year ago. Rather than accede then to pay-as-you-go rules, furious GOP leaders opted for the spectacle of passing no budget resolution at all. It was a significant moral and public-relations victory for the mod squad. But this year things were different. When pay-as-you-go came to a Senate vote again last week, it failed to pass despite the intense efforts of the Fantastic Four. That's one of several defeats the moderates have suffered recently. Last week, when the Senate defeated an effort to block oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the moderates voted with the Democrats once again, and once again it didn't matter. Most tellingly, perhaps, it looks increasingly likely that the mods won't be able to stop the most radical move the Senate has seen in years: the Republican push to deploy the 'nuclear option' that would rewrite Senate rules to end filibusters of judicial nominees."

Here's what I consider a troubling court ruling, from the Los Angeles Times. I'm the first to say that journalists shouldn't be able to quote Person A libeling Person B without proof, but what if it's said in a public proceeding?

"The Supreme Court refused Monday to shield the news media from being sued for accurately reporting a politician's false charges against a rival. Instead, the justices let stand a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that a newspaper can be forced to pay damages for having reported that a city councilman called the mayor and the council president 'liars,' 'queers' and 'child molesters.'

"The case turned on whether the 1st Amendment's protection for the freedom of the press includes a 'neutral reporting privilege.' Most judges around the nation have said the press does not enjoy this privilege. . . .

"The case that reached the high court began 10 years ago when the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa. printed a story entitled, 'Slurs, Insults drag town into controversy.' It reported that the City Council in nearby Parkesburg had been torn apart by shouting matches and fistfights. The most outspoken councilman was William T. Glenn Sr. In comments during the meeting and in an interview with a news reporter, Glenn referred to Mayor Alan Wolfe and Councilman James Norton as 'liars' and a 'bunch of draft dodgers.'"

Glenn "also strongly suggested that they were homosexuals who had put themselves 'in a position that gave them an opportunity to have access to children.' When asked to respond, Norton was quoted as saying: 'If Mr. Glenn has made comments as bizarre as that, then I feel very sad for him, and I hope he can get the help he needs.'"

The Supreme Court set no precedent by declining the case.

Ah, but which part was during the interview, when the reporter should have exercised some restraint? And what do they put in the water in West Chester, Pa.?

John Hinderaker of Powerline has a new piece up, this one in the Weekly Standard, challenging the media reports that Schiavo talking points were distributed to Republican senators. He says I erred in saying that he posted on his blog some comments from an anonymous ABC staffer; Hinderaker says he simply promised not to use the person's name.

If you're a tabloid editor, your heart is racing over the latest turn in the Michael Jackson case, as the New York Post reports:

"The judge in Michael Jackson's child-molestation trial yesterday dropped a "nuclear bomb" on the star's stunned defense -- allowing evidence that would allegedly link Jacko to sexual acts involving five boys, including actor Macaulay Culkin.

"One of the five purported victims -- the son of Jacko's ex-maid -- is set to testify that the Gloved One laid more than a friendly glove on him, twice fondling him outside his clothing and once thrusting his hands down the boy's pants, prosecutors said.

"Culkin, however, the former child star of 'Home Alone' fame, has repeatedly denied that he was ever molested by Jackson."

Jackson would have been well advised to stay home alone.

How much do you want to know about the personal lives of your friendly neighborhood bloggers? The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum reveals a bit of himself with this post:

"I've long felt that occasionally mixing in personal blogging with purely news-driven blogging is useful because it provides my readers with a better perspective of who I am and whether or not they should care what I have to say. It's also fun. This why you get catblogging here, as well as random pet peeve blogging, TV blogging, and linguistic blogging. These posts almost always provoke a few comments from people who want to know why I'm wasting their time with this stuff when GEORGE BUSH IS BUSY TURNING AMERICA INTO A FASCIST STATE! -- but that's the whole point. If this kind of thing makes you think I'm not a serious person, then this probably isn't a blog you should bother reading.

"On the other hand, we all draw different limits around our lives -- and that includes limits around the amount of rage and frustration we're willing to expose. Like Prof B, I suffer from chronic depression, though, also like Prof B, it's obviously not debilitating. It just sucks. And while I'm not sure what choices she's made in her non-anonymous life, I chose long ago to mention this very seldom and to very few people. (If you're not sure why, go ahead and let your boss know that you're a chronic depressive and see what happens. For many people, their careers would be over.) I know from experience that my moods change, and while my mood is never what you'd call ebullient, the depressive cycles always eventually give way to something that's at least neutral. While I'm in a down cycle, though, I'm very conscious that I'm in the grip of bad brain chemistry, and my way of coping is to keep myself under very tight control. Don't react. Minimize human contact. Under no circumstances lose control of my temper.

"Is this the right choice? I don't know. But it's the one I've made. And it does affect my blogging. For the most part, I keep an even tone because that's just what comes naturally to me, but other times it's a struggle."

Speaking of which, I didn't get much sleep last night and am feeling cranky. . . .


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