May 13, 2006
"Nice and Collegial and Relaxed:" Four Scenes From Tony Snow's First Meet with the Press
We're discussing them in the comments. What do you think is going on?
First, the Associated Press Report:
Snow has been on the job since Monday, but was waiting to hold his first televised briefing—taking advantage of a week when Bush was on the road most days—to practice and begin educating himself on a dizzying array of policy positions.
On Friday, he scheduled his first informal back-and-forth with the press, an informal, off-camera session called the “gaggle” which White House press secretaries typically hold in the mornings as a sort of warmup for The Big Dance _ the formal White House daily news briefing.
Snow had announced that he was moving the gaggle to his West Wing office from the theater-like White House briefing room, in hopes of making it more of a casual, intimate conversation.
But it got under way several minutes early. And though the press secretary’s quarters are among the more spacious in the West Wing, the room quickly filled to overflowing _ so that many reporters were stranded, unable to hear or ask questions, in the hallway outside.
From Tony Snow’s First Press Gaggle, May 12, 2006
QUESTION: I noticed this week a more aggressive use of the “Setting the Record Straight” technique. It’s a device that has existed in the past. Is it just more was needed this week, or is there a change in attitude?
TONY SNOW: No, there’s not a change in attitude. What we’re going to do with “Setting the Record Straight” — and, by the way, after consulting with some of our colleagues in here, what we’ll do is we will also let you know in advance when we’re going to put one out, especially if it has to do with things that you’ve written or done is one of these things, and try to make it strictly factual.
So in any event, this is a practice that I think has been ramping up in previous weeks and suddenly it’s like, “Snow is here, this must be a change.” It’s not really a change; it’s a continuation of something that the Press Office has been doing. But I want to do this in a genial and collegial manner.
QUESTION: How are you going to make this administration more credible?
TONY SNOW: I’m not going to answer questions about credibility, other than to say that I’m eager to be here and I’m happy to be working with you.
QUESTION: Are you ever going to — always going to tell the truth?
TONY SNOW: Yes.
QUESTION: Different subject. Four lawmakers, senior lawmakers say that they sent a letter to President Bush on Russian WTO negotiations — opposing, basically, Russia’s entry. Are you aware of that?
TONY SNOW: No, and I will apologize as the new kid on the block. I am certainly not going to get myself into — for today, I’m not going to handle international issues or currency issues. I do not wish to set off global tempests — (laughter) — because I, frankly, just don’t know enough on those. I will be happy to get back to you.
As a matter of fact for gaggle purposes, if somebody can take notes on some of these things, I’ll try to get back to you on it. But I just don’t know the answer.
QUESTION: I’d like — this was 9:00 a.m., then it was pushed back to 9:30 a.m., and then I walk in at 9:20 a.m., and it’s already well underway.
QUESTION: Do not do that again.
QUESTION: This isn’t good.
TONY SNOW: Well, this is — it’s my fault. And it had to do with vagaries of the schedule today, and I apologize, period.
QUESTION: Because we’ve missed half of it. This is the first one you’re doing, and I just feel like —
TONY SNOW: Well, I apologize. That’s just flat my fault.
QUESTION: Can everybody get a gaggle — can everyone get a gaggle emailed to them?
QUESTION: Can we get a transcript?
TONY SNOW: Yes. And what we will try to do, I will make this a lot more predictable and regular, you’ve got to give me a little forbearance.
QUESTION: I was here, sitting out here in the hallway. I can’t even hear any of this conversation.
TONY SNOW: Okay, well, I’ll tell you what we will do then is we will move it back into the Briefing Room. I had this wonderful idea that this would be nice and collegial and relaxed, but it obviously at this point is just a mess. (Laughter.) So rather than doing that, we will go back to gaggling in the Briefing Room, and then as numbers dwindle, we may think of bringing it back here.
QUESTION: Since it’s your maiden voyage, tell us, do you have direct access with the President every day? I mean, have you made some certain rules for yourself?
TONY SNOW: Well, I think the President makes the rules, but, yes, I’ve been granted access. My predecessors all had what was called “walk-in” access. But I have access to the President, yes.
QUESTION: What about the briefings — you’re talking about the gaggle — what about the briefings? We’re hearing a whole bunch of different things about the briefings. Are the briefings—
TONY SNOW: Okay, thank you for that. The question is, are we going to stop televising briefings and all that. I haven’t made any decisions. The briefings will continue as they have in the past. If there are any changes made in the briefings, I will do that in full consultation with you guys. I’m not going to wave a wand and change things. I have a feeling the televised briefings are not something that you can undo.
But, look, I want to make this office as effective as possible getting information to you. We’ll find out the best ways of doing that. But rumors of the televised briefings demise are greatly exaggerated.
QUESTION: Tony, what has the White House — what’s the White House position on this report that the Justice Department investigation into the NSA program was blocked because people couldn’t get security clearance? Was that —
TONY SNOW: Dana, I’m going to toss that to you, because you’ve got a better brief on that. You don’t mind if I do that, do you?
MS. PERINO: That’s fine. The Justice Department has spoken to their office of professional responsibility. I think that they put out a statement I think last night, or on Tuesday night, when it was first reported back.
MS. PERINO: Excuse me?
QUESTION: We can’t hear any of the discussion.
TONY SNOW: I’ll tell you what, I’ll speak up. You’ll forgive me, but I’ll just — I will do the talking points on this because, again, as the new kid on the block, I’m not fully briefed into everything, but here it is.
“The Justice Department has, in fact, spoken about the issue. Only those involved in national security with specific need-to-know are given details about the classified program. That includes several more members of Congress on the intelligence committees. The TSB has been subject to extensive oversight. The review includes a scrutiny of the NSA inspector general, who, unlike the office at the Department of Justice, is specifically charged with overseeing the lawfulness of employee actions.”
I hate to read from a sheet of paper, but that’s —
QUESTION: Is there some effort to say — this is highly unusual, that these people wouldn’t be granted security clearance —
TONY SNOW: I’m not going to — as a lawyer, I’m not going to argue with legal experts.
MS. PERINO: There’s a very limited number of people who are fully briefed on that program.
QUESTION: We’re not asking you — isn’t it peculiar that Justice Department lawyers cannot get security clearance to look into the NSA?
TONY SNOW: Honestly, I can’t answer the question.
TONY SNOW: Because I don’t know enough about it.
QUESTION: Can you find out?
TONY SNOW: Yes, I can find out.
Posted by Jay Rosen at May 13, 2006 1:00 AM
When I do, someone points it out pretty quickly.
Never made an error like that one though.
Biggest error I made came with an 800,000 - 1,000,000 circulation. But it was a technical matter (I transposed Series I and EE bonds).
Made another error on the technical details of solo 401(k)s a year or so later, when they were coming out. Actually, I misunderstood what an advisor said and paraphrased her. So I blew that one big time. Both instances received a correction. I still feel bad about both of them, but especially the second. To this day I wince.
About a year and a half ago, I made another error in a newsletter on the techicalities of how Coverdell accounts were allocated when students are considered for Financial Aid for education under the federal system. I checked it out in a couple of texts and with a couple of experts' articles to be sure. But the Department of Education had changed its policy a couple of months before.
My fact checker and I routinely monitor financial sites, the NASD, SEC, and the IRS for regulatory changes. But this change came out of the DOE -- which we didn't realize was on our beat. It should have been. We both missed it, sent it to a compliance editor who also missed it, sent it to the client, a nationally known insurance company, whose marketing department also missed it, got the approval, published a newsletter, and blew the fact.
Believe me, I'm sensitive to this. And I think we had the best fact-checker in the business on that one and we still blew it.
But these errors don't rise to the level of cultural illiteracy category.
"Purple Star" rises to that level.
I just read Paul McLeary's article at CJR Daily. Its primary focus is the WH response to the AP story about Army Guard/Reserve recruitment numbers (headline: "Army Guard, Reserve Fall Short Of April Recruiting Goals").
The White House guns, under the command of new press secretary Tony Snow, wasted little time in shooting back that "The Army National Guard, Air Force Reserve, And Marine Corps Reserve All Have Exceeded Or Achieved Their Year-To-Date Recruitment Goals."
That's great, but there's a little problem: The AP never said anything about yearly recruitment goals, only the missed goals for the month of April. Nowhere in the rebuttal does the White House mention the April numbers, but instead, the release switches the issue to year-to-date goals and numbers. So the White House is, essentially, complaining about a story that was never written, while making it look like the AP got something wrong...
...it's already clear that Snow is both more nimble and more adept than the shambling McClellan. But he has yet to show that he's any more correct.
Steve claims the White House is "avoiding facts," but it seems to me that it is the AP that is guilty of fact-avoidance. If April numbers are down, but year-to-date recruitment is good, then where were the AP stories reporting the better-than-expected numbers in Jan-March?
Of course, that good news for the Administration went unreported by the AP in those months, and went unmentioned as context for the current report. A quick Lexis-Nexis search revealed that the UPI did report a March 12 story, "Army National Guard recruiting is up." But AP carried no such story.
So, in addition to AP's bias-by-omission, CJR Daily compounds the error by missing the relevant context, thereby burying the lede:
The AP never said anything about yearly recruitment goals, only the missed goals for the month of April.
But it can be hard to figure what is OT here.
Jaw, I can fault Jason for being Johnny One-Note as regards the military, but step back a bit. I come here occasionally for the metacommentary he quite often elicits. It's an important issue for a blog entitled "Press Think": specifically, what use is the Press?
And having answered that from theoretical constructs, there's the followon question: what use is the Press we have?
Every time Steve Lovelady sighs and explains once again, with the patience of Job, that it doesn't matter in any way whether or not the Press got it right, that their task is to get the message out without being distracted by fiddlin' details like the difference between a PFC and a Field Marshall, and every time Sisyphus indignantly declares that if you really examine the absolutely vital relevant details the Press got it right after all, the answer to the second question becomes clearer. It is none whatever -- and the question and answer may very well be the root cause of the decline in circulation, and the resultant weakness that allows manipulation.
If facts don't matter, if indefeasible ignorance and the resulting error are irrelevant, if on any subject (military or otherwise) the Press is not only free but Obliged by Higher Duty™ to dispense its Wisdom without reference to objective reality -- well, I can get that from Uncle Ed, or from Rufus down at the coffee shop, or from my own crack-brained theories, and not have to pay subscription fees or put up with the resultant junk mail. The Pope is entitled to speak ex cathedra on a strictly limited group of narrow subjects. Four years at Columbia does not produce a Journalist whose word is TRVTH regardless of circumstances, and anyway I can get declarations of TRVTH, free, from any cocksure two-a-penny fanatic; why should I pay Pinch -- and, through him, Professional Journalists™ -- for them?
Jason is annoying, even to me, and I agree with him most of the time. But he seldom fails to generate amusing comments from people who consider themselves to be defending their profession, but are in reality vehemently declaring its irrelevance. It's a most becoming subject for a Press Think to consider.
IMO, the reason for the emphasis on mistakes on matters military is based on two, or possibly, three circumstances:
1. It just happens that several people posting here are familiar with the military and are most likely to spot those errors. If there were, say, medical researchers instead, the area in which errors were found would be medical research.
2. Those familiar with the military find it almost impossible to believe people could be ignorant of the less arcane facts of military affairs. Some of us were born to WW II veterans, and/or grew up in the post-war subdivisions inhabited by young guys just getting started, which would be like growing up in a giant VFW encampment. HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW THIS STUFF?
Some of us pay atttention to the news. I had an e-mail go-round with Andrew about engineers. Except for committing a social faux pas while in the service--finding the combat engineers and the Corps of engineers are the same branch--everything else I know about them except that they are also trained to fight as Infantry, I learned after I got out of the Army. Ditto the M249, M240, etc. If can pick this stuff up while it floats in the air, why can't everybody? More to the point, why can't those who profess to tell us stuff about them?
3. Military affairs are more often front-page news, since we're in a war and how things go, well or poorly, is fodder for the political process, unfortunately.
"Purple Star". Have you ever heard of purple star? Something about a shooting star lights up a purple sky...? I'm so lonesome I could cry. Maybe that's it.
What American has not heard of a Purple Heart, while thinking of a Purple Star in the terms of battle wounds? Whatever the excuse, it's not good enough. Seeing what you expect to see. Hurrying. Missed it. Everybody knows better, but there were distractions.
I would like to know, in detail, what the corrective actions are after something like this.
Who talks to who, etc.
I asked the same thing about the blown story on Houston, Katrina, and federal aid. What does the paper do to find out how it happened and reduce the chance it will happen again? Step by step.
Jason and Richard Aubrey,
I have to agree -- "purple star" is a dumb mistake.
Still, as for "how could you not know what a purple heart is?" I think that every time I see someone end a question with a period. Or misuse a semicolon.
Each of us is expert in our own field, and society is pretty specialized these days.
Moreover, we have not lived in a militarized society since the early 1970s. And anyone who came of age since the end of the war in Vietnam -- unless they have active military in their immediate family or abundant among their immediate circle of friends, or watch a lot of war movies -- is not going to know their purple hearts from their yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers and blue diamonds. Let alone their M whatevers from their AK whooziwhatsis.
War babies, baby boomers, vets of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, you it for granted that everyone knows this stuff.
But we have a professional military now -- a warrior class that is, to some degree, separate from much of the rest of society.
We should expect accuracy in journalism.
But civilians don't automatically know military terminology anymore. It's not pervasive in the culture.
Maybe you could offer some constructive suggestions for how to improve the accuracy of military information in the press. But just railing about how dumb "journos" are is pointless.
Great story about Navy SEALS from those potsmokin' commies at the San Francisco Chronicle, BTW -- and awesome pics.
Ref Purple Heart:
A couple of years ago, writing to an individual who is a Viet Nam veteran and writer on military affairs, I mentioned I had flown through DFW, and seen the guys coming and going from Ft. Hood.
I remarked to my correspondent that they seemed to have their game faces on, while when I was in, it looked as if they needed their hands patted. He responded that he'd probably been one of the latter.
We agreed that the warrior class is a reality.
Having said that, I will say that, IMO, considering the circumstances (including the cost) it is a GD civic duty for every adult to know what the hell a Purple Heart is. Where the eff does he think his fat and happy life gets paid for, anyway?
However, the ignorance of the fat&happy class is not the issue. The point is the journalist who is telling us stuff about the military implicitly tells us he knows stuff about the military. He tells us implicitly that he knows more about the military than the blissfully ignorant fat&happy class. He implicitly claims to be a level of knowledge above that of the fat&happy class. As a result, he should be judged by a standard higher than that of the fat&happy class. That means his mistakes in the areas of the simplest and most obvious facts, the howlers most obviously susceptible of checking with a simple question, do not get to be excused because he is only as smart as the blissfully ignorant fat&happy class. If the guy knows no more than the F&H, and finds out no more, and if some of what he finds out is wrong, why are we paying him to tell us what's going on?
I have to admit talking to a couple of nieces and one of their friends recently and, with dread, asking them--all with post grad education--if they knew what Infantry was. They did not.
I tried to find out, without being offensive, if they had a corpus of knowledge that replaced what everybody used to know that they now do not.
I can't say that I felt comfortable enough digging into the question to get a result.
So I may slightly disagree with Jason and say it's more than NYT journalists who are stone ignorant of these matters.
Most unfortunate. Giving a monopoly of force to an institution and then dumping on it is bad policy.
Steve. I can promise a veteran will know from decorations.
A veteran will more likely know what he doesn't know. The "garden variety errors", as a poster mentioned some threads back, will likely decrease simply because a vet has the context to see past a missed reference, a typo, or some other kind of error. For example, a Centcom typo referred to some munitions captured in Iraq as "12mm mortars". Their bad. A vet would be 99% sure it was 120mm--quite common--and either take it upon himself to fix it, or try to get something further from Centcom, or drop the size and simply refer to "mortar rounds". A non-vet wouldn't have a clue. That it was Centcom's boner in the first place does not help the publication when anybody who does have a clue, including the tens of millions of grizzled vets from the days we had a garrison state and practically everybody knew this stuff, looks at it and snorts.
Correlation? How's our sample size?
A veteran will know that an M249 is light, compared to other machine guns. So he would either not write the Z-fool article as it was done, or, if the writer was not a veteran, might be a resource person if the writer thought of running it past a veteran. A vet would have witnessed slightly-built women competently firing the M249 on a range someplace.
A veteran, once reaching a position of influence, may be able to keep the publication from egregiously twisting a submission--see Cpl Starr's last letter. Or maybe not.
I would be surprised if a vet did worse. As a caveat, I would suggest the vet in question be Army or Marine combat arms. The aviation types and the Navy have their own complexities, but they doesn't seem that these figure in most of the stories.
A vet would possibly be browsing the milblogs or other sources and find other stuff non-vets would not know of. For example, while the NYT was doing all Abu Ghraib all the time, a vet poking around might have found the Bronze Star citation for a prison guard there who fought like Hector, for a long time, trying to stop a prison break against dozens of men who wanted to kill him, succeeded, and never used a lethal weapon.
That would be news, if you define news as "new and surprising to the reader".
Years ago, the WaPo stepped on its necktie with the observation that evangelicals are poor, dumb, and easily led. The blow-up resulting from that generated what seems to be a cultural change, including a religion reporter who is doing more than puff pieces on new churches.
It can be done, if the publication is interested.
Do tell, G. Boyle, what kind of mistakes are the press allowed, that the WH press secretary is not?
Nobody is allowed mistakes. Mistakes happen whether you allow them or not. The real questions are: 1. How important is accuracy? 2. What are you willing to pay (or give up) to improve it? and 3. What systems are effective in improving the outcomes you seek?
Now, if what you want is a press that routinely produces higher quality stuff, you've got to address that systematically, or else you're not serious. Because let's face it -- if one error is fatal, you get an organizational structure like NASA's space shuttle program: expensive, slow, redundant and bureaucratic, but errors are rare (one hopes).
On the other hand, if you can live with a certain amount of noise in your data -- trading precision and caution for timeliness, you get a very different structure.
So we all individually make judgments about what errors are significant and what errors are ticky-tacky, and arguing about that is a legitimate debate. There's no single answer, because it's subjective, but people hate slippery subjective answers, so they try to make it something concrete.
Here's the typical demagogic solution: Someone (typically an editor bucking for a promotion) argues that all errors are the end of the world, that all errors are the same. It's an all-or-nothing gambit, and I've never seen it work. The usual result is a corrections bureaucracy that the NEXT editor has to come along and dismantle.
That kind of approach produces defensive journalism, because instead of rewarding quality work, the error-centric newsroom determines all value by counting corrections, and it doesn't make any distinctions between mistakes. Editors edit to avoid punishment rather than to produce stuff that's valuable to anybody out there.
One alternative might be to create a structure that encourages positive outcomes -- like high-confidence stories, complete reporting, curiousity, thoroughness. The problem is, any time you build a structure that's based on quality first, you have to change your assumptions about staffing and hiring and training. And as soon as you do that, the conversation ENDS.
Personally, I think there's a predictable level of shoddiness in news media because the focus of our organizations is perpetuating monolopy profits, rather than producing routinely higher-quality work.
I read something a couple months ago that said the difference between doubling the size of a newsroom is typically the difference between a 20 percent profit margin and an 8 percent profit margin. More doesn't automatically equal better, but "you get what you pay for" remains a true statement in almost any endeavor, and most Americans don't pay a thing for the news they consume. Do the math.
I'm a Californian. When I say "Enron", I don't mean the financial collapse -- I mean the rape of California, which was only pulled off with the help of the Bush Administration. This was before most people were paying attention -- but our representatives, suspecting gouging, asked FERC to impose emergency price caps. FERC asked Cheney, Cheney asked Ken Lay. Ken Lay, obviously, said "don't impose price caps. let the market sort it out." The market that was being manipulated by Enron and friends.
Side effect: The ouster of Gray Davis, a popular, just-reelected governor of what was then the world's 7th largest economy; a Democrat; and an automatic contender for 2004.
Campaign Finance Reform as a Bush accomplishment? You're kidding, right?
The guy who campaigned aboard the Enron jet?
The jury's still out on many of the items on your list. To be fair, we won't know the outcome of Iraq, like Bush said, for a generation. It's a noble effort, poorly implemented.
Former Hill Staffer (aka Scooter, I suppose) said:
I've always wondered why Bill Clinton and especially the "environmentalist" Vice-President, Al Gore, didn't do more to push Kyoto through during the eight years they actually had the power to do something about global warming.
I agree completely.
From what I understand, Gore and Clinton both bowed to political pressure on Kyoto. From what I've read, they were afraid that signing on would cost them Michigan and coal states like Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
How'd that work out?
Not so good, for any of us.
Got an offer today to get a better rate on my mortgage. Somebodyorother in El Paso knew how much I owed and what my monthly payment is. I blame Bush and the NSA, which particularly worries me on account of I'm a privacy freak.
Get a grip, guys. Even if I believed the hyperventilating with which you attempt to make bricks without straw or mud or water, the mortgage offer would set me straight.
My point about context is that Truman got surprised twice. Once by the North Koreans and once by the Chicoms. Anybody calling him a failure? He damn' near let MacArthur pull a coup.
My father got three Purple Hearts, each of which put him in the hospital, and would have had two more if he'd had time to get treated. He was damn' near killed by a strafing P47 who got the navigation wrong, and his regimental HQ was bombed by the USAAF, killing most of the medical staff. His younger brother was a B24 pilot in the Pacific. He got out okay, but several of his gunners were killed. When he got back, he made an effort to call on the families to pay his respects. It did not go as in the movies.
Tragedy. Catastrophe. We still won the war--who on earth would have believed it--and nobody said this stuff proved FDR was a buffoon.
And the best you have is Tora Bora and museum looting, the story of which turned out to be bogus.
I will respect the fact that you have made headway in these matters by lack of scruples. It's effective. It is also not entirely invisible. Nor ethical.
The UN has figured that Kyoto, if adhered to as promoted, would retard the estimated increase in temp by about a tenth of a degree, while devastating several economies--ours among them. In fact, it would probably make things worse because India and China--excluded--would be manufacturing the hell out of stuff with no restrictions on greenhouse gases. The developing countries would be outsourcing their pollution, all just dan and finedy with Kyoto. The only way the greenhouse gases would be restrained is when the developed countries get so poor they can't even buy Chinese stuff, so the Chinese won't be making so much.
Richard. Why do you think others don't know this? You know it. What makes you think you're the only one.
I don't know what Gore and Clinton were thinking about coal states, etc. but the Senate would probably have rejected Kyoto by about 98-two guys absent.
Anyway, I have to take my hat off to a determined effort which seems to have actually worked.
Trained. Thanks for the support. However, if I'd read Galloway, I'd have for sure figured out another way to make my point. I dislike emotionalism on principle. That and being against higher is basically what's left of Galloway's schtick.
My point about my father's travails is that in war people get hurt, a context which the MSM seems to wish its readers not to know--except for Iraq. If it's a horror that people get hurt in Iraq, and if that adds to Bush being a rotten president, let's see them apply the same to WW II.
Families do not wave the flag and say their son was killed for justice and right so Bush is a rotten president? My uncle's gunners' families were bitter and angry and had no time for him. Why isn't that a datum that FDR and HST were stupid and rotten presidents?
My brother and sister and I learned, as youngsters, not to ask what ever happened to so-and-so with whom my parents had had such a good time in college (class of 1943). There's plenty of emotionalism to share, but it's a slimy trick.
My father's division got to Europe about October of 1944. My father has always marveled that such an amateur effort (since we'd ramped up the military by a factor of forty or fifty it would have had to be)actually got the job done, and he's full of stories of things going wrong because the guys doing them had never, not once, had any experience in it. But when I got him Atkinson's book on Operation Torch, he couldn't finish it, being appalled at how much worse things were then. So is FDR a rotten president because Torch was so balled up?
We missed OBL at Tora Bora, presuming he was there, which for political purposes is a God-given fact. What if the jarheads had missed Yamamoto? Would that have made FDR a rotten president?
Cori Dauber, who is a professor in, I think, poli sci, and who has a background in rhetoric, has a blog called Rantingprofs, where she examines war reporting and is particularly big on context--she finds little except when reporters from small papers are in Iraq covering local units--and several other reporting issues. She doesn't use a longer historical view. Still. Good stuff.
Reporters still think we know only what they tell us. Comforts them, I expect.
Once upon a time, Republicans and conservatives, the base of Bush's support, were suspicious of victim talk. They mistrusted it, in the manner of a Shelby Steele essay. They saw how it eroded principles of self-reliance and accountability, and prevented a grown-up outlook about the world and its injustices.
Now victim thinking is a staple in their diet, and they wallow. They portray themselves as being victims of the MSM directly, or they sympathize with Bush, the biggest media victim ever:
The MSM are winning
And while the bloggers were fighting their various and diverse battles in the name of truth, justice, and common sense, the MSM ocean was harnessing its entire immensity on just one story, told an infinite number of times, in every possible inflection, from every direction, and with the deadly persistent accuracy of a dripping tap: George W. Bush is no good.
It doesn't have to be true, it doesn't have to be fair, it doesn't have to be consistent in its terms. All that matters is that it is repeated with uniform constancy: drip, drip, drip. George W. Bush is no good. George W. Bush is no good. George W. Bush is no good.
Or take the whining of Richard Aubrey here:
Truman got surprised twice. Once by the North Koreans and once by the Chicoms. Anybody calling him a failure? He damn' near let MacArthur pull a coup.
Bush, the most powerful man in the world, who boasted about not reading or needing the press, is in Aubrey's endless, rancid whining a victim of the press that hates him. So Aubrey hates the press because (in my opinion) he identifies with the potentate-as-victim.
It would take a sensitive student of Republican ideology to explain how this happened, and why it happened, but it's a significant shift in sensibility-- a de-maturing of the Republican outlook.
Wallowers don't realize I think that the grown-ups in the Republican party, the pros who know the game, would never, if you caught them in a private moment, explain Bush's troubles as the outcome of press hostility. They feed that to the yahoos in the base--like instapunk, and Aubrey--because it fires up the troops. It's not a serious political analysis and everyone in charge knows that.
It works too. Instapunk isn't eviscerating Dan Bartlett, though he could be. MSM victimology keeps the yahoos in the tent shooting out. It's bread and circuses for the more hapless and downmarket members of the Bush coalition. Real politics is elsewhere.
One of my favorite Laws of Combat: "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy."
So yes, we should distinguish between tactical mistakes and strategic failures. And yes, we would be wise to make allowances for the fog of war when evaluating the execution of various missions. And no (drawing from our previous discussions of errors), a list of mistakes isn't what determines the worth of a leader, but the outcome. You don't determine the winner of a baseball game by comparing batting averages after the eighth inning.
We get all of that. Are there any other red herrings out there?
Now, having set all of that aside, how may we appropriately proceed to evaluate the effectiveness of our leadership? Because evaluating it isn't an option if you take citizenship in a Republic seriously. We have a responsibility to think critically about such matters, and to make individual judgments about them. And, because we believe in democracy, we cannot wait until all the facts are collected and history has been written. We have to make decisions every two years.
So, for what is the President accountable? For what is the Defense Secretary accountable? For what is sheer random fate accountable? Because the argument here isn't about competing anecdotal points, or about straw men, but evaluation.
The press is supposed to have a role in this process, but I don't think it understands that role very clearly anymore. I can say this, though: "Let's trust our government officials" didn't turn out to be good press policy in 2002-03, and I don't think it's gotten any better since.
My favorite dodge after Katrina was that "liberals /journalists are so stupid, they're blaming the weather on the President!" Which was a word game, designed to deflect accountability by the same political group that has always embraced personal accountability as a value. Let's not do the same thing when it comes to matters of war and peace.
The press had screwed me and my family before Bush showed up. The press hasn't done much to redeem itself.
Jaw. The mailer is exact to the penny. Both the monthly payment and the amount due--now down some from when we started. In other words, whoever it is doesn't have just the first number, he has the monthly balances. And your comment about zip codes is, serendipitously, false. The guys think the mortgage is on our home. It isn't. It's on my late father-in-law's place 125 miles away. The average worth of the homes in each zip code is substantially different. But the paperwork was sent to me at my home with the location being my home, on which we do not have a mortgage. So they're not perfect, but the data-mining is pretty high-speed.
Jake. It wasn't the Germans who forced the US to use the Sherman tank. Ten feet, it stood up. Bad. Turret armor vertical. Bad. Armor thin compared to the armor-piercing capabilties of German guns. Bad. Gun lousy, ineffective against German armor. Bad. Reliable and fast. Good. Called by the Germans "Ronson" for the cigarette lighter that was advertised to light first time, every time. Or, when the Brits had them, "Tommycooker". One series was powered by six Packard automobile engines, for lack of a real tank engine. I am assured it was a bitch to keep running. Most used high-octane avgas, especially the one with the Wright airplane engine for a power plant. That stuff burns really good. One of the things my father liked least was climbing into a burned out Sherman to look for dogtags. Nasty work, that. Blaming FDR, are you?
It was turf battles and sheer incompetence which kept an effective model of the P51 out of the Air Corps for months, thus dooming thousands of Eighth Air Force bomber crews to death when flying unescorted against the Luftwaffe. Not the canny and adept Germans.
It wasn't the Japanese who arranged for our torpedos to not work.
It was incompetence and inertia which initially kept the 3.5" rocket launcher out of Korea, where it would have been far more effective against Nork tanks than the 2.36" left over from WW II. Lost some Infantry because of that.
If there's no blame to Truman about the Nork invasion in 1950, or the Chicoms later, then there can't be much blame to Bush for 9-11, which was hidden much better, there being considerably less to hide.
I keep saying the problem here is not whether I can get anybody to admit to anything. The problem here is if I can get anybody to understand that the readers know more than just what you tell them, than you think you are allowing them to know.
Rosen and Lovelady…
I know Aubreybashing can be an amusing pastime of a Wednesday afternoon, but please stop now. The point is that, at root, Richard Aubrey and Instapunk have discovered a conundrum that needs to be addressed, and seriously, through the prism of PressThink.
However inept or incompetent our President’s performance in office has been in fact, what they point out is undeniably true: George Bush’s failures alone do not account for the abject state of his approval ratings.
The economy is not that bad.
The war in Iraq is not that catastrophic.
Hurricane Katrina was not all his fault.
Something is indeed going on that makes the public at large perceive a mediocre Presidency as a disastrous one.
That “something,” in the mind of Instapunk and Aubrey and their ilk, is a successful anti-Bush propaganda campaign by the MainStreamMedia. In this comment section it is not enough simply to contradict that claim as self-pitying or springing from a victim mentality (even though these observations may be true). A plausible counter explanation has to be offered.
For my part, I agree with Rosen when he noted that Instapunk “is not eviscerating Dan Bartlett.” What he was alluding to was that the President’s predicament derives from his communications strategy. In other words Rosen and Instapunk refer to the same phenomenon -- “how the Bush Administration is represented in the mass media” -- as the explanation for his disproportionate negatives. Instapunk blames the scribes; Rosen blames the spinners.
Three quick examples:
Why are so many negative about Bush’s economic policies when we are not in recession? My answer goes beyond the inegalitarian distribution of the benefits of growth (which is real), to the President’s communication strategy: he spent the first four months of his second term guaranteeing to us that we would live our retirements in penury because Social Security was beyond repair. No wonder we think the country is headed in the wrong direction!
Why is so much attention being paid to the relatively low death toll of the War in Iraq? My answer goes to the rhetorical strategy the Bush Administration used to increase civilian support for a war effort in which the majority of the population is not involved, in an era with no draft and a professional military that is recruited disproportionately from certain demographic, ideological and regional populations. His rallying cry was a sentimental one: Support Our Troops (not our policy). The public response was a sentimental when even a few of our troops are killed or maimed.
Why does the War on Terrorism appear to be losing traction? My answer goes back to Bush’s Second Inaugural, in which he committed the nation to a struggle against Tyranny and invoked Democracy as its antidote. Yet the democracy he admires has elected an Iranian government that wants to build a nuclear bomb; a Palestinian government that wants to wipe Israel off the map; and an Iraqi government that may be veering towards warlordism, ethnic cleansing, theocracy, all in alliance with Teheran. No wonder the public cannot see his overarching principles as a guiding light to a bright future through the current storm.
Government by talking points, photo ops and slogans is inevitably going to be exposed as unhinged from reality. The medium through which that government is conducted is, of course, the MainStreamMedia. Instapunk, Aubrey et al are correct when they see the President’s poor performance played out in the medium. They blame the messenger. A PressThink analysis can be more subtle than that, it can blame message mismanagement.
If low approval ratings can be blamed on the press, should a politician credit the press when his or her approval ratings are high? Maybe, but I don't recall people saying "well, Bush is so popular because the press is really behind him" back in 2002.
Politicians always think they're popular despite the press and unpopular because of the press.
But there's another trend in play here.
We're coming up on the mid-term election in a second administration: the dreaded "Sixth Year Swoon." I think the average loss for the dominant party in this sixth-year cycle is more than 30 House seats, which should tell you something. In other words, absent all other information, Bush and the GOP would be expected to be falling in the polls right now.
Stephanopoulos, for my money, is a tool. I don't like these political pros who go into TV punditry -- if they weren't trustworthy BEFORE (and they weren't), why should we be trusting them NOW? Anyway, Georgie should know about the Sixth Year pattern, so I'm not convinced by his 89/33 reasoning.
I'd offer another interpretation: After six years in office, Americans have pretty much figured out what their presidents are all about. They knew they didn't like Nixon, they knew they liked Reagan, and they knew that they liked Clinton, despite the whole Lewinsky scandal.
Maybe they've had six years of watching this act, and they've figured out they just don't like the job this president is doing. I think there are limits to the amount of packaging you can do with a political figure, and that eventually even Pravada-style propaganda can't prop up a guy who doesn't have the confidence of the people.
"The White House is notorious for not having any receivers -- only transmitters." That statement came this week from Richard A. Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail pioneer and Chairman of ConservativeHQ.com. He was expressing frustration after the President's speech on immigration.
Andrew: I don't agree with you that this is a mediocre Adminstration with an inexplicably low approval rating. We don't start in the same place on that. So an argument with that premise is not going to fly for me.
I understand that this view is not accepted by many interpreters who pass through PressThink, but...I think the government has been led by radicals--game changers was Karl Rove's phrase this week--who are bent on transforming the map, re-writing the rules, blasting away the old impediments and making the world anew.
They are less risk-averse than previous Administrations, Democratic and Republican. That's a big difference. They're more united, determined and disciplined as a leadership cadre. You could also say they're more visionary. They dream of new powers; they have vastly expanded the size of the beast and the unchecked powers of the executive branch. Though not very competent at the less glamorous parts of government they feel wholly qualified to re-make it.
I also think Sep. 11 caused a temporary suspension of "normal" politics, creating approval ratings near 80 percent, and a climate of fear. This was mistakenly interpreted by the Bush team as a permanent breakthrough that changed the rules and permitted them things that would have sounded self-defeating, dangerous or nonsensical to previous Administrations. It took a while but when the return to normal conditions happened, these "breakthrough" methods started to become major handicaps but the White House had already formed itself around them. (Which is one reason Bush's refusal to go outside his circle has been so costly.)
Among them are Rollback, the Bush Bubble, "not having any receivers -- only transmitters," the doctrine of White House infallability, the unitary executive, the destruction of oversight, the campaign to "nullify the professionals" throughout government (they and their notions of civic duty are in our way) the "fifty plus one" strategy (an election gambit turned into a governing style) and letting the tools of persuasion fall into disrepair because assent was assumed.
First Democrats became implaccably opposed to the radicalism in the Bush Administration; then independents grew disgusted with the war, the incompetence and the hubris; now conservatives are leaving the reservation over cronyism, corruption, the return of big government (after Clinton said it was over) and the failure to deliver on the social reforms the Christian right wants. The sudden emergence of split-the-difference politics after so many years of Game Changers Ball is shaking the Bush coalition. The White House doesn't know how to operate that way; it isn't built for it.
Where does press hostility to Bush fit into that picture? First, the hostility is earned many times over. But it's a minor factor in his political plunge. The approval ratings are a reaction to things far more fundamental than the drip-drip-drip of "bad" press. Bush is reaping what he sowed.
You see it's not a radical country; we're pragmatic. We have a government that's somehow overlooked this.