Friday, May 30, 2008

Swampland Hijinks: Michael Scherer Edition

"In the Democratic presidential pack, the leading man is a woman and the leading woman is a man."
"May the best woman win."

Scherer's Reporting History

Scherer joined TIME and Swampland after a stint at Most of his pieces there were fluff, jello-journalism stories with multi-paragraph feature-style ledes or failed attempts at humor. His credibility at Salon was destroyed after a fawning profile of "citizen journalist" Meghan McCain (I laughed typing that and again editing it) and a piece on the Democratic primaries with the sub-head and final line quoted above -- quips that are not only insulting but incoherent and contradictory.

TIME's Clever Response to Reader Criticism

In early spring Scherer and Ana Marie Cox were under scrutiny. Cox was writing favorably about McCain while vacationing at his ranch while Scherer was doing his usual Scherer thing. So Cox had a brilliant idea: trot out the old "think you can do better? Well let's see you try!" gambit.

I didn't try asking about anything else "serious." Those of you who think the press fell down on the job in not using that time to query him [McCain], well... the guy holds about five hours of press conferences a day when he's on the trail. A lot of questions get asked.
Maybe we missed the ones you want asked; in which case you should keep agitating the people who have the access and responsibility to ask questions on behalf of the public...

The genius here was that Cox was being taken off the McCain beat and could thus plausibly ignore the agitations. A few weeks later, however, Scherer repeated the gambit:

Here is an experiment. Tell me here what questions you would ask McCain that are not otherwise being asked.

You Can Guess Where This is Going

Here are some of the questions commenters posed:

Could you briefly explain, as you understand it, Iran's influence in Iraq, specifically with regard to the recent conflict between the Sadrists and the Maliki government?

Please explain your attitude toward the United Nations and describe how the "League of Democracies" would support or undermine the UN.

What would you do if a pluarality of Iraqi representatives voted to insist the US get out of Iraq within a certain deadline?

As a dedicated proponent of campaign finance reform and a candidate who would like both sides to take matching funds in the general election, how do you justify your efforts to get out of the restrictions on primary spending?

A few months ago you said you didn't know much about economic policy but that were going to read Greenspan's book. Have you read Greenspan's book yet and what did it teach you about economics?

A number of readers also pointed out the rather obvious follow-up to the 100 years in Iraq flap: if it's "out of context" to say McCain is willing to stay in Iraq for 100 years if troops are out of harm's way, does that mean 100 years is unacceptable if they are in harm's way? Timetable questions have been asked before but not in the context of this 100 years discussion - either he is willing to have troops die in Iraq for 100 years or he is not.

Reader questions were submitted on March 30. Scherer on April 2:

I still have not had a chance to respond to list of questions, but hope to get some posts up over the next few days to respond to at least some of them.

Scherer on April 4:

I was with McCain for two days, Wed. and Thu., during which he did not hold a press avail or gaggle. I did not get to ask him any questions directly.
I am pursuing this. I am pursuing some of the other topics that have been raised as well. But I don't want to get into the habit of telling too much about my plans in a public forum, so you will have to wait to be pleased or disappointed.
But let me begin with this insight: The popular impression that reporters always have constant access to McCain to ask whatever they want is not accurate. (Also inaccurate: The popular view that reporters covering McCain are unwilling to ask him challenging questions, or do stories that will upset the campaign.) He has traditionally been far more open than anyone else, but right now he is campaigning in a more traditional mode. Nothing outrageous about it. But is not as simple as you sending me a question and me nailing McCain down with the question. And this has nothing to do with McCain avoiding me or the question, or me not wanting to ask it. That is just the way the game works. So hang in there all.

Here Scherer is already lowering expectations -- it's hard work and he doesn't want to divulge secret plans. The excuse that McCain is not accessible is an odd one. Above Cox wrote "the guy holds about five hours of press conferences a day when he's on the trail." And Scherer, in his piece at Salon, wrote about McCain's "endless on-the-record access". If we believe that McCain is infinitely accessible it's only because the press, including Scherer and Cox, has repeated that ad nauseam.

Scherer on April 11. At this point he has not gotten answers to any of the questions and has not made any Swampland posts about them:

Again, you all misrepresent my relationship with the campaign. There are no nightly booze and bbq fests. The campaign's relationship to reporters can be at times quite adversarial. I do not get all the information I am seeking, so some of this takes more time than I would like.

As I write this it's May 30. As best I can tell Scherer's comments on April 11 were the last time he referenced the reader-asked questions -- questions he solicited and said he would post on -- in any way. He completely stopped responding to commenters asking for followups. It's become a running joke among his readers.

I would say it's disappointing but it isn't -- it's entirely expected.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Scott the Snitch

So it turns out Scott McClellan lives on planet Earth after all. You have to love it when Bush insiders tell us what is plainly obvious and it's treated as an amazing revelation:

McClellan calls Vice President Dick Cheney "the magic man" who "always seemed to get his way" and sometimes "simply could not contain his deep-seated certitude, even arrogance, to the detriment of the president."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was national security adviser earlier in Bush's presidency, "was more interested in figuring out where the president stood and just carrying out his wishes while expending only cursory effort on helping him understand all the considerations and potential consequences" of war. Rice "was somehow able to keep her hands clean, even when the problems related to matters under her direct purview," McClellan says, but he predicts that "history will likely judge her harshly."

And former Bush political guru Karl Rove "always struck me as the kind of person who would be willing, in the heat of battle, to push the envelope to the limit of what is permissible ethically or legally."

And Bush is incurious and stubborn. Shocker.

The revelations are not terribly exciting but the right-wing reaction is humorous. The primary objection appears to be disloyalty. Ari Fleischer was on Larry King saying something to the effect of:

I'm afraid that what Scott doesn't realize is that he may make some temporary friends on the left who will use him and discard him after a few weeks, but he'll lose some long-standing friends on the right.

After Fleischer departed a few more right-wing talking heads came on to make similar points. "But... but... we're friends!" is the prevailing tone of the right-wing response to McClellan's book. As opposed to say "this is flat-out wrong" -- an impossible case to make at this point. Glenn Beck's show was teasing a McClellan segment with a graphic titled "Stop Snitchin'". If McClellan is a snitch doesn't that make the Bush Administration the Crips?


I'm watching Chris Matthews rip into Fleischer for using the exact same talking points that Dana Perino and Dan Bartlett have been using. It's a little late but it's nice to see members of the media (at least on MSNBC) catching on to the fact that ring-wing talking heads robotically recite from the same centrally-managed script.

David Gregory and Mike Allen (from Politico) are bitterly complaining about charges that the press was too deferential, saying those charges come from the left -- which implicitly underscores the point that the "liberal media" is anything but.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Glenn Greenwald on the Miltary Analyst Propaganda Program

Glenn Greenwald is always worth reading, but his work on the Pentagon military analyst propaganda campaign has been particularly well-done. He's gone beyond the New York Times coverage and made it more tangible and immediate by including pictures of some of the most damning correspondence. I'm going to list the pieces he's written in order, bold the ones you should read if you only have time for a couple, and reproduce a snippet or two.

1. Major revelation: U.S. media deceitfully disseminates government propaganda 2. Media's refusal to address the NYT's "military analyst" story continues 3. Interview with Aaron Brown on NYT "military analyst" story
4. Howard Kurtz on why media outlets ignore the "military analyst" story
5. Brian Williams' "response" to the military analyst story
6. CNN, the Pentagon's "military analyst program" and Gitmo
7. How the military analyst program controlled news coverage: in the Pentagon's own words
8. Larry Di Rita's responses to questions about the "military analyst" program
9. Joe Galloway blasts Pentagon and Larry Di Rita on "military analyst" claims

The best parts of the series in my view are the snippets of correspondence between the Pentagon and the military analysts. These stand on their own without any comment required. Here are a few (click for larger versions) where the "independent" military analysts report back and crow about "carrying water" for the Pentagon and putting the "best possible face" on Guantanamo Bay based on a carefully managed 3-hour tour and some government-provided talking points:

Eric - many thanks for your efforts putting together the Guantanamo trip - it was fascinating and added greatly to my understanding of detainee issues - let me know if I can help you - Don Shepperd (CNN military analyst)

Here is my first GITMO piece ran this morning on Front Page Magazine. Link:...

I did a Fox & Friends hit at 0620 this morning. Good emphasis on 1) no torture, 2) detainees abuse guards, 3) continuing source of vital intel.

Best, Gordon

[redacted] - don't know if you keep this stuff but CNN sent me a transcript. Just wanted to thank you again because the material you sent me very early this morning was very useful in trying to explain what is going on and trying to put the best possible face on it.

You are a pro...


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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Let's Help the Burmese by Killing Them

Thanks to pedestrian at Sadly,No! for spotting this inanity.

This is low, even for TIME Magazine. Is It Time to Invade Burma?

The disaster in Burma presents the world with perhaps its most serious humanitarian crisis since the 2004 Asian tsunami. By most reliable estimates, close to 100,000 people are dead. Delays in delivering relief to the victims, the inaccessibility of the stricken areas and the poor state of Burma's infrastructure and health systems mean that number is sure to rise. With as many as 1 million people still at risk, it is conceivable that the death toll will, within days, approach that of the entire number of civilians killed in the genocide in Darfur.

Wow, that sounds awful. So what's the solution, sages of TIME?

That's why it's time to consider a more serious option: invading Burma.
The cold truth is that states rarely undertake military action unless their national interests are at stake; and the world has yet to reach a consensus about when, and under what circumstances, coercive interventions in the name of averting humanitarian disasters are permissible. As the response to the 2004 tsunami proved, the world's capacity for mercy is limitless. But we still haven't figured out when to give war a chance.

That last line, which is the end of the piece, is a joke -- literally a play on words for chuckles. To some people war isn't hell, it's fodder for puns and flippancy. ("Give War a Chance" is also the title of a lecture Jonah Goldberg gave at the University of Massachusetts Amherst -- TIME is in poor company here) Here we are, five years into our Iraq misadventure, something most Americans agree was a mistake, and the national media is mocking those who believe war isn't something to be taken lightly.

When we invaded Iraq we created a humanitarian crisis. Millions of Iraqis lack access to uncontaminated water, proper medical facilities and electricy. Millions more are displaced refugees. So now, according to TIME, the solution to Burma's humanitarian crisis may be to go in and start shooting the Burmese.

If we bomb enough bridges, hospitals, schools, water treatment facilities and energy plants surely that will solve their problems. And no doubt the Burmese will greet us as liberators and shower our troops with flowers, gladly welcoming us even as we kill their relatives with errant strikes.

In the US media today it's nearly impossible to be too bellicose to be taken seriously. Whatever the problem it's sober analysis to suggest shooting people as the answer. To a man with a hammer everything is a nail and to a country with a powerful military everyone else is a target.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Swampland Hijinks: Jay Newton-Small Edition

Kids and Jay Newton-Small say the damnedest things. "You can't invite us in and then not expect people to ask questions."

Jay Newton-Small doesn't get a lot of attention, perhaps because she isn't nearly as prolific as some of her Swampland colleagues. But her piece Lemme Eat My Waffle and her subsequent followups may have been her breakout performance:

He’d already spent more than 30 minutes glad handing the restaurant’s denizens, and with the 15+ press pool crammed behind the counter before him Obama dug in. Which is when one of the network reporters took the advantage of the close proximity to ask a question about Jimmy Carter meeting with Hamas and Obama irritably answered: “Why can’t I just eat my waffle?”
Obama hasn’t given a press conference in 10 days and the questions, some of them -- like Hamas -- rather important, are starting to build up. If he wins the nomination he'll be running again John McCain, whose philosophy is to give the press total access to the point of saturation; Obama might consider holding avails with a little more regularity. Then, maybe, reporters would let him to eat in peace.

It's fluffy, irrelevant and an example of the "act more like a Republican" advice journalists feel obliged to constantly hand out. There's also the hint of a passive-aggressive threat in there: meet our demands or we'll make you look bad compared to McCain. But overall it's not so much terrible as terribly irrelevant.

As is often the case Newton-Small finds herself in larger trouble when she attempts to engage her commenters:

It's about access: you ask the press to cram up in front of you while you eat your waffle and banter friendly jokes with you, but God forbid anyone ask anything serious -- that's trying to have your cake (or waffle) and eat it too, you can't invite us in and then not expect people to ask questions.

You can't? What if you trade the waffles for ribs? You can invite the press in, demand that they leave all recording devices behind and demand that they not ask serious question. As long as you are John McCain.

As more people commented on the story it completely fell apart. Obama had been meeting frequently with the local press, answering the questions that mattered to Pennsylvania voters. He had already weighed in definitively on Carter talking to Hamas, rendering the "important" question at the diner irrelevant -- a fact Newton-Small was apparently unaware of even though it's immediately obvious by running "Obama Carter Hamas" through google. And Newton-Small backed off her claim that McCain gives the press "total access to the point of saturation" after multiple commenters pointed out that her colleague, Michael Scherer, was complaining on the same Swampland pages that he couldn't get McCain to answer his questions after weeks of trying. (More about that in a later installment)

When you take all of that into account the original story is as follows: a reporter asked a question that Obama had addressed multiple times in the recent past and instead of addressing it again he took a bite of a waffle.

Man eats waffle, details at 11!

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Swampland Hijinks Part Zero: Joe Klein

Like comic books from the early 2000s this series begins with a hastily-produced can-miss post of little significance.

In this series I'm going to bash TIME's Swampland. (Motto: "hey it's a blog - what you expect quality?") But before I do that I have to give credit where credit is due: recently Joe Klein has been doing some good reporting blogging whatevering on the recent militia actions in Iraq and the Iraq situation in general. I especially enjoyed "Too Many Kagans, Too Little Knowledge." (Our foreign policy in a nutshell)

There is no more to "Read more." Someday I'll figure out how to turn that off for short posts...

Update: I have slain the extraneous "Read more" link. Huzzah!