Monday, May 22, 2006


We're Moving! Horse's Mouth to be Hosted by The American Prospect

Yep, so The American Prospect has kindly offered to host The Horse's Mouth over at their growing web empire, which includes the erudite longer-form writings and newsbreaks of TAP Online, its excellent weblog, TAPPED, and its witty and fun one-stop-shop for the midterm elections, Midterm Madness.

Needless to say, I jumped at the chance, so from now on, you'll find The Horse's Mouth right here, at See you there.

UPDATE: Site link repaired. Sorry.


Voters Don't Just Oppose Bush; they Oppose His Whole Party

OK, here's more evidence that GOP strategists are delusional if they think that the only reason their numbers are in the toilet on most issues is because the Iraq fiasco is coloring the electorate's opinions across the board.

As I wrote here, today's Washington Post piece about the GOP's midterm elections strategy offers up the absurd Republican spin that Iraq is to blame for President Bush's woes on other fronts. As the piece says, "Bush remains a firm believer in the `Iraq first' strategy. The war has overshadowed everything else and, in the White House's view, to a large extent has poisoned the public against other messages."

Obviously Iraq is important. But is there any empirical evidence to support the claim that Iraq is "to a large extent" to blame for the public's views of Republican failure on other fronts? Not that I've seen. Bush aides cite the President's spike in numbers last year after the Iraqi elections, but that's nowhere near good enough, because a great deal of hugely damaging non-Iraq stuff has happened since, including the ludicrous GOP gas-prices quick-fix fiasco and the latest immigration battles.

Indeed, one very recent poll suggests the opposite claim is true: This Fox News opinion poll. Twenty nine percent said that "gas prices" are the topic that comes up most often in conversation with friends and neighbors; only thirteen percent cited Iraq. Improvements in Iraq, a long shot to begin with, probably would improve Bush's numbers, but too much stuff has happened on other fronts, and any modest improvements in Iraq simply won't be enough to persuade the electorate to forgive the administration its other disastrous blunders.

What's more, the poll also seems to rebut the idea -- floated in the Post by GOP strategists -- that Republicans will automatically fare much better if folks don't see the midterms as a referendum on Bush and instead see it as Republicans vs. Dems. Indeed, the poll says that already, fully 39 percent of voters are already not going to make Bush a factor in their vote. The fact that nearly half the voters are already taking Bush out of the equation, coupled with the fact that polls are already showing double digit leads for Dems in straight comparisons between them and the GOP, suggests that the damage is flowing from the electorate's view of the GOP, as much as from their view of Bush.

In sum, voters aren't opposing just Bush, but his whole party; and they're not doing it just because of Iraq, but because of the party's ideas and performance on multiple fronts. So the whole notion of any "Iraq first" strategy is just plain bogus, if indeed GOP strategists really believe in it in the first place.


The GOP's "Optimism" About the Midterms

Today's Washington Post piece on GOP strategy for the midterm elections has Republican officials offering one Panglossian assertion after another about how the party can use the midterms to enable President Bush to stage a comeback. At first glance one is tempted to condemn the piece for giving Republicans so much journalistic real estate to showcase their alleged "optimism" about November, but in truth the piece slyly adds up to a very damning picture of just how desperate and out of gas the GOP is right now.

[S]hort of some event outside their direct control -- such as a dramatic turnaround in Iraq or the capture of Osama bin Laden -- Bush advisers have turned to the election as the most important chance to rewrite the troubled narrative of his presidency and allow him to recover enough to govern his last two years, Republican strategists said...

Bush remains a firm believer in the "Iraq first" strategy. The war has overshadowed everything else and, in the White House's view, to a large extent has poisoned the public against other messages -- to the point that many Americans fault Bush's handling of the economy even though economic performance has been strong. So the White House calculates that if the public sees any improvement in Iraq and a withdrawal of even some U.S. troops, Republicans will be rewarded...

A top adviser said Rove and White House political director Sara M. Taylor are advising candidates not to duck the issue of Iraq but rather to make it a centerpiece of their campaigns.

The Rove-Taylor view is that one-third of Americans agree with liberal Democrats calling for immediate withdrawal and another third support staying the course. The middle third wants a new strategy, but would be leery of pulling out and leaving behind a volatile Iraq, a position strategists believe leaves those voters open to persuasion...

Instead of a verdict on Bush, Republicans want to frame the election as a contest with Democrats, confident that voters unhappy with the president will find the opposition even more distasteful.

"We're moving from a period where the public looks at things and says thumbs-up or thumbs-down, to a time when they have a choice between one side or the other," [Ken] Mehlman said.

This is great stuff. Presuming it really reflects GOP strategic thinking, it shows very dramatically that Republican strategists just aren't prepared to face the reality that the public has broadly concluded that the GOP and its ideas and performance are badly lacking on a whole host of fronts, and that various constituencies have turned on not just Bush, but the party, for all sorts of different reasons. Is Iraq really why the broad middle is upset about corruption, rampant cronyism, and the utter failure to do anything about health care and energy other than let lobbyists write policy to suit their needs? Is it why conservatives are in a lather about immigration and the explosion in spending? This is all just delusional, as is the assertion that the "middle third" is "open to persuasion" on Iraq. Open to persuasion of what, exactly? These guys don't know what to do about Iraq -- whatever it is we're describing as "success" in Iraq likely can't be achieved. So what can they persuade voters of? That things will magically right themselves if we just leave the folks who've failed spectacularly thus far in charge?

And what of the idea that it's a winner for Republicans to frame the election as a choice between them and Dems? That also seems like an ostrich-like refusal to grasp the public's conclusion about their party, not just Bush. Polls consistently show the public thinks Dems have better ideas and wants them to govern. Look, it probably isn't out of the question that Republicans can turn things around in some measure. But with an "Iraq first" strategy combined with a handful of procedural scams on judicial nominations and same-sex marrage and the dark suggestion that if Dems get in, they'll, well, hold Republicans accountable for their failures? That's a heck of a strategy.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


An Eye-opening Fiasco at The New York Times

Don't miss New York Times public editor Byron Calame's blistering piece detailing how the paper ended putting on its front page this wrong account saying that Airbus was considering standing-room only spaces on planes. Calame gives us an eye-opening blow-by-blow explanation of how the story's "wow" potential enabled it to glide unchecked past one editor after another. And he concludes:
That this mess could splatter across the newsroom of such a fine newspaper moves me to be blunt. Times editors at all levels — especially on the news desk, where front-page and other important articles get a final review — need to pick up each story with the assumption that the most fascinating anecdote, or even the central premise, could be wrong. Readers deserve no less.

Ouch. Good thing the story wasn't about something more significant, like a leak from anonymous US officials saying that Iran's nuke capacities are far more advanced than is publicly known. But then, the paper would never commit this sort of series of errors on a story with that kind of importance, would it?

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Joe Lieberman Gives GOP Attacks Bipartisan Legitimacy

Digby is right about the real significance of Senator Joe Lieberman:
There was a time when a vital center coalition existed in the Senate, where there was room on both sides for trading votes across party lines. The Republicans destroyed that coalition and Liebermann, inexplicably, doesn't seem to get that. Even worse, when the s**t comes down, he inevitably sides with them. Many Democrats took a long time to learn the harsh lessons of GOP political hardball and had to lose to a bunch of thuggish right-wingers before they began to recognise what they were up against. Lieberman still refuses to accept the fact that his high minded centrism is a weapon in the hands of the radical Republicans. (Expletive deleted in the interests of preserving blogospheric civility.)

He's getting at a point which can't be stated enough. The Times is eager to to paint supporters of Lieberman opponent Ned Lamont as driven by a desire to "punish" Lieberman for supporting the Iraq war, but the challenge to Lieberman isn't about revenge at all. It's about Democratic survival. The GOP's openly stated goal of building a permanent Republican majority may seem like it's on life support right now, but this fight is far from over. With the GOP's military misadventure in shambles, the Republicans are desperately striking back by trying to paint Dems as anti-troops, pro-terrorism traitors. It's imperative that these attacks be seen by the electorate as desperate partisan attacks coming from a party in severe trouble. But as I've argued before, when Lieberman attacks antiwar people in his own party in terms similar to those used by President Bush and Dick Cheney, all he's doing is giving those GOP attacks bipartisan legitimacy.

Let's not forget how Lieberman acquitted himself after Dems began seriously pressuring the White House to begin preparing for withdrawal from Iraq: He said that Bush would be commander in chief for three more years and observed that "it's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that," adding: "We undermine the president's credibility at our nation's peril." Look, Lieberman is entitled to his opinion, but why the gratuitous slam against fellow Dems in those particular terms? Friends, his was a perfect expression of the GOP's message about Dem criticism of Bush -- only thanks to Lieberman, that Republican message has no longer been a purely partisan one. Why else would Cheney have chimed in thusly: "He is entirely correct. On this, both Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree. The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon our mission."

To put this as plainly as possible, Lieberman lends aid and comfort to those who would destroy his party. Is it any wonder that some Dems want to get rid of him?


Joe Klein Ignores His Own Past Writings on John McCain

I know, I know, the last thing you want to hear is more criticism of Joe Klein. But this is a good one. As I've said before, top pundits like Klein are constructing an Official Narrative around John McCain which roughly runs as follows: Whenever McCain panders or ducks politically-difficult questions, it simply doesn't count, because, well, he's likeable, and besides, deep down McCain doesn't enjoy being political or pandering, and only does it because he has to, so we can all agree to ignore it.

Over at The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby has unearthed a wonderful example of this. He offers the following quote from Klein's new book, Politics Lost, about McCain during the 2000 Presidential campaign:
This was a candidate without fear, speaking in the plainest possible language. I never saw him duck a question, and his best responses had a startling clarity. Asked about health-care reform, for example, he said: “The problem is the Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers and we Republicans are in the pocket of the insurance companies. And so there is gridlock, and there will continue to be, until we get the special-interest influence out of politics.” (Emphasis added.)

Guess what? Back when Klein was observing McCain in real time, he wasn't anywhere near as charitable. In a profile he wrote in 2000 for The New Yorker, Klein had the following to say about McCain's approach to health care:
Health care isn’t easy, but McCain is running for president. He had just released, with no small fanfare, a “plan,” but it was almost laughably sketchy—with no real answers for the forty-four million people without health insurance, many of whom work at low-wage jobs. (Even the accompanying fact sheet was filled with errors.) (Emphasis added.)

Now we're told in retrospect that McCain "never" ducked a question and answered all them with "startling clarity." At the time, though, Klein thought McCain was "laughably sketchy" on health care and didn't offer any "real answers." What changed? I think the answer is that in those six years, Klein evolved from a reporter to a pundit. And the pundits are constructing an official McCain narrative -- McCain as apolitical hero -- that has no room for actual facts, in this case including ones that were once observed by none other than the pundit himself.

Friday, May 19, 2006


BellSouth Spokesman says company may sue USA Today; Won't Rule Out Possibility that Subcontractors were Contacted by NSA

OK, here's a bit more info on the big phone records scandal. As you already know, the battle between USA Today and BellSouth heated up today, when the phone company demanded a retraction of USA Today's explosive story saying the National Security Agency was collecting their and other companies' records of phone calls made by private citizens. The paper appears to be sticking by its story, though not as full-throatedly as one might expect.

Now BellSouth's spokesman, Jeff Battcher, tells me that the company is considering suing USA Today over the story. "It certainly is one of the options being considered," he told me. This is interesting, and here's why. I'm no lawyer, but I've gotta think that such a legal battle could result in a lengthy discovery process that could force some of this stuff into the public domain. Who knows whether this will happen, but it at least seems possible. It's worth noting that this is something the company definitely wouldn't want if it were lying.

But here's something else that's key. Battcher acknowledged to me that he couldn't be sure that the NSA hadn't accessed their records through a third-party subcontractor, as some folks have been speculating lately. In our conversation there was some stuff that will lend comfort to both critics and defenders of the USA Today story.

Battcher conceded that he couldn't rule out the possibility that NSA had approached any of the subcontractors who work with BellSouth, such as long distance companies or outfits that do data transmission, handle billing or do other services. Battcher acknowledged it's possible that these companies "could have bits and pieces" of info of the sort that the NSA might have approached them for. So it's at least partly possible to reconcile BellSouth's now-vehement denial with the original story.

Battcher also insisted: "If that happened, it certainly wasn't with the knowledge or authority of BellSouth, and [the subcontractors] would be in violation of our agreements with them." If Battcher's telling the truth, it's hard to imagine data-collection happening on the massive scale alleged in the article without the help of the company itself. On the other hand, he's basically acknowledging that some kind of phone-records collection could have happened without BellSouth's knowledge of it.

Adding to the intrigue, Laura Rozen's War and Piece blog steers us to this TPM Muckraker piece about how small companies specialize in giving the government access to telecom records, making it possible for the NSA to get the info they want without the companies themselves being the ones who turned it over. (Of course, if this had happened BellSouth would have known that the NSA had gotten its hands on their data.)

As I said before, this is some pretty dense fog, and the more light shined into it, the better.


Al Gore Reintroducing Himself in Elite Media Circles; Private Dinner with Tina Brown, Harry Evans

As Al Gore’s public profile continues to rise higher with the release of his new environmental movie, he’s also privately reintroducing himself in elite media circles. A source of mine tells me that Tina Brown and her husband, writer Harold Evans, are hosting a private dinner for Gore at their home on Wednesday, May 24, after a private screening of the movie in midtown Manhattan. The dinner will also be attended by two of the producers of the movie, An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David and Lawrence Bender. A movie spokesperson declined comment, but I'm also told Tina and Harry are providing transport from the screening to their house, too.

One guest attending the screening I spoke to thinks that the new media elite feting of Gore is a sign that media people want to take another look at him, now that he’s being seen as much more outspoken and passionate about issues he cares about – a second look that Gore appears to be welcoming. “Tina and Harry’s home is the epicenter of media power,” this guest says. “Their guests tend to be the media elite types who were so critical of Gore in 2000 and after the election. Now they’re seeing him in a different light – not as the dutiful, cautious veep.” Fine, but if he runs, will the coverage of him really change, too?


Rudy and Ralph Reed

Lizzy Ratner of The Politicker blog is sending readers over to a remarkable Associated Press story which describes Rudy Giuliani's appearance at a fundraiser for Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition who's running for lieutenant governor in Georgia. Here's what pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights Rudy had to say about Reed and the GOP:
"You can count me as a friend and supporter, someone who will do anything I can to get you elected."

"We've got to lift our heads up, take a look at everything around us, and realize this country's in pretty good shape," he said. "We shouldn't be going to the American people with our heads down. We should be going with our heads up. Our policies work." (Emphasis added.)

Now, there's going to be lots on this blog about Rudy -- I saw him up close for years in New York's City Hall, and am fairly familiar with his, shall we say, eccentricities -- but for now, let me make two quick points. The first is that Rudy, should he seek the Presidency, may run a campaign of optimism, one familiar to the "morning in America" campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that capitalized on the demoralized electorate of the late 1970s. Recall that at the time there was widespread angst over American foreign policy abroad and morale in GOP ranks was low because of Watergate. We're in a similar place today, between Iraq and all the corruption scandals, and I predict that by 2008 Republicans are just going to be sick and tired of feeling so bad about themselves and their country all the time. They'll be just plain fed up with Dems and the media making them feel so guilty about screwing up the country and its international relationships so badly.

So Rudy's message to demoralized Republicans will essentially be, "We don't agree on everything, but if there's one thing we do agree on, it's that America and the Republican Party are great. I'm the guy who can make you feel good about country and party again." If Rudy's brand of Republicanism could clean up New York City, his message will be, Rudy's brand of Republican leadership (a word you'll be hearing a lot from him) is just the elixir to get America back on track and make the world a less confusing place again.

As for the second point, Lizzy's right to compare Rudy's dalliance with Reed to John McCain's romance with Jerry Falwell. Rudy's strategic dilemma is very similar to McCain's. Both have a reputation for independence, but the problem for both of them is that when they do what it takes to be competitive in a GOP primary -- that is, cozy up to folks they disagree with on all sorts of things -- that sense of each one's independence simply vanishes, and each suddenly morphs into just another pandering politician, into the wizard behind the curtain. When McCain panders, the press appears content to ignore it and pretend it didn't happen, and it remains to be seen whether Rudy will be granted the same treatment. Indeed, the big question, should Rudy run, is whether memories of his performance in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- which does appear to be indelibly fixed in America's collective consciousness, though it bears mentioning that by 2008 the disaster will have happened seven years earlier -- will enable him to ride out his basic strategic problem. I don't know the answer to that, but I guess we'll soon find out.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Why the Media Isn't Reporting the "Good News" in Iraq

Don't miss Howard Kurtz's profile of CBS foreign correspondent Lara Logan, in which she tells you in as vivid detail as possible why the allegedly liberal media is allegedly refusing to report the good news in Iraq:
The words erupt in machine-gun bursts as Lara Logan strafes the critics who say she and other journalists in Iraq are ignoring the signs of progress there.

"That's complete nonsense," Logan says. "I tell the American commanders all the time: When we can get in our cars and drive to the opening of a store and interview people on camera without fear of being killed, or getting everyone involved with us killed, the good-news stories will be told." ...

She dismisses criticism of Western journalists remaining in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, saying: "Every time I leave the hotel, I have to justify why I'm risking the lives of everyone on my team."

Passed along without comment.


Orrin Hatch Accidently Answers Reporter's Question, Confirms Phone Records Story

I somehow missed this interesting little story that Think Progress flagged yesterday. It pretty clearly demonstrates the perils of actually answering the questions of reporters.

It seems Utah Senator Orrin Hatch accidentally confirmed the existence of the phone monitoring programs that are causing the Bush administration such a political headache. Previously, the line had been that officials couldn't confirm the program's existence, because it's supposed to be classified.

Hatch did this by telling a reporter who'd queried him about the programs that at least two of the chief judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had been informed since 2001 of the operations, and that "none raised any objections." That appeared to be indirect confirmation of the program's existence.

Later, his spokesman tried to undo the damage. The AP story somewhat drolly adds: "An aide later said Hatch's comments should in no way be considered confirmation of any efforts to collect phone records."

Hatch confirmed it before he didn't confirm it, I guess.

Seriously, this suggests some very promising lines of inquiry for the press. What exactly were the FISA judges told? How much detail were they given? Why didn't they object?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Do Network Chiefs Really Care if Their Reporters Fail?

Being a media critic is a pretty thankless task. Just look at how much work went into this post at Media Matters. It documents in excruciating detail just how badly top-flight, highly-paid network talent are adbicating their most basic responsibility: holding public officials accountable to what they've said in the past; holding them accountable to the truth. Yet let's face facts: Do we really believe that network higher-ups care if their charges commit such glaring examples of journalistic malpractice?

That's not merely a rhetorical question. It's going to be a preoccupation of this blog going forward. How do we make such things matter to the folks who really have the power to change them?


About those Phone Company Denials...

As you no doubt know by now, being a very well-informed news consumer, both Verizon and Bellsouth have more or less denied the USA Today story saying that the NSA has been secretly collecting their phone records.

USA Today appears to be sticking to the story, though the paper's statement seems to carefully avoid a total commitment to it, instead saying that the paper's "confident" in its reporting.

So now what?

Well, there's something about those denials that doesn't quite make sense.

UPDATE: And that argument dovetails rather nicely with this, wouldn't you say?


If Investigations are What it Takes, So Be It

I think Zachary Roth over at The Washington Monthly is 100 percent right about how the media will frame the question of whether Dems will launch investigations should they win in November:
The only real chance, then, that Congress will uncover the truth of what's happened in Washington during the Bush years will come if Democrats to win in November—a fact that puts the mainstream press in an awkward situation. While mainstream journalists, for obvious reasons of professional interest, generally support openness and increased access to information, they feel they cannot be seen as siding with one political party over another. Should the Democrats take the House, the press, desperate to stick to a “neutral” storyline, will frame the issue of post-election investigations as being not about accountability and access to information, but about political payback. Hence the current focus on impeachment...

Democrats might wish they could avoid talking about their investigative plans. But if they do, the press and the GOP will raise the issue for them, and they'll frame it around the prospect of impeachment. So Democrats might as well meet the challenge head on, and spend the summer making their case. Of course we'll vigorously investigate the administration if we win, they should say. And we'll do so the same way previous Democratic Congresses have investigated GOP presidents: shoulder-to-shoulder with honest Republican lawmakers willing to put country before party. The fact that the current GOP leadership chose to abandon the great American tradition of bipartisan Congressional oversight is no reason Democrats have to follow suit. Instead, they should embrace that tradition, with the faith that if they do, the president will get the legacy he deserves.

The key to winning the argument about investigations is for Dems to weave the issue into a larger, foward-looking message. Investigations aren't about the past; they're about the future, about getting the country back on track again. The press will try to frame any talk of investigations as political payback. The response is to say, "The only way the extensive damage of this awful presidency can be fixed is if Dems control Congress. If it requires investigations, so be it. We'll do whatever it takes to figure out exactly how the Republicans got the country into this mess -- and more important, we'll figure out how to get us out of it."


Brian Ross Sticking With His Story About the FBI and Reporters

So it looks as if Brian Ross of ABC News is sticking with its story that the FBI is getting the phone records of reporters with "National Security Letters" as part of its ongoing leak investigation.

National Security Letters are only supposed to be used during investigations into either espionage or terrorism. As I wrote yesterday, FBI spokesman William Carter is refusing to rule out the possibility that the agency is using NSLs.

So now the next key question is this: Is there a scenario by which a leak investigation would fall under the rubric of an espionage or terrorism investigation?

When I asked Carter that, he declined comment -- which suggests that the FBI does believe that such a scenario could come to pass.

Legal experts beg to differ, however. At least one I consulted, Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, thinks that using NSLs for a leak investigation is a huge legal stretch. She says:
If the FBI -- presumably with the approval of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence -- interprets the Patriot Act amendments to allow them to use secret National Security Letters to investigate leaks, that's an outrageous violation of the intent of Congress in amending the NSL authority.

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


FBI Spokesman Won't Confirm or Deny Use of "National Security Letters" to Collect Reporters' Phone Records

OK, I just got off the phone with an FBI spokesman, William Carter, and it's true: The FBI won't confirm -- or deny -- whether the FBI is using so-called "National Security Letters" in getting hold of reporters' phone records as part of the agency's investigation into leaking.

Obviously that means that the FBI may be using National Security Letters, or NSLs. Or that they may not. But we certainly can't rule it out -- which makes this story more interesting, as I'll explain. What's more, Carter also added a bit more detail that thickens this plot.

One of the key questions, as Josh Marshall has pointed out, about the Brian Ross story saying the FBI is seeking reporters' phone records in leak investigations is the following: Is this or is this not being done with an NSL?

Here's why that's key. For those of you just coming to this story, the FBI acknowledged yesterday that it is increasingly seeking reporters' phone records in leak investigations. There are two ways the FBI can get these records. Either the FBI can get warrants and subpoenas. Or it can get the records -- without approval of a judge or a subpoena -- if it issues a National Security Letter.

So which is it? Asked directly, Carter declined to say -- or to rule out either option.

The reason this is important is that legal experts think that while the amended Patriot Act has loosened the restrictions for use of an NSL, there are still only two scenarios that allow for its use: investigations into either espionage or into terrorism. Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, emailed me this quote:
If the FBI -- presumably with the approval of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence -- interprets the Patriot Act amendments to allow them to use secret National Security Letters to investigate leaks, that's an outrageious violation of the intent of Congress in amending the NSL authority.

Kevin Drum linked to a similar opinion, too.

As Josh noted, if the FBI's going the subpoena route, this might not be a big deal at all. But if it's going the NSL route, it could be a very big deal indeed. In the most recent AP story, which quoted FBI spokesman Carter as saying Ross's story is "misleading," Carter wasn't asked to address the question and didn't shed any light on it.

So: Is the FBI using National Security Letters, or not? When I posed the question directly to Carter, he replied:

"I can't comment on what specific investigative techniques would be used in any investigation. But the FBI will take logical investigative steps to determine if a criminal act has been committed by a U.S. government employee."

OK. So now we know that the FBI isn't denying or ruling out (or confirming) the possibility that it is using NSLs.

That seems to me to lead to the next key question: Is there any scenario under which a leak investigation could fall under the rubric of an espionage or terrorism investigation, as required for use of an NSL?

When asked that question, Carter declined to comment, beyond noting that "the leaking of classified U.S. government information is a national security issue." Instead, he referred me to the Department of Justice, saying that they'd be the ones to determine such a thing as part of the approval process for NSLs. This would seem to suggest that it's not an impossibility at all that the FBI might try to use an NSL in a leak investigation. So next stop is Justice. When I get through to them you'll be the first to know.

Meanwhile, Carter added something else of interest. He said that the FBI wouldn't need a subpoena to get the phone records of any government employee (unless he or she used a privately-owned phone) as part of such an investigation. So it's possible that the government may have learned about Ross's calls another way -- by, say, getting the records of an employee suspected of leaking and learning that he or she had called Ross.

Anyway, there's no way of knowing whether this really amounts to anything or not. There's a great deal that's still vague about this unfolding story. It's some pretty dense fog, and the more light shined into it, the better.


Assessing the "Real" Motivation of Politicians is Perilous Terrain

The liberal press critics roaming the blogosphere are uniformly panning Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller's remarkable take on President Bush's immigration speech. But Bumiller's analysis -- and the explosive reaction to it -- highlight a much bigger problem journalists face regularly: How far to go in assessing a politician's character and motives and the extent to which their history has shaped their present positions.

Very briefly, Bumiller argued that Bush's effort to take the middle ground on immigration was rooted in his past in a border state (Texas) and in his longtime personal principles, which allegedly hold that he views immigration as a positive force. Yet the truth is that Bush's speech was, if anything, a betrayal of those principles. Which gives rise to a question: How do we best address the question of whether personal principles are at play in the determination of a politician's position, particularly in a situation where the decision in question appears overwhelmingly political in nature, rather than personal?

My take is that it's usually a mistake to completely discount character and principles and see everything a pol does as pure political calculation. In the real world, politicians are human beings with prejudices just like the rest of us, and they often have to balance those prejudices against political or governmental realities or against the competing demands of constituents, all of whom have their own competing prejudices. And if a pol does something he or she doesn't believe in but is being demanded by those constituents, that's not automatically naked political pandering; after all, that pol is supposed to represent those constituents. Plus, policy outcomes are what really count -- or should really count -- in the real world, anyway. All this is why, as TAPPED's Sam Rosenfeld has quite rightly observed, the quest for some sort of Holy Grail of "authenticity" in a politician is a foolish one.

At the same time, there should come a time when the statute of limitations, as it were, should run out on our willingness to allow that pols are complex beings dealing with complex pressures and even core principles. If a pol has, again and again, proven himself willing to indulge in the rankest pandering to one constituency or another -- as Bush has -- then maybe he or she should stop be given the benefit of the doubt, and we should simply call his or her behavior what it is -- that is, rank pandering. In Bush's case, the statute of limitations expired a long time ago, which is why Bumiller's piece is rightly getting panned as loudly as possible.

Anyway, here's my take on Bumiller's piece. Here are some trenchant and funny observations from Rosenfeld. Here's Atrios's take. And here's a fun one from Salon. Enjoy.


Maybe the Bush Administration Does Think the Media are Traitors

Perhaps the Bushies really do believe that the news media is aiding and abetting "the enemy." Has anyone considered that possibility?

In a post about Brian Ross's stories on ABC saying that a source had told him that the government knows who he's calling, Josh Marshall wrote this:
Given the Bush administration's self-servingly indulgent definition of the War on Terror, I don't doubt that they would define finding leakers as a subdivision of fighting terrorism, or for that matter scrutinizing political opponents.

I think that there's no doubt that this is true -- and by extention, I don't doubt that the administration would define the tracking of calls made by reporters benefiting from leakers as a subdivision of fighting terrorism, too. But this gives rise to a question. Would the administration define tracking these calls as fighting terrorism simply as a matter of legal convenience, or out of actual conviction?

When Republicans go out and blast the media for helping terrorists, we naturally assume it's pure cynicism, a political tactic designed to discredit the media in the eyes of the electorate and frighten the big news orgs into submission and silence. And certainly in many cases it is no doubt pure cynicism. But given all we know now about this administration, why shouldn't we take them at their word that they do believe the press is helping the terrorists?

For now there's a ton we don't know about Ross's story -- we can't be sure whether the tracking of calls was authorized by routine subpoenas or by so-called "National Security Letters" from the FBI, which would be far more serious -- and I'm hoping to dig into the legal guts of it later. But for the moment, suffice it to say that it's hard to know which is worse: That the White House routinely smears the press purely as a cynical political tactic, or because it genuinely believes that the media are traitors in league with "the enemy."

Monday, May 15, 2006


Laura Bush misleads George Stephanopoulos and Chris Wallace

Media Matters adds to our point below about Laura Bush. The first lady was fibbing when she argued that when her husband's numbers were much better than they are now, no one put it on the front page. As Media Matters notes, neither Chris Wallace of Fox News nor George Stephanopoulos bothered correcting her.


The political media and its critics

OK, savvy political-media watchers, it's quiz time. In light of today's ongoing GOP assault on the media, can you name who said the following, and when?

For the last week, the Republican Party has been the victim of a barrage of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations by [a Democrat] and his partner-in-mud-slinging, [a big media outlet]...[The Democrat] appears to have turned over the franchise for his media attack campaign to the editors of [the big media outlet], who have shown themselves every bit as sure-footed along the low road ... as [the Democrat]. (Giveaway references have been deleted.)

So? Was it Laura Bush blaming the media for her husband's awful poll numbers? Was it any one of the righties who blogswarmed Times reporter James Risen for getting "illegal leaks" in breaking the N.S.A. story? Was it Tony Snow showing off his new chest-thumping podium style?

Nope. It was Robert Dole. In 1972.

Dole, then the Republican National chairman, was attacking The Washington Post for its Watergate reporting and accusing the paper of being in cahoots with the George McGovern campaign. You can find the quote on page 162 of All the President's Men.

The reason I bring this up is to make a point. All the GOP assaults on the press right now -- the blaming of the media for not reporting good news in Iraq or good economic news at home; Snow's attacks on the press, etc. -- are drawn from a Republican arsenal that's been in use for over a generation. And this is worth a moment's reflection. When Richard Nixon's men resorted to this strategy, the country and the media were in a vastly different place than they are today. There was something to the idea of a delineated "silent majority" that was prepared to believe that the coasts harbored a McGovernite and traitorous media elite. This was partly because many understood little about the new mass media then transforming Presidential campaigns and partly because of the growing aggressiveness of coverage of the Vietnam War. Today things are very different. The media is far more scrutinized. The news consumer is far more sophisticated. And the professionalism of the news media has improved in many ways (please, hold the tomatoes, it's the truth).

So as we watch the interaction of media and politics, one interesting question going forward will be: Is the ground far less fertile for such attacks from the right than they were a generation ago? You'd think, given the shifts in the landscape, that the answer would be Yes. But I'm not so sure -- in part, paradoxically, because of all the ongoing change. The decades-long buildup of an infrastructure for right-wing media criticism has partly achieved its end of making the big news orgs terrified of being branded liberal, and hence more willing to adopt GOP frames and spread conservative misinformation with less scrutiny (though Bob Somerby would probably ascribe this more to sheer stupidity than outside pressure). It's true that the rapid growth of sophisticated media criticism from the left at sites like Media Matters is diluting this somewhat, but let's face it -- there's still tons of work to be done. What's more, the growth of alternative media (blogs, cable) has of course weakened the hold the big news organizations have over the public, and weakened their credibility.

All this suggests a challenge for would-be liberal media critics. Right now, because of the new media environment, liberalism needs the big news orgs more than ever. It needs them to be stronger and better and have more credibility, not less; it needs them to better punch through the increasing clamor of cable and increasing sophistication of Swift-Boat-style attacks and deliver the truth more effectively, not less.

The challenge for liberal media criticism, then, is not merely to push the MSM into doing better journalism with criticism, which of course is important, but also to help it do better journalism, by offering assistance and support -- both reportorial and moral. Plenty of people are begining to do this -- and with a little luck and effort this little blog will contribute a bit, too -- but man, oh, man, is more ever needed. Because while Bob Woodward may be a shadow of what he once was, there's a new generation of would-be Woodwards out there with big bright targets on their backs, and the political descendants of those who attacked Woodward and The Post are stronger and better-armed than ever.


Laura Bush's falsehoods about the media easily debunked

When it comes to blaming the media for President Bush's abysmal poll numbers, no lie is too glaring or too easily punctured that the Bushies won't repeat it. Laura Bush, for instance, yesterday told Fox News's Chris Wallace the following falsehood:
And I think right now what we're seeing with these poll numbers is a lot of fun in the press with taking a poll every other week and putting it on the news, on the front page of the newspaper. When his polls were really high, they weren't on the front page. (Emphasis added.)

Well, not really. Here's a list of headlines from The New York Times and The Washington Post about polls from President Bush halcyon days in 2003 and 2002. Every one of these was on the front page:

January 29, 2002, The Post: Bush and GOP Enjoy Record Popularity;
Poll Finds Broad Support Despite Doubts on Economy

March 11, 2002, The Post: Poll: Strong Backing for Bush, War;
Few Americans See Easy End to Conflict

July 17, 2002, The Post: Poll Shows Bush's Ratings Weathering Business Scandals

Dec. 17, 2003, The Times: Bush's Approval Ratings Climb In Days After Hussein's Capture

Dec. 23, 2003, The Post: Bush Gets Year-End Boost in Approval;
Poll Shows Dean Surging Among Democratic Rivals

March 22, 2003, The Times: Support for Bush Surges at Home, but Split Remains

April 20, 2004, The Post: Poll Shows New Gains For Bush;
Lead Over Kerry Widens On Issues of Security

Sept. 10, 2004, The Post: Bush Support Strong After Convention;
Kerry Favorability Rating Plunges in New Survey

Sept. 28, 2004, The Post: Poll Shows Bush With Solid Lead;
Despite Worries, Voters Cite Lack of Clarity From Kerry

Not bad, huh? And I only checked two papers and didn’t even look all that hard. As I just wrote over at TAPPED, at this point, for these folks, lying is as easy as breathing.


Pollsters beginning to get it right on the N.S.A. scandal

Well, it looks as if the pollsters at the big news orgs are finally getting around to asking folks a key question: What do they think of the legality of the N.S.A.'s program to collect the phone records of American citizens?

As I wrote last week, that insta-poll that The Washington Post put out around 24 hours after the story first broke -- you remember, the one that reassured us that 63 percent of respondents favored the program -- was badly flawed. Its questions framed the issue as simply civil liberties vs. terrorism, with no mention of the fact that many critics think the program may be illegal. But the problem with the NSA program isn't just that it is an undue invasion of privacy. It's also that this collection of private info about American citizens may be going on with no meaningful legal oversight. This is really crucial context, and no pollster who looks in the mirror and calls himself a professional has any business omitting it.

Well, comes now a poll from U.S.A. Today which finally raises the legality question. One of the questions:
Based on what you have heard or read about this program, do you think it definitely violates the law, probably violates the law, probably does not violate the law, (or) definitely does not violate the law?

And the answers: Definitely violates the law (22), probably violates the law (32), probably does not violate the law (25), definitely does not violate the law (14), and no opinion (8). As Atrios rightly notes, a total of 54 percent think it definitely or probably violates the law, and 62 percent want hearings. When the question of legality comes up, the complexion of public opinion changes.

Many props to the U.S.A. Today for asking about the program's legality. That wasn't so hard, was it?

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Why are Dems Always Described as Calculating?

One of the more irritating habits reporters share is a reflexive tendency to describe everything Democrats do as "calculating" or "cautious." It's almost like a bad nervous habit -- the journalistic equivalent of nail-biting or a facial tic. Yesterday in a New York Times story saying that Dems are going to try to make an issue about the latest NSA revelations, reporter Carl Hulse wrote:
To date, however, Democrats have been careful to calibrate their public statements about the N.S.A.'s domestic eavesdropping and data-mining programs. Most have focused their criticisms on questions about the program's legal underpinnings and whether Congress was sufficiently consulted about it, with only a handful calling outright for an end to the efforts...

Still, Democrats are being extremely careful in their comments on the surveillance. Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who was defeated by Mr. Bush in 2004, said Friday that he was not ready to declare the newly disclosed collection of phone records illegal.

"It may be that they are doing this in a way that is manageable," Mr. Kerry said. "I don't know the answer to that yet."

Is this a "carefully calibrated" or "extremely careful" response? Actually, I'd argue that it's a responsible response. The bottom line is, there's tons we don't know about this program. We don't know if it's legal or not; we don't know many of the details of how it works. The right thing to do for any responsible public official is to be "careful" and, like Kerry, to say that he "doesn't know the answer" to the question of whether it's legal. Why is this "extremely careful," rather than simply the right thing to do? This is an extremely complex policy issue. Even Senator Chuck Hagel said that questions about the program needed to be answered, but reserved criticism. So why isn't he being "carefully calibrated"? Why is it that only Dems are being calculating when they are appropriately reserving judgment?

This isn't nitpicking. Reporters constantly add this sort of language to their copy when discussing Democrats, and it adds up over time to a more general impression that Dems are craven and political. If readers are constantly being told that Dems are "calibrated," it's no wonder that they constantly tell pollsters that they're not sure if Dems stand for anything.


Welcome to The Horse's Mouth

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