BEAST's Ten Worst Presidential Election Campaign Hacks: Who's to Blame?
by Matt Taibbi
- GEORGE WILL, NEWSWEEK
uses big words and pompous literary references to dress up what are
basically the brutish and vulgar thinking patterns of a non-union
meat-packing plant owner. He is a pig in a lace hat.
makes the list but not because he wrote a campaign piece that whined
in a predictable way about George Soros' contributions to ACT ("As
Goes Ohio..." Oct. 3). He makes it because he wrote a column
calling "SportCenterese" the "lingua franca of ESPN
Nation" ("25 Years of ESPN," Sept. 7). It was yet another
Will column that opened with Will sitting in the stands at a baseball
there no way to convince the U.N. to intervene to stop this man?
- BOB WOODWARD, WASHINGTON POST
continues to seem ashamed of his activist-journalism legacy as the
reporter who toppled a Republican president. His investigative efforts
since All the President's Men, and especially lately, seem
determined to seek relentlessly a centrist politics, to be gently
corrective rather than crusading and muckraking... And sometimes he
drifts into outright shameless hagiography of the ruling powers (i.e.
Bush at War).
his counterpart Sy Hersh, who appears happily poised to keep pissing
people off well into his nineties, Woodward seems very determined
to remain a respectable figure to parties on all sides. Therefore
he says, with pride, things like the following about Plan of Attack:
"It's a book that looks both ways." Or: "You can look
at that and say that's what we need in a president or you can look
at that and say that's exactly what we don't need in a president."
Or that Bush in Plan of Attack either comes across as a "forceful,
decisive leader" or "shows he does not know what he is doing,"
depending on your point of view.
achieves this balancing act in subtle ways. He does the actual reporting
of just enough damning facts about the Bush presidency (like the revelation
that Bush talked about "taking the gloves off" with Gitmo
prisoners after 9/11), then turns around and flatters the same interview
subjects he just skewered. Thus he will report really damaging things
about Bush, then will turn right around and blow smoke up his ass
on national television, doing things like telling Tim Russert (Sept.
12, “Meet the Press”) that he sincerely believed Bush was willing
to take the risk to go into Iraq, even if that made him a one-term
president. When a professional doubter suddenly starts credulously
buying the transparent posturing of politicians, you know something's
Woodward will say things like the following:
mean, Bush essentially says, when you get into this question, how
is history going to judge the Iraq War? And he makes the point, 'Well,
we don't know. We'll all be dead.' And I think that's true."
that isn't true. It's stupid. It's the grasping non-answer of a junior-high
fuckup who didn't do his homework. And Woodward knows it. But he does
this stuff to ensure that he still gets to sit in the Oval Office
a few times a year.
is too bad, because Bush is a much bigger target than Nixon, his crimes
much more outrageous and egregious than Nixon's, and America's most
famous muckraker softballed him throughout the election season, just
to make sure he stays on the White House Christmas card list.
NOVAK, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
mean old bastard who wrote, without kidding, "I am a Ken Mehlman
even after he fell and broke his hip after the first debate, was back
blasting away at Don Rumsfeld from his hospital bed two days later.
The guy is really unstoppable. At the end of his life, he's going
to be like the machine in the last frames of The Terminator,
legs gone, flesh all burned off, crawling forth in the abandoned factory,
spewing venom about government spending. One has to admire that.
is in the top ten because of that dreary purse-lipped sadist's face
of his. (You've seen that face before: the prison warden meets high
school vice-principal of your nightmares, shitting on your wife's
back.) That plus his outing of Valerie Plame is suddenly being upheld
as a free-press issue. He makes the list because he recently told
an audience of Penn State students that he is only able to stand James
Carville because "CNN pays me a lot of money."
here's the worst thing about Novak. Six years ago, Novak's column
was the favored destination of anonymous leakers from the office of
special prosecutor Ken Starr. They gave him such nuggets as the revelation
that it was their "educated guess" that Hillary Clinton
would be named as an unindicted coconspirator in the Hubbell case
("Clinton's Woes Far from Over," Nov. 26, 1998). At the
time, Novak had no problem being the submissive love-slave of an overzealous
independent prosecutor seeking, in a clearly inappropriate manner,
to try his case in public.
Novak is going to sit back and let people like William Safire blast
special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for going too far in hammering
Novak for his sources in the Plame case. Live by the leak, die by
the leak, you fucking dog.
- JODI WILGOREN, NEW YORK TIMES
and Politicians are fond of referring to the campaign as a conversation
between the candidates and the public. Kerry even put that in his
stump speech, beginning town halls and rallies by gesturing to the
crowd and saying, "You and I are going to have a conversation."
But was it really a conversation?
fact, if you look at it closely, the campaign was mainly a conversation
with itself. And if you look at the campaign as it existed in the
media, it was entirely a conversation with itself. Virtually everyone
who is allowed to tell us what to think of the candidates, their positions
and the state of our politics in general is an insider of some kind.
In this movie, only the guild members—candidates, spokespeople, talking
heads, pundits and pollsters—get the speaking lines. The rest of the
country is represented by crowd shots and poll numbers.
order to understand why this is, you have to grasp an essential truth
about our political journalism. What our political reporters do for
a living is sell the campaign to the population, not speak for the
people to the campaign. This is most vividly demonstrated in who actually
gets to talk in campaign coverage.
September 10 to October 10, Wilgoren had a byline on some 16 campaign
articles. In the course of that month, she quoted some 56 professional
campaign creatures, with the vast majority of quotes coming from the
candidates themselves and spokesmen like Joe Lockhart, Karen Hughes,
Dan Bartlett, Mary Beth Cahill and Scott McClellan. Also represented
were a trio of pollsters (Andrew Kohut, Frank Luntz, Peter Hart),
a half-dozen or so talking heads (e.g. Brian Riedl of the Heritage
Foundation, Thomas Mann of Brookings) and other assorted humanoid
flotsam and jetsam commonly found in campaign circles (a "top
Democrat... in a hotel bar," a "debate expert").
that month, Wilgoren traveled all over the country, from Allentown
to Washington to Toledo to New York to Miami to Wausau, WI, and to
half a dozen other cities, a journey spanning about 10,000 miles.
In that time, amidst all that crosstalk between campaign types, she
quotes exactly three real human beings. She gives two lines to a Florida
citrus farmer named Karen McKenna, one word to a man named "Steve"
who tells Kerry which name to sign on a photo ("Steve,"
he says)—and lastly, an end-of-the-article shout-out to an unnamed
elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease who croaked out at a Kerry
rally the words, "It's too late for me."
- JILL ZUCKMAN, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
and her Trib colleagues filed a piece ("Battle gets more personal—and
urgent; Candidates offer debate rebuttals on campaign trail,"
Oct. 10) that twice quoted Bush's dipshit stump line, "He can
run, but he can't hide." Once, thank you, was more than enough.
out of nearly 1000 campaign reporters, only one—Chris Suellentrop
of Slate—bothered to look up the ancestry of "You can run, but
you can't hide." The line has obviously been used in the White
House before, most recently by Scott McClellan about modern-day terrorists,
but more famously by Ronald Reagan about terrorists involved with
the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Reagan also
described the Tripoli bombing campaign as "you can run but you
can't hide" airstrikes. Candidates recycle lines all the time,
and journalists, obeying the generally Orwellian relationship of campaigns
to both fact and the past, rarely call them on it. This is positive
because it allows the campaign sham to be cyclical as well as depressing.
- CAL THOMAS, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Thomas is the loopy mystic with the gay-porn moustache who blasted
Dick Cheney, of all people, for being soft on family values, and spent
time buddying up to one of the rising stars of the Christian nut-job
can be added to the photo of him with Joni Eareckson Tada from his
FOX program, “After Hours with Cal Thomas”—a show, incidentally, that
is showing signs lately of mounting a strong ratings challenge to
the automatic rice-cooker infomercials on MNN. Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic,
is an honorary co-chair of the Presidential Prayer Team, an organization
devoted to praying for the health and success of the Bush administration.
This is a group that issues daily instructions to pray for such people
as Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and Secretary of Commerce
Don Evans. With his invite of Eareckson Tada, Thomas has now been
plugged as mainstream-media friendly on the group's website—twice.
On the show, incidentally, he and Eareckson Tada engaged in a mutual
congratulation session over their identically recalcitrant views on
in his literary endeavors, Thomas performed admirably, blasting Cheney
after the debate for having the temerity to assert that a job was
the best antidote to poverty. According to Thomas, heterosexual marriage
is a better weapon against poverty than a job. "[S]table two-parent
homes with a mother and father ... constitute the best anti-poverty
program," he wrote.
a nice line of reasoning. Maybe it ought to be developed: "Homosexuality:
It takes food off the table."
- JAMES BENNET, NEW YORK TIMES
Beast would first like to express its disappointment that Bennet
could not find space for the words "throbbing man-shaft"
in this sentence from his post-debate wrap ("Wherein Bush Turns
That Frown Upside Down," Oct. 15):
Bush skirted the rock-hard positions favored by his base to plant
his flag deep in the mushy middle ground once held by President Bill
at how much better that works if you write it this way:
Bush planted his rock-hard throbbing man-shaft up to the base, deep
in the mushy middle ground under the skirt once held by President
is a completely different story, and probably a better one.
sympathize with Bennet—it's hard for an intelligent person to come
up with anything at all to say about the debates, and having to do
it over and over again in the New York Times can't be easy—but
he makes the list because his sufferings are just too funny for the
rest of us.
Bennet's wrap of the second debate ("In a Disguised Gym, Softballs
and Political Drama," Oct. 9). Bennet's general argument in this
piece was that there was a special "dynamic" to the debate
that you missed if, unlike Bennet, you weren't there.
the hall, the scene was of a theater in the round," he wrote,
adding that "Viewers at home were denied the peek behind the
political and news media curtain that voters here received."
goes on to describe some of those elements of the "dynamic"
that were invisible to TV viewers:
viewers did not see how the moderator, Charles Gibson of ABC, hammed
it up with a colleague, Chris Wallace of Fox News, who was seated
in one of the network boxes overlooking the hall.
Chris," Mr. Gibson hallooed, before the debate began, to the
delight of the assembled voters. "Hello, Charlie," Mr. Wallace
called back with a grin.
the hands of a mere mortal, this scene is written as follows: "Charlie
Gibson said hi to Chris Wallace." But in Bennet's hands, this
"hallooing" was a bit of "theater in the round,"
part of a "drama that mixed calculated stagecraft and moments
of genuine improvisation," only discernible to those who were
there to hear Charlie Gibson say "hi" to Chris Wallace.
However, one paragraph later, Bennet was arguing that "one can
learn more about a candidate by watching from a great distance, on
a sensible person here will ask: With which particular mental and
physical attitude should I learn more about the candidates by watching
from a great distance? Bennet has your answer: from "the Olympian
detachment of the couch." (Only Bennet can turn a couch potato
into Zeus.) And it's just as well that you watch from there, because
meeting the candidates in person is overrated:
encounters with candidates are often overrated. Town halls are one
thing, but you can keep your catch-and-release handshake, your dandled
baby, your pale-brew kaffeeklatsch.
what? What the hell is he talking about—and why? Bennet has about
three of these moments per article.
- KAREN TUMULTY, TIME
campaign reporter has something he can call his own. George Will has
his unnecessary alliteration, Howard Fineman his boxing/combat imagery,
James Bennet the unexplored vestiges of the liner notes to Beowulf.
Tumulty is the only reporter with the perfect all-court game. She
uses labels like "liberal" more consistently and derisively
than Karl Rove; she can't file a single piece that isn't wrapped around
a poll; she is more prone than most to imbecilic generalizations like
"Kerry's [positions are] more like a kaleidoscope, than like
a circle"; and she is really the only reporter on the trail who
can be consistently counted on to croak out dire warnings to candidates
about the consequences of listening to reason instead of pollsters
("The Kerry campaign at times resembles a floating five-ring
circus of longtime Democratic operatives who have all sorts of views…
That worked fine when it was up against Howard Dean's homespun Vermont
militia. Against Bush-Cheney '04, a disciplined hierarchy run by Karl
Rove...it could be a recipe for a landslide").
Tumulty, other reporters avoid talking to ordinary people, usually
preferring to talk to staffers and pollsters and talking heads. But
Tumulty's Time campaign team is probably the first magazine
to actually outsource the job of talking to ordinary voters. If you
look at the byline of Tumulty pieces, they are usually absurdly long,
with five or six reporters contributing to each 2000-word piece (typical
Time byline: "Karen Tumulty, With reporting by Perry Bacon
Jr. on the road with Kerry; and Timothy J. Burger, James Carney, John
F. Dickerson and Michael Duffy/Washington"). A lot of the man-on-the-street
stuff naturally comes from these supporting writers, leaving the big
gun free to talk to the real people.
happens in the business and is nothing new; a perk of being a big-timer
is that you use assistants to talk to the rabble. But in Time
you will sometimes also see a polling agency in the article credits—for
instance, Schulman, Ronca and Bucuvalas, which frequently helps out
in poll data.
called Mark Schulman of SRBI, and asked him if his agency ever provided
Time with quotes from respondents in addition to polling data.
He said no, although this was possible ("provided we get permission
from the respondent"). However, he did note that Time
had recently asked his agency's help in recruiting "real people"
for its reporters to talk to.
said, 'We want to talk to some real people,'" he told me.
said that?" I asked. "Just like that? 'We want to talk to
what they said," he replied. "I mean, it makes sense, because
there's the number, but the numbers aren't the people, of course."
striking thing for a pollster to say, one would think.
where do you go looking for real people?" I asked. "That
can't be easy."
we just get them off the street," Schulman said. "Although
in this case, we just sort of called around, asked people we knew,
and they put us in touch with some women they knew in the Philadelphia
recruiting Schulman was referring to was actually for a Nancy Gibbs
piece ("What Do Women Want?" Oct. 11), to which Tumulty
contributed. This sounds like an up-and-coming trend to me: You get
the pollster to find "the people," leaving the reporter
more time to spend on the plane with the Louis Quatorze crowd. It
saves time and money, right?
any case, "Tumulty" is seriously ugly.
- ELISABETH BUMILLER, NEW YORK TIMES
was often immune to concerns about the lack of substance in the campaign
as she demonstrated that most forcefully when she was one of the moderators
of a live televised debate of Democratic candidates, held in New York
on Feb. 29 of this year.
was one of three journalists, along with Dan Rather and Andrew Kirtzman
of WCBS, who moderated the last meaningful Democratic debate. At the
time, there were only four candidates left: Kerry, Edwards, Sharpton
and Kucinich. The debate was remarkable because of the obviousness
with which the three panelists tried to steer the discussion away
from Sharpton and Kucinich. Early in the debate, Bumiller cut Sharpton
off in the middle of one of his answers, about Haiti. When she tried
it again later on, Sharpton protested:
If we're going to have a discussion just between two—in your arrogance
(ph), you can try that, but that's one of the reasons we're going
to have delegates, so that you can't just limit the discussion. And
I think that your attempt to do this is blatant, and I'm going to
call you out on it, because I'm not going to sit here and be window
Well, I'm not going to be addressed like this.
Bumiller made it clear later on that the press was not going to be
pushed around, when in an exchange with Kerry she angrily insisted
on the right to make political labels an issue in the campaign:
Can I just change the topic for a minute, just ask a plain political
National Journal, a respected, nonideologic publication covering
Congress, as you both know, has just rated you, Senator Kerry, number
one, the most liberal senator in the Senate...
can you hope to win with this kind of characterization, in this climate?
Because it's a laughable characterization. It's absolutely the most
ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life.
Are you a liberal?
Let me just...
Are you a liberal?
...to the characterization. I mean, look, labels are so silly in American
But, Senator Kerry, the question is...
I know. You don't let us finish answering questions.
You're in New York.
question—how can you hope to win if you're so liberal—was what sank
Howard Dean, was what allowed the press to ignore Sharpton and Kucinich,
was what ultimately made it impossible for opponents of the war to
have a voice in this campaign. In most cases, this demonization of
the word and witch-hunting of anyone who could be attached to it was
a subtle thing whose effect was cumulative. But Bumiller brought it
right out into the open, wore it like a badge of honor. And looked
like a smug, barking cow doing it.
- HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK
HIS MSNBC "Web Exclusive Commentary" after the third debate,
Howard Fineman made the observation—an observation widely commented
upon in the broadcast media in subsequent days—that there were "no
laughs but gasps" in the press room when Kerry brought up Dick
Cheney's daughter in response to a question about whether homosexuals
are born or made.
I've been in filing rooms with that same crowd of campaign journalists
Fineman is talking about. I can report that the campaign press will
gasp at a lot of things: empty buffet trays, poor hotel accommodations
(the cut-rate motel choices of the Dean campaign elicited astonishment
among some regulars), the face of Dennis Kucinich, the presence of
alternative media, the platform of Ralph Nader.
the only time the national political press doesn't gasp is when the
illiterate president of the United States stands up and for two fucking
consecutive years says that we have to invade Iraq to prevent Saddam
Hussein from attacking us with "weapons of mass destruction."
they don't gasp. Then they stiffen up in their seats like altar boys
and say, "Really? No shit, Mr. President? Call on me, Mr. President!
I'll ask you how your faith guides you in this difficult time! How
long should we let the inspections drag on, Mr. President? What about
those goddamned French, Mr. President?"
press room gasps at things like the Kerry lesbian-baiting ploy because
it's the kind of vicious celebrity twaddle they're sensitive to, twaddle
they consider themselves experts and authorities on. If someone makes
what they consider a "mistake" on that turf, they dive on
it like pigs converging on a watermelon rind. But if a politician
drives the country off a cliff, they sit on their hands, waiting for
Zogby and the Brookings Institution to give them their gasping cues.
A gasp in the press room is as meaningless as a standing ovation at
an Amway convention.
should be noted that a year and a half ago, when responsible observers
in every country but America were freaking out en masse about the
impending war, Fineman was leading the charge here in America in the
area of stupendously irrelevant bullshit puff pieces about our heroic
president's intentions. Just before the invasion ("Bush and God,"
cover, 3/10/03) this is the kind of hard-hitting, critical journalism
Brother Fineman was writing:
W. Bush rises ahead of the dawn most days, when the loudest sound
outside the White House is the dull, distant roar of F-16s patrolling
the skies. Even before he brings his wife, Laura, a morning cup of
coffee, he goes off to a quiet place to read alone..."
that Fineman didn't add that Bush's personality was disarming, his
demeanor relaxed, as evidenced by his loosened tie... You see how
this kind of behavior gets passed on down the ranks.
nothing like a professional flatterer, masquerading as a journalist,
chiding his press colleagues for being too hard on the boss.