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Thursday, May 06, 2004

Dingbat Kabuki 

Sorry for all the ctrl-c/ctrl-v today, but, hey, it happens.

Brad DeLong explains to us the Dingbat Kabuki Theater that is the Washington Press Corps:
Michael Froomkin is, in his current addled state, confused:
Discourse.net: Privately?: In my current addled state, I’m having a little trouble understanding headlines like Bush Privately Chides Rumsfeld. Erum. “Privately”? Like on the front page of every newspaper on earth? Yes, I understand it’s off-camera, but is that what “privately” means now?
Michael is pretending that he does not understand that he is watching Washington Post reporters Robin Wright and Bradley Graham play a game of Dingbat Kabuki with the "senior administration official" who tells them that "Bush privately chides Rumsfeld." We have no idea whether Bush privately chid Rumsfeld or not. We do know that David Stockman swears that a previous "president chid cabinet member" story--when Reagan supposedly took Stockman "to the woodshed" was a lie, a made up fantasy, a story created because Reagan White House Chief of Staff James Baker thought it would be helpful.

So all we know is that the "senior administration official" wants Wright and Graham to tell the world that "Bush privately chid Rumsfeld." It may be true. It may be false.

But, of course, Wright and Graham don't begin their story with: "Bush aide spreads story that Bush has privately chid Rumsfeld"--which is what they know. That would focus attention on their ignorance and on their value as a conduit for information and misinformation. That would require that they be reporters--or at least vertebrate animals.

They would rather have their story have a headline that is grossly misleading. Bush may have chid Rumsfeld. Bush may not have chid Rumsfeld but some senior official wants the story spread that he did. The only thing we do know is that whatever was done was not done "privately."

Dingbat Kabuki.
Indeed. This particular type of Kabuki was also in mid-season form throughout Ms. Elizabeth Bumiller's "White House Letters" last March. Is it so hard for these reporters to realize that just because Mr. X says Y, that doesn't mean Y is true?

UPDATE: Mark Schmitt has more:
The master practitioner of this art form was Henry Kissinger, the original "high-ranking administration offiical." But this administration, at every level, has mastered the art of using the anonymous quote to deliver pure vacuous spin, with the particular assistance of the Washington Post. Fairly often, for example, one finds sentences such as, "'The president believes our long-term economic outlook is bright and that Congress should make the tax cuts permanent to create jobs,' said an administration official who asked not to be named." Why not? What's the point of that? And why can't a reporter say, "Look, if you're just going to give me a pre-packaged soundbite from the press office -- or if you are the press office -- I'm not going to put your words in unnamed. Either stand behind it, or I'm just going to paraphrase."

...

And then a classic example this morning in the Post, although it is a minor footnote to the almost unbearable stories about torture at Abu Ghraib: "Bush is 'not satisfied' and 'not happy' with the way Rumsfeld informed him about the investigation into abuses by U.S. soldiers ..., according to the official, who refused to be named so he could speak more candidly."

But there's absolutely nothing "more candid" about these quotes. It was the line of the day, in every paper and on every morning news show: Bush was angry at Rumsfeld, and castigated him. I assume it's true, but for all we know it's not. The point is, it's the story that Scott McClellan and Dan Bartlett decided should be in the paper this morning. The official is hardly going to get fired for putting out the line of the day. Under those circumstances, I think there's no reason for the reporter to allow the quote to be anonymous, or for it to bear the subtle editorial endorsement that it is "more candid" because anonymous.
I don't often read the Washington Post, so I don't know if it's worse than other organizations. Oh, and never forget Judith Miller.
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