Sometimes it's healthy to step back from the blaring din of political news coverage, separate oneself from the gritty minutiae of polling data and CBO scores, and look at issues of broader significance and deeper meaning, if only to obtain a fleeting dose of perspective before plunging back into the cable news fray. In that spirit, I wandered over to Dan Gilgoff's God & Country blog at USNews.com, which is featuring a written debate on Darwin, evolution, and Creationism between National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie Scott and New Zealand-born minister Ray Comfort. Comfort, as I noted last month, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species by publishing his own edition of the landmark scientific work with a 50-page Creationist screed tacked on as an introduction, and this re-release of Darwin is the very the reason Scott and Comfort are locking horns.
The initial posts from Comfort and Scott should immediately clue you in to the motivations each person brought to the debate. Comfort's opening statement is little more than a pitch for his books and television program. He carries on about commenters on Amazon.com and atheists, and lobs insults at Richard Dawkins with the likely goal of getting Dawkins to respond. Only once does he attempt to address issues of scientific weight, and the result is comically absurd. Comfort writes that "believers in evolution" cite as evidence "small bumps on whale bones (proving it once had legs), or experiments with bacteria, or conjecture that modern turkeys were once dinosaurs." His response, in its entirety, is a sneering "Sure." To finish things off, he mocks Mormons and "believers in evolution" as being equally foolish and gullible.
Scott's riposte, on the other hand, is a thoughtful dissection of Comfort's publicity stunt. She observes that Comfort, in addition to appending his introduction to Origin, excised "no fewer than four crucial chapters" that contain "some of Darwin's strongest evidence for evolution." Responding to Comfort's mockery of "small bumps on whale bones" and "conjecture that modern turkeys were once dinosaurs," Scott points out that there "are splendid fossils of dinosaurs that have feathers and of whales that have legs-and even feet." (See: Georgiacetus vogtlensis and Beipiaosaurus inexpectus.) I particularly enjoyed Scott's closing line, in which she expressed her "faith that college students are sharp enough to realize that Comfort's take on Darwin and evolution is simply bananas" - a sly reference to Comfort's well-known and widely mocked theory that bananas prove the existence of God.
There's an argument to be made that the media should not grant publicity-seeking clowns like Ray Comfort legitimacy they haven't earned by allowing them a seat at the table, and the best support for that argument is the sort of nonsense that Comfort brought to bear in his opening statement for USNews.com. But if a crank like Comfort is going to get his 15 minutes, then it's helpful to pair him with someone like Scott, whose measured grasp of scientific reality makes Comfort's cynicism and self-promotion seem all the more crass.
Baltimore: The filibuster is out of control. Why should 40 Republicans get to veto what the majority wants? Do you think we'll ever get filibuster reform? It wasn't always like this -- filibusters used to be rare.
Perry Bacon Jr.: The Democrats filibustered lots and lots of things from 2003 to 2007.
Bacon's questioner is right. Filibusters used to be much more rare. It's hard to believe it's even possible that a Washington Post political reporter would be unaware of this basic fact. And yet, here we are, with Bacon pretending there's nothing unusual about the Republicans' use of the filibuster.
Then another questioner (who apparently reads this blog) noted that last week Bacon wrote "I think we may have misstated the strength of the opposition to the public option in the first place" and asked Bacon to explain why the media got it wrong. Here's Bacon's response:
Perry Bacon Jr.: I'm skeptical of polling on issues as complicated as the public option that I think I fairly complicated. I'm still convinced the most energy around that issue is conservatives opposed it, as opposed to liberals backing it. Polls often don't influence what Congress does because polls don't reflect intensity, who is calling offices, etc. I think the big thing here was not the polls, but the intensity of the public option supporters in Nevada, as they pressed Harry Reid on this issue.
I'm sorry, but ... Huh? Bacon said (last week) he and the rest of the media overstated the strength of opposition to the public option. Asked to explain how and why that happened, he says he's skeptical of polling, that he's "still convinced the most energy around that issue is conservatives opposed it," then says "the big thing here was ... The intensity of the public option supporters in Nevada." Not only is that seemingly random and contradictory, it doesn't have anything to do with the question.
The candidates Democrats recruited in 2006 and 2008 are pro-life and pro-gun
Following the November 7  midterm elections, Media Matters for America examined the policy positions of those Democratic House candidates who, as of the morning of November 8, had defeated Republican incumbents or been elected to open seats previously held by Republicans.
Only five of the 27 candidates describe themselves as "pro-life."
Connecticut, born and bred: How come none of you ace political reporters are asking Joe Lieberman a very simple and obvious question - why is he against the public option when polls clearly show that more than 60 percent of Connecticut residents support it? Aren't elected officials supposed to represent the beliefs of their constituents? We ain't Texas - start listening to us Joe, or in 3 years I guarantee that you'll be out of office.
Perry Bacon Jr.: Well, Connecticut, lots of poeple [sic] there didn't like the Iraq War, and Lieberman still has his seat. I take him at his word he thinks the public option is bad public policy.
Why would you do that? Lieberman's stated reasons for opposing the public option appear to be bunk. Why would a reporter think it's appropriate to take "at his word" a politician whose words seem to be at odds with reality?
This press trend has now become something of a stampede. Looking ahead to tomorrow's three off-year elections, the political press is interested in one storyline, and one storyline only: what if Democrats lose?
As we noted last week, that laser-like focus is a bit odd since according to available polling, Democrats stand a reasonable chances of winning two of the three races; the scrambled special Congressional election in NY-23, as well as retaining the NJ governorship. (The VA. gov. race looks like a lock for the GOP.) Yet rather than pondering the implications for Republicans if they lose (again) on Election Day, the media direction is focused in one direction only; towards the Dems.
The latest entry in this bad-news-for-Democrats movement came from The Wall Street Journal:
Virginia Race Tests Obama's Staying Power
That seems monumentally dumb. The Journal's news team actually suggests that a state-wide election in VA. will indicate whether Obama wins a second term three years from now?
But the meat of the article is worse than the headline, as the piece completely ignores indications that Democrats might do well this week [emphasis added]:
In Virginia, as in New Jersey, Republicans have pushed aggressively to tie the Democratic candidate to Mr. Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress, whose efforts on health care and the economy are unpopular with some voters. The Republican Governor's Association spent about $13 million on TV ads in the two states.
That's the Journal's only mention of the NJ race in the entire article about off-year elections and the possible implications for the Democratic White House. The Journal makes no reference to the fact that the GOP candidate in NJ blown his double-digit lead since this summer. Pondering the ramifications of Tuesday's election, the Journal chooses to ignore N.J.
UPDATED: On ABC's Good Morning America today, more GOP-friendly spin:
"You can tell how much the White House may be anticipating to have a bad day tomorrow by how much they're already saying the results won't say anything" about the president's political standing."
I have no idea who is going to win on Tuesday. But neither do reporters and pundits, who seem only interested in one storyline.
UPDATED: Am I the only one who thinks it's odd that the press often lumps in the N.Y.-23 special election into articles about what the Tuesday votes will say about Obama's political standing, when N.Y.-23 hasn't sent a Democrat to Congress since the 1800's?
Over the weekend, the Washington Post quoted Republican Senator Jim DeMint asserting that Republicans "don't need The Washington Post to cover things anymore ... Something can get on a conservative blog, then on Fox News, then it's everywhere."
It's true: conservative blogs often set the agenda for Fox News shows - with the rest of the media following in tow. Perhaps most infamously, in 2007, Fox & Friends gave widespread promotion to the bubbling smear on conservative blogs that then-Senator Barack Obama attended a madrassa as a child.
DeMint's view of Fox News as part of the GOP's messaging strategy is echoed among other members of his party. A quick sampling:
Bachmann, a frequent guest on Fox News, knows how Fox News works as a political organization. Bachmann recently appeared on Hannity to promote her re-election website and a protest against health care reform. And during the debate over cap and trade, Bachmann and Beck (who has offered to fundraise for her) implored viewers to call Congress to oppose "that national energy tax."
The Republican chorus that Fox News is a part of GOP messaging is something that Fox News has as much admitted, with executives describing the network as the "voice of opposition" and "the Alamo" during the Obama administration.
Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon, giving undue attention to right-wing media critics:
Perry Bacon Jr.: The New Mexico governor Bill Richardsson was basically denied a Cabinet post on the basis of a scandal for which little has proven. The Post has highlighted the problems of Jack Abramoff, a mainly Republican lobbyist, but also John Murtha, a veteran Democrat. Not sure I see much here, although I know Andrew Brietbart, who I worked on these ACORN videos and is a big media critic who I wrote a piece about last week, claims conservatives scandals are covered much more than liberal ones.
Sigh. Why would Bacon take that seriously? Why would he think Breitbart's claim is so important, it deserves to be the only media criticism he mentions? And how can any Washington Post reporter cite complaints that "conservatives scandals are covered much more than liberal ones" without responding with the words "Whitewater" or "Lewinsky"? Or, for that matter, "Harken"?
Washington Post columnist Bill Kristol on the split in the GOP:
Now, obviously, there are times when divisions in parties can be damaging. But what's happening in the GOP right now looks to me more like healthy turmoil than destructive recklessness, more like vigorous competition than bitter fratricide. It could get out of hand. But for now, the ideas are more Reaganite than Buchananite, and the spirit more problem-solving populism than demonizing demagoguery.
Wait, what? A significant portion of the GOP has spent the past year yelling about the president's birth certificate and death panels and death books and the like ... and Bill Kristol says the "spirit" on the Right is "more problem-solving populism than demonizing demagoguery."
I'd hate to see what this guy considers "demonizing demagoguery."
Just this past weekend, the Republican candidate in a special congressional election dropped out of the race and endorsed her Democratic opponent rather than the Conservative Party nominee -- a nominee who had called her "the Bernie Madoff of New York politics."
Yeah, nothing "demonizing" there. And that's how Republicans are treating each other lately.
Under the header "If Fox is partisan, it is not alone," the New York Times' John Harwood suggests that other cable channels are "partisan," just like Fox. Why does Harwood think this? Because their audiences lean to the left:
Fox News has attracted the most attention because of its "fair and balanced" challenge to its competitors and its success. But the audiences of its competitors have tilted sharply in the other direction.
In audience surveys from August 2000 to March 2001, Fox News viewers tilted Republican by 44.6 percent to 36.1 percent. More narrowly - 41.4 percent to 39.4 percent - so did the audience for MSNBC. The audiences of CNN, Headline News, CNBC and Comedy Central leaned Democratic.
By 2008-9, the network audiences tilted decisively, like Fox's. CNN viewers were more Democratic by 50.4 percent to 28.7 percent; MSNBC viewers were 53.6 percent to 27.3 percent Democratic; Headline News' 47.3 percent to 31.4 percent Democratic; CNBC's 46.9 percent to 32.5 percent Democratic; and Comedy Central's 47.1 to 28.8 percent Democratic.
This, it must be said, is inane. Harwood doesn't spend so much as a single word assessing or even mentioning the actual journalism of any of the channels in question. (There's a lot of that going around.) He just looks at their viewership, and concludes that the content of all the news channels is partisan.
That is a ridiculous way to assess whether a cable channel is "partisan." ESPN's audience probably skews Republican, too. Is ESPN a "partisan" Republican channel? Of course not.
Harwood also seems unaware of the possibility that the audiences at CNN and MSNBC are trending leftward for no reason other than that Fox is scooping up all the right wing viewers. If you assume a relatively finite universe of cable news viewers, CNN and MSNBC would see their viewership skew increasingly Democratic as Fox's skews Republican simply as a result of Republicans flocking to Fox.
Finally: Let's say you had three cable news channels. One was a bit to the right of center, one was slightly more to the right of center, and the third was far to the right of center. What do you think their viewership might look like? One would have a very Republican audience, and the other two would probably have audiences that lean Democratic. And John Harwood would tell you those two right-of-center channels were "partisan" because their audiences were disproportionately Democratic.
It was from the Times' Week in Review piece on Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, who's made the news in recent weeks by using the kind of aggressive, tough-talking and controversial political rhetoric that's been associated with conservatives movement for at least the last 15 years in this country.
The Times though, immediately swoops in for its assessment of the new Democratic player: "Alan Grayson, the Liberals' Problem Child."
This was a preview headline found in the Metro section [emphasis added]:
Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida, is a wing nut, which is notable because he hurls his nuts from the left.
And this passage drove the point home:
Mr. Grayson could be the latest incarnation of what in the American political idiom is known as a wing nut — a loud darling of cable television and talk radio whose remarks are outrageous but often serious enough not to be dismissed entirely. Mr. Grayson is the more notable because he hurls his nuts from the left in a winger world long associated with the right.
The Times suggests Grayson's a "wing nut," and then concedes the derogatory term is usually used to describe denizens on the far right fringes. ("Moon bat" is probably the liberal equivalent.) But how unusual is it for the august Times to call a sitting member of Congress a a "wing nut"? Based on a search of Nexis, I'm pretty sure Grayson is the first Congressman who's ever been slimed that way by a Times writer.
From the October 31 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends: