The Pelosi smear: Stupid -- but kind of entertaining

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

God bless Chris Wallace, the Fox News talker who last week was momentarily truthful enough to provide us with some genuine insight.

God bless Chris Wallace, the Fox News talker who last week was momentarily truthful enough to provide us with some genuine insight.

On Friday, Wallace appeared on Fox News to promote the upcoming edition of Fox News Sunday, and the host was going down the lineup of stories he and his guests were going to address. "We will be talking about politics, about Iraq, and 'Planegate'; 'Pelosi One,' " he said referring to the controversy that erupted last week over allegations that the new Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (CA), had demanded access to the military equivalent of a 757 to fly her back and forth between Washington, D.C., and her San Francisco home. With a smirk on his face, Wallace added, "[It's] a great little story. Stupid -- but it's kind of entertaining."

Stupid -- but kind of entertaining. Have more honest words ever been spoken by a high-priced D.C. pundit? In fact, I'm nominating "Stupid -- but kind of entertaining" to be not only the unofficial tag for the pointless, overblown Pelosi story, but also to be the unofficial motto for the entire Beltway press corps that's increasingly uninterested in substance and more concerned with stagecraft and personality. It's a press corps that goes weak in the knees for stories that are stupid -- but kind of entertaining.

And last week MSNBC was positively swooning over the Pelosi story. On Thursday, MSNBC News Live host Chris Jansing promised viewers the network would "talk about this all day long." She wasn't kidding. MSNBC addressed the story seven times that morning: 9:03, 9:24, 9:59, 10:51, 11:03, 11:10, and 11:45; and nine times that afternoon: 12:00, 12:26, 1:16, 1:22, 1:33, 1:58, 2:12, 2:21, and 2:43.

That's no joke. According to TVEyes.com, those are the times on February 8 that MSNBC news anchors discussed which airplane Pelosi might fly in during her next trip home to San Francisco. And if news had not broken later that afternoon that celebrity Anna Nicole Smith had died (a story that quickly swamped the cable news landscape), my guess is the MSNBC mentions of the Pelosi plane story would have continued indefinitely.

It wasn't just the frequency of the coverage, it was the substance. Or the lack thereof. The freedom with which reporters and pundits who covered the Pelosi story for ABC, CNN, MSNBC, the Associated Press, and Los Angeles Times, among others, simply made stuff up has to concern anybody who is interested in journalism, anybody who sees political reporting as more than a game. Because it's becoming increasingly clear that lots of D.C. journalists no longer take their jobs seriously. (NBC, CNN, and MSNBC were among the mainstream media outlets that used suggestive "size matters" references when covering the Pelosi plane story last week. Get it?) The Pelosi brouhaha simply represented the latest, most glaring example of the at-times nonexistent standards by which Beltway newsrooms now function.

CNN's Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz on Sunday wondered if the press had been "snookered" by the story. This is the same Howard Kurtz who hyped the Pelosi story last week at Washingtonpost.com. ("This Air Pelosi story is gaining altitude.") More importantly, nobody was snookered. There was nothing confusing about the facts of the story. The truth is the press propagated the phony Pelosi story because the press wanted to. That point is crucial in terms of understanding the sad state of political journalism today.

For several days last week, the press had the option of simply ignoring the contrived controversy, or at least downplaying the Beltway silliness for what it was, a manufactured attack on Pelosi by frustrated Republicans. Once journalists bought into the premise that it was newsworthy, they could have then covered it honestly by pointing out that the claims Republicans were making against Pelosi -- that she demanded special air treatment -- were entirely false. But lots of journalists consciously decided not to do that, and instead trafficked in misinformation and used purposefully vague language in order to help sustain the story. Because they wanted to, because the story was stupid -- but kind of entertaining.

It wasn't until the White House late last week stepped in and labeled the tempest "silly" that the story began to deflate. Think about it: I was only when powerful Republicans announced the story was unfair to a Democrat that journalists began to back off, and not when the facts showed that the story was unsupportable.

As for context, the Beltway press corps apparently no longer has much use for it. During a newscast last Thursday, ABC's Good Morning America jumped directly from news that four U.S. Marines had been killed in Iraq to details about the phony Pelosi story. For ABC news execs, the two stories were essentially equivalent.

Then again, can you really blame reporters for losing perspective over a story as dynamic and riveting as the Speaker's travel plans? It was, they insisted, a "hot controversy" (CBS) and "the talk of the town" (ABC). It had "Washington buzzing" and had ignited a "firestorm of criticism" (CNN).

In truth, the story was a simple and rather transparent smear effort. The conservative Washington Times, relying on leaks from the administration and the Pentagon, first floated the story that Pelosi was asking for carte blanche access to military planes. The background on the story was that following the attacks of 9-11, the White House decided the speaker should travel in a military plane, which is what Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL.) did while speaker. Hastert flew in a relatively small plane, since he only had to travel to Illinois. In order to travel to California without having to stop and refuel, Pelosi would have to fly in a larger plane.

Republicans then took the vaguely embarrassing Washington Times story and juiced it by inserting hollow allegations that the press, instead of vetting, simply echoed as fact. One key falsehood was that Pelosi not only demanded a larger plane but that she specifically requested use of the military's C-32, which comes complete with a private bed, an entertainment center, and a crew of 16. Not true. Pelosi never asked for a larger plane, nor did she ask for the C-32. It was the House of Representatives' Republican-appointed Sergeant at Arms, Bill Livingood, who requested the Pentagon give Pelosi a larger plane because he thought it was important for security reasons that when possible she fly nonstop to California.

Another key GOP angle of attack was that Pelosi not only wanted a larger plane, but she wanted it in order to fly her friends and contributors around. In other words, Republicans launched pre-emptive allegations of ethical wrongdoing. That's a nifty trick. And honestly, is there a single journalism student in the country given that set of facts -- a partisan politician attacks his opponent based on what his the opponent might do -- who would then treat the story as a pressing news event? I doubt it. Yet the Beltway press did (emphasis added):

  • "Republicans charge that she's trying to abuse the privileges of office." [McClatchy Newspapers, 2/8/07]
  • "Some Republicans have argued that Pelosi could offer trips to top political donors." [The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers, 2/8/07]
  • "Critics have assailed her request, saying she wants the bigger plane so she can have parties at 30,000 feet with her family and cronies." [Los Angeles Times, 2/9/07]

Beltway journalists love to mock Democrats

The Pelosi story was reminiscent of the pointless 2001 press frenzy over the number of gifts the Clintons accepted as they left the White House. And about Bill Clinton's haircut on Air Force One that allegedly caused delays for everyday travelers at Los Angles International Airport. And how environmentalist Al Gore, we're told, wasted precious river water in order to produce a campaign photo-op. And how Sen. John Kerry (D-MA.) advertised his elitist tendencies by ordering green tea at a restaurant during a 2004 campaign stop.

All those stories were ... stupid -- but kind of entertaining. Meaning, they were completely trivial pursuits that focused exclusively on image and portrayed prominent Democrats as power-hunger hypocrites, which is a news angle that remains a Beltway evergreen. Journalists adore the Democrats-are-hypocrites narrative so much that they often refuse to allow the facts get in the way of the storyline. (The Washington Post published nearly 50 references to the Clinton haircut in 1993, despite the fact government aviation records later confirmed not one single passenger was delayed at LAX.) The recent Pelosi plane commotion simply carried on that unfortunate tradition.

For instance, the CBS Evening News, keying off the flawed work of The Washington Times, reported on Feb. 7, that "the new Speaker of the House is apparently asking for a big travel upgrade" and "is reportedly asking for a much bigger jet." Apparently? Is reportedly? How difficult would it have been for CBS to confirm whether Pelosi made the request or not? My hunch is CBS didn't want to know; that way it could play dumb and prop up with the story with an "apparently" and "reportedly." In other words, the story worked a lot better -- it could be justified as news -- if CBS didn't know the actual facts.

Keep in mind, this story of marginal interest only worked if Pelosi had in fact demanded a larger, more luxurious plane than her predecessor in order to fly her and her pals around the country. The fact is, she never made that request. It's true that Republicans made that claim against Pelosi. But journalists are supposed to report facts, not amplify phony partisan allegations. Here's a sampling of news outlets that failed to report the facts.

ABC

Hari Sreenivasa, host of ABC's Inside the Newsroom, announced, "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked for the use of a larger military airplane than her predecessors that can fly to her home district in San Francisco without having to stop and refuel."

Not true. Pelosi never asked for a larger plane.

David Wright, reporting for Nightline, informed viewers that Pelosi would be flying "chartered flights" back to San Francisco.

Not true.

Jake Tapper reported for ABCNews.com that "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked for the use of a larger military airplane than her predecessors that can fly to her home district in San Francisco without having to stop and refuel."

Not true.

Geoff Morrell, a host for ABC News Now, reported, "It seems House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not getting the plane she's requested from the Pentagon."

She never made a request.

Associated Press

"Republicans are taking issue with the size of the plane Pelosi has requested. Pelosi had asked for access to a C-32 plane, a military version of the Boeing 757-200." [2/9/07]

Not true.

Boston Herald

"Her first reaction when the talk show circuit started to buzz about her demanding a military plane large enough to take her cross-country without refueling was that she wouldn't settle for anything less than male speakers had gotten." [2/10/07]

Pelosi made no such demand.

CBS

"House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's request for a larger military jet is proving to be a political firestorm."

Pelosi did not make that request.

CNN

Lou Dobbs insisted Pelosi "wants the U.S. Air Force for personal accommodation" and "whenever she sees fit."

Neither allegation was true.

Dobbs announced, "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi apparently wants regular access to military aircraft for flights, not only for herself, but also members of her family and the Californian delegation." [2/1/07]

Not true.

At week's end, Lou Dobbs This Week aired a wrap-up piece about the controversy. The report never once mentioned that Hastert had used military planes while speaker, and never once mentioned the House Sergeant of Arms had confirmed that he was the one who asked the Pentagon for a larger plane for Pelosi. In other words, after misleading viewers all week about the plane story, Lou Dobbs, rather than correcting its errors, instead made sure during its final Pelosi report to leave out the two most essential facts.

Meanwhile, on February 7, CNN's Anderson Cooper also misstated the facts: "Some Republicans objecting to her request for an Air Force C-32, the military equivalent of a Boeing 757."

Pelosi never requested a C-32.

Los Angeles Times

"Critics have assailed her request" for a bigger plane. [2/9/07]

Pelosi made no such request.

MSNBC

Tucker Carlson: "Speaker Pelosi has asked the White House to provide her, as well as her family, friends and staff, with full-time access to military aircraft for trips back and forth to San Francisco, or anywhere else she feels like going." [2/5/07]

Not true.

Slate

"[T]he speaker requests permission to fly home on a plane that is bigger than former Speaker Dennis Hastert's." [2/9/07]

The request did not come from the speaker.

Washingtonpost.com

"Nancy Pelosi asked for a bigger (and far more expensive) plane because the one she was using couldn't make it to the West Coast without a refueling stop." [2/13/07]

Not true.

Appearing on CNN and discussing the Pelosi plane story on Sunday, conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds casually fabricated the fact that Pelosi's staff had specifically demanded a plane big enough for her entourage, with Reynolds stressing that the use of "entourage" by the Pelosi camp was an unfortunate word choice. Of course, nobody connected with Pelosi's office ever used the word "entourage" when discussing the plane story last week. Reynolds simply made it up.

That's be expected from partisan, right-wing bloggers like Reynolds who long ago walked away from any sort of consistently factual debate about the day's events. The more disturbing fact is that so many members of the mainstream media last week also passed their time purposefully playing dumb about the Pelosi story, which they loved because it was stupid -- but kind of entertaining.

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