Slate's Chatterbox apparently has a new feature called "The Fleischer Watch," "an ongoing inquiry into dishonest or insane assertions buried inside Ari Fleischer's White House memoir." The first item is:
In his new book, Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House, Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, lays out various "biases and predilections" of "the liberal press." Among these is its 'belief that government is a mechanism to solve the nation's problems," its insistence that "emotional examples of suffering . . . are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories," and its tendency to stay "fixated on the unemployment rate." Fleischer might just as well have complained that the press believes the Earth revolves around the sun.
At risk of belaboring the obvious:
1. If the government doesn't exist to solve problems, what the hell do we have it for? We can argue about the particular problems government should solve, and about how successfully government addresses them at any given time, but not, I think, about whether government should be in the problem-solving business.
2. Un-picturesque though they may be, people do tend to suffer when the economy is faltering, as it did throughout the period covered in Fleischer's memoir. If a lagging economy didn't cause people to suffer, there would be no great reason to keep track of the economy at all. Anecdotes about individual sufferers help the public understand in a concrete way what it means to have a weak economy.
3. The principal way people suffer when economic growth is weak or nonexistent is by losing their jobs. The statistic that keeps track of the people who lose their jobs is the unemployment rate (at the moment a so-so 5.4 percent). Fleischer doesn't want the press to focus on the "micro" story of individual suffering, but neither does he want the press to focus on the "macro" story of economic statistics. In effect, Fleischer is saying that it's unfair for the press to cover the economy at all.
Now I'm curious what exactly Fleischer said in the book, but I'm afraid the UCLA library doesn't yet have it. If any of you have it, can find this page, and would be able to fax it or scan and e-mail it to me, could you please let me know? My e-mail address is volokh at law.ucla.edu, and if you want to fax it, I'll e-mail you my fax number (I don't have it at my fingertips right now).
To foreshadow why I'd like to see this: The quotes originally appeared in ABC's The Note (and I believe were credited to Mark Halperin):
Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections. . . .
They include a belief that government is a mechanism to solve the nation's problems; that more taxes on corporations and the wealthy are good ways to cut the deficit and raise money for social spending and don't have a negative affect on economic growth; and that emotional examples of suffering (provided by unions or consumer groups) are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories. . . .
[The press] does not accept the proposition that the Bush tax cuts helped the economy by stimulating summer spending.
It remains fixated on the unemployment rate. . . .
I therefore assume that Fleischer was quoting Halperin. And this makes me wonder: Is Noah really claiming that Halperin is dishonest or insane? Might Fleischer's statements make some sense, if read in context and sensibly interpreted? And where did the ellipsis in "emotional examples of suffering . . . are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories" first appear? After all, complaining that the media use "emotional examples of suffering (provided by unions or consumer groups) are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories" (Halperin's original words, though with emphasis added by me) is hardly tantamount to complaining that the media believes the Earth revolves around the sun.