Monday, July 11, 2005

Russert Watch: You Can Lead Tim to the Truth, but You Can't Make Him Drink It
Arianna Huffington
Russert Watch: You Can Lead Tim to the Truth, but You Can't Make Him Drink It

Coming in the wake of the London bombings, today’s Meet the Press was a lot about resource allocation. Specifically, given the resources at our disposal, are we using them in the best way so as to maximize our safety?

The answer is clearly no. And part of the reason this looks unlikely to change is because of the resource allocation decisions of shows like Meet the Press.

Tim’s first guest today was Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. Good guest to have on if you want to talk seriously about, say, our homeland security. But that’s not what Tim wanted. Instead, he decided to allocate a lot of his scarce 60 minutes' worth of resources to parlor game questions.

Chertoff came armed with the latest Bush-approved talking points, all designed to evade the obvious contradictions in how the administration is allocating our resources in the name of national security. And each time a pre-approved talking point came up, Tim was relentless -- in completely ignoring it and moving onto the parlor game question. The one he most favored today was: Do you think there will be another major attack on the United States?

He asked it three times.

And, of course, everybody basically said yes. But what’s the point of this question? Is anybody going to say no?

How about devoting more time to asking more questions about how to prevent a possible attack and holding Chertoff accountable for the huge holes and contradictions in the administration's homeland security strategy.

The biggest contradiction involves resource allocation. The president loves to conflate the war in Iraq with the war on terror. But when it comes to resources, there is a Chinese wall between the two wars.

Russert asked Chertoff about a passage from America the Vulnerable (by Stephen Flynn, who was the show's next guest): "The president's 2006 budget request asked for just $600 million for safeguarding all of the nation's seaports, mass transit systems, railways, bridges, tunnels and energy facilities. This is roughly what U.S. taxpayers are spending every three days on the war in Iraq."

Chertoff's response focused on the need "to be risk-based in our funding. We have got to move away from the idea of earmarking money for predetermined categories. And we've got to be able to use the money in a way that is nimble and responsive to the actual threats out there."

But shouldn't the next question have been: Why isn't Iraq part of the 'risk-based' pie -- except when Bush cynically refers to it as the latest battleground in the war on terror to justify why we're there?

Instead, Russert completely bought Chertoff's conveniently narrow definition and followed up with: "Risk-based, meaning locations like New York and Washington, which are higher risk than states like Utah or other places?"

Thanks, Tim. I’m sure Chertoff breathed a sigh of relief. But that wasn't Tim’s last chance to call Chertoff on this dangerous distortion. A few minutes later, Secretary Chertoff was at it again:

CHERTOFF: And as I say, we're going to welcome additional resources, but I want to just remind people, you know, everything's a tradeoff. We don't want to move money, for example, from ports into rail because then we're going to have an issue with ports.

Yes, exactly! It’s a tradeoff. One of the reasons we don’t have enough money to protect our ports and our railways is because of the tens of billions of dollars we are spending in Iraq. That’s the massive trade-off Russert failed to bring up.

Chertoff effectively claimed that the national security budget is a zero-sum game -- but only domestically. The use of the term "tradeoff" offered Russert the perfect opening to challenge this. But instead, he took it as the perfect time to get back to the parlor game:

RUSSERT: Here's another Gallup question: "Would you favor or oppose metal detectors in American public transportation?" Sixty-nine percent of Americans say metal detectors. Twenty-nine percent oppose. Is it workable to have a metal detector for buses and subways and railway cars?

Opinion polls and metal detectors -- what a perfect way to let Chertoff off the hook!

On to Stephen Flynn, who has referred to the state of the Coast Guard as a "Third World Navy." Flynn gave Russert yet another chance to raise the obvious point about resource allocation:

FLYNN: These are young men and women who are risking their lives . . . to safeguard our lives given the inevitability of these attacks. . . . The cost of basically upgrading the Coast Guard's ability -- and we're talking ships that are 30-plus years old that are breaking down routinely on patrol -- is about the cost of a new DDX Destroyer. . . . In terms of not getting a balance between national security and homeland security, we're not even close yet.

Flynn has just led Russert 90 percent of the way there. But Tim is stubborn. You’re not gonna trick this guy into the truth. He escapes at the last second, asking Flynn: "Based on everything you have learned and know, do you believe that there will be another major catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States?"

So you can lead Tim to the truth, but you can’t make him drink it. And where was he a few seconds earlier, when Flynn referred to "the inevitability of these attacks"?

In the second half of the show, the guests were Senators Orrin Hatch and Chuck Schumer. Schumer mouthed the conventional wisdom about reaching a proper ratio of funding for Utah, Wyoming and New York. And of course Russert completely missed the opportunity to ask him and Hatch: How about a proper ratio of funding between Iraq and the homeland? How about the right ratio between combatting Al Qaeda at home and combatting Sunni insurgents in Iraq?

And when Hatch said of Chertoff that "we'll follow whatever he says," Russert failed to ask whether Sen. Hatch's understanding of the constitutional oversight that the Senate is charged with is to follow whatever the executive branch is saying. If that’s the case, why not just fold the Senate committees charged with oversight of Chertoff and give the money to our underfunded homeland security instead?

But instead of catching Hatch's surrender of authority to the executive branch -- after all, Tim surrendered his journalistic oversight long ago -- there he was, right back to the parlor game: "Justice William Rehnquist, the chief justice -- do you expect him to resign?"

After Hatch hemmed and hawed, lest the conversation go onto something meaningful, Russert came back with: "But your sense is this year he will retire."

With all due respect to Senator Hatch: who cares what his “sense” about this is? Why not just ask what the Senator’s “sense” is about when Hurricane Dennis will hit? Or his “sense” of who will win the American League East this year?

But that wasn’t even Tim’s silliest use of his airtime today. That came when he played up Tony Perkins's (the head of the Family Research Council) statement that Schumer "should recuse himself from the confirmation process" because he was overheard on his cell phone talking about "going to war" over the Supreme Court nomination. "I'm sort of flattered that Tony Perkins and others would say I should recuse myself," said Schumer, "but it's sort of silly."

RUSSERT: But you won't.

SCHUMER: I will not.

So Russert really thought that this was a question worth asking? If he did, I have a question for him: Tim, given that Russert Watch has shown you to be a complete suck-up to power and the conventional wisdom, again and again failing to ask questions and follow-ups that hold our politicians accountable, will you recuse yourself from hosting Meet the Press?

Looking forward to your answer.