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June 07, 2006

May The Road Rise To Meet You, Smug Barking Cow

So Elisabeth Bumiller is leaving the White House beat for the New York Times. I'd like to mark this sad occasion by recalling my tribute to her from eighteen months ago.

* * *

I've had a crush on Bumiller for some time, but she truly won my heart when she explained why reporters asked Bush no hard questions at his press conference just before the invasion of Iraq. You see, they're cowards:

ELISABETH BUMILLER: I think we were very deferential, because in the East Room press conference, it's live. It's very intense. It's frightening to stand up there... You are standing up on prime time live television, asking the president of the United States a question when the country is about to go to war.

There are several entertaining things about this:

1. I'm sure it's scary to ask the president a question on live national TV just before a war. But...

(a) If you can't handle it, maybe you should get another job. It's also "intense" to be an NFL quarterback and, whenever you drop back to pass, have six men weighing a collective ton trying to crush you. But if this makes you stay at home in bed on Superbowl Sunday, perhaps professional football is not for you.

(b) As scary as it may be to ask the president a question just before a war, I've heard tell it's even scarier to FIGHT IN A WAR. It may be scarier still to be in a country about to invaded by the most powerful military in human history, and know you and your family may soon be converted into scraps of red, wet flesh. Perhaps Bumiller could think of this at such times and fucking get ahold of herself.

2. The New York Times has been owned by the same family for 108 years. When they bought it, the new publisher Adolph Ochs wrote a famous front page editorial:

It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times... give the news impartially, without fear or favor...

"Without fear or favor" is so much a part of the Times self-image that it was used as the title of an authorized history of the paper. Yet Bumiller explicitly acknowledges giving the news with fear. And we can throw in favor too, because "favor" is quite close to "deference," as thesauruses will tell you.

So Bumiller very publicly whizzed all over her employers' founding credo. For this, she retains one of the New York Times' highest profile and most prestigious positions. But I guess this makes sense in a country where you can only be Attorney General if you hate the Constitution.

"LOOKED LIKE A SMUG, BARKING COW": This was Matt Taibbi's characterization of Bumiller when when he crowned her winner of 2004's Wimblehack competition.

AND SERIOUSLY: I do respect Bumiller for being honest about the fear felt by reporters like herself. The Bush administration and its lovely friends certainly do try to generate this fear, and I'd far rather have journalists speak openly of it than continue their standard pose of being courageous crusaders for truth.

Posted at June 7, 2006 12:33 PM | TrackBack

Maybe all reporters should work on developing a persona, similar to Stephen Colbert, since his allowed him to overcome The Fear.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at June 7, 2006 12:48 PM

I'd have a lot more sympathy for her if, had she asked the wrong question, the president would shoot her in the face. However, as far as we know, he can't do that. Of course, I'm not willing to rule it out considering how many other laws he's broken. After torture, lying about a war, and wiretapping, straight-up murdering someone on national television would probably just bring about another "independent investigation" and then never be talked about again except on liberal blogs.

Posted by: BRG at June 7, 2006 12:59 PM
murdering someone on national television would probably just bring about another "independent investigation" and then never be talked about again except on liberal blogs.
Actually, I suspect the rightwing echo chamber would call the dead reporter a terrorist and nominate the president for a medal for "saving the nation" from another 9/11. Any dissenting bloggers or reporters would be accused of hating America and the whole thing would be touted as proof, once more, of the media's liberal bias. Posted by: brynn at June 7, 2006 02:49 PM

it's a shame to choose a phrase as sexist as "smug, barking cow" when so many others would have done just as well in a series of quite legitimate points that Taibbi was raising.

Posted by: Saurav at June 7, 2006 03:39 PM

it's a shame to choose a phrase as sexist as "smug, barking cow" when so many others would have done just as well

I don't know. A lot of comedy has to do just with the sound of words -- you need a lot of hard consonants and sharpness. "Smug barking cow" is hard to beat in that area.

Maybe "smug barking seal"? Except "seal" is slithery and soft. You miss the "k" sound.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 7, 2006 03:47 PM

Seal is better. Not for the sound of seal, but for its sorta ideographic pull -- seals bark and CLAP. So you get two ideas for the price of one. Their barking and clapping is seen as approving. Plus, nobody cares about a trained cow, but a trained seal is always a circus attraction.

Posted by: roger at June 7, 2006 04:16 PM

Saurav hits exactly the reason I was subconsciously not piling onto this comment thread.

Posted by: Saheli at June 7, 2006 05:51 PM

Hmmm. It seems "cow" conotes "woman" in the current mind set. Yes cows are female, but I didn't take that as sexist.

As for the rest, yes she doesn't belong in the WH. If they all would ask the difficult/right questions and be cut off, eventually the WH would have to start answering them. Journalists at the national level have a responsibility that all, save a couple, have abdicated.

Posted by: spiiderweb at June 7, 2006 07:01 PM

So, spiderweb, what did you get from Santa Claus this year?

Posted by: Anon. at June 7, 2006 08:47 PM

isn't a female seal also a cow? and don't seals bark? i thought that's where the smug barking cow came from.

Posted by: almostinfamous at June 7, 2006 10:25 PM

Channeling Bill Hicks, are we, Jonathan?

As to spiiderweb's remark - has anyone actually been denied access for asking harsh questions? I don't buy this excuse. Why don't they, I don't know, raise a big fucking stink when someone is barred from the room? Surely the press as a whole can get their shit straight and make the government embarassed about that sort of thing. There's supposed to be freedom of the press here, and access is something the government should be bound to respect.

No, I suspect something else is going on with our press corps. That is, they simply suck.

Posted by: saurabh at June 7, 2006 11:02 PM

saurabh, i suspect most of this dealing is done through 'management', not directly denying reporters access. although, they might plant some evidence and say something about national security or whatever.

and in these rough times, who would want to lose their jobs over something as silly as abdication of responsibility? the health insurance costs alone would kill them.

Posted by: almostinfamous at June 8, 2006 03:05 AM

The phrase, "over-informed and under-educated" describes most of the press -- like people who have memorized a good bit of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, but haven't a clue as to what any of it really means or how to put any of it together. Jonathan is right. They're utterly, institutionally, hopeless and the Bumillers thrive because they're vapid, cowardly shills for whatever ideological cotton candy is this year's carnival inducement.

Posted by: J. Alva Scruggs at June 8, 2006 04:21 AM

It's just that the top journalists and most of the politicians and corporate bosses are the same group of people, they are buddies. They live near each other, they drink with each other, they travel with each other, they sleep with each other, they socialize, they are one and the same.

If there is any fear there, it's more like the peer pressure kinda thing; being afraid of looking like a dork, a party pooper.

Posted by: abb1 at June 8, 2006 04:53 AM

Bye, bye, Bumlicker. You won't be missed. NPR's 'On The Media' noted that she was making efforts to suck up to Nicolle Devonish before the second inauguration, and she's been nothing more than a supplier of presidential arslikhan for five years. In particular, her spittle-flecked 'are you a liberal?' to John Kerry in the primary debates will not be forgotten.

Posted by: ahem at June 9, 2006 04:27 AM