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Bill Kristol on Wish-Fulfillment Journalism

Wednesday, September 18, 2013
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HH: Right now, I wish to talk with Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard not just about yesterday, but also about what follows after such an attack. Bill Kristol, were you in the city yesterday when this all occurred?

BK: I was. I was here in the office most of the day, and actually went around the city, but we’re not that close, we’re a few miles from the Navy Yard, so it didn’t really affect us except for just, you know, watching it and worrying about it and being unhappy about it.

HH: I am curious, you were there on 9/11 as well, and it’s been twelve years since then, twelve years since the Malvo and Muhammad shootings. I was surprised that there was such a communication gap in the capital in the midst of an ongoing incident, assuming that such incidents are almost preordained over the course of ten and twenty and thirty years. And yet, there was a great deal of what do I do now, or should I go home, or do my employees stay in place. Were you surprised that we don’t really yet, in the nation’s capital, have a sort of central nervous system of information distribution?

BK: Yeah, I was a little, and you could see a little bit of the confusion, because there’s the D.C. police, or obviously work for the D.C. government. There’s federal, various versions of federal police, the Capitol Police, who guard the U.S. Capitol and the Senate and House office buildings, Park Police. I was driving in from Northern Virginia, and there were already people coming in from federal police, I guess Park Police, probably, from Northern Virginia coming in. So there are a lot of overlapping jurisdictions here, and I think you’re right. It’s not clear that it’s all been worked out maybe as much as it could have been, and it’s been a quiet ten years, actually, since Malvo and Muhammad, really. I mean, I guess there have been isolated incidents. There was a shooting of a guard at the Capitol, that sort of thing, the shooting at the Family Research Council. But nothing that really has the whole city alarmed. And maybe there is a certain complacency that’s set in.

HH: I think there might be. There’s also something that has happened in the aftermath of almost every mass shooting incident. We get results-based journalism, as Duane called it, sort of wish fulfillment, the mysterious AR-15 that the FBI’s assistant director for D.C. said today wasn’t there. It was in all of the reporting almost instantly all day through the end of my broadcast at 9pm Eastern, yesterday, Bill Krisol. Where do you think that comes from?

BK: Well, I don’t know. It’s results-based, and maybe it’s wish fulfillment journalism, people who have agendas, including, obviously in this case, the gun control agenda, other people with other agenda, to the degree to which journalist, every time it happens, all kinds of bad information comes out, all kinds of crossed wires, someone says shots are fired, three different police departments say hey, there’s someone on the run, and someone interprets that as meaning there are three people on the run. That’s what happens in crime scenes and in these kinds of chaotic situations. And every time, the media reports it and then says afterwards, oh, my God, we shouldn’t be so quick on the trigger, we should be more careful. And then they promptly make the same mistakes again. I mean, I honestly, I was here, and of course I was unhappy, and I’ve been to the Navy Yard, and worried, I don’t really know people well who work there, so it wasn’t that kind of worry, but obviously, you know, concerned and distressed. But honestly, at this point, the reporting’s so bad in real time that I sort of tuned it out. You know, I figured there’s nothing I can do, someone will tell me if we’re supposed to be, our building was on lockdown for like an hour. That was probably just a precaution. But then they, we went about our business, and I just decided there’s nothing much I can do, I don’t want to say anything stupid or irresponsible about it on the website, so I’m just going to go about my business.

HH: Yeah, there is a taxonomy, Bill Kristol, of these incidents now. They fall into one of three categories – terrorism, like Major Hasan, madness, like yesterday, and then revenge, which is the category that gets the least amount of attention, because it’s not random, it’s somewhat predictable, and it usually is, the body count is so much lower than an incident like yesterday or a terrorist incident. But the conflating of the three in the course of a news day, you’re absolutely right, it’s dangerous to get into those waters. You’ll get swept away by bad information almost instantly.

BK: Right, and then you, it’s bad for the country, and I think it leads to a certain, I mean, I think, I don’t know whether one ended up behaving quite well in this incident, in terms of the law enforcement authorities and the people on the scene and all that. But one comes out of it feeling that everything’s been even more chaotic than it probably was. The media increases the case, instead of reassuring people, given them sound information, giving them guidance if there are procedures they should be following. The media increases the sense of chaos and a certain sense of everything spinning out of control.

HH: Now I want to switch over to the President yesterday, who in an astonishing display of tone deafness, and as I just said to Guy Benson last hour, I’m beginning to think of the first term as the Axelrod presidency, and the second term as the Obama presidency, because he wasn’t this bad in the first term.

BK: Yes, I agree with that, yeah.

HH: The tone deafness of proceeding with a partisan attack while victims who would eventually die were under the knife in surgery, I can’t think of another president who would have gone forward with a partisan attack in the middle of such a situation. Can you?

BK: No, and you know, it’s funny, when he gave the speech, and I guess it was early afternoon or whatever, I, there was some criticism right away, why is he doing that. And I thought to myself, you know, I’ve been in the White House. You get all these, you think maybe he should postpone it, but you’re not sure, and then all the staff say gee, we went to a lot of trouble to set up this event. The political guys say hey, the Democratic National Committee is ready with a massive email blast based on your remarks. You know, you’ve got all these staffers telling you basically it’s easier to go ahead, don’t cancel it. And then you, when I was Quayle’s chief of staff, I made this mistake once or twice, not in similar circumstances, but sort of going ahead with the routine instead of adjusting to circumstances is probably what any institution or organization will often do. So I was sort of willing to kind of give him a break, and then I actually read what he had said. I didn’t see it on TV. I read what he had said later. I was out doing something and wasn’t paying attention for an hour or two, and it was genuinely shocking. I mean, the idea that they don’t adjust the remarks…if you wanted to go ahead with the remarks, people have come to the White House from a distance, you know, they had other things set up, I don’t even necessarily begrudge that. But the idea that you don’t tone them down, make them more about what happened here, and then if you want to talk about what’s happened over the last five years, pay a little tribute to the American people coming back from a tough financial crisis, take a little credit for your policies, fine. No one’s going to scream about that. But a bigger, partisan, vulgar, you know, really crude attack on the Republican Party, I think 11 mentions of Republicans, and saying, asking whether the GOP was willing to hurt people just to score political points when real people were being hurt, and indeed, unfortunately, killed two miles away? I really was shocked. I mean, I’m not shocked very often, you know, by that. Someone asked me this morning how could this happen, and I do think it is, I think your point, it’s funny, I said the exact same thing. Whatever you think of those first term guys, I can’t imagine Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, really saying yeah, that’s the right thing to say in these circumstances, Mr. President. But he has the B and C team in there now. They’re totally, they won’t talk back to him. They liked the talk. He thinks he can score points by attacking the Republicans. He’s laying the groundwork for forcing the Republicans, he thinks, into a government shutdown that will benefit him politically. He doesn’t want to let a day go by. He had this ready to go, he was revved up to do it, and no one had the nerve, I guess, to stand up, or maybe they did stand up and he ignored them, and say Mr. President, this is really inappropriate.

HH: Yeah, they may be panicked. They may be panicked over their internal numbers…

BK: Yeah.

HH: …over Syria, which are so bad. Douglas Feith, writing in the Wall Street Journal today, says Bashar Assad may have pulled off the most successful use of chemical weapons in history. For the two years leading up to the August 21st Damascus Sarin gas attack, President Obama was saying that the Syrian dictator must go. No longer. In one month, Assad has risen from outlaw butcher to partner in disarmament. That’s pretty devastating, Bill Kristol, and I think it’s probably registered on them, and I think it’s leading to increasingly chaotic attempts to get back in the game.

BK: I think that’s so, and here’s a scary attempt to get back in the game, I think. I think next week, he goes to the UN General Assembly, I think he speaks Tuesday morning. Rouhani, the new head of Iran, speaks…pseudo head, but the president of Iran speaks Tuesday afternoon. There’s some meeting then about the Iranian nuclear program on Thursday. I believe they’re going to use the Syria template for Iran, and launch negotiations, and make some concessions, and get the Iranians to make some phony concessions, and maybe Putin will help out again. And we will be off to the races on an appeasement that is much more serious, though the Syria thing is bad enough, of Iran. I’m very worried about the next couple of weeks, and I think you could get in a situation where we have long negotiations dragging on, the Iranians quietly moving ahead with a nuclear program while being nice to us, Obama desperate, as he was with Syria, now even more desperate to get a bigger deal with Iran, in a sense.

HH: Yeah.

BK: You know, some appeasement leads to…little appeasement leads to bigger appeasement. The appeasement of Mussolini led to the appeasement of Hitler. I mean, you’ve got a sort of comparable situation in a way, and I’m very worried about this. And I really wish Republicans on the Hill, I’ve been trying to tell them this for the last 24-48 hours, they need to stand up. And especially if they were against supporting the resolution for the use of force in Syria, say look, Syria was a mess, I didn’t think we could quite do anything there, I didn’t trust the President to do it right. But on Iran, we cannot, this is not a close call. This is not a gray line. This really is a red line for the nation and for the world. I’m very worried that we’re going to see the President start to move those red lines from the UN Security Council resolutions, from the previous things he and President Bush have said about what isn’t acceptable for Iran to do, and suddenly, well, some enrichment’s okay, and let’s talk about that, and maybe the Russians could help store some of the stuff, and engage in a big negotiation with the attempt of preventing Israel from doing what it has to do.

HH: That is an excellent warning and great advice for the Republicans on the Hill. We will transcribe that and post that, and hope somebody reads it who didn’t hear it, Bill Kristol. Thank you for listening, everyone.

End of interview.

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