In a nice bit of ombudding over the Memorial Day weekend, the Washington Post‘s Andy Alexander looked at how columnist Dana Milbank mined perhaps the most famous statement of former Bush administration Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. You remember this one, coming right on the heels of 9/11, when Fleischer reminded “all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”
It was uttered in a session with reporters who were eager to get the official word on how the Bush administration was leading the country in the aftermath of the attacks. In the years after Fleischer said those words, columnists everywhere have been referring to them, commonly in ways that hammer Fleischer and the Bush people for attempting to stifle the free exchange of ideas and accept those of the government.
And that’s just how Milbank used the statement in a May 12 column. Here’s how he played it:
“I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection rather than comedy,” Gibbs said. “I think there’s no doubt that 9/11 is part of that.” It had an unfortunate echo of Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer’s denunciation of comedian Bill Maher after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Americans need to “watch what they say.”
Except for one problem: When Fleischer said those words, he really wasn’t denouncing comedian Maher, at least not directly. Here’s the transcript of what Fleischer said:
Q: As Commander-in-Chief, what was the President’s reaction to television’s Bill Maher, in his announcement that members of our armed forces who deal with missiles are cowards, while the armed terrorists who killed 6,000 unarmed (sic) are not cowards, for which Maher was briefly moved off a Washington television station?
A: I have not discussed it with the President, one. I have …
Q: Surely, as a—
A: I’m getting there.
Q: Surely as Commander, he was enraged at that, wasn’t he?
A: I’m getting there, Les.
A: I’m aware of the press reports about what he’s said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, it’s a terrible thing to say, and it’s unfortunate. And that’s why—there was an earlier question about has the President said anything to people in his own party—they’re reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.
That “earlier question” that Fleischer references above relates to a statement by a Republican congressman who had said the following:
If I see someone come in and he’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.
So the record shows that Fleischer’s speech-chilling statement was directed more at the bigoted congressman than at Maher. Sure, there’s some daylight for Milbank, in that he could argue that Fleischer was addressing both. Milbank told Alexander that the press secretary “was basically telling people ‘we’re at war; shut your mouth.’ ”
Um, total bullshit. You could argue that Fleischer should have been more definitive in addressing two different remarks about the aftermath of 9/11. That he should have done this better or that better. But looking back on the exchange, it’s far easier to believe Fleischer’s contention that he was preaching tolerance than Milbank’s contention that the press secretary was preaching suppression. (Christopher Hitchens, in Slate, took apart the entire slander, from start to finish, in September 2006.)
Whatever Fleischer’s intentions, there is no question that Milbank erred in writing that Fleischer’s remarks constituted a “denunciation of comedian Bill Maher.” It’s clear from the record that Fleischer was primarily addressing the diaper remark. Any standard of fairness demands that Milbank specify—-at least—-that Fleischer was denouncing a Republican congressman and Maher. Of course, that takes some of the zip out of the writing, doesn’t it?
What it all amounts to is a fabulous test for the Post‘s new policies on corrections. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli has launched a big initiative to take seriously the Post‘s mission as the region’s paper of record, sometimes reaching years into the archives to issue corrections. The following example ran in the paper in late April:
A July 5, 2006, article misstated the name of a float in the previous day’s Independence Day parade on Constitution Avenue NW. The float was called “Sikhs of America,” not “Sheiks of America.”
Now comes one of the paper’s best columnists, a franchise of sorts for the Post. He screwed up, perpetuating a common and facile slam against a former White House official. How ’bout a correction for him?