The Daily update (6/2/00)
For a preview of next week's DAILY HOWLER, note these side-by-side
stories in today's New York Times:
Gore Urges Doubling of Funds in War Against cancer
James Dao, The New York Times, 6/2/00
Bush Delays an Execution For the 1st Time in 5 Years
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 6/2/00
The Dao article describes a Gore presentation concerning cancer
research. Bruni describes Bush's decision to grant a 30-day reprieve
for a death row inmate.
Our focus? Note the emphasis in the Dao piece on the Gore campaign's
"tactics." Before telling readers much of what Gore
has said, Dao is careful to outline the "tactical shift"
he sees at work in the Gore presentation. In paragraphs 4-6, he
tells his readers about this matter. Only after they have been
fully warned do they get to hear what Gore actually said.
Quite appropriately, Bruni places no such screen between Bush
and the Times' readers. Bruni simply reports what Bush said and
did. He doesn't warn the readers what Bush's action may mean about
his campaign tactics. In fact, at no point in his lengthy piece
does he even quote a Dem strategist questioning Bush's motives.
Bruni does inject a notable paragraph 8; in it, he tells readers
how "Mr. Gore's allies would like to use the [execution]
A few weeks ago, we quoted Lawrence O'Donnell, on Hardball,
saying that the Times had decided to stress the Gore campaign's
tactics (see "The Daily update," 5/9/00). This practice
has been widespread throughout the press corps this week. Howard
Fineman was spotted in the thick of the fray. We examine the matter
The Daily update (5/31/00)
Speaking of hopeless: If it's utterly hopeless writing you're
after, we suggest you read Paul Duggan's piece in this Monday's
Washington Post. We have rarely seen such a detailed compendium
of all the elements we routinely flay. Duggan discusses Gore's
"attacks" on Bush's record. He starts with a tendentious
DUGGAN (paragraph 1): You're a Texan, born and raised. It's
your home, and you're proud of it.
(2) But Vice President Gore seems to pity you.
We always warn you to watch your wallets when journalists tell
you what candidates "seem" to be doing. Duggan's synopsis
DUGGAN (5): In fact, to hear Gore describe it, you live in
a backwater, a Third World statethe Appalachia of the
It's a bit of hyperbole we've suffered before. "Kit"
Seelye beat Duggan to it:
SEELYE: Mr. Bush's recent policy initiatives have prompted
the Gore campaign to intensify its critique of Mr. Bush's record,
painting Texas as a near-Third World backwater where children
are poorly educated and go without health insurance, and where
chemical polluters control environmental regulations.
Has Gore ever used the term "Third World backwater?"
Neither Duggan nor Seelye offers a quote. The language, dear readers,
is theirs, all theirs, a ham-handed hunk of hyperbole. It's the
way that "reporters" make their tales more excitingand
sometimes mock pols they disfavor.
At any rate, tendentious paraphrase checked off on his list,
Duggan now turned to another taskthe collection of utterly worthless
"evidence." How do Texans feel about Gore's critique?
Read on, though you'll never find out:
DUGGAN (8) [B]ased on an unscientific survey of ordinary
Texans recently more than a few folks in the Lone Star state
(9) "I take it personally," said Richard Welch,
56, as Austin office worker whose ancestors settled in Texas
before it was a state...
Hopelessly, Duggan says that his "survey" is "unscientific."
In fact, it's no "survey" at all. In a state of twenty
million souls, Duggan finds someone who makes a comment he likes.
His addled editors put it in print, and pretend he's conducted
a "survey." We've commented on this hopeless practice
before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/00). Now Duggan returns to hyperbole:
DUGGAN (10): If you're a Texan, you must be saddled with worries,
to hear Gore and his surrogates tell it. So much hunger in your
state. So few physicians. SAT scores in the tank. The vice president
seems to wonder: How do you find the strength to get up
in the morning?
As you know, it's very important to reprint Standard Soundbites.
So Duggan finds a Texan who knows one:
DUGGAN (11): "Well, I'm very happy, thank you,"
says Pam Deeds...
(12) As for Gore: "It bothers me sometimes when he says
these things. But he's a politician. He wants to win the presidency.
So I guess whatever he has to say, he's just going to say
Bingo! Duggan's "unscientific survey" just happens
to find a Texan with an official, approved soundbite.
As an op-ed piece, this would be hopeless stuff, but sadly,
this appeared in the Post as reporting. Ironically, the lengthy
piece appeared beneath a photo of a smoggy skyline; the caption
informs us it's Houston. "Smog covers the skyline of Houston,"
it says, "which rivals Los Angeles as the U.S. metropolitan
area with the worst record of exceeding ozone standards."
Duggan mentions this fact in paragraph 17, after showing off his
skills at burlesque. But he makes little attempt to inform his
readers if any of this is Bush's fault, contenting himself with
repeating quotes from Bush and Gore campaign spokesmen. Poor Duggan!
"For every statistical accusation, there's a statistical
defense," he laments. Exactly. And guess what? It's the business
of journalists to sort through the claims, and try to determine
Finally, hopelessly late in his piece, Duggan speaks to someone
who may be an expertnot a Longhorn snagged at some watering hole,
or a spinner from somebody's war room. It's Bruce Buchanan, "a
University of Texas political scientist." In paragraph 34
of a 39-paragraph piece, Buchanan finally says this:
DUGGAN (34): In George W. Bush's Texas, said Buchanan, "we
have all the resources we need to address our problems, but Texas
hasn't done it. The question is, to what extent will Bush be
held responsible?...Voters tend to pick up on these charges only
when they touch on some larger anxiety they already feel about
a candidate." [Duggan's ellipsis]
Buchanan seems to imply that Bush is at fault. If so, then
Gore's critique makes sense. Is Buchanan right? We don't have
a clue. We explain that in two words: Paul Duggan.
Painting Gloom, by Numbers
Paul Duggan, The Washington Post, 5/29/00
Gore Challenges Bush Credibility on Policy Speeches
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/13/00
The Daily update (5/24/00)
It's all in the way you look at it: We couldn't help
chuckling at one brief portion of Nicholas Kristof's profile of
Governor Bush in the Times. The page-one profile appeared this
KRISTOF: Mr. Bush has often said that "the biggest difference
between me and my father is that he went to Greenwich Country
Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High." That may be
an exaggeration of the younger Mr. Bush's populist credentials,
because he is also a product of Andover, Yale and Harvard. But
there is still something to it.
We have no complaint about Bush's remark, but we were struck
by the way this scribe found the grain of truth in Bush's
"exaggeration." In 1988, Gore told scribes that he had
observed certain funding conditions when he had attended rural
schools in Tennessee. Though it turned out that what he said was
accurate, it was still being spun as an example of fibbing twelve
years later in the Boston Globe (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/00).
But when Bush repeatedly downplays his prep schooling, Kristof
finds the grain of truth in what he has said. (In the 6/16/99
New York Times, Mike Allen notes that Bush has made this presentation
about schooling since his 1994 race for governor.)
Even more amusing, Kristof himself slightly understates the
extent of Bush's novelizing. Lardner and Romano, in a Post profile:
LARDNER AND ROMANO: In 1959, the Bushes finally pulled up
stakes and moved to Houston. George W. had just finished the
seventh grade at San Jacinto Junior High...Bush has often invoked
the school as proof of his Texas pedigree, compared to that of
his father. "He went to Greenwich Country Day and I went
to San Jacinto Junior High," Bush likes to say. What he
doesn't say is that he spent just one year at the schoolhis
last year in public education.
The writers note that Bush then enrolled at the Kinkaid School,
"a private academy in one of the nation's wealthiest suburbs,"
before going on to Andover at the start of the tenth grade. Bush
spent one year at San Jacinto; two years at Kinkaid; and three
years at Andover. Bush had left the Texas public schools two years
before leaving Texas for Andover.
We couldn't care less where Bush went to school; we certainly
aren't troubled by Bush's presentation. But we can't help noting:
Some "exaggerations" are more equal than others. Our
conclusion? Read profiles with care.
Values Grown in the Conservative Soil of West Texas
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 5/21/00
A Sister Dies, a Family Moves On
George Lardner and Lois Romano,
The Washington Post, 7/26/99
The Daily update (5/23/00)
Code-dependent: When one reads Katharine Seelye, one must read
the code. A standard element appeared this morning:
SEELYE (paragraph 1): Vice President Al Gore voiced perfunctory
support for the China trade agreement, reading a statement
in front of a labor group that opposes the China bill and is
rallying in Washington against it.
Why did Seelye tell readers, in her very first sentence, that
Gore was "reading a statement?" When you see that, you're
seeing a code. "Reading a statement" (like "perfunctory")
is becoming a term of art with Seelye, injected into articles
to suggest that Gore is insincere.
Readers, pols "read statements" all day long. They
don't just speak off the cuff. When Governor Bush addressed AIPAC
yesterday, for example, it was fairly clear he was reading from
a TelePrompTer. That is a totally normal practice. But nowhere
in Alison Mitchell's report are we told that Bush was "reading
a statement." The reason? Mitchell, a professional, wasn't
trying to spin you. She wasn't trying to broadcast hidden messages
challenging Bush's sincerity.
We'll say of Seelye what we said of Ceci Connolly last week;
you really ought to watch in awe. Seelye is a consummate spinner.
We may not see her like soon again.
(Reading a statement: Seelye code. See also "Reading
from note cards")
Union Welcomes Gore, Despite China Views
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 5/23/00
Bush Says Clinton Misstepped in Israel
Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 5/23/00
The Daily update (5/22/00)
Can't quite bear to say it: We'll have more to say about
the biographical profiles now being run in the New York Times;
on Sunday, we thought Nicholas Kristof's portrait of Governor
Bush's childhood was striking in various ways. But we thought
certain aspects of today's Gore profile deserved an immediate
comment. We almost choked on our bagel this morning, for example,
when we read this passage about Gore's childhood:
HENNEBERGER: [S]ome of what is generally assumed about Mr.
Gore's childhood is not true: he did not, for example, live in
luxury back in Washington during the school year.
Say what? But we've read it again and again and again, in all
of our greatest newspapers! But Henneberger kept on debunking:
HENNEBERGER: Mr. Gore's parents were both famously frugal
and were not well off until after their son had grown.
But what about that fancy, luxurious, and elegant hotel? We've
read about it everywhere:
HENNEBERGER: [They] lived in a hotel because it was owned
by a relative who gave them a break on the rent.
Some summers, the Gores had to pack up their four-room suite
and put their belongings in storage so the place could be sublet
while they were in Tennessee. And Al shared a bedroom with his
sister, Nancy, who was 10 years older, both before and after
her college years.
This is life in that "fancy hotel" we've so long
heard portrayed. A four-room apartment, with sibs sharing a room,
is the "elegance" we've heard described at such length.
But alas! Even the debunking Hennebergerand we salute her
reportingcouldn't bear to turn in the clan. She immediately says
that it is partly Gore's fault that "the contours of his
unusual upbringing are not better known." After blaming the
victim for the spin, she issued an outright howler:
HENNEBERGER: Though his political opponents have successfully
portrayed him as a pure-bred Washington creature, with only photo-op
moments in the heartland, he did have a life there, on the family
farm, and by all accounts a more intense emotional connection
to that place than to the nation's capital.
"His political opponents" have portrayed Gore this
way? So has the Washington press corps! Here, for example,
is Kristof, Henneberger's colleague, writing the day before
her piece appeared. Kristof has just described young Bush
getting spanked by his grade school principal. But even when writing
a profile of Bush, he can't resist passing on the Gore
KRISTOF: [Bush's] Midland childhood is a striking contrast
to that of another boy growing up at the same time, Al Gore,
who instead of being paddled in Mr. Bizilo's office was attending
the elite St. Albans School in Washington, swimming in the Senate
pool, and listening on an extension as his father the senator
spoke on the telephone to President John F. Kennedy.
Kristof later describes the young George W. Bush going off
to Washington to visit his grandfather, the senator. Is the contrast
really quite as "striking" as some have said? And is
there any sign that it makes any difference?
At any rate, Henneberger takes a standard approach. The press
corps loves to pretend that it is "political opponents"
or "late-night comics" who pass on favorite elements
of spin. In the case of the Gore upbringing, Henneberger's own
colleagues, all through the press corps, have misdescribed simple
parts of the candidate's profile. And just how flat-out dumb has
it gotten? Last June, Jim Nicholson led a band of useful pundits
off to visit Gore's boyhood "suite." Obedient writers
trooped along, wasting their time and abusing readers' trust.
And what was wrong with Taking The Tour? In an accompanying article
"(A Young Prankster"), Henneberger's text helps explain.
She points out that "the old Fairfax [is] now a much tonier
Westin," and notes in passing that "[t]he Gores' two-bedroom
apartment has been totally rebuilt." Last June, we pointed
out the absurdity of touring an old hotel that has gone through
several major renovations. But there was the hopeless press corpsCeci
Connolly was one-writing up the nonsensical outing. If you want
brain-dead, they'll provide it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/99.
In the future, we'll revisit Henneberger's debunking piece,
and help you recall the names of the "political opponents"
who spun simple facts under the bylines of major newspapers. In
the meantime, we again strongly advise you to disregarddisregard
totallythe corps' efforts to "explain" the hopefuls'
childhoods. White House candidates have public records as adults.
We advise you to judge them on that.
Behind Elite Image, a Simple Upbringing
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 5/22/00
Values Grown in the Conservative Soil of West Texas
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 5/21/00
A Young Prankster At Home on the Roof
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 5/22/00
The Daily update (5/19/00)
Profile in discouraged: If you enjoyed Judy Mann on Elian (see
"The Daily update," 5/18/00), you're going to love Joan
Vennochi. We stumbled upon her April 25 Boston Globe piece just
last night on the web. Mann trashed Gore for "shameless pandering"
on Elian; she said historians may one day say it brought down
his campaign. Butpundits have done this for more than a monthshe
failed to mention that Governor Bush holds the exact
We thought it gave a good example of why scribes should go
easy on motive. Scribes have enough trouble just getting facts
straight, without trying to go inside hopefuls' heads. But Vennochi
went a step beyond Mann. Here was the start of her column:
VENNOCHI (paragraph 1): The battle over Elian dominates the
news. But I am still thinking about John McCain's battle for
courage in today's political arena. Maybe they are not unconnected.
McCain had just apologized for misrepresenting his views on
the Confederate flag. Vennochi referred to McCain's original misstatement
as a "lack of courage" and a "weakness." Still,
this was her closing comment:
VENNOCHI (9): As McCain acknowledged last week, "Honesty
is easy after the fact, when my own interests are no longer involved."
Still, he finally said and did what he believed, and that is
worth something to those who wanted him to do it when it mattered
In this passage, Vennochi assumes that McCain is being forthright
now. She ignores the fact that his interests are still involved.
But cheerfully, she closes with the standard portrait of McCain
doing "what he believed."
Now she turned to the Elian case. And she knew lack of courage
when she saw it:
VENNOCHI (12): Obviously the relatives in Miami will say and
do virtually anything to use Elian in their very personal war
with Cuba. What about our presidential candidates? Will they
do the same in their war for votes in November?
(13) Democrat Al Gore already showed spinelessness in this
matter, taking the position before the weekend raid that the
boy should be granted permanent resident status rather than be
returned to the father. Now the Republicans are churning up the
political seas even more, trying to turn the government's actions
into a statement about giving in to communism instead of one
about recognizing parental rights.
Vennochi does the usual hopeless job in explaining Gore's position
(Gore favored giving resident status to "the father"
as well as Elian, for example). But againafter saying that Gore
is "spineless" in his stand, she never mentions that
Governor Bush holds the exact same position. Bush is never
mentioned. But the crowning touch comes at the end, when Vennochi
goes back to McCain:
VENNOCHI (15): It is probably no accident that the action
to rescue Elian [from his Miami relatives] was taken by a lameduck
administration. As McCain noted just a week ago, "Honesty
is easy after the fact." Still, this was a political gamble
that took political courage.
(16) As a result, a boy is reunited with his father. No one
should have to apologize for that. [End of column]
We couldn't help chuckling to see McCain called back at the
end of the piece. We're told in this column that Senator McCain
is still involved in a "battle for courage." And McCain,
of course, was flatly opposed to sending Elian back to Cuba.
McCain's position was stronger than Gore's. Was McCain,
like Gore, being "spineless?" Oopshis position isn't
mentioned in this piece. In fact, only Gore is mentioned by
name in connection with the "spineless" posture. This
is hopeless, hopeless, embarrassing writing. It's been all over
the press this past month.
We agree whole-heartedly with what Mann wrote; if Gore loses
in November, historians may see the Elian case as the matter which
killed him. But we hope that historians will see something elsethe
hopeless way this remarkable case was critiqued by the group-thinking
Joan Vennochi, The Boston Globe, 4/25/00