THURSDAY, JANUARY 29, 2004
THE SIMPLE LIFE: Good grief! We assume Howard Kurtz isnt making in up when he quotes Fox honcho John Moody. In this mornings Post, Kurtz assesses the press corps flogging of Howard Deans concession speech in Iowa. Should that speech have been replayed, as Dean put it, 673 times in one week? Kurtz asks. The Postman asked Moody to state his view. Incredibly, Moody said this:
KURTZ: Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody said of televisions handling of the Iowa videotape: I dont think we overplayed it a scintilla more than we did Michael Jackson hanging the kid over a balcony. It was what everyone, from Jay Leno to the guy sitting next to me on the bus, was talking about. It was the story of the moment, like Saddam with his beard.Good grief! They didnt overplay the clip from the speech any more than they overplayed Michael Jackson! And after allJay was talking about the speech, too! Has the vacuous nature of modern news ever been put on such open display? How simple is life at the top of your discourse? Just read Moodys statement again.
But Moody hardly stands alone in his hopeless assessment of the press corps conduct. Indeed, the corps flogging of Deans concession speech has produced one useful result; it has led some scribes to pen revealing accounts of their own cohorts conduct. For our money, the most revealing assessment came in an editorial in last Saturdays Washington Post. [T]he speech itself was not as bad as the reaction to it would suggest, the Post said. One could imagine Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) giving a similar war whoop and not sustaining anything like the damage that has accrued to Mr. Dean. So why was Candidate Dean hammered hard, when Candidate Kerry, after such a war whoop, might well have been congratulated for shedding his aloof image? According to the Post, [t]he speech has caused such big trouble for Mr. Dean because it so graphically evoked already-present worries about the candidates temperament. The editors reviewed other press frenzies, fleshing out the point they had made:
THE WASHINGTON POST: This is a common political phenomenon. Thus, Mr. Quayles misspelling of potato was a big deal because of underlying doubts about the vice presidents intellect. President George H. W. Bushs supposed fascination with a supermarket scanner resonated because of the perception of the president as out of touch with ordinary folk. Likewise, the grief that Vice President Al Gore took over his alleged boasts to have discovered pollution problems at Love Canal, invented the Internet or inspired a character in Love Story was the product of his reputation for self-serving puffery. In each of these cases, the importance of an episode, real or imagined, was inflated because of a pre-existing political condition.In this passage, the Post recalls a few ludicrous episodes from recent press history. According to the Post, these frenzies occurred because some bit of conduct reinforced a reputation which already existed with the press.
But notice the way the eds play Clintonesque games as they describe their cohorts conduct. Quayle really did misspell a word (an outrage noted by the nations pundits, all of whom had spell-check on their computers and teams of proofreaders over their shoulders). But as the Post only notes in passing, the incidents used to flog Bush and Gore didnt even actually occur. As has long since become clear, Bushs supposed fascination with a supermarket scanner was an invention of a New York Times pool reporter. Meanwhile, Gores trio of damaging boasts were only alleged, the Post slickly notes. And at the end of this passage, the Post says it again. Some of the conduct the press corps attacked was only imagined, the Post says.
What an amazing acknowledgment! In this editorial, the Posts editors indirectly describe shocking misconduct on the part of their cohort. They acknowledge that the press trashed Bush and Gore on the basis of claims that were only imagined! But how amazing is todays press elite? The editors only mention this fact in passing, and offer no thought about this state of affairs. Did the press corps imagine three alleged boasts by Gore, then flog them to amplify already-present worries about the candidates temperament? Yes, it did, the editors say. And the editors dont much seem to care.
What are the editors really saying? They are really describing the conduct which we have described as following scripts. Its bad enough that the Washington press made a big deal of a misspelled word. Its stupid enough that the national press flogged a whoop from a single speech. But as the Post editorial plainly acknowledges, the press corps misconduct goes well beyond that. Especially during Campaign 2000, the press corps simply invented stories, then used these tales to drive preconceived notions. At the Post, this astounding conduct seems so run-of-the-mill that it only gets mentioned in passing.
Think of it as The Simple Life. A vacuous elite hopes youll see things as they do. So they imagines a string of supposed events, and then they flog those imagined events ceaselessly. Readers, journalism really is quite simple when the press corps gets to imagine its stories. Amazingly, the Posts hapless eds barely batted an eye as they described this strange conduct last week.
SHIPP SHAPE: On March 5, 2000, Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp described this same process. Shipp was reviewing the coverage of the 2000 race; her column was headlined, Typecasting Candidates. According to Shipp, the Post seemed to have assigned the major candidates different roles in a pre-scripted drama:
SHIPP: [R]eaders reactsometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often notto roles that The Post seems to have assigned to their actors in this unfolding political drama...As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; other seem to get a free pass.Shipp specifically cited the same Love Canal story which last weeks Post editorial mentioned (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00). But Shipp said what the eds knew to avoidshe noted that the Washington Post itself had misquoted Gore about Love Canal. This made Gore sound delusional, Shipp said, which fits the role The Post seems to have assigned him in Campaign 2000. To Shipp, this conduct was deeply troubling. Last Saturday, the Posts eds didnt seem to share that concern. Does the press corps simply imagine its stories? Enjoying the Simple Life in D.C., the Posts eds didnt much seem to care.
JUST A SIMPLE SAWYER: Due to our recent incomparable travels, we hadnt read the transcript of Diane Sawyers Thursday night interview with the Deans. We were stunned last nighttheres no other wordwhen we read it, and got to this question:
SAWYER: So, for your 50th birthday, he got youImagine the insolenceimagine the inanityof asking the wife of a presidential candidate if her birthday gift was thoughtful enough! As weve told you so many times: Your discourse now lies in the hands of a vacuous elite. If these people didnt exist, it would be hard to imagine them.
But one writer did see the Sawyers coming. In January 1924, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist. She wrote a column, The Things That Matter. We thought of it when Judy Dean told Sawyer that she has all the things that she wants:
WILDER (January 1924): We are so overwhelmed with things these days that our lives are all, more or less, cluttered. I believe it is this, rather than a shortness of time, that gives us that feeling of hurry and almost helplessness. Everyone is hurrying and just a little but late. Notice the faces of the people who rush past on the streets or on our country roads! They nearly all have a strained, harassed look, and anyone you meet will tell you there in no time for anything anymore.Wilder was quoting historian Brooks Adams. Like Thoreau before her, she saw Sawyer coming. We heap up around us things we do not need as the crow makes piles of glittering pebbles, she wrote (in a July 1917 column, Sweet Williams). Last Thursday, we saw Sawyer impose the empty values of an insolent class on yet one more race for the White House.
TOMORROW: Jon Stewart challenges the press.