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Daily Howler: The fist-bump incident didn't occur. And Maureen Dowd knew what it meant
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THE UBIQUITY OF THE INANITY! The fist-bump incident didn’t occur. And Maureen Dowd knew what it meant: // link // print // previous // next //


THE WAY OF ALL FLESCH: We want to mention David Broder’s column from Sunday’s Post.

The gentleman’s headline announced his concern: “Dumbing Down the Presidency,” it said. Broder, of course, has often complained when Big Dem miscreants make him sit through long, dull, boring, policy speeches—speeches full of “swell ideas.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/06, for one gruesome example—with links to another.

But this day, The Dean was disturbed by the dumbing. A troubling study had been released, by a felicitiously-named Wesleyan scholar, Professor Elvin T. Lim. With no one named Clinton or Gore in this race, Broder could afford to be troubled by what Lim had learned:

BRODER (6/29/08): Complaints about vacuous official rhetoric and the "dumbing-down" of presidential speeches, news conferences and interviews are standard fare. Lim found strong evidence to support those complaints, not just in his interviews with retired speechwriters but in the presidential texts themselves.

In what must have been a heroic effort, he applied standard techniques of content analysis to state papers of every president from Washington to the second Bush. His tool is something called the Flesch readability score—a measure of the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. The higher the Flesch score, the simpler to get the meaning.

Applied to the annual State of the Union addresses, the average score has doubled from the first few presidents to the last few. Those "messages were pitched at a college level through most of the 18th and 19th centuries," Lim says. "They have now come down to an eighth-grade reading level." The same trend, but more pronounced, is found in inaugural addresses. Their average sentence length has dropped from 60 words to 20.

In August 2000, Broder said he “almost nodded off” when Candidate Gore gave his acceptance speech—a speech which Frank Luntz called a “home run,” a speech which rocked the national polling. But on Sunday, The Dean was deeply concerned by those Flesch readability scores.

Long ago, we used Flesch’s formula (or some equivalent) for an entire year, testing the recommended textbooks of the Baltimore City Schools. Trust us: “Heroic effort” barely captures the tedium Lim has endured. But we think this is worth noting:

It has long been suggested that Candidate Bush was “dumbed down” before Campaign 2000—in part, trained to speak on a simple level. In our view, it was fairly clear that Candidate Romney was deliberately speaking on a (roughly) fifth-grade level during this past campaign. At one point, Romney had a celebrated dispute with an Iowa radio host—a dispute which carried into a commercial break. The tape kept running—and Romney’s language changed. As everyone knows, Romney is very smart. Suddenly, with no voters listening, he sounded like he was.

Dems keep nominating the smart people. Republicans tend to keep dumbing things down. (Wes Clark graduated first in his class at West Point. McCain was fifth from the bottom at Annapolis. Phil Gramm was constantly bragging about how many grades he had failed.) But dumbing talk down is a very smart thing—and not just because of the voters. In our other life, we’ve been working on the 12/99 “Love Canal” flap. Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! This mocking paraphrase was quickly offered by the RNC—and it was quickly adopted by many pundits.

On Day One, Gore offered a statement to the AP about the growing pseudo-frenzy. Let’s speak plainly: Almost surely, this statement was too complex to be understood by many reporters:

GORE (12/1/99): If anybody got the misimpression that I claimed to do what citizens in Love Canal did, I apologize.

Big mistake. In that statement, Gore said he hadn’t claimed to do what the citizens did. But that sentence would have a high Flesch score—and in all candor, its complex structure almost surely went over the heads of many journalists. Many journalists seemed to think that Gore had apologized for falsely claiming credit. A few weeks later, journalists waged a losing struggle in New Hampshire with the meaning of the word “arguably.”

Yes, there was a lot of anti-Gore animus floating around. But at some point, one starts to suspect: Some of the language being used was just too complex for reporters.

Broder, of course, high-mindedly limned the purpose of the observed dumbing-down. “Simplification has its advantages,” he loftily wrote, “if it serves to increase public comprehension.” And that’s true. Nothing is gained if a candidate states a good idea in language the voters can’t quite comprehend. But a second group seems to have language problems. Last Sunday, that group went unnamed.

THE UBIQUITY OF THE INANITY: Dear God in heaven, is nothing sacred? As of this morning, the fever has spread so far so fast that the New York Times is even correcting Dowd! Where does this lunacy end?

NEW YORK TIMES CORRECTION (7/3/08): In describing an encounter between Barack Obama and a schoolboy in Zanesville, Ohio, Maureen Dowd's column on Wednesday used a campaign pool report. The report said that Mr. Obama had declined to bump fists with the boy. The campaign now says that the boy was trying to get Mr. Obama to autograph his hand, but the candidate declined, citing the possible reaction of the boy's mother.

A great deal of modern journalistic history is captured in that formal “Correction,” which runs on today’s op-ed page. That correction, and the nonsense surrounding it, helps explain the perilous state into which your democracy has fallen.

For the record, the Times is correcting a short, inane passage from Dowd’s Wednesday column. As we noted yesterday, the “new Dowd”—chastened by Clark Hoyt’s boom-lowering— is now taking Obama’s side against the types of denigration and mockery she herself engineered in the past two years. Boo hoo hoo, Dowd was saying on Wednesday. She was crying about the types of nonsense she herself has extensively driven:

DOWD (7/2/08): He's an American who has climbed to the most rarefied stratosphere of American life, only to find that he has to make a major speech arguing that he loves his country. (A new CNN poll shows that a quarter of registered voters say Obama lacks patriotism.)

He's a man happily married to a strong professional woman who has to defend his wife, as he says, for being ''feisty.''

He must simultaneously defend himself for being too exotic and, because of recent moves, too conventional. (So conventional that he even refused to do a fist bump with a boy at a tutoring session for kids in Zanesville, Ohio.)

Chastened by Hoyt’s rebuke, Dowd has switched sides when it comes to Obama—but she can’t stop being inane. In that highlighted passage, she repeated a trivial (and mistaken) claim from a fleeting pool report. She hadn’t seen the incident herself; in all honesty, she couldn’t be sure it had happened. But so what? She accepted the accuracy of the fleeting report. And then, in best dumb-*ss manner, she helped her readers get a sense of what the incident “meant.”

She put the incident—which didn’t occur—into its wider context.

Unfortunately, this has been typical press corps conduct for a very long time. Before we review some historical incidents, let’s take note of a few more aspects of current New York Times culture.

Who will correct this paper’s corrections? Even in correcting its fabled star, the Times cuts a few corners and fudges the truth—perhaps deliberately, perhaps through ineptitude. “The campaign now says that the boy was trying to get Mr. Obama to autograph his hand,” the correction says (our emphasis). This leaves open the possibility that the campaign’s claim is all wet. In fact, the New York Times now says that the boy was trying to get Obama to autograph his hand; the Times says this in this morning’s paper, in this news report by Jeff Zeleny. (This on-line item is very similar.) In fact, it was clear by early yesterday afternoon that Dowd’s statement was simply inaccurate. (ABC News posted this correction before 2 PM.) The Times correction itself needs correction—if this inanity is worth discussing at all, which it never was in the first place, of course.

Yep! A cynic would say that some Times editor went easy on Dowd in that correction. But a cynic might say the same thing about Zeleny. In his news report about this inanity, he offers this account:

ZELENY (7/3/08): Senator Barack Obama and his fist bumps have been getting a lot of attention in recent weeks. So in Ohio on Tuesday, when it was reported that he refused to oblige a boy's request for one, it created something of a stir.

An instant replay, however, shows that it did not happen.

It was first mentioned in a pool report—a dispatch written by a reporter that is passed along to other journalists who cannot see the event because of space limitations—and subsequently picked up by a handful of blogs and on cable television.

The incident—which “did not happen,” Zeleny states—was “subsequently picked up by a handful of blogs and on cable television.” Zeleny forgets to say that it was also “picked up” by his paper’s most famous (and most inane) columnist. Perhaps this was just an innocent omission—like the innocent mistake in that “correction.” Or perhaps Zeleny knew that the truth must give way when it comes to your most famous columnist.

Whatever! Bungled corrections are nothing new at the Times. Neither is the type of inanity in which trivial incidents, real or imagined, are used to help the reader see the soul of a White House candidate or campaign. Over the years, big journalists have often cited incidents that didn’t happen, or may not have happened, to let us know the Real Dope. Some of these incidents began at the Times. Some of these incidents didn’t:

1972—Edmund wept: Edmund Muskie wept over criticism of his wife, and it badly damaged—perhaps killed—his White House campaign. Or did he? David Broder played a lead role in promoting the claim that Muskie blubbered. But fifteen years later, Broder wrote this: “In retrospect, though, there were a few problems with the Muskie story. First, it is unclear whether Muskie did cry.” Now he told us! In real time, Broder had written, on the Post’s front page, that Muskie had “tears streaming down his face” during the incident in question. Fifteen years later, he flipped. By the way, Broder and some “journalist” pals had already decided, before this incident, that Muskie might be a bit too emotional to serve productively in the White House. For a fuller discussion of this remarkable incident, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/07.

1988—Bush goes splash: In February 1988, Candidate George H. W. Bush showed what a gruesome preppy he was by asking for “a splash of coffee” at a New Hampshire diner. Or did he? No one reported the remark in real time; it became a matter of record two months later, when Maureen Dowd, then a reporter, wrote that Bush had said it. (She described it as a “preppy gaffe.” Dowd doesn’t seem to have been present at the original event.) Variants of Bush’s alleged remark were cited during the fall campaign, by Dowd and others. Dowd has frequently cited the alleged comment down through the years—even claiming, in April 2007, that Bush “drove his New Hampshire campaign off the road” when he made the remark. (Bush won New Hampshire that year. Then, he won the White House.) Why did Dowd make this ridiculous statement? It served as prelude to her latest trashing of the effete John Edwards’ girlie-man hairdos. For more detail on this screaming nonsense, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/23/07.

1992—Bush doesn’t scan: In February 1992, President Bush showed how out of touch he was, marveling at the vast complexities of a common supermarket scanner. Or did he? The story has remained iconic. But it too was based on a pool report—and it was soon widely challenged:

KURTZ (2/19/92): The story of George Bush and the incredible supermarket scanner has become the media yarn that wouldn't die.

First the New York Times gave front-page prominence to Bush's alleged amazement at seeing a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy rung up at an ordinary checkout stand, spawning a tidal wave of satiric columns and late-night comedy routines about an out-of-touch president.

Then came a round of debunking stories, disclosing that Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal never saw the incident but wrote the story from two paragraphs in a pool report. The author of the pool report, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, didn't even mention the incident in his own story.

The Times returned fire Thursday, saying it had reviewed a network videotape of the Great Scanner Scandal and that Bush "was clearly impressed" by the garden-variety gadget.

Not so, says Newsweek, which screened the tape and declared that "Bush acts curious and polite, but hardly amazed."


Time magazine's Michael Duffy, another pool member, called the incident "completely insignificant as a news event. It was prosaic, polite talk, and Bush is expert at that. If anything, he was bored."

Did it actually happen? Like the reporters, we have no idea. We note that Andrew Rosenthal, who pimped that pool report, is now the Times’ editorial page chief—Maureen Dowd’s nominal boss.

2004—Forbes Kerry in love: “Who among(st) us doesn’t love NASCAR?” In February 2004, the utterly comical John Forbes Kerry said it. Or did he? All year long, New York Times scribes mocked him for the laughable comment, a comment first cited by—who else?—Maureen Dowd. But it’s fairly clear that Kerry didn’t say it. But so what? According to Dowd, the highly comical non-statement statement showed how Forbes Kerry “can come across like Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet’s pretentious cousin in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/21/04 and 10/2/04.

We’re skipping Gore and Love Story here—a fleeting remark which was slightly misreported, then turned into History’s Biggest Scandal by (who else?) Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. They didn’t know Gore’s remark had been misreported—and they wasted their time on this sheer inanity, helping us see what Gore’s (misreported) remark meant about his troubling soul.

This week, another pointless incident got misreported. And Dowd knew what to do next.

None of this was ever worth discussing, like so much that drives your discourse. The fist-bump incident didn’t occur—and Maureen Dowd knew what it meant.