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Daily Howler: Krugman praises Clymer too! But both scribes understate what occurred the last time we had a debate
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DEBATEGATE! Krugman praises Clymer too! But both scribes understate what occurred the last time we had a debate: // link // print //

DEBATEGATE: In this morning’s Times, Paul Krugman echoes our praise of Adam Clymer’s Sunday column (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/04). How will the press cover Thursday’s debate? As he reviews that important question, Krugman limns some HOWLER HISTORY; he fleshes out Clymer’s remarks about the press corps’ hopeless treatment of the first Bush-Gore debate. But both these worthies understate the way that crucial Bush-Gore debate was spun. As we look ahead to Thursday’s battle, we think our readers might want to recall the way that crucial debate was reviewed. In the process, we’ll note two areas where Krugman and Clymer understate what actually occurred.

How did the press review Bush and Gore’s first debate? As he looks back, Krugman sets the stage for the spinning that would ensue:

KRUGMAN (9/28/04): Interviews with focus groups just after the first 2000 debate showed Al Gore with a slight edge. Post-debate analysis should have widened that edge. After all, during the debate, Mr. Bush told one whopper after another—about his budget plans, about his prescription drug proposal and more. The fact-checking in the next day's papers should have been devastating.
Indeed, Bush did make a string of huge blunders in Debate I, as we’ve detailed in the past (links below) and as Krugman noted in real time. But how did the press review that debate? Krugman echoes Clymer’s critique of the corps’ woeful performance:
KRUGMAN (continuing directly): But as Adam Clymer pointed out yesterday on the Op-Ed page of The Times, front-page coverage of the 2000 debates emphasized not what the candidates said but their “body language.” After the debate, the lead stories said a lot about Mr. Gore's sighs, but nothing about Mr. Bush's lies. And even the fact-checking pieces ''buried inside the newspaper'' were, as Mr. Clymer delicately puts it, “'constrained by an effort to balance one candidate's big mistakes”—that is, Mr. Bush's lies—“against the other's minor errors.”
And yes, that vacuous coverage mattered. Indeed, Gore quickly began to sink in the polls, as we’ll note below.

How will Thursday’s debate be covered? We don’t think the press will land on Kerry the way they landed on Gore. (At this point, we’re not really sure that it matters.) But Krugman and Clymer do understate some of what happened four years. As we recommend both worthies’ columns, let’s make sure that readers are clear about that remarkable event.

First, Krugman slightly understates the instant response to the Bush-Gore debate. “Interviews with focus groups just after the...debate showed Gore with a slight edge,” he writes. In fact, instant polls of viewers credited Gore with a rather decisive win. How substantial was Gore’s apparent success? According to NBC’s post-debate poll, 46 percent said Gore had won, 36 percent picked Bush. At CBS, the margin was wider; it was Gore, 56-42. CNN had a seven-point spread, 48-41. Only ABC had it close; in their survey, 42 percent picked Gore, 39 percent favored Bush. (For the record, more Bush voters watched the debate. Gore won the instant polls anyway.) Adding to the unanimous verdict, Time polled viewers on October 4-5, the first two days post-debate; their sample picked Gore, 51-37. In fact, Gore “won the debate” in these five polls by an average margin of 9.6 percent. In these, the five major instant polls, Gore “won” by a serious margin.

So viewers favored Gore fairly strongly. But what happened when the press got its spin machines going? On that matter, Krugman correctly says that Clymer’s account is a little bit “delicate.” Let’s recall what Clymer said about the post-debate fact-checking:

CLYMER (9/26/04): By 2000, front-page articles were saying the language that mattered was “body language,” and that the candidates offered ''the distilled ether of two very different personalities,'' while reporters' efforts to correct the debaters' claims on tax plans and patients' rights were buried inside the newspaper. And even those fact-checking efforts were constrained by an effort to balance one candidate's big mistakes against the other's minor errors.
“Delicate” is a good word for this account. It’s fairly clear what Clymer refers to; in that first debate, Gore made some trivial factual errors, while Bush unloaded some serious whoppers (more below). But when the press corps did its fact-checking, did it really try to “balance” these sets of mistakes? Sorry—that criticism is much too fair to the press. At Clymer’s own New York Time, for example, fact-checking pieces completely ignored the biggest mistakes Bush made this night. Indeed, while pundits moaned about Gore’s slight errors, Bush’s most gigantic misstatements were deep-sixed all over the press.

This may sound implausible to some readers. We understand. But that is what occurred.

Did the New York Times make “an effort to balance” Bush’s big mistakes against Gore’s minor errors? Quite plainly, no, it did not. Consider this debate’s most dramatic discussion—the raucous, ten-minute battle about the candidates’ prescription drug plans. (Full transcript linked below.) Without question, this was one of the longest, most dramatic debates-within-a-debate ever conducted in a run for the White House. Moderator Jim Lehrer tried to cut off discussion several times, in line with the candidates’ rules for the session; finally, the gentleman wearily said, “You have any more to say about this, you can say it in your closing statement, so we’ll move on, OK?” And this session wasn’t just long; it was heated and remarkably confrontational. At one point, as Bush kept misstating his own drug plan, Gore wearily said, of his rival’s misstatements, “It’s just clear—you can go to the [Bush] web site and look!” And even as Gore called Bush a dope, Bush was calling Gore a liar. At several points, Bush interrupted his serial misstatements to aim Standard Slurs at Gore’s character. “I guess my answer to that is, the man’s running on Medi-scare, trying to frighten people in the voting booth,” the witty candidate said at one juncture, as he kept misstating his own drug plan. Later, still misstating the terms of his own plan, Bush unloaded an iconic rejoinder:

BUSH (10/3/00): Look, this is the man who’s got great numbers! He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think, not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator!
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! The transcript records the audience’s [LAUGHTER]. But did the mighty New York Times explain whose statements were factually accurate as Bush directed this barb at Gore’s character? No, it did not—and Clymer is wrong when he says that the press tried “to balance” the candidates’ errors. The press didn’t “balance” big errors with small. Instead, it threw Bush’s big errors down the memory hole, and raved about Gore’s small mistakes.

Which candidate’s statements were factually accurate as they battled about Bush’s drug plan? Some major scribes did report the plain fact—the fact that Bush had been wrong on this matter. Yep—they noted that Bush, calling Gore a liar, had been misstating the terms of his own plan. For example, Glenn Kessler said so in the next day’s Washington Post (late editions only; never printed in early editions). And Ron Brownstein reported the same (obvious) fact in the Los Angeles Times. You could even get the truth on CNN, if you watched all day and listened intently; in a fleeting comment, Brooks Jackson reported that Bush had been “wrong” about this matter on the next day’s Inside Politics. But at Clymer’s own New York Times, were reporters and editors making “an effort to balance [Bush’s] big mistakes against [Gore’s] minor errors?” Plainly, they were not. In the next day’s fact-checks, Robin Toner reviewed the heated drug debate, summarizing what the hopefuls had said. (Toner: “Mr. Bush accused Mr. Gore of using ‘Medi-scare tactics,’ while Mr. Gore accused Mr. Bush of advancing a plan that offered little or no help to most Medicare beneficiaries.”) But incredibly, she never said who had been right in the factual battle the two hopefuls waged, and we have never found any place where the Times told readers that Bush had been wrong on the basic facts of this matter. Meanwhile, Richard Stevenson’s “fact-check” about budget matters was even more strangely bowdlerized. Try to believe that he wrote it:

STEVENSON (10/4/00): Mr. Bush said he would use a quarter of the surplus for “important projects.” The remaining quarter, he said, would go to his tax cut. At $1.3 trillion, his tax cut actually would use up 28.5 percent of the surplus.
Good boy! Stevenson “corrected” a tiny pseudo-error by Bush—but ignored a gigantic misstatement! Did Bush’s budget plan actually say that “he would use a quarter of the surplus for ‘important projects?’” Actually, no, it said no such thing, as Krugman had noted in three separate columns—columns in which, he later said, he wasn’t allowed to call Bush a “liar.” In fact, Bush’s budget plan called for just $475 billion in new spending; this was much less than the $1.3 trillion his plan devoted to tax cuts. But so what? All through the fall campaign, Bush pretended the sums were equal, creating the pleasing illusion of balance in his budget priorities. He pretended again at this debate—and Times readers weren’t told about his whopping misstatement. Instead, Stevenson said that Bush’s tax cut wasn’t really “a quarter;” it was really 28.5 percent!

There’s really no way, in a single HOWLER, to review the way the press corps “fact-checked” that crucial first debate. But understand this—as good as Clymer’s column was, he was gilding the lily a bit in that passage that Krugman called “delicate.” Clymer criticized the press for creating a false sense of balance—for treating Gore’s “minor errors” as the equal of Bush’s “big mistakes.” In fact, something quite different occurred; Bush’s huge errors were thrown away, and Gore’s small errors were turned into scandals. Soon, the man who won those overnight surveys found himself sliding behind in the race. As the press corps moaned about Gore’s deadly sighs, he fell behind in the national polls, and was forced to play catch-up right on to November. Scribes were careful not to tell readers what Gore had been sighing about.

To this very day, the press corps delights in telling a tale about that crucial first debate. They like to say that Gore’s troubling sighs so disturbed the American voter that the very haughty Democrat hopeful blew the race right there, that night. They refuse to say what really occurred—that TV viewers thought Gore had won that debate, by a large margin, until the press began its vast spinning. When did those sighs start troubling voters? Simple! The sighs began to trouble the voters when the press played endless reels of the sighs, with the volume jacked, of course. But were voters riled when the press corps played tapes of Bush saying “fuzzy math” and “phony numbers?” Voters were never shown such tapes! Nor were the voters often told that Bush’s insults were based on false facts—that Gore had been using accurate numbers when Bush had yelled “fuzzy” and “phony.”

The full story of this episode remains to be told, but Clymer misstated what occurred when he spoke of the corps’ phony “balance.” Would that the press corps had behaved the way the worthy described! In fact, the corps’ conduct was much, much worse—and today, Bush sits in the White House.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: We offered our fullest discussion of the prescription drug battle when we reviewed Jeff Greenfield’s appalling book, Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! back in 2001. If you want to lose every ounce of respect you once had for Greenfield, just read through that five-part series. For part I, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/29/01. For the full transcript of the prescription drug debate, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/30/01. But you how to play this game. Use our archives for 2001 to link to all five episodes.

Yes, Bush misstated his own prescription drug plan, and he trashed Gore for describing it correctly. And no, the public was rarely told that Bush was simply wrong on the facts as he drew that appreciative [LAUGHTER]. But then, Bush baldly misstated his own budget plan too, as we noted above. We’ve discussed that matter many times; see, for example, THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/14/03. And by the way: All hail Melanie Ho, one reporter who did take note of the “big mistakes” being made by Bush. Too bad Ho was still in college, reporting for The UCLA Bruin! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/15/03, to see what the New York Times knew not to say about Mr. Bush’s “big mistakes.”

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Frank Bruni, the Times Bush reporter, thought that Bush was blowing the race as he watched that first debate. The fawning, ever-Bush-friendly scribe told all in his campaign memoir, Ambling Into History. “I remember watching the first debate from one of the seats inside the auditorium and thinking that Bush was in the process of losing the presidency,” Bruni wrote in his book. But what did he write in the Times the next day? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/02, and marvel again at what the press did to put Their Ambling Friend in the White House.