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10 January 2000

Our current howler (part I): Ties that blind

Synopsis: Battles rage about the future shape of the incomparable DAILY HOWLER.

Debates Air More Than Candidates’ Viewpoints
David Von Drehle, The Washington Post, 1/10/00

Spate of Early Debates Sparks Fierce Battles
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 1/10/00

McCain’s Ideas on Taxes and Social Security Defy Conventional G.O.P Wisdom
Richard Stevenson, The New York Times, 1/10/00

David Von Drehle takes us behind the scenes of the presidential debates in a page-one story in this morning's Post. And again we meet the condescending air that typifies current press culture:

VON DREHLE: Voters can learn a great deal when the candidates appear together. For example, they learn that guys like Lincoln and Douglas don't come along very often.

Neither do guys like Reston and Mencken. The condescending mention of Lincoln and Douglas has become a standard hack reference in political writing. So too the endless trivialization:

VON DREHLE (continuing directly): What else? Well...

Bill Bradley apparently owns only one necktie. [Von Drehle's emphasis]

It's something we've noted again and again: In a modern world defined by fashion ads, today's scribes mostly care about clothing and style. Having reported that Bradley seems to wear just one tie, Von Drehle makes the standard contrast:

VON DREHLE: But Bradley's tie may also be saying that here is a man too lofty to be bothered with mere haberdashery. In contrast to Gore, who has tried everything from banker-blue suits to cowboys boots and earth tones, Bradley has had his one tie, and his one blue shirt, and—as he revealed during a campaign stop last fall—the same pair of black shoes he has worn for more than a decade.

Again, a standard trope we've mentioned before. In the world of condescending scribes, hopefuls are danged if they do—and they're danged if they don't. Bradley doesn't change his outfits enough. Gore, of course, changes too often.

This trivialization and condescension has driven us on at THE DAILY HOWLER; we rarely have to look far to find it. Listen, for example, to Peter Jennings, quoted today about last week's Dem debate:

PETER MARKS: "It was quite edgy," said Peter Jennings, the ABC newsman, who refereed the Democrats here [in Durham, N.H.] on Wednesday night. He wondered, he said, if the palpable antagonism between the candidates could be picked up by the cameras. "The thing I was dying to tell the audience was how much goes on backstage," Mr. Jennings said. "Gore has dressing room A; Bradley wants to have dressing room A. Everything has to be equal."

What is Jennings "dying to tell the audience?" Trivia—utter trivia. This attitude shows through, again and again, in the corps' treatment of Campaign 2000.

We think the press corps plays an honored role in the world's most important public discourse. And we think that discourse is the American public's most valuable public possession. With that in mind, we've tried to examine the performance and attitudes of our current Washington press corps. And, since coverage of Campaign 2000 began in the aftermath of last year's impeachment, we have found a lot to criticize in the way the press corps goes about its crucial duties.

We'll inform you now that battles are raging here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters. The investment of time that THE HOWLER requires is proving extremely hard to sustain. It's also true that we've grown dead tired of the negativity that's grown out of this project. We're tired of carping in the way that we do, and we're looking for a new tone of voice.

THE DAILY HOWLER will almost surely morph into a somewhat different project. We'll keep you posted in the days to come about these historic battles.


Not enough: In this morning's Times, Richard Stevenson tries to address the problem we described last week—the press corps' studied failure to mention the simplest facts about the projected budget surplus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/6/00). Stevenson writes this:

STEVENSON: The most recent official projections are for the surplus to total $3 trillion over the next decade, of which $2 trillion would come from excess Social Security revenue. The surpluses could evaporate if the economy turns down or if Congress spends at higher rates than now assumed.

The highlighted phrase provides deniability; technically, Stevenson has now told readers that the projection of a $1 trillion non-SS surplus assumes certain rates of future spending. But he has not told readers what every journalist knows, what he himself reported last summer—that those spending assumptions are completely bogus, and will never come to pass. Later in this passage, Stevenson points out that revised budget projections may soon mean that candidates have more money "to play with." But writers shouldn't play with facts. Readers deserve to be told what Stevenson explained last August—that the non-SS surplus projection is totally bogus, based on absurd assumptions. When candidates say how they'll spend this surplus, they must be asked—by writers like Stevenson—if they plan to stick to the spending caps on which the surplus projection is based. The answer, surely, will turn out to be "No." At that point, a rational discussion of spending plans can finally get started.