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20 March 2002

Our current howler (part II): When less was more

Synopsis: Seelye stalked Gore, and Bruni puffed Bush. One example? Let's follow the money.

Gore, Mum on Reform, Raises $700,000
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/23/00

McCain’s Distortions
George Will, The Washington Post, 2/13/00

Campaign Briefing
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/24/00

Together Again, Clinton and Gore Raise Millions
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/17/00

Campaign Contrasts Grow Starker
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 7/2/00

Bush Raises Cash and Discusses Educational Technology
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 6/20/00

Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 5/13/00

How did the New York Times cover Bush and Gore? Sullivan wants his readers to think that they must have ripped that poor Dub up. In fact, by the summer of 2000, a different situation obtained. Apologists were explaining the paper’s disparate treatment of Bush and Gore—but it was Bush whom that treatment was favoring. The Times’ Gore reporter, Katharine "Kit" Seelye, was endlessly beating the bushes and shaking the sheets, looking for major and minor points to flog in her headlong pursuit of Gore. Meanwhile, Bruni created Memorable Moments in the History of Fawning, like his claim that Bush "pretended to be confused" when he floundered in the crucial first debate. At the time, Bruni thought Bush had just blown the whole deal. But he struggled to keep you from knowing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/02).

For a comic example of the disparate treatment, consider the two hopefuls’ fund-raising. It was a minor issue in the race, and a minor part of the press corps’ coverage. But it neatly shows the disparate treatment as the Times puffed up Bush and flogged Gore.

In the weeks after Super Tuesday (March 7, 2000), Seelye unveiled a new approach to Gore. On March 9, Gore said he would make campaign finance reform a priority; on March 26, he released a proposal for federal funding of congressional elections. Pundits feared that Ol-Do-And-Say-Anything might inherit the mantle of their treasured Saint McCain. So how did they handle this down at the Times? Simple. Seelye began to batter Gore for daring to make such proposals.

What was Seelye’s specific complaint? Gore had offered to do without "soft money" if Bush would agree to do likewise. But Bush had rejected the VP’s offer, and Gore was now out raising funds. To date, Bush had raised twice as much money as Gore—but to Seelye, Gore’s fund-raising was deeply disturbing. She seemed to think that, since Gore had proposed campaign finance reform, he shouldn’t be raising any money at all. On March 22, she began to insert that ludicrous view into a string of alleged "news reports." On that day, she wrote that Gore was "in a frantic swirl to reach the $33.8 million [hard money] limit that he can raise before the August convention"—and she clearly was disturbed by his "frantic" conduct. "His activities are somewhat incongruous," she wrote, "coming as he has begun to portray himself as an apostle of reform, chastened by his zealous fund-raising in 1996." And yes, that sentence did appear in a New York Times "news report."

Seelye’s comments made no sense on earth, as was so often the case with her work. Was Gore’s fund-raising somehow "incongruous?" McCain had also raised tens of millions while pushing for campaign finance reform. And, like Gore, sainted Bill Bradley had offered to eschew "soft money" only if Bush followed suit. But Seelye was so upset by Gore’s conduct, she slammed it again on March 23. This time she found a new sign of bad faith; Gore had failed to mention finance reform when he spoke at a fund-raising luncheon. "Incongruity" was now Sentence One:

SEELYE (3/23): (pgh 1) Perhaps it was best not to call attention to the incongruity. Vice President Al Gore has been trumpeting his "passion" for overhauling the campaign finance system, even while scooping up money and emerging from the primary season as the richest candidate in the race.

(2) But today, while holding perhaps his most successful fund-raising session, he refrained entirely from mentioning his newfound "priority" of eliminating the large, unregulated contributions known as soft money.

Seelye was spinning in every sentence. The words "passion" and "priority" were put in quotes so you’d know that Gore didn’t mean them. And why was Gore "emerging from the primary season as the richest candidate?" Not because he’d been "scooping up money," but because Bush had been spending his own money so lavishly; Bush was low in cash at this point because he’d more than doubled Gore’s primary spending. Seelye, of course, didn’t tell you that; spinning, she implied that Gore was the Big Money Man. At any rate, even the photo caption on March 23 suggested the VP’s insincerity. "Vice President Al Gore focused on the economy," it said, "not on what he had said was his priority of overhauling campaign finance." The words "what he said" were there to tell you that Gore didn’t mean those things he had said. Seelye played these daft games for over a year as she "reported" the Gore campaign effort.

Just how stupid was Seelye’s new jihad? For years, candidates had raised funds under existing rules even as they proposed major rule changes, sensibly saying that doing otherwise would be a form of "unilateral disarmament." Surely, an alert second-grader could make out the point. Indeed, George Will had been just that dismissive six weeks earlier; on February 13, the columnist mocked a similar complaint which Bush had been hurling at McCain:

WILL: Bush’s current objection to McCain’s campaign finance position—that McCain is a hypocrite for playing under existing rules while advocating new rules—is too puerile to merit confuting.

Quite true. But now, this "puerile" objection drove Seelye’s "reporting" day after day in the Times. On March 24, she pushed her mindless complaint again. In a "Campaign Briefing" which was headlined "BAD TIMING," her jihad now entered Day Three:

SEELYE (3/24): In a bit of unfortunate timing for the Gore campaign, Vice President Al Gore was raising hundreds of thousands of dollars yesterday at three events just as his Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, called him "an obstacle to reform."

Of course, Bush was now saying such things every day; by Seelye’s standard, any occasion on which Gore raised money would constitute "a bit of BAD TIMING." Indeed, the Times’ Richard Oppel proved the point; on March 25, he authored a fourth straight report on the alleged incongruity of Gore’s very troubling fund-raising. "Mr. Gore, who has called for an overhaul of campaign finance laws…has shown no signs of letting up his own prodigious fund-raising," Oppel wrote; like Seelye, Oppel was deeply puzzled by this strange state of affairs. And, as Seelye had done three days before, Oppel listed the fancy menu from a Gore fund-raising dinner. "33 people donating $15,000 each dined on crabmeat parfait, quail stuffed with squash, and pecan pie," he wrote. Why do reporters publish such menus? They’re letting you know that the candidate in question isn’t a regular person, like you are. It’s one of a thousand ways scribes spin you—extremely selectively, of course.

Day after day, the New York Times, in its news reporting, handed readers this "puerile" argument—told them how incongruous it was for Gore to be out raising dough. (For the record, the paper pushed the theme in stories written on March 9, 12, 16, 22, 23, 24 and 25.) By the way, this theme was not only absurd on its face; in pushing it, Seelye was reciting Bush spin. Bush was now making his "puerile" argument about Gore, not McCain; indeed, Seelye reported this fact on March 12. "In recent days," she wrote with Richard Berke, "Mr. Bush has ridiculed Mr. Gore for calling on him to reject unregulated soft money in the campaigns while at the same time the vice president has been raising such funds." The argument wasn’t just "puerile"—it was textbook Bush spin. For the rest of the month, Seelye spun it.

Indeed, Seelye never seemed to tire of implying that something was wrong with Gore’s fund-raising. She hammered the topic right through September, finding ways to roll her eyes whenever Gore dared to raise dough. Snide remarks were the scribe’s greatest trademark. For example, when Gore had a fund-raising dinner on June 6, Seelye opened her article by saying, "Vice President Al Gore, ever on the prowl for money, has found a new source." On June 24, she was at it again: "Vice President Al Gore was back to business as usual today—trolling for money." On September 10, she outlined Gore’s schedule; "This coming week, the vice president will…comb the Northeast corridor for cash." On April 17, she had let herself run free; Seelye penned this evocative lead as she described yet another Gore fund-raiser:

SEEELYE (pgh 1): The sweet scent of jasmine wafted up the leafy hillsides, the lights of Los Angeles twinkled below, and the cash register ca-CHINGed until it was stuffed with $2.8 million.

And yes, that appeared in the Times. The ridiculous license granted to Seelye helped make it America’s sloppiest newspaper—a seeping cesspool of attitude and spin. Seelye found every imaginable way to spin Gore’s ongoing fund-raisers. When she didn’t tell you what the guests ate, she described the "Miros and Chagalls" on the walls (6/24). When Gore and Clinton appeared together, she never failed to mention the fact that Clinton had been more dynamic. And quite literally, the Times never published any such comments about Bush’s equally lavish fund-raisers—events which were raising much larger sums. One reason? On July 2, Bruni finally gave Times readers an extremely rare bit of information:

BRUNI: Unlike Mr. Gore’s fund-raisers, Mr. Bush’s were closed to reporters, a strategic decision by Republicans, who said they worried that any discussion of the Texas governor and money served to reinforce their reputation as the party of the rich and to remind voters that Mr. Bush’s candidacy has been fueled by an unprecedented sum of contributions.

Bush’s menus were never published—in part because Bush’s events were closed. That, of course, was Bush’s right. But the Times—showing the woeful bad judgment that suffused the paper—kept trashing Gore for his shi-shi dinners while barely mentioning Bush’s events, at which much larger sums were raised. The absurd imbalance of this procedure would also occur to alert second graders, but at the Times, it made perfect sense. Gore’s fund-raising dinners were repeatedly mentioned; Bush’s events were rarely cited. Indeed, how did Bruni present Bush’s dinners? What follows is the only occasion when Bruni discussed them in any detail. To state the obvious, Bruni’s tone differed vastly from Seelye’s

BRUNI (6/20): At a dinner tonight at the home of John T. Chambers, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, Mr. Bush collected what campaign officials estimated to be more than $3.5 million from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs…"I don’t relish these big fund-raising events," Mr. Bush said beforehand, as his campaign plane flew west from Austin, Tex. But he was set to grin and bear several of them in a campaign week expected to be among his most lucrative.

Bruni rolled over and fawned, like a puppy. In this passage, he first reported Bush’s spin—then politely repeated it for him. Bush just hates these fancy events; first Bush stated the pleasing point, then Bruni recited the pleasing point too. He didn’t tell us what the guests ate; nor did he say what was found on the walls. Nor were we told that this dinner was closed. All spring and summer, a vastly different tone held sway as Gore "trolled for" and "scooped up" his dough.

Let’s say it again; this was a very minor part of Election 2000 press coverage. But this nonsense—repeated a hundred times over—defined the New York Times’ grisly work. Last week, Sullivan and Coulter feigned amazement that a Timesman could have written a Bush-friendly book. But the Timesman in question had pandered and fawned all throughout Election 2000. Sullivan knows it; Coulter knows it—but they just don’t want the cattle to know. Last week, they tossed the cattle some tasty fare. We think you deserve more nutrition.

Next: Bruni was shocked by Bush’s behavior. It never turned up in the Times.

Someone has finally done Bernie’s work for him: A Stanford professor has finally done Bernie Goldberg’s work for him. We’ll comment later on this topic. For now, though, you can dig all the digits. You know what to do. Just click here.

Notes on your press corps’ corruption: During the course of Election 2000, Bush raised $193 million. Gore raised $133 million, some $60 million less. But you’d never have guessed that from reading the Times. In Seelye’s work, Gore was constantly "scooping up money," "trolling for money," "on the prowl for money" and "combing for cash." (On June 14, he gave "a double meaning to his current ‘prosperity tour,’ collecting a cool million in New York," Seelye said.) Of course, Bruni rarely mentioned such vulgar events. Why would he? After all, he knew that the Bush campaign was "worried that any discussion of the Texas governor and money served to reinforce their reputation as the party of the rich."

To all appearances, Seelye was eager to spread that reputation to Gore. What else could explain this puzzling May 13 entry?

GORE LEADS CASH PARADE—Vice President Al Gore continues to pull in the cash for his party. This week he raised $2.4 million for the Democratic National Committee at six dinners. That brings the total that he has raised for the party since the end of March to $15.8 million, not including the $5 million he helped raise with President Clinton in Hollywood ($2.8 million) and New York ($2.2 million). The events this week included two dinners each, back to back, in Manhattan, Dallas and Los Angeles. Next up is a fund-raiser for the party on May 24 in Washington, where the host, Terry McAuliffe, has promised a record-breaking single-night haul of more than $21 million.

What "cash parade" did Seelye (or her editor) think Gore was "leading?" As noted above, Bush raised $60 million more than Gore during the 2000 race. But it was Gore whose events were constantly mentioned, with Seelye’s snide comments lighting the way. Bruni, by contrast, was helping us see how much Bush hated "those big fund-raising events." The governor "was set to grin and bear them," Bruni politely informed his readers. Seelye—a spinner from head to toe—found ways to convey different notions.


The Daily update (3/20/02)

Getting berked: Last Saturday, the smarmiest name in American journalism got busy with the Gores—and their marriage. You’ll probably think that we’re making this up. But no—a nasty, thigh-rubbing little guy got hisself all swoll’ up and said this:

BERKE: A campaign by Mrs. Gore would instantly transform the contest in Tennessee into one with colossal national interest. It would also spur questions about the Gores’ marital dynamic.

Incredible, isn’t it? Berke was talking about the new report that Tipper Gore might run for the Senate. According to Berke, such a race would make people question the couple’s "marital dynamic." Incredibly, he even got a caption writer to pen the slimy phrase too:

NEW YORK TIMES PHOTO CAPTION: Al and Tipper Gore in Washington for National Prayer Day last September. A campaign by Mrs. Gore for a Senate seat could affect Mr. Gore’s political future and would prompt questions about their marital dynamic.

It only added to the Times’ nasty fun—that a photo bearing so smarmy a tag had been shot at a Prayer Day function.

We thought we’d seen it all from Berke, but the small little man keep on comin’. Indeed, Berke showed his mastery of current Gore norms throughout this risible piece. Norm Number One: When writing about the hapless Gore, begin with a note of derision:

BERKE (pgh 1): For Democrats who grumbled in the 2000 presidential campaign that Tipper would have been a more potent candidate than Al, their dream may now come true.

Absurdly bogus predictions are pleasing:

BERKE (3): If Mrs. Gore runs, it could significantly affect her husband’s political future. A Senate race by Tipper Gore could help her husband repair relations with voters in Tennessee should he seek a rematch with President Bush in 2004. Mr. Gore lost his home state in 2000 and would need to win there to capture the White House.

How about some utter trivia—preferably attributed to "many" people, all of them unnamed, of course:

BERKE (4): After word had leaked out about Mrs. Gore’s interest, more and more prominent Democrats said they were warming to the idea. Many noted that it was Mrs. Gore’s public, and lengthy, kiss of her husband at the Democratic convention that helped enliven his candidacy for president in 2000.

Do you really think anyone said it? But Berke’s astoundingly stupid conceit got started in paragraph 7:

BERKE (7): A race by Mrs. Gore would, inevitably, be compared to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful run for the Senate from New York in 2000. The twist is that Mrs. Gore, despite her high profile, never expressed a personal political ambition like Mrs. Clinton.

The race would "inevitably" be compared to Clinton’s—not that Berke would do that, of course. And Berke—contentedly playing the fool—extended his risible format:

BERKE (10): A campaign by Mrs. Gore would instantly transform the contest in Tennessee into one with colossal national interest. It would also spur questions about the Gores’ marital dynamic. Just as people questioned whether Mrs. Clinton ran for Senate to show up her husband, Democrats might wonder whether Mrs. Gore was trying to upstage her husband by winning the state that humiliated him in 2000.

Not that Berke would wonder that. It’s just that some Democrats might!

Incredible, isn’t it? Where in the world—where on earth—does the New York Times manage to find them? And where in the world did the smarmy paper find an editor who would put this in print? Can anyone on earth truly believe that, if Tipper Gore had run for the Senate, "Democrats might have wondered whether Mrs. Gore was trying to upstage her husband?" Can anyone believe such a ludicrous statement? And can anyone explain why the Times would rush to put such utter pap in print—would rush to broadcast such stupid questions even before they were asked?

Luckily, we can explain the whole thing. Berke’s piece is easily parsed. Translation: If you dare to run for the Senate, Mrs. Gore, here’s a hint of the way you’ll be trashed.

Tipper Gore Is Said to Consider Senate Race
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 3/16/02