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11 April 2000

Our current howler (part III): Burnt by the facts

Synopsis: At the Post, two page-one stories told familiar old tales. Then we got to some well-buried facts.

Bush's Style as Issue of Substance
Terry Neal and Lois Romano, The Washington Post, 4/2/00

Voters Say Bush Is No Lightweight
Richard Morin, The Washington Post, 4/3/00

Voters Grade Gore Make-Over As Incomplete
John Harris and Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/9/00

Does this sound like a story you've heard (a thousand times) before?

NEAL AND ROMANO (paragraph 1): Perhaps it is the way his rhetoric soars, sometimes brilliantly, in his staff-prepared speeches, then disintegrates into mangled syntax and malapropisms when he deviates from text. Just days ago, ad-libbing his way through an education speech, George W. Bush vowed to remove the federal "cuff link" that stymies local control of schools.

That's right. It's the old "Bush isn't mentally up to it" theme, being recycled again (and again):

NEAL AND ROMANO (2): Or perhaps it's the way he stumbled through the early debates against his Republican rivals, repeatedly offering platitudes lifted from his stump speech to answer questions. Or maybe it is his small half-smile, which some critics have called a smirk and interpret as a sign of arrogance.

Of course, many observers felt Bush got the better of McCain in the later GOP debates. That part went unsaid in this piece. Here was the authors' great nugget:

NEAL AND ROMANO (3): Whatever it is, this much is certain: Questions about Bush's demeanor and intellectual maturity—or "gravitas," as columnist George F. Will has put it—continue to dog him and threaten to become a central issue in a presidential race that many believe will be decided as much on personality as issues.

Do questions of "intellectual maturity" still dog Bush? Of course they do—this article is the latest example. Bush. This page-one Post piece was the thousandth retelling of the story which the scribes say hounds Bush. But the sub-headline of this article seemed to say that voters are worried about these things—and that turns out to be plainly false, once we get to the actual facts. "Voters' View of Personality Traits Worries Some Supporters," the sub-headline of this article said. It's what the article seems to say. But deep inside the familiar piece, eventually we stumble on this:

NEAL AND ROMANO (20): Bush fared better in a Washington Post poll last month that suggested that more than two-thirds of the public believe that both he and Gore are intelligent and mature enough to be president—with Gore running a bit ahead on both questions. Bush gets slightly better ratings than Gore on leadership and the ability to reform Washington.

It's hardly surprising that the Post headline writer thought voters were worried about Bush's smarts; that what the piece by Neal and Romano plainly seemed to be saying. But the empirical evidence says something quite different, as Post polling director Richard Morin pointed out on the paper's web site the next day. "Voters Say Bush Is No Lightweight," the headline on Morin's weekly piece said. Morin didn't name names—scribes never do; it's the law—but he may have had Neal and Romano in mind when he scoldingly opened with this:

MORIN (1): Journalists, take notes: Americans do not think that George W. Bush is dumb, at least not yet; voters do not think that Bush is an immature lightweight lacking the gravitas to lead the nation...

Hmmm. Morin was using some of the words that appeared right in the Neal/Romano lead! Saying it was "time to truth-squad the political press corps," Morin went on to say this:

MORIN (3): For months now, naughty little stories have implied or flatly asserted that voters question whether Bush has the smarts to be president. And for months now, a succession of public opinion polls have told us how voters actually feel about Bush's brainpower: he's plenty smart.

Morin gave plenty of evidence—American voters think Bush is ra't smart. In fact, if you read all the way to Neal and Romano's's paragraph 20, you were finally told what the polling has said. But before the writers told you that, you had to wade through the standard, treasured stories about malaprops, silly smirks, and weak (early) debates. And you had to read the article's headline, which told you something quite different—and something quite false.

When we first read the Neal/Romano piece, we were principally struck by the corps' love of repetition—the unending desire to restate favored themes and to wallow in familiar old chestnuts. But one Sunday later, we were doubly struck when a similar page-one article appeared about Gore. This article repeated the standard Gore images, as the earlier piece had done with Bush. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph, by John Harris and Ceci Connolly:

HARRIS AND CONNOLLY (paragraph 1): Gordon Soltis says he can't tell you exactly what it is about Al Gore, but it is something. "I'm not sure. It may be his facial expressions. Is he sincere? It's like he's hiding something."

Or course, it may be a drumbeat of stories like this one, offering CelebCorps' favorite image of Gore. Harris and Connolly offer more such images in a pair of interviews in paragraph 2. ("He talks down to people. He doesn't talk at their level," one man is quoted saying.) And where did the writers get these familiar soundbites? Their method made our analysts weep:

HARRIS AND CONNOLLY (5): The bad news for Gore is that the elaborate dissection and reconstruction of his public image remains an incomplete project, according to polls and dozens of voter interviews. Asked open-ended questions about the vice president, many Americans describe the man that Democratic pollster Doug Schoen calls "Gore circa '97 or '98..."

But how "many" Americans could this possibly be, given the rather unimpressive "n" that the scribes had managed to assemble? To call their information "anecdotal" is to pretend it's "information" at all. Later on in the lengthy piece, the writers again showcased their hopeless procedures:

HARRIS AND CONNOLLY (28): It is this particular trait that, among some voters, makes Gore a polarizing figure. Far from being bland, Gore can drive some voters to distraction with what many, in interviews, described as a cloying personal style—a combination of piety and calculation.

Of course, "some" voters think the earth is flat, but you wouldn't write it up in a newspaper. And how "many" voters could have described Gore in this way, given the small number of interviews that went on to begin with? By normal standards of rational discourse, these interviews are utterly worthless—except, of course, as an excuse for scribes to type voter comments they like. And when Harris and Connolly finally get to the actual polling—as Neal and Romano finally did with Bush—here too we find that actual voters don't agree with what the writers have said.

That's right, folks. Here is the point—deep, deep in the piece—where the writing stops being "anecdotal:"

HARRIS AND CONNOLLY (26): A Washington Post/ABC News poll last week highlighted the challenge Gore—for all the prominence he has gained as vice president—faces in presenting himself as an appealing and plausible commander in chief. Some of the trends are clearly in the right direction: 54 percent of people agreed that Gore "understands the problems of people like you," a jump of 8 percentage points from a January poll...

The writers mentioned another improving trend, then cited a few alleged "trouble spots." (The biggest "trouble spot:" 50% of voters say Gore comes across as "insincere and somewhat phony." As the writers note, 45 percent said the same thing of Bush.) But is it true, as the writers said, that the poll "highlights" Gore's challenge in being seen as a "plausible commander in chief?" A look inside the poll's thirteen questions tells us. Does Gore have "the knowledge of world affairs it takes to serve effectively as president?" 71% said yes, 27% said no. Can Gore "do a good job keeping the economy strong?" 65% said yes, 28% said no. Does he have "the kind of personality and temperament it takes to serve effectively as president?" 60% said yes, 34% said no. This poll does not, in any way, show that Gore is not currently viewed as a "plausible" president. (It's hard to know how to tell, from the poll's thirteen questions, if Gore is seen as "appealing." But is Gore "running a positive campaign," for example? 69% yes, 23% no.) As we've noted before, polls have shown that voters are substantially more pleased with Bush and Gore than they were with their last two sets of choices for president. (Morin cites those figures, also.) But that isn't the story the press corps enjoys—and it isn't the story they're currently peddling.

They love reciting their current script: Gore is phony, The Dub is plain dumb. And just how much do they love this story? Harris and Connolly, early on in their piece:

HARRIS AND CONNOLLY (4): And perhaps no modern candidate has undergone as dramatic a make-over as Gore has over the past eight months, as he cast aside suit and tie and seemed to make town-hall meetings a second home.

They simply love that "make-over" story—he gave up his suit and tie eight months ago! Of course, we recently quoted Connolly back in March '99, describing Gore on the trail in New Hampshire, and she made a point of saying, even then, that Gore wasn't wearing such clothing. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/00, postscript. Other such examples abounded. We'd suggest that you read back through this one.) Be careful, friends, when they tell you the tales they've told you a thousand times before. This press corps loves a simple, controlled script. We'd advise you to read it with caution.


Starting tomorrow—a Howler rumination: High school kids are getting their letters from college. But as college freshmen, will they ever get by with work like the press corps turns out?

Your link: As we mentioned yesterday, Scott Shepard on Sunday became the first scribe to state the facts about Love Story accurately. See his article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and its companion reference table: THE STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES ABOUT GORE. That's where Shepard got Love Story right!

More Morin: Morin's piece was a stern rebuke to unnamed (it's the law) press corps miscreants. He gave extensive detail from national polls, showing that the public does not think that Bush lacks the smarts to be prez. He also spanked the corps for deciding that Bush and Gore are dreadfully boring. The public doesn't think that either, he said. Again, he broke all current law by handing out scientific (not "anecdotal") information.

In Morin's closing oration, he scolded the corps for misstating what the public really thinks:

MORIN: The danger posed by these disconnects are obvious. They further isolate the media from mainstream America. It creates the impression that reporters are overly cynical, mean-spirited, and, in the case of Bush, biased against him. More important, when the media's assertions about what the public thinks fail to match what the public is actually thinking, the credibility of the media, already at record lows, can only suffer.

Can only suffer—and should. We were only surprised by Morin's suggestion that the media were biased against Bush. Morin published his article the day after Neal and Romano dragged us back through the script on The Dub. Maybe after reading through Harris and Connolly's piece, Morin had a fuller picture of the nattering script which the press corps is currently peddling.