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29 May 2001

Our current howler (part I): On message

Synopsis: Jeff Greenfield supports an Official Press Story in his new book about the election.

Typecasting Candidates
E. R. Shipp, The Washington Post, 3/5/00

Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow!
Jeff Greenfield, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001

We’re surprised because it’s Jeff Greenfield. Of all the pundits our analysts followed through the 2000 White House campaign, we thought that Greenfield may have done the best job of standing apart from the scripting. On March 5, 2000, E. R. Shipp described— to a T— the way the press was reporting the race. We ourselves had long described the way the corps would "novelize news"— would shape facts to fit a preconceived, pleasing story. To Shipp, then the Washington Post’s ombudsman, it was like her paper was scripting a drama:

SHIPP: [R]eaders react— sometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often not— to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to their actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name...As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; other seem to get a free pass.

In this column— the most righteous work from the mainstream press corps all year— Shipp was criticizing Ceci Connolly’s hapless "Love Canal" reports, which were written in December, 1999. But Shipp perfectly nailed the general process by which the press was inventing the news. In Shipp’s view, the Post wasn’t really reporting what happened; the paper instead had laid out a "drama," and was bending the news to fit its preconceived story. No one else, throughout this election, did such a good job of describing the way the mainstream press throws truth away in order to tell preferred tales.

And now, the process is being extended into the press corps’ election post-mortems. The Official Press Version of Election 2000 is now being set into stone. In Newsweek’s November 20, 2000 edition, Evan Thomas started the process; his 4500-word piece, "What A Long, Strange Trip," retold the election from beginning to end, relating the tale exactly as the press corps had told it in real time. Other scribes are now publishing books that tell the Official Approved Story. And just as Shipp suggested in her piece, events are being rearranged to tell the story as it was scripted; the election’s Key Events are being reshaped and told as the press likes to tell them. If scribes have to invent, rearrange or bury some facts, well, that’s the price that we pay for "drama"— for the pleasure that comes from the scripted tales the press planned to tell from the start.

And for a perfect look at this cheesy process, we suggest that you go read Jeff Greenfield. His new election book is titled, "Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow!" and we suggest that you open as fast as you can to his account of Bush and Gore’s first debate. Clearly, this was one of the pivotal events in the 2000 White House campaign. And writers like Greenfield will nip and tuck with the truth— all so you will think it happened the way they like to tell it.

Greenfield’s account of this debate perfectly fits the Official Press Story. According to this iconic tale, officious Gore lost all three debates— and perhaps the election— with his obnoxious, disruptive behavior. In the debates, the American people got a chance to see what an unlovely creature Vile Gore really was. And no only that— this debate confirmed the portrait of Gore which the insightful press corps had dished all along. The first debate confirmed the wisdom of the press corps and its view of reality.

That’s roughly how the press told the tale in real time— with a couple of days to get its story together— and that’s precisely how Greenfield tells it. The debates were "remarkable," Greenfield says. And then he tells us why:

GREENFIELD (page 193): The vice president, a veteran of forty debates during his political career, the man who had demolished Ross Perot on a free-trade debate on Larry King Live, the man with a sharp instinct for the political kill, lost all three debates. He lost them not because George W. Bush was especially impressive, but because Gore managed— in every one of the debates— to ram home the impression that he was precisely the smug, condescending politician of the stereotype who would in fact say anything to be president. This is a harsh conclusion. What makes it especially sad is that some of Gore’s most devoted supporters share it, even if they would use different words to describe it. [Greenfield’s emphases]

One has to chuckle at Greenfield’s last statement. What are we told? "Some of Gore’s most devoted supporters" (unnamed, unquoted) share Greenfield’s view, although "they would use different words to describe it." They would use different words to describe it!! By that standard, of course, the Pope shares Charlie Manson’s views, and Christopher Hitchens agrees with Pol Pot. Enjoy a good laugh while you can, though, dear readers— what follows from Greenfield may prove less amusing. But that last sentence drives home one key point— there is simply no end to the silly constructions this press corps is willing to conjure.

According to Greenfield, Gore lost all three debates (Greenfield’s emphasis), showing to voters in every one of the debates (Greenfield’s emphasis) that he "would in fact say anything to be president." "This is a harsh conclusion," Greenfield mourns— but he’s willing to spin you a bit to sustain it. In Greenfield’s account of Bush and Gore’s first debate, he makes bald misstatements of simple fact— and fails to let you know the way he described the debate in real time. That’s right, folks— immediately after the debate occurred, it was Bush whose conduct Greenfield lightly decried. But that was then, and his is now, as Jeff Greenfield gets with the program.

Tomorrow: Greenfield reworks the debate’s simple transcript in order to make preferred points.