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2 June 2001

Our current howler (part V): Where does spin come from?

Synopsis: A few did mention Gore’s naughty conduct. It’s intriguing to note who they were.

Decision 2000
MSNBC, 10/3/00

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

No network focus group mentioned Gore’s conduct in the aftermath of the debate. On CNN alone, twenty-two different voters were interviewed, and no one said a word about the veep’s troubling behavior. And this is strange; according to Greenfield’s hyperbolic account, voters all across the country were saying of Gore, "Yeah, he won–but I don’t like that guy." But twenty-two people had their say on CNN–and no one said anything like this. And no one mentioned Gore’s conduct in focus group interviews on ABC, CBS, or NBC.

But finally, there was a focus group which did mention Gore’s naughty conduct. After the networks went off the air, MSNBC kept on truckin’; Brian Williams checked in with conservative pollster Frank Luntz, who was conducting a 36-member focus group in St. Louis for the cable net. The participants were grouped into Democrats, Undecideds, and Republicans; 19 thought that Gore had won the debate while 17 gave it to Bush, Luntz said at the start of his segment. Then Luntz interviewed two voters; though each thought that Bush had exceeded expectations, neither one of them mentioned Gore’s conduct. But when the second voter cited Bush’s use of the term "fuzzy numbers," it prompted Luntz to say this:

LUNTZ: You said "fuzzy numbers." How many of you resented George Bush for saying "fuzzy numbers?" Raise your hands.

All the Democrats, almost all the Undecideds. But Sherri, before, you mentioned something about Al Gore breathing. How many of you resented Al Gore’s breath that you could hear in the background?

It looked like most of the Republicans and Undecideds raised their hands (Luntz didn’t characterize the response). Luntz continued:

LUNTZ (continuing directly): So Brian [Williams], what you’ve got here is the battle between "fuzzy numbers" and fuzzy breathing.

This was the first time that any focus group had said anything about Gore’s conduct. And even here, "undecided" voters seemed to have similar negative feelings about Bush’s use of the terms "fuzzy math/phony numbers."

Later in the evening, Sarah James spoke with nine voters at her MSNBC focus group in Tampa; one of them said that Gore’s "sighing" was "a little unsportsmanlike." (It wasn’t clear whether they had watched the Luntz group.) No one else mentioned Gore’s conduct. During prime time on NBC, James had interviewed six other members of this group, none of whom mentioned Gore’s conduct.

For the record, comments about Gore’s naughty behavior didn’t start in Luntz’s group. Before the group went on the air, Gore’s conduct was mentioned by several pundits–and by one major pol–and it’s intriguing to note who they were. The first remark was on CNN, soon after the debate, by Bob Novak:

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to bring Bob Novak in…Bob Novak, was there a winner?

NOVAK: I don’t think so. You know, on points, I would have to say that Vice President Gore was the winner. He’s a terrific debater. He’s got all these facts, he memorizes them. He’s very tough. But you have to remember, Judy, that the people who–the people who are really influenced by this debate are the people who haven’t made up their mind yet. That’s a very small part of the electorate.

Most of the electorate knows which side they want to go to. And so, the people who haven’t made up their mind are maybe less impressed by Vice President Gore’s debating points than by the fact that off camera, he’s kind of simpering, he’s giggling, he’s laughing, he is a–he’s not a very pleasant personality, while George Bush not as effective a debater–

At this point, Woodruff broke in on Novak so CNN could interview Dick Cheney.

Novak became the first major pundit to criticize Gore’s "off camera" conduct. On MSNBC, after Luntz’s group reported, another conservative, Peggy Noonan, echoed Novak. Noonan said that Gore "dominated from the get-go" and "seemed to be a person of greater sophistication, greater stature, greater subtlety–he was in his zone." Bush "seemed unfocused," Noonan said, "a little bit tired in time [sic], a gentleman who forgets the predicate of the statement." But then, she scored Gore’s conduct:

NOONAN: Now that having been said, I think that Mr. Gore was also, while he dominated as a debater, he was also haughty, aggressive, superior, snide, he sighed repeatedly to put Bush off his game–

WILLIAMS: And audibly.

NOONAN: Yeah, and audibly. He sighed, he rolled his eyes, he almost put his hands in his mouth and made funny faces. He was quite sneering toward Bush. I don’t know how the American people will accept that.

No one else on the panel (Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle, Doris Kearns Goodwin) seemed to second Noonan’s appraisal. Over on the Fox News Channel, meanwhile, all the pundits criticized Gore’s conduct as soon as the debate ended. In the first comment by a panelist, Mara Liasson mentioned Gore’s "sighing" (see postscript). After Morton Kondracke assured Fox viewers that Bush "did not make any mistakes," Fred Barnes also criticized Gore’s "sighing and mugging," and the panel quickly made Gore’s sighing the first point of discussion.

The distribution was fascinating. Across the dial, the only pundits who mentioned Gore’s conduct were frank conservatives–Novak and Noonan–or pundits on conservative Fox. No other pundit ever mentioned Gore’s conduct. And, while dozens of voters were interviewed in focus groups–twenty-two on CNN alone–the only group that ever mentioned Gore’s conduct was run by another conservative, Luntz (though Luntz was even-handed in letting his panel complain about "fuzzy math" too). The oddness of the distribution was apparent in Noonan’s statement; Noonan described wildly inappropriate conduct by Gore, which almost no one else seemed to notice. Noonan and Fox described very strange conduct; in all four network focus groups, voters didn’t mention it at all. Meanwhile, one major pol also mentioned Gore’s sighing–Dick Cheney, appearing on ABC’s Nightline. Ted Koppel–acting out standard press corps priorities–questioned Cheney first about style:

KOPPEL: These debates, as you know, are effective and ineffective sometimes in two different areas. Let’s start with the stylistic ones. Stylistically, why do you think Al Gore was not as good as George Bush?

CHENEY: Well, I noticed the way he, he kept sighing into the microphone when Governor Bush was talking. It was weird. I don’t know whether it was a deliberate tactic of some kind to disconcert the governor. It didn’t work, clearly. But a number of times tonight, I found that rather disconcerting to hear him making noise at his mike that I think was intended to disrupt the flow of the presentation.

So Cheney also mentioned Gore’s "sighing"–and alleged that Gore deliberately misbehaved.

Why were conservatives struck by something that others didn’t seem to notice? There is, of course, no way to tell, but on this occasion–as on so many others throughout this campaign–conservative spin soon ruled the media. Luntz’s focus group, for example, had been equally troubled by Gore’s sighing and by Bush’s use of "fuzzy math." (This, of course, was before they knew that Gore’s math had been anything but "fuzzy.") But over the course of the following week, Bush’s taunt was essentially never discussed, while Gore’s sighing became a cause celebre; networks assembled reels of Gore’s sighs–volume jacked way up, of course–and played them in loops for their viewers. Within a day or two, almost everyone in the press corps agreed–Gore had badly misbehaved at the debate. In his book, Greenfield finally joins the Pundit Chorale, offering a wildly hyperbolic account of Gore’s conduct–conduct which Greenfield never mentioned at the time of the actual debate. Greenfield, remember, thought in real time that Bush may have slightly offended (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/31/01).

Who was right about Gore’s conduct? Plainly, that’s a matter of judgment. Why did the press pursue "fuzzy breathing" but not "fuzzy math?" At THE HOWLER, we don’t read minds. But from "invented the Internet" right through this crucial debate, RNC and conservative spin routinely drove the mainstream media discourse. In March 1999, no one in the press corps said a word about Gore’s remark on the Internet–until the RNC began to push it, three days later. On debate night, only a handful of conservatives mentioned the sighing. Soon, the whole press corps knew how wrong it had been.

But surely no one flipped n this matter the way Greenfield does in his book. In Oh Waiter!, he offers a wildly hyperbolic account of Gore’s conduct–he himself calls it a "harsh conclusion"–but never mentions that he said something vastly different in real time. In real time, Greenfield said nothing about Gore’s behavior, but suggested that Bush may have slightly offended. And the following day, on Inside Politics, Greenfield–one of the most sensible pundits in real time–scolded the press corps for the kind of conduct in which he now chattily engages:

JUDY WOODRUFF (10/4): joining us again with some final thoughts on last night’s debate, my colleague, Jeff Greenfield.

GREENFIELD: Thank you, Judy.

OK, so let’s see. Al Gore wore too much makeup, George W. Bush pursed his lips. Gore sighed audibly, Bush furrowed his brow. Gore's chuckle was a little forced, so were some of Bush’s wisecracks.

You know, we relentlessly examine every word, every gesture, and we do this because we know, or think we know, how crucially important this stuff is. Call it the Richard Nixon’s lousy makeup lesson.

But here’s what I want to know: How would we, the folks who issue these judgments, feel if every single one of our clumsy gestures or verbal gaffes were held up to such relentless scrutiny? How many "uhs" or "you knows," how many untoward facial expressions do we offer up on a semi-regular basis?

It brings to mind the story of a lady who walks into a butcher shop and asks for a chicken. And she takes the chicken, and sniffs it, probes it, holds it up to the light, peers into every opening, and she says, "You know, I’m not sure about this chicken." And the butcher says, "Hey, lady, let me ask you, could you pass such a test?" Speaking only for myself, Judy, no, I could not.

But that was then and this is now. In Oh Waiter!, Greenfield does everything he editorialized against in real time, right down to his niggling, irrelevant comment about Gore’s ugly makeup. In real time, Greenfield was one of the press corps’ most sensible pundits; like Noble Nestor, Homer’s "seasoned charioteer," Greenfield often provided "good, sound advice" of the type which he gave on 10/4. But in today’s press corps, the LCD rules; eventually, even the brightest are dragged into line. Oh Waiter!’s description of that first debate completes the press corps’ sad devolution, in which Standard Accounts–however silly and hyperbolic–are transformed into stern Press Corps Law.

Next week: More fun with books! Sammon says!

An encore presentation: Once again, Greenfield’s account from Oh Waiter!:

GREENFIELD: Watch a tape of the debate, and a very different picture emerges. Gore repeatedly interrupts, demands more time to explain himself, behaves like the smartest kid in class impatiently insisting on correcting everyone else’s mistakes. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and sighs audibly, if not theatrically…

Forget the fact that Gore’s makeup looked like it had been the work of a student of mortuary science. Any undecided voter who was wary of electing a big-government know-it-all to the White House had his worst fears confirmed in that first debate. Yes, the instant polls showed a narrow Gore victory. But it was the kind of victory the villainous wrestler scores with a questionable chokehold. A lot of voters were saying, "Yeah, he won–but I don’t like that guy."


The occasional update (6/2/01)

There’s some bad transcripts going around: What did Mara Liasson say after the Bush-Gore debate? It’s hard to tell, due to a familiar problem–Fox’s bollixed transcripts. On Lexis-Nexis, FNC transcripts are routinely plagued by large errors. Large chunks of statements are frequently missing. This problem extends back for several years.

Here is an exchange from the Fox transcript; it records Brit Hume’s initial question post-debate. As published, Liasson’s statement doesn’t quite make sense:

HUME: Let me ask you, Mara Liasson, what did you think?

LIASSON: I thought they both did well. I though George W. Bush more than held his own. I think he was the person the expectations game had disfavored for this contest.

I thought that Al Gore kept some of his bad habits in check like a sighing and nervous laughter that weren’t kept in check.

I thought Bush did seem more relaxed. And I also thought that Bush was able to explain his tax cut plan in a pretty coherent way. I thought that was a draw if not a Bush advantage. I think on some other areas like foreign policy, abortion, experience in crises, Gore had the advantage. I don't know if those are issues that voters care that much about, though.

Did Liasson say that Gore did or didn’t keep his "sighing and nervous laughter" in check? In the transcript, Liasson says that these habits "weren’t" kept in check. Context suggests that she may have said that they were. We’ll have to get ahold of the tape. Meanwhile, Fox’s transcripts have been badly butchered for years (in ways that go light-years beyond this small point of uncertainty). Dudes at Fox! Please! Solve this problem!