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16 June 2000

Our current howler (part II): They’ll have fun fun fun

Synopsis: Howard Kurtz reported life-on-the-plane. But he buried the one part that mattered.

Belaboring, Not Bedazzling
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 6/14/00

High-Altitude Campaigns
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 6/15/00

In the D.C. Matrix
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/28/99

Stage Presence
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 11/22/99

Yesterday, we watched in sympathy as Maureen Dowd bounced back from a grueling experience (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/15/00). She'd been forced to sit and listen while Vice President Gore talked about "clean air, clean energy and health care." Yuck! "It was enough to make you miss the old slashing Al," the trembling pundit complained the next day. Of course, Dowd had offered vacuous critiques of that "old slashing" hopeful as well.

We'll return next week to the way the Times presented its session with Gore. But even as Maureen Dowd struggled for closure, Howard Kurtz penned a long page-one piece in the Post—and had good news to go with the bad. First the good news: Reporters on the Bush campaign plane are being thoroughly entertained by the hopeful. In paragraph two, Kurtz described a bit of enjoyable banter:

KURTZ (2): "You've gone from the pudgy preteen look," [Bush] tells NBC producer Alexandra Pelosi. "Pumping a little iron?" He announces that Pelosi's "physical fitness routine is the envy of many on the flight. She wouldn't have been wearing this sundress a year ago."

It was "Morning in America" once again, as "Bush makes the reporters feel that they each have a personal relationship with him." But then—Dag!—we got the bad news:

KURTZ (5): Cut to a rainy day in Milwaukee, where the small band of national reporters traveling with Al Gore is looking bored, even glum. Despite flying with the vice president on Air Force Two, their only glimpse of him all day long is from 100 yards away when he gives a routine speech at the War Memorial Center...

Do you like your stories nice and neat? Even the weather (rainy) and the locale (Milwaukee) chipped in to reinforce Kurtz's theme.

Does it strike you as news that a bunch of reporters may be "bored, even glum?" If it doesn't, you don't get today's press corps. As Dowd and Kurtz made clear this week, few things concern today's press corps so much as the care and feeding of that self-same press corps. When Gore bored Dowd with his tedious comments, the fidgeting maven slammed him hard. One day later, a lengthy page one piece in the Post discussed what makes reporters feel "glum."

We think Kurtz is one of Washington's most valuable reporters, but this piece revived an embarrassing motif—the wave of stories, during the primaries, about Big Fun on McCain's campaign bus (links in postscript). Is there any reason why readers should care if reporters are "bored" while they're out on the trail? It could only matter if the press corps' reporting was somehow skewed in the process. But all throughout the primary season, scribes penned profiles of the Straight Talk Express, explaining how many jokes McCain told, and how he would give them free donuts. He even would say that he thought they were smart, a number of scribes proudly said.

For the record, Kurtz's profile of the Bush and Gore planes is striking for its incomprehension. Early on, for example, Kurtz writes this:

KURTZ (6): ...[Bush] is, say journalists who have ridden both planes, a heckuva lot more fun to cover. Gore sometimes chats with reporters on his plane, but those who cover him say he often seems cautious, even when the topic is as innocuous as whether he liked "The Gladiator" more than "Mission: Impossible." He is, for the most part, cordial but reserved.

Let's say it again: This passage is striking for its lack of insight. We have no idea what Gore may have said when asked by scribes about these two films. We don't know if Gore was actually cautious; if he was, we don't know why. But in April, Gore had apparently told some friends that he and his wife liked The Matrix, and—who else?—Maureen Dowd wrote a slashing column questioning why he would say that:

DOWD (4/28) (paragraph 1): Right before the Littleton shootings, Al Gore was telling everyone that he and Tipper just loved "The Matrix." [Dowd's emphasis]

That's right, folks. Immediately after the Columbine killings, Dowd wrote a column criticizing "the Father of the Internet" for enjoying an "imaginative hit movie that is a video game writ large, a balletic and epic ode to violence." (This was one week after Dowd wrote a column deconstructing Gore's thoughts on his bald spot.) Are questions about movies really "innocuous," given the press corps' grinding pathology? In 1997, a more innocent time, Gore made a passing comment—completely accurate—about something Erich Segal was once quoted saying. In those days, Gore spoke at length to scribes on his plane; according to Karen Tumulty, one of two reporters present, Gore's Love Story comment was "two or three sentences, tops, in a 2_ hour conversation." His remark was slightly misquoted in Time, and then—who else?—Maureen Dowd, a thousand miles away, wrote a column explaining Gore's motives for the (misquoted) comment. Kurtz has never reported on Dowd's Love Story columns, but—incredibly—Gore's meaningless comment has helped define the contours of the 2000 race. But, after two solid years of Love Story nonsense; and after Dowd's slashing piece on The Matrix; and after Dowd's disgraceful recent joke on The Gladiator (see "The Daily update," 5/17/00); the nation's top media reporter can't imagine why Gore might not want to talk to the press about movies. So it often goes when our modern scribes pretend to look at their own hopeless conduct.

Was there actual news in Kurtz's piece? Quite possibly—but it got buried. In paragraph six, Kurtz touched on a subject we discussed this very week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/12/00):

KURTZ (6): Most reporters insist their daily coverage is not influenced by whether a candidate is friendly or not. But these sharply divergent views of the presidential contenders from the rear of their campaign planes help explain why Bush is consistently portrayed as relaxed and confident and Gore as someone who often fails to connect with people...

Really? Gore is portrayed in the way he is because he doesn't spend time with reporters? If that is true, it's significant news—a striking indictment of the press coprs' lack of professionalism. Indeed, Kurtz offers glimpses later on in his piece of deep problems with the Gore coverage:

KURTZ (33): In some respects, Gore seems trapped. If he attacks Bush, he's accused of being too negative. If he ignores Bush, he's accused of being uninspiring. If he tried a different tack, he's accused of reinventing himself...

Kurtz is describing a serious matter—a press corps that has decided to put a negative spin on everything one hopeful says. Why is this mentioned in passing, in paragraph 33, while trivia dominates the rest of the story? If chummy conduct by Bush is affecting the coverage, that's media news. Kurtz buries it.

The facts about our press corps are simple; they've been on display for over a year. The Washington press corps runs in a pack, and showers good coverage on hopefuls it favors. In January, the press corps went into Full Swoon for McCain, and Bush was subjected to what Dana Milbank had predicted would be his "Gore moment." Milbank had penned a prescient report on the problem before it began:

MILBANK (11/22/99): Things seem to be going McCain's way. He's gaining on Bush (polls in New Hampshire show his support at nearly 30 percent). And some in the press believe that Bush is heading for his "Gore moment," a time when he can do no right...

What Milbank meant, of course, was this: Bush was heading for his "Gore moment," a time when he would be reported as doing no right. Soon, Frank Bruni was writing a series of articles about words which Bush couldn't pronounce (January 8, 15, 23, and 28; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00). During that period, Bush held his distance from the press, and was slammed by the corps for his lack of access. But why do hopefuls decide to cut access? Sometimes, they don't give access because they know the press corps is hard on their tail. If the press corps is going to write a story whenever you misstate a word, then a rational campaign will limit its access. But such thoughts don't seem to enter Kurtz's mind as he quotes a series of idealistic scribes; they swear that they're "a group of professionals" who would never be swayed by all that.

Here's the part of Kurtz's piece that ought to make citizens uneasy:

KURTZ (8): Bush makes the reporters feel that they each have a personal relationship with him. They all get nicknames (Frank Bruni of the New York Times is "Pancho"; CNN's Candy Crowley is "Dulce," Spanish for "sweet"; Australian-born Patricia Wilson of Reuters is "Outback Woman"). He has running gags; he always talks about fixing up Pelosi with a Newsweek writer; always asks ABC producer John Berman, a Boston native, how the Red Sox did last night. He talks so much about his two favorite topics, sports and his Texas ranch, that the reporters roll their eyes when he gets started...

Editors ought to order scribes not to engage in such fraternization. We don't blame Bush for his part in this schmoozing. But it's been clear throughout this election campaign that this sort of thing does badly skew coverage. Kurtz suggests as much several times, but quite frankly, doesn't much seem to care.

The quoted passage fleshes out some details from Bruni's embarrassing April 14 piece, in which the scribe announced that Bush had begun to engage in a new "sociable course" with reporters (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/00). "He not only slaps reporters' backs but also rubs the tops of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches their cheeks," Bruni wrote. "It is the tactile equivalent of the nicknames he doles out to them." Bruni described Bush "listening sympathetically to [a] network producer's romantic travails." Editors ought to cringe and quake when portraits like this are drawn of reporters. But, as Dowd scored Gore for boring her silly, reporters seem to think that Bush and Gore are supposed to entertain them. Like Dowd, the scribes seem to want fun fun fun. Does Kurtz really think this makes sense?


Monday: Dowd and Seelye played around with Gore's session. But grown-up Bill Safire got it right.

Visit our incomparable archives: We cringed and quaked as major scribes sketched out the Big Fun on the Straight Talk Express. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/00, 2/28/00, 2/29/00, 3/1/00.


The Daily update (6/16/00)

Shapiro gets it right: Our analysts came right out of their chairs when they read one scribe's report this week. It was Walter Shapiro, getting it right in the pages of USA Today. The wily tactician offered good sound advice about that old chestnut, the biographical profile:

SHAPIRO: Pick up any newspaper and there's almost sure to be a story intended to illuminate the "character" of the candidates. Nicholas Kristof, in Saturday's New York Times, went back nearly 40 years to exhume George W. Bush's student days at a blue-blood prep school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

The scribe gave his readers the long view:

SHAPIRO: The notion that biography is destiny goes as far back as the Greek writer Plutarch. But ever since the ideas of Sigmund Freud were popularized almost a century ago, we have collectively become obsessed with finding the Rosetta stone (or the "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' epic movie, Citizen Kane) to decipher character. No detail about a presidential candidate—SAT scores, relations with parents, early girlfriends—is deemed irrelevant...

Shapiro even got on "armchair Freudian" Gail Sheehy for "hyp[ing] beyond all reality."

We agree with the sagacious scribe's closing statement: "All the biographical answers we need are buried in Gore's and Bush's public records." Noble Nestor said the Argives needed "good, sound advice." Shapiro delivered on Wednesday.