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19 June 2000

Our current howler (part III): One out of three is real bad

Synopsis: Dowd and Seelye clowned about Gore. Only Bill Safire played grown-up.

Firmly for Death Penalty, Gore Is Open to a Review
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/14/00

Stop Cookie-Pushers
William Safire, The New York Times, 6/15/00

But let's get back to that Times board meeting, the one with Gore last Tuesday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/15/00). Talk about a room full of stars! Maureen Dowd was in one chair, chin bobbing up and down on her chest. And Katharine Seelye was there as well, assessing the hopeful's comments. In fact, Seelye reported the event for the Times, in a next-day story. The first half of her article was a straight account of what Gore had said on capital punishment. But then, in the second half of her piece, the clowning and nonsense began:

SEELYE (paragraph 19): Throughout the interview, Mr. Gore offered an uncharacteristically modest assessment of his grasp of detail. These assertions seemed an attempt to put the brake on his tendency to veer toward the tutorial and didactic...

They did? To us, Seelye's statement seemed an attempt to veer toward a treasured soundbite (that Gore is "tutorial and didactic"). We especially thought so as we read on, and saw the underwhelming examples she gave:

SEELYE (19): Throughout the interview, Mr. Gore offered an uncharacteristically modest assessment of his grasp of detail. These assertions seemed an attempt to put the brake on his tendency to veer toward the tutorial and didactic. "You're taking me outside my depth," he said of a discussion on missile technology. "I do not claim expertise," he said of a discussion of the Microsoft case.

Was Gore trying to "put the brake on his tendency to veer toward the didactic?" Or was he possibly saying that the discussion on missiles was taking him outside his depth? Sometimes a demurral is just a demurral, but the know-it-all nabob now played theater critic, filling her piece with pointless assessments, asserting her tragic primacy. (She was also hinting at another treasured theme: Gore was reinventing his persona.) Why on earth would anyone care if Gore did "attempt to put the brake on his tendency toward the tutorial?" Here's why: Because Katharine Seelye is in love with trivia—and with repeating the soundbites and themes of her coverage, with reinforcing the stories she likes.

By the way, a small word of warning: "Kit" may be tone-deaf on jokes. Continuing directly from the passage above, she offered a third example of the way Ol' Tutorial had tried not to stress all that knowledge:

SEELYE (continuing directly) (20): And, in response to a question from William Safire, the language authority and New York Times columnist, about choice in matters of privacy, Mr. Gore replied: "Along with roughly 270 million other Americans, I use words more carelessly than Bill Safire, and in choosing the word 'choose,' I did not inform myself of the deeper, more subtle meanings, which I can now see clearly."

Amazing, isn't it? Roughly 270 million other Americans would have known that Gore had been joking. (Safire knew, as we'll show you.) But to the hopeless Seelye, it was another example of Gore's attempt to play down what he knew. And the tone-deaf tyro wasn't done; she'd been struck by another part of the hopeful's performance. "At the same time, he seemed to enjoy showing off his knowledge," she said, marveling at the irony of it all. But we'd better give you this in full too, to show you how dim this kind of writing can get:

SEELYE (22): At the same time, he seemed to enjoy showing off his knowledge. At one point, Mr. Gore was asked about his tactical positioning in a question referring to Napoleon's military strategy, and surprised listeners by saying, "Napoleon also invented canned food."

This would seem to be another joke, which Seelye again didn't get. (Pssst: Think "Inventing the Internet.") In fact, as soon as the meeting was finally through, and the trembling Dowd had been helped from the room, Seelye ran through the halls to a desk, and sat down to do some quick research. As her piece ended, she explained to readers that Napoleon hadn't invented canned food, he had only "helped popularize it."

Could a rational person possibly believe that this is America's public discourse—that this is the way our discourse unfolds, at the top of our national media? Seelye's piece devolved into pointless assessments, informed by her tone-deaf reactions. And why was this nonsense included at all? Because it's the New York Times! Because, as we told you long ago, many scribes at the hopeless Times think the news is really all about them! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/22/99, 7/26/99, 7/27/99, 7/28/99) It's all about their clever jokes. It's about their analytical brilliance. And it's all about their tragic primacy over the hopefuls they denigrate. Dowd refused to discuss what Gore said, telling us how "soporific" he'd been. Seelye littered her piece with tiny, small judgments, designed to restore her control.

But luckily, William Safire was there as well, to offer an adult's perspective. His Thursday column, in its entirety, was devoted to things Gore had said. Imagine! Dowd lay sprawled across her bed, recovering from all the chatter on health care. Seelye's World Almanac lay on her desk, still open to the section on canned goods. But Safire was exploring a serious topic, one which Gore actually discussed. Safire explained the question he'd posed, concerning privacy on the Net. And when he did, he also recounted the first response Gore had offered:

SAFIRE (8): "Along with 270 million Americans," he replied, "I use words more carelessly than Bill Safire. And in choosing the word 'choose,' I did not inform myself of the deeper, more subtle meanings—which I now see clearly."

"Then Gore got serious," Safire wrote, noting that Gore had been joking. Where the Times' reporter had wasted time making pointless assessments of perceived psychodramas, Safire, a grown-up, had somehow managed to notice that Gore told a joke. (Grown-ups can do things like that.) Safire went on to quote Gore at length, and offered his thoughts on what Gore had said. Dowd, bored stiff, had lashed out at Gore for discussing topics like the one Safire raised. But, in a moment now hopelessly rare at the Times, Safire assessed what Gore said:

SAFIRE (12): Gore warmed to the subject. "I think that people ought to have a right to expect that [your bank account and the history of what checks you write] will remain private unless they affirmatively give up that right for whatever reason. And I don't think that current law goes far enough in protecting them. Does that answer your question?"

"Sure does," Safire said. In fact, let's bore Dowd to the depth of her soul. Let's make her sit through an entire paragraph:

SAFIRE (13): Sure does. He also touched my button with "It should be illegal to trade in Social Security numbers. That's the single key fact that is most useful in compiling dossiers."

"Gore's stand on the right to privacy is forceful," Safire said at the end of his piece.

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no view on what Gore said about the Net. We only note how Safire stood out among the three Times scribes. Only Safire was able, from start to finish, to treat the Gore session in a serious way. Is this how our public discourse now works? When it comes to the Times' reaction to Gore, one out of three is real bad.

Tomorrow: It's hard to believe. But when Dowd discussed what Gore said on capital punishment, things got considerably worse.


The Daily update (6/19/00)

The facts, ma'am. Just (leave out) the facts: In a week of remarkable copy-cat soundbites, here's one we saw again and again, all over the nation's air waves:

GIGOT: One other thing is, [Gore's] not getting credit for the economic good times, and no Democrat since 1960 has won the White House unless they had a significant 14- or 15-point advantage over the other Republican candidate on: Who would be the better steward of the economy? The Vice President now is about two to five points behind George W. Bush on that measure. He can't afford to let that stay.

It was Paul Gigot on the NewsHour last Friday, but it could have been a dozen pundits, on a dozen other shows. The nation's seers have marveled en masse that Gore "isn't getting credit for the economic good times." This is frequently treated as a major puzzle—after all, it builds drama when inexplicable events occur. And as we've noted in the past, this press corps loves to "novelize" news—loves to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of good story.

Should it be surprising that a sitting VP "doesn't get credit for the economic good times?" It certainly shouldn't be all that surprising—if voters don't think that we're in good times. Which brings us around to a set of facts reported in the Washington Times last Thursday. The Harris Poll had conducted a survey measuring public awareness of various issues. And guess what? The survey showed that the public doesn't think the "economic times" are all that good.

As is almost always the case when information surveys are done, the Harris Poll's accompanying report described "a badly misinformed public" (the poll tested voter awareness of basic facts about crime, the economy and certain social factors). Here was the passage from the Times report that dealt with the economy:

JOERGER: On the economy question, the poll found that 60 percent of the 1,015 Americans it questioned in early June believe the economy is growing, but only 39 percent believe it is growing quickly.

Respondents had been asked the following question: "Overall, would you say that the nation's economy is growing fast, growing slowly, shrinking or staying about the same?" In the survey, 40% of respondents said the economy was "shrinking or staying about the same." Another 21% said the economy was "growing slowly."

Given numbers like that, should it be surprising that a sitting VP isn't "getting credit for the economic good times?" According to Harris, 40% of American adults think the economy is declining or stagnant! But we dare you to find a mainstream pundit citing this recent report. Pundits hate reporting news which suggests a lack of public knowledge. It undermines the polling stories on which so much of national news is now based. (What's the point of asking opinions if voters don't know what they're talking about?) And it keeps the scribes from one of their favorite soundbites—the one where they build their own "favorables" by piously saying, "The voters are pretty sharp."

The voters may be pretty sharp, but the voters are busy, and almost always misinformed. At the very least, this survey suggests that voters don't share the press corps' assessment of the economy. That may help explain why Gore is on a tour designed to tout the economy's strength. But don't expect to see that explored, either. The pundits prefer to discuss the tour as the latest example of "reinvention." Why interrupt an approved, pleasing tale with a look at highly relevant facts?

One last passage from the Times, concerning the survey's question on violent crime:

JOERGER: As for violent crime, a mere 3 percent of those polled believe that rates have been "decreasing a lot" and 59 percent said that violent crime is "increasing a lot." The polling company points out that crime rates have decreased substantially over the past several years.

By the way: If voters think that crime rates are increasing and the economy is shrinking, imagine the value of asking them what they think about the Bush "plan" for Social Security. But pollsters ran to do that in recent weeks, and excited pundits have explained what they said. Have you seen any effort—any effort—to examine what folks know on the subject?

Times better than U.S. believes
Teresa Joerger, The Washington Times, 6/15/00