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21 June 2000

Our current howler (part II): Stop them before they spin more

Synopsis: Discussing Gore’s plan, several scribes seemed to say, "Stop us before we spin more."

A Safer Retirement Plan
Editorial, The New York Times, 6/20/00

Gore to propose his own retirement savings program
Susan Page, USA Today, 6/19/00

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
The Mitchell Report, MSNBC, 6/19/00

Commentary by David Bloom
Hardball, MSNBC, 6/19/00

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
The Mitchell Report, MSNBC, 6/20/00

In recent months, we've noticed an odd division of labor at the New York Times. You get your facts when you read the editorial page, and your opinions from the paper's "reporters." Yesterday, the paper's lead editorial discussed Gore's "SS Plus." Most strikingly, the editorial straightened out the presentation of facts which Katharine Seelye had penned one day earlier:

NEW YORK TIMES (6/20): Republicans accused Mr. Gore of hypocritically proposing a concept—investing personal retirement money in stocks—that he labeled "risky" when proposed by Mr. Bush. The criticism is misleading. Investing basic retirement money in stocks can be imprudent. But investing additional money in stocks and bonds once the family's basic Social Security retirement benefit is preserved poses nowhere near the same type of risk.

Whatever the merits of Gore's proposal, we agree with the editorial's presentation of facts. Whatever its merits, Bush's plan subjects payroll taxes ("basic retirement money") to a degree of risk; Gore's plan does not. Ironically, the editorial said "Republicans" had made a misleading criticism, accusing Gore of doing the same "risky" thing he had bashed. But the same critique had been pushed quite hard by Seelye in the Times' page-one news story! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/00.) Gore was proposing "two things [he] had criticized" in Bush's proposal, Seelye said, early on in her argumentative piece. But Gore had criticized the investing of payroll taxes, a fact which Seelye somehow glossed. At the Times, when you want clear facts, you don't go to page one. That's where the spinners are parading.

The fact is, it was amazingly easy to state the distinction which somehow escaped Seelye's grasp. Susan Page made it look like a snap, on page one of USA Today:

PAGE (6/19): Gore will argue that his alternative would offer the prospect of higher returns from the stock market without putting current Social Security benefits at risk. "This is not a carve-out that reduces anybody's Social Security benefit, but an add-on," says Alan Blinder, a Gore adviser and former Federal reserve vice chairman.

That's right—it was simple to state. Bush would invest a part of the payroll tax; Gore's plan left those moneys alone. But pundits out in pundit-land were facing dark nights of the soul. Everyone knew that the spin was on the street; and everyone knew what the accepted spins were: (1) Gore had reinvented himself again; and (2) Gore had copied Bush's plan after bashing it. The spins were on the RNC e-mails; and on Monday, the spin was right there in the Times. And you know the way those pundits are; they all like to spin just alike. So when Dana Milbank showed up for The Mitchell Report Monday night, his hostess was in quite a quandary:

MITCHELL (6/19): Dana, let's talk about Social Security for a minute. Is Al Gore going to be able to fully explain his Social Security proposal, which has a lot of appeal—

MILBANK: Well, I think he sort of—

MITCHELL: Or is he going to get tied up with all of us saying he's reinventing himself yet again?

What a remarkable question! Mitchell was wondering if a presidential candidate would be able to explain a major proposal in the face of group spin from the press corps! "All of us" would be saying it, Mitchell fretted, seeming to knew her group's habits quite well. Of course, just by asking the question, Mitchell caused the problem herself—Milbank had to discuss whether Gore was "reinventing himself," leaving less time to discuss Gore's proposal. Meanwhile, the very same night, on Hardball, same network, guest host David Bloom had the same problem. He posed an opening question:

BLOOM (6/19): Michael [Barone], let me begin with you. Is it fair to equate Gore and Bush's Social Security plan? After all, Gore says that he would keep the existing benefits and add new benefits, create new accounts, and Bush's plan almost certainly would lead to unspecified cuts in guaranteed benefits. So are we muddying the water too much here?

Bloom understood the facts quite well, and seemed concerned that "we"—the pundits—were "muddying the water" by pretending the plans were alike. It would have been inspiring, except for one thing. In his lead-in presentation, fifteen seconds before, Bloom had described the two plans like this:

BLOOM: Al Gore accused George W. Bush of recklessly playing the stock market with your Social Security dollars. Now Gore is announcing his own plan, and it seems he too wants to play the market.

That was his complete presentation. Bloom, understanding that the plans were different, had begun by making them sound alike! There it was, the Seelye (and RNC) spin: Gore had criticized Bush for "playing the market," and now he was doing it himself. Bloom failed to state the salient fact, which he knew—that Gore's plan would "play the market," all right, but not with Social Security dollars. Kids, Gore's plan doesn't even affect SS. It isn't even a "Social Security plan."

Can we offer a bit of an overview here? Financially, Gore can consider a plan like this because he doesn't have Bush's large tax cuts. The dollars which Bush would return in cuts, Gore can use for retirement accounts. To put it in language today's pundit can grasp: The retirement accounts would be Pander of Gore; the large tax cuts would be Pander of Bush. It's yet to be seen how the dollars work out, but that is the structural outline.

But the RNC spins were immediate and clear—and were immediately reflected all through the press corps, even in cases where pundits knew that the spin-lines were factually misleading. We can't go inside Glenn Kessler's brain, but it's the same pattern we saw in his piece in the Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/00). Remember? In paragraph four, Kessler said that Bush and Gore were taking "radically different approaches to dealing with Social Security." But before he said that, he said something quite different; in paragraph one, he suggested the two plans were "strikingly similar," and he offered a strange account of how Gore's mere proposal of his "radically different" plan "will likely cloud the distinctions between" the two plan. How would proposing a plan "radically different" from Bush's "cloud the distinctions" between the two offerings? Kessler didn't say, but once again we got the spin-image: The two plans are alike.

On its face, what Kessler wrote didn't make much sense—except as service to ascendant spin. And there was Mitchell last night, with David Bonior, once again wringing her hands. You'll surely think we're making this up. But here's the first thing the pundit said when she brought up Gore's proposal:

MITCHELL (6/20): Talking about the larger Gore versus Bush debate this week, we've seen Al Gore coming up with a new Social Security proposal which is really a retreat from his earlier proposals and sounds a lot like what George W was proposing, even though it isn't. To the average voter it sounds as though he's talking about investing in the markets which is what he said is a high-risk deal.

Amazing! Mitchell's statement is so full of familiar howlers that we'll give it a closer look tomorrow. But look at the principal thing she says. Gore's plan isn't like Bush's plan, she says, but she describes it as such at two points in her statement! The great god, Spin, is a powerful god, and exerts a merciless control over adepts. And all through the press corps, the mighty god Spin has inspired remarkable presentations this week.


Tomorrow: Mitchell worried that "all of us" would yell "reinvention" at Gore. She had plenty of reason to worry.


The Daily update (6/21/00)

Heads will roll: Doggone it! We couldn't complete our last cycle of stories due to staff error here at THE HOWLER. Someone taped over the 6/14 Imus and Mitchell shows, in which the pundits rushed to affirm what Maureen Dowd had said in her column that morning. Dowd complained that the hopeless Gore had made her listen to talk about health care. Bor-ring!! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/15/00.) But, despite the inanity of the column, Imus and Mitchell raced to say what a hopeless job the Dem hopeful had done.

We thought Mitchell's performance really showed how the press corps develops its conventional wisdom. Mitchell had no way of assessing Gore's performance for herself, but made Bob Rubin answer pointless questions about why Gore had been so ineffective. She simply assumed the accuracy of Dowd's judgment, despite the column's obvious shortcomings (see below). And of course, she peppered Rubin with questions about being vice president. It was a perfect example of the trivial treatment the press corps has given to the recent Gore tour (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/00). Mitchell displayed little interest in Rubin's specialty, the various Gore economic themes. Instead, she engaged in the silly will-you-be-VP dance, and asked him to explain a performance by Gore which neither one of them had any way to assess.

And just how hopeless was the Dowd column? Should Mitchell have assumed that Dowd was on target? Hardly. After complaining about being forced to listen to talk about issues, the misused pundit penned an assessment of Gore's discussion of capital punishment. Here's how Dowd began:

DOWD: Mr. Gore is so afraid of reviving the old Democratic label of being soft on capital punishment that he can't capitalize on the issue despite fresh evidence that the administration of the death penalty is seriously flawed. A new Columbia University study found that two out of every three convictions are overturned on appeal.

Asked repeatedly at The Times whether he is comfortable with the death penalty now, Mr. Gore weaved and waffled.

Three key words are "fresh," "new" and "now." Dowd complains that Gore hasn't reacted in a way she'd like to a study released only days before. Not surprisingly, Dowd betrays a taste for hasty reaction as opposed to contemplation and judgment. But is Dowd's principal statement here on target? Is it true that Gore "weaved and waffled" when he was "asked repeatedly whether he is comfortable with the death penalty?" Luckily, this is one of the topics on which the Times published a partial transcript. According to the published record, here are some of the things Gore actually said:

GORE: I have supported capital punishment...I have insisted upon certain criteria before I'm willing to support the death penalty. But where those criteria are present I have always supported it.

GORE: There are some who bring an understandable passion to the new debate over capital punishment that arises from their fundamental moral opposition to the penalty itself. I do not share it...I do think the penalty should be available.

GORE: Now on the new debate...If there were, for example, in the federal courts the kind of record that Governor Ryan found in Illinois, I would support a federal moratorium pending improvements...I do not believe the evidence shows that's the case. Thus, at this point I do not support a federal moratorium.

Gore still supports the use of capital punishment. Dowd perhaps does not. And we only have an edited transcript to go by. But it's hard to believe that Gore's remarks could be fairly characterized as "repeated weaving and waffling." He also directly answered Dowd's question. At one point, Gore said this:

GORE: I don't think anybody's comfortable with the death penalty, regardless of your position. And if there is a study that shows a large number of mistakes, that has to make you uncomfortable.

The answer to Dowd's question was "No." But on the basis of Dowd's shaky work, Imus and Mitchell raced to tell viewers how horrible Gore had been. Could college freshmen get away with judgment so facile? It was an instructive look at the hopeless way spin is spun at the top of our press corps.

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

Excerpts From Gore's Remarks on Bush, the Presidential Race and the Issues
The New York Times, 6/14/00