28 June 1999
Our current howler (part II): Asleep on their towels
Synopsis: Ten-year-olds love to search for the truth. Why cant the press corps do likewise?
Commentary by Tim Russert, Dan Rather
Russert, CNBC, 6/26/99
Commentary by Tim Russert, Claire Shipman, Gwen Ifill, Lisa Myers
Meet the Press, NBC, 6/27/99
Eric Alterman, The Nation, 7/12/99
This weekend, we took the analysts for their annual trip up
to the rocky shore of New Hampshire, and they splashed and screamed
in the frigid waters off New Castle, the "great island"
near Portsmouth. Gov. Bush was there ten days before, beaming
postcards to the nation. But now all we saw were local children,
examining mussels, snails and crabs in the tide pools of the rough,
But when we returned to DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters and
began reviewing the pundits' latest efforts, we can't say that
we found a corresponding instinct to conduct a great search for
the truth. Concerning Bush's emergence as White House front-runner,
for example, Tim Russert had said this to Dan Rather:
RUSSERT (6/26): I asked Governor Bush, "How did this happen?"
He doesn't know! He woke up and said, "You're ahead
in the polls." He doesn't, no one can explain why George
Bush has emerged so quickly and so dramatically.
"I believe the governor when he says that," Rather
said, making it perfectly clear that he doesn't, then went on
to list five reasons for Gov. Bush's emergence. But the analysts
simply shook their heads at Russert's credulous recitation. The
notion that Bush just woke up one day and found himself ahead
in the polls is, of course, an image drawn directly from a Bush
campaign postcard. We mean no disrespect to Gov. Bush to say that
this picture is simply absurd; but it does nothing except diminish
Russert, to see him able to mouth such a groaner. Can Russert
really believe it: that Bush just woke up one day on top, and
still can't figure how he got there? We pictured children, crawling
on rocks, struggling to study the world around them. And then
we looked at the credulous grins that inexplicably beam out from
our press corps.
How had Gov. Bush first emerged? As you'll recall, one
of the ways he emerged-known to Bush-was described by Time
last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/99). In early polling, forty
percent of respondents had believed "George Bush" was
the governor's ex-president dad! And, according to the current
Zogby poll, substantial numbers still believe it's President
Bush about whom folks are polling!
But you didn't hear it from Russert or Rather, or from the
correspondents on Meet the Press. As it turned out, NBC
had tried to figure out how much people know about Dub.
Sadly, here's how they did it:
RUSSERT (6/27): Lisa Myers, we asked our voters, viewers, about
George W. Bush. What do they know about him? And it was fascinating,
the results. "A lot," said 39%, or "a fair amount,"
they knew about that. "Some," said 29%. "Very little,"
32%. So a majority of the people in the country say they don't
know very much about George W. Bush, and yet at this stage, they're
kinda supporting him!
Readers, there are a lot of ways a network could learn how
much voters know about Bush. Plainly, NBC selected the least effective
possible way to answer this particular question. How did NBC determine
if voters "knew a lot" about Bush? NBC simply asked
if they did! Of course-but the problems with this plan are
quite obvious. For example, voters who think "George Bush"
is his dad don't know they have the two mixed up; asking them
how much they know about Bush is like letting ten-year-olds provide
their own math scores. And yet this is the way a major network
goes about learning how much voters know-and the way at least
one major pundit seeks the truth on important elections.
By contrast, Eric Alterman, in this week's Nation, mentioned
the confusion about Gov. Bush, and he reminds us there are actual
ways to survey public information:
ALTERMAN: Bush's poll numbers, moreover, start to descend when
pollsters go to the trouble to inform respondents that he is not
his father. In a New York Times poll on the popularity of various
members of the Bush family, 73 percent professed an opinion of
the former President, George Herbert Walker Bush, and for 66 percept,
it was favorable. By the time questioners got to his son, the
current governor of Texas, however, 70% had no opinion whatever.
Unfortunately, in an article full of insight about our current
discourse, Alterman is a bit unclear here. Apparently, he describes
a survey in which people are asked their opinion of Gov. Bush
only after it is made clear that Bush-the-son is the person in
question. Needless to say, there are many ways that a careful
survey could learn how much is known about Bush. The approach
NBC chose, which Russert trumpeted, is the silliest approach that
a network could take.
No one on Russert's three-member panel mentioned the problem
with what he had said. Again, we marveled to think that this is
how we conduct the world's greatest public discourse. On Saturday,
we had watched eager children climb wet, slippery rocks, in a
day-long search for the bone-cold truth. But there wouldn't be
any scraped elbows and knees among Russert's languid NBC panel.
Tomorrow: We start a four-day look at mainstream press
coverage of Al Gore's campaign kick-off announcement.
Asleep on their towels: Again, we don't intend to criticize
Bush because some folks don't know who he is yet. We think Bush's
success in Texas speaks for itself. And we express no view about
what voters will think when they do start to pay more attention.
We do think it's pointless to describe voters' "opinions"
at a time when the voters aren't paying attention. But if NBC
insists on wasting time in this way, it ought to make an actual
effort to determine how much voters know.