Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

6 July 2000

Our current howler (part II): Getting it Wright

Synopsis: The New York Times can say what it likes. But at long last, Robert Wright had enough. (Note: DO NOT MISS today’s "Daily update.")

Campaign Briefing
AP, The New York Times, 7/1/00

As Gore Stays Silent, The Question Arises, Who'll be His No. 2?
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/30/00

Gore Tries Pitching Himself As Drug Industry Opponent
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, 7/1/00

Gore Labels GOP Drug Plan a Facade
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 7/4/00

Newspaper Positions Itself as Cynical
Robert Wright, Slate, 7/3/00

Let's say it loud—the New York Times has the constitutional right to print any drivel it likes. And the paper has been exercising its rights with abandon, as a July 1 "Campaign Briefing" shows. Who would Bush choose to be his VP? The Times had the hottest new tip:

CAMPAIGN BRIEFING: With former Senator John Danforth of Missouri having taken himself out of the running, Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma has become the speculative name-of-the-moment as a potential running mate for George W. Bush...

Whew! Sounded like a very hot "speculation!" And where did the newspaper get it?

CAMPAIGN BRIEFING (continuing directly): Mr. Keating's name surfaced at midweek on the Internet as the latest favorite of the Republican presidential contender, though with caveats that everything could change.

Oohhh! They got their speculation on the Internet! And everything about it could change! This hopeless item followed some brilliant work by Katharine Seelye just one day before. Seelye was musing about who Al Gore might pick to be his running-mate:

SEELYE (paragraph 3): [W]ith less than six weeks to go before the Democratic convention, new names, maybe preposterous, are slipping into the void. What about Robert E. Rubin, the former Treasury secretary? Or, in the latest musing, what about Tom Brokaw, the NBC news anchor?

Really? Tom Brokaw? Gore is considering him? Well, actually, Seelye didn't quite say that—she just said that's the "latest musing." And who was actually doing this "musing?" Seelye's article never quite said. But she did run straight to an unnamed Repub, to see what he thought of the musing:

SEELYE (17): And what of Mr. Brokaw? One top Republican burst out laughing at the mention of his name. The reason? "The first rule of picking a running mate is to do no harm," this Republican said. "The second is, don't overshadow your nominee. What [Gore] would be telling the country is, 'I can't do this on my own. I have to bring in an absolute superstar from outside government to prop myself up.'"

There was no sign from Seelye—not a hint—that Gore had ever considered Brokaw. Despite that, readers got the image of rivals laughing at Gore for propping himself up with same.

That is the kind of comic-book work routinely found in the Times. But finally, one Times piece was wacky enough to get a rise from a serious source. Robert Wright—he writes real books, and he's smart—had finally had enough of the paper's malarkey. He hammered Sheryl Gay Stolberg's July 1 Times piece in a July 3 posting on Slate.

And Wright had picked a worthy piece, even by the Times' groaning standards. Last Saturday, our analysts knew they had to read Stolberg first when they spotted this oddball headline (page one):

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE: Gore Tries Pitching Himself As Drug Industry Opponent

"Gore tries pitching himself?" It simply reeked of official spin: Gore—who doesn't know who he is—constantly tries reinventing himself. Gore—who will do and say anything to win—is constantly pandering to voters. Indeed, all throughout this hapless piece, its author makes a grisly choice. She doesn't just tell us what Gore has said. She relentlessly suggests why Gore said it.

And as it turns out, almost everything Gore does has the smell of cant and positioning. In paragraph 2, Stolberg said that Gore has "cast himself as a longtime critic...of excessive prices and profits." In paragraph 7 (still page one), she says that Gore "is positioning himself as a champion of a far-reaching Medicare prescription drug benefit." In the headline on the inside page, we're told that "Gore promotes himself as industry opponent" (the headline writer got the drift). And we're immediately told why Gore is doing this—because "his campaign's polls show that the issue resonates strongly with voters." In paragraph after paragraph, we run into images of a guy who is just playing politics. (Paragraph 3: Gore is "dusting off his Congressional record and past speeches to stake out policies at odds with the manufacturers.") By the way, Stolberg never tells us how she knows that Gore's polls have created his policy. The statement is made early on in the piece, and is never explained or pursued.

At several points, we think Wright does an excellent job of explaining what's wrong with this article. In fact, in his opening paragraph, Wright explains what's wrong with a lot of writing we've seen in recent months:

WRIGHT (paragraph 1): There was a time—it seems like only yesterday—when a presidential candidate could lambaste the drug industry and expect the New York Times to run a headline like, "Presidential Candidate Lambastes Drug Industry." But that was before an arms race in cynicism swept the world of elite newspapers. These days, a presidential candidate can expect to get the headline that appeared on the front page of Saturday's New York Times: "Gore Tries Pitching Himself As Drug Industry Opponent."

Wright correctly diagnoses a press corps malady—the refusal to report what a hopeful has said. In the current case, Stolberg seems determined to cast interpretive nets around the things Gore has told her. Before she tells you what Gore said, she is determined to suggest why he said it. It's now common: Before a scribe reports what a pol has said, she sends out tendentious bits of spin.

Consider, for example, the way Ceci Connolly reported Gore's July 3 speech on this topic. She started things out fairly straight:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 1): After a week of bashing "Big Oil" for skyrocketing gasoline prices, Vice President Gore took on drugmakers today, charging that they and their friends in the Republican Party are feigning concern over America's retirees but are not actually interested in reducing drug costs.

In paragraph 2, Connolly quotes Gore directly, but begins to engage in the overview stuff, alleging a recent change in Gore's language:

CONNOLLY (2): "The question is whether you're for the people or whether you're for the power," Gore said, in recently revived populist language.

By paragraph 3, we get goofy. Who in the world writes like this:

CONNOLLY (3): Although the stated purpose of today's speech was to promote Gore's Medicare prescription drug plan, the vice president's target was his likely Republican presidential opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and the pharmaceutical industry, and Gore's rhetoric included such words as "baloney," "collusion," "cahoots" and "loopholes."

Who in the world reports a speech by listing words which the speaker used? Connolly could have given us actual sentences, but instead she serves up this peculiar brew, which she says is drawn from Gore's "rhetoric." Is there anything strange about using the word "loophole" when discussing topics such as these? Obviously not—so why in the world doesn't Connolly go ahead and just tell us the things Gore has said?

Wright makes two excellent points in his article. We've already cited the first one: Newspapers should just report the things hopefuls say. Admittedly brilliant as Stolberg may be, she ought to defer to the candidates. In our view, Wright's second important point came near the end of his piece:

WRIGHT: Do I doubt that political calculation shaped Gore's recent remarks on "gouging"? No. In fact, I don't doubt that political calculation—whether conscious or unconscious—shapes a good part of everyday life on this planet. So much so, in fact, that a newspaper just can't afford to go around speculating about it all the time...The responsible thing to do, it seems to me, is for newspapers to save their cynicism for cases in which people are manifestly hypocritical, doing or saying things that are clearly at odds with what they've done or said in the past. If Gore's record on drug prices contains such examples, the Times didn't find them.

We agree with this second point by Wright: Newspapers shouldn't get into the issue of motive unless there's some special circumstance that makes motive stand out.

Stolberg provides no evidence—none at all—that Gore has switched long-held positions. She presents no evidence—none at all—that Gore's position was driven by polling. She presents no evidence—nada; zip; none—that Gore is saying things he doesn't believe. In fact, she presents no evidence that Gore is "positioning himself" any more than pols do all the time. Given those facts, we'd all be better off if Stolberg would put a lid on her manifest, undeniable genius, and tell readers what the hopeful has said. Bush and Gore are more important than Stolberg and Connolly, although you'll not likely see them acknowledge it.

Yep—our analysts came right out of their chairs to see Wright's excellent points in print. But there was one major point Wright didn't make, and we'll look in on that one tomorrow.

Tomorrow: How does "Kit" report on Bush? Get ready for Comedy Action.


The Daily update (7/6/00)

The Spin with Brian Williams: Brian Williams got a little excited on his eponymous show last night. He was talking with poor Paul Begala, and we swear we're not making this up:

WILLIAMS: All right then, Paul, for this there's you, on the Gore front. The following was brought to my attention over the holiday weekend. The scene was the George W family ranch near Waco, Texas on Monday. The relaxed governor pulls up in a John Deere golf cart style vehicle, meets with the media, he is joined by a cool and crisp old Republican hand, Dick Cheney, they're going over their possible vice presidential selections. It was in the first portion of every evening newscast, it was on a lot of front pages the fourth of July. No such event for Al Gore, nothing on his public schedule on July 4 of all days—why this visible difference in these two campaigns? What does the Bush campaign have that the Gore campaign doesn't?

What does the Bush campaign have that the Gore campaign doesn't? Maybe the ear of Brian Williams:

  1. Protocol: We'll continue to cringe when major anchors refer to one candidate by his first name ("George W"). Is there anything so obvious that Williams understands it?
  2. Bush/Cheney coverage: We review five papers daily. USA Today and the WSJ didn't publish on July 4. The Bush/Cheney event was not on the front page of the Washington Times, the Washington Post, or the New York Times. The Washington Post and New York Times ran small pictures on inside pages. The Washington Times ran no picture at all, giving the meeting a five-paragraph item in its "Inside Politics" column.
  3. Corresponding Gore coverage: "No such event for Al Gore?" On July 3, Gore gave his speech on drug company "price gouging." He also played kickball at a YMCA summer camp in Ladue, Missouri. On July 4, the Washington Times ran a large picture of Gore "chasing down" the kickball. The Post ran a picture of Gore pitching the kickball. The New York Times ran a large picture of Gore, Richard Gephardt, and Governor Mel Carnahan in a folksy town hall meeting with Missouri citizens. In these papers, Gore's July 3 events got vastly more coverage, in print and in photos, than the Bush/Cheney meeting received.
  4. Fourth of July events: Governor Bush's July 4 appearance in a Texas parade received no mention in any of our five papers except the Washington Times, which gave it five paragraphs in "Inside Politics." But oops! Gore did have a July 4 "public schedule." Gore's July 4 campaigning in Southern California got the same amount of coverage from the Washington Times, and a large page 4 picture to boot.

In short, everything Williams told Begala was utterly, totally false. Everything! Where on earth does he get this stuff? On this one occasion, Williams told you. What he said on his show was "brought to my attention over the holiday weekend." In other words, at some sort of holiday outing, a Republican spinner sidled up to Williams, and whispered a total crock in his ear. The next night—checking none of the facts—Williams ran right down to the studio and blabbed it all over the nation. And we won't even attempt to characterize Williams' presentation of the "cool and crisp old Republican hand" meeting with the "relaxed governor." Some work goes beyond any parody.

But so it goes, for millions per year, at the top of our celebrity press corps. To slackers like this, NBC hands our discourse. Happy Fourth of July, everybody!

Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 7/5/00