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7 July 2000

Our current howler (part III): New morning

Synopsis: When Seelye spent a week reporting on Bush, that "cynicism" cleared up real fast.

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

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

Bush Would Use Power of Persuasion to Raise Oil Supply
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/28/00

Bush Says Gore Has Oil on His Own Shoes
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/29/00

Commentary by Lawrence O'Donnell
Hardball, MSNBC, 5/5/00

Robert Wright called the Stolberg piece "cynical," and we think he's in the right ballpark. Stolberg presented no evidence that Gore's position on pharmaceuticals was driven by polls, and no evidence that Gore had changed any views. She gave no evidence that Gore was being any more "political" than pols are all the time. But she did seem hot to rain on parades. Here was an early passage:

STOLBERG (paragraph 3): So Mr. Gore is dusting off his Congressional record and past speeches to stake out policies at odds with the [drug] manufacturers. A review of his record, though, and a detailed talk with the vice president makes clear that his views are more nuanced than his language suggests. And some of the same drug makers that Mr. Gore now criticizes have hired his friends and advisers to represent them as lobbyists.

That last sentence really grabbed us. Do we need to be told, in paragraph 3, what some of Gore's friends have done? For some reason, we had to wait until paragraph 25 and 26 to get the following context. Stolberg is discussing Gore's opposition to extending the patent on Claritin:

STOLBERG (25): Mr. Gore's stance on Claritin puts him somewhat at odds with a close adviser and friend, Peter Knight. Last year, Claritin's manufacturer, the Schering-Plough Corporation, hired Mr. Knight to help develop a lobbying campaign for the patent extension, among other issues.

(26) Mr. Knight has since left the lobbying business, and Mr. Gore insisted today that he has never talked with him, or other friends who have represented drug makers, about industry issues. "All the positions I've taken," he said, "are against their clients."

Stolberg doesn't claim that any part of Gore's statement is false. And Gore's position on Claritin contradicts that of Knight, who was hired to get the patent extended (and is, it turns out, a former lobbyist). So, what was the point of telling us, in paragraph 3, that some of Gore's friend worked for the drug biz? Clearly, Stolberg wanted to give the impression that Gore's druggy friends cast doubt on the sincerity of Gore's stands. Twenty-three paragraphs later—when most people aren't reading—we learn that the opposite is true. So it is that our hopeless scribes defame, and slander, and mangle our discourse. By the way, this is why we urge modern editors to keep their reporters from trying to "analyze." This is the kind of hopeless mess we often get when scribes stray off basic facts.

But we find one point of fault with Wright's piece; we think he may be overlooking certain realities in current campaign coverage. Read his opening paragraph once again:

WRIGHT: 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."

Is it true—can "a presidential candidate" really expect to get the kind of coverage Wright describes? As readers know, we simply hate the ol' "double standard" argument; it's the easier claim on earth to make, and it's generally the hardest claim to prove. But we have to say the kind of coverage which Wright describes has generally gone to one hopeful only. Has the New York Times tended to lard Governor Bush's speeches with layers of spin and tendentious critique? We're happy to say that they have not. We wish they'd do the same thing with Gore.

What happens when the New York Times covers Governor Bush? Recently, we got a comic example. Katharine Seelye, the paper's scribe-on-Gore, spent a week reporting on Bush. And all that "cynicism" we've seen from "Kit" melted away, like the poet's morning dew.

For example, on June 27, Governor Bush made a speech in Michigan about rising gas prices. Seelye started out fairly straight:

SEELYE (6/28) (paragraph 1): Gov. George W. Bush of Texas said today that if he was president, he would bring down gasoline prices through sheer force of personality, by creating enough political good will with oil-producing nations that they would increase their supply of crude.

In paragraph two, Seelye quoted:

SEELYE (2): "I would work with our friends in OPEC to convince them to open up the spigot, to increase the supply," Mr. Bush...told reporters here today. "Use the capital that my administration will earn, with the Kuwaitis or the Saudis, and convince them to open up the spigot."

As we've seen in the past few days, the third paragraph is sometimes the key. At undisciplined papers like the Times or (less so) the Post, it's often the point where the impatient scribe begins to show off her analytical brilliance (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/6/00). Stolberg used her paragraph 3 to tell us what Gore's friends had been doing. In her paragraph 3, Connolly constructed a bizarre list of words Gore had used in his "rhetoric." What did Seelye do this day? Cynicism flew out the window, dear friends. She began improving on what Bush had said:

SEELYE (3): Implicit in his comments was a criticism of the Clinton administration as failing to take advantage of the good will that the United States built with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Also implicit was that as the son of the president who built the coalition that drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, Mr. Bush would be able to establish ties on a personal level that would persuade oil-producing nations that they owed the United States something in return.

With "reporters" like this, who needs speech-writers? Seelye, tired of waiting for Bush to make points, went ahead and just made them herself! Nothing Seelye ever quoted showed that Bush had intended to advance these points; but her third paragraph became a vehicle for pumping up what the hopeful had said. And the very next day, reporting from Cleveland, the helpful ex-harridan was at it again:

SEELYE (6/29) (11): Mr. Gore, who has received less than $100,000 in contributions from oil and gas interests, has been casting Mr. Bush as the darling of big oil and more likely to look out for his friends in the industry than for the average consumer. So it was with some zeal that Mr. Bush and his aides seized on the chance to portray the vice president as the one giving the industry a break.

(12) And Mr. Bush went farther. He suggested that the oddity of the vice president's call for tax breaks for the oil industry...was emblematic of a candidate who would, in the parlance of the Bush campaign, "say anything to get elected."

Bush hadn't said that Gore would "say anything to get elected." So Seelye, employing the word "suggested," went ahead and typed the sound-bite in for him.

If Wright is concerned about New York Times cynicism, he can at least take comfort in one fact; the kind of spinning he spotted from Stolberg has not suffused the paper's Bush coverage. (As is completely appropriate. Governor Bush deserves to have his words reported straight.) Indeed, as Stolberg rolled her eyes at every word Gore said, she reminded us of some prophetic comments—comments made by Lawrence O'Donnell on the May 5 Hardball (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/14/00, with links to "The Daily update," 5/9/00). You may recall—O'Donnell, who was critical of Gore in this interview, made a note about the unfolding Times coverage of Gore. Gore had been criticizing Bush concerning Social Security:

O'DONNELL: There's a very interesting thing developing this week which is the media, especially the New York Times, seems to be making a decision about how complicit they want to be in the Gore tactic. You notice they're doing less reporting now on what Gore is actually saying and much more analysis about the tactic of it and why he's saying it. They didn't do this in the fall when it was Gore versus Bradley on health care stuff.

Again, O'Donnell had criticized Gore for "demonizing" Bush on SS. But he continued to give his analysis of thinking at the Times:

O'DONNELL: Well, I think—there's a sense in the press corps that not only did Bill Bradley let Gore get away with taking these shots in the fall, but the press feels a little bit, it seems to me, a little bit complicit in helping deliver them. And so now you're seeing what I think in many cases is almost an over-analysis in terms of the press of the Gore tactic as opposed to the substance of what Gore is actually saying, which does have some real merit.

Lawrence O'Donnell doesn't speak for the press corps or for the Times, and it wasn't clear how he had developed his analysis. But we think his interview was quite prophetic—a rare moment of real insight in this year's campaign analysis. The "over-analysis" which O'Donnell described was the "cynicism" Wright saw in Stolberg's piece. But we can all breathe easy on one point; that "cynicism" isn't quite as widespread as Wright's excellent piece might suggest. We really do hate that ol' "double standard" claim. But in our view, the hopeless bad judgment which O'Donnell described is being directed pretty much at one hopeful.


Next week: James Fallows, in the Atlantic Monthly.


The Daily update (7/7/00)

Change in the weather: We noted another passage in Seelye-on-Bush. It came on June 27:

SEELYE (paragraph 3): Karen P. Hughes, Mr. Bushes spokeswoman, said Mr. Bush was dedicating himself this week to making a broad appeal across party lines to groups that traditionally lean Democratic. Today he plans to discuss welfare-to-work programs in Michigan, and the next day he plans to speak in Ohio about removing barriers to those with disabilities.

Seelye seemed to have spun things down by a week. Terry Neal, the same day in the Post:

NEAL (3): Bush announced the proposals in a speech to the League of United Latin American Citizens national convention in Washington yesterday. It was the beginning of two weeks of outreach to minority voters that continued last night in New York with a Bush speech to the Congress of Racial Equality...

To state the obvious, there's absolutely nothing wrong with spending two weeks in "outreach to minority voters." And it's completely normal for campaigns to spend periods of time on certain themes. But when Gore had announced, some weeks before, that he would spend three weeks on economic themes, the well-scripted magpies of the press corps had simply never heard of such conduct. Gore's tour was widely cited as the latest example of the way the hopeful "reinvents" himself. We saw no such comments—none at all—about Bush's two-week focus.

The two-week focus by Bush, and the three-week focus by Gore, were examples of completely normal campaign conduct. Each hopeful was returning to a basic theme he had sounded again and again (when Gore made his announcement speech in June 1999, the economy was the first thing he discussed). So why did Gore's tour produce such a hubbub? Because, as the moving finger has so plainly written, Candidate Gore "reinvents himself;" Candidate Bush "skillfully moves to the center." David Gergen's hopeless statement of this ridiculous theme was one of the low points of the corps' sorry year. Want to see it again? You know what to do. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/00.

Bush Campaigns on Issues of a 'Different' Republican
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/27/00

Bush proposes Splitting Duties of INS
Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 6/27/00