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Caveat lector

20 July 1999

The Howler postscript: Spindrift

Synopsis: It didn’t take long for the Post team’s spin to get echoed elsewhere in the media.

Commentary by Judy Woodruff, Dwight Morris
Inside Politics, CNN, 7/16/99

Commentary by Thomas Oliphant
The NewsHour, PBS, 7/16/99

From Peanuts to Posh: A Tale of 2 Campaigns
Ceci Connolly and Susan Glasser, The Washington Post, 7/17/99

Where in the world do you get the cojones to publish a groaning mess like this--to publish such tendentious spin, while hiding the relevant data? On Saturday, Connolly and Glasser, in a page one piece, told readers that Gore had been "spending at a far faster clip" than Bush, according to the "massive money report" he had filed with the FEC. They said Gore "had spared no expense" in his campaign; and they offered anecdotes comparing profligate Gore with "tight-fisted" Bush, supporting their tendentious headline (subhead: "Bush Hoards Cash; Gore Spends Heavily").

Just how bad was Gore's lavish spending? In their second paragraph, they showed Bush and Gore on their kick-off tours; Bush was traveling with one advance man, while Gore had 32. That bad!!

But somehow, in two full days of reporting, the writers never provided the actual data: the Gore campaign had spent $8.1 million, compared to $7.2 million for Bush. Was it true, that Gore had "spent far more?" Were the writers' striking anecdotes representative? Readers of the Post couldn't make the judgment, because in Connolly and Glasser's two lengthy articles, they were never once given the basic facts.

And make no mistake--there was no part of the campaign-to-date the writers weren't willing to spin. Here's their fourth paragraph Saturday:

CONNOLLY AND GLASSER: To be certain, [Gore's] opponents have held fancy ballroom fund-raisers, too. Bradley, for instance, spent $161,000 on an event at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, but campaign spokesman Eric Hauser said the campaign brought in $2 million that night.

Ohhh--so that explains it! When Bradley spends, there's a reason! By the rules of this brainless game, every anecdote must fit the theme: Gore is profligate, and the others are frugal. Obviously, Gore's events had produced income too--he had raised 67% more money than Bradley. But the notion that spending yields income was nowhere mentioned--except to make Bradley look good.

Our Howler query: Why in the world is such comic-book spin being published in the Washington Post?

The notion that Gore had "spent far more;" the notion that Gore had "spared no expense;" the picture crafted by the authors' anecdotes --it was hard to square the writers' spin with the two campaigns' spending totals. And that, of course, is why those totals never appeared in the Post. Bush had raised almost twice as much money as Gore had raised, an important fact that was widely reported. But the notion that Gore had been profligate while Bush had been frugal--a notion the Post pushed for two days--this notion was difficult to square with the facts. And so the facts were deep-sixed by the Post.

But you know how this press corps works, dear readers! Despite the weakness of the spin, it began to show up around town. Glasser had appeared on the NewsHour on Thursday, July 15, gushing over Bush's "lean and mean operation." The first of the writers' two Post articles appeared on Friday morning. And by Friday afternoon, our eagle-eyed analysts had spotted the first drift of the spin. Finance consultant Dwight Morris was guesting on Inside Politics, and all of Judy Woodruff's questions were focussed on Gore's outsized spending. Woodruff led the segment by saying that Gore had raised more money than his Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley, but had outspent Bradley by a larger margin. Her questions, in a three-minute segment:

WOODRUFF: You're talking about fund-raising, but in terms of spending, which is what we were just pointing out, why does it appear Gore is spending so much more money than Bradley?

Can Gore continue to spend it at this rate?

I guess the other side of that last question is, can Bill Bradley continue to run such a lean spending operation?

Is there anything Al Gore could do to save money at this point?

Morris pointed out that the Gore campaign had invested in computers and staff for a general election campaign, and he said that yes, Gore could continue to spend at this rate. And it wasn't clear what Woodruff meant by calling Bradley's campaign "lean-spending." (Using the Post's statistic, Gore had spent 42% of total money raised, Bradley had spent 37%.) But by Friday night, on the NewsHour, Thomas Oliphant was slamming Gore for the "embarrassing" report:

OLIPHANT: Of all the things that Gore has done or things that have not gone well for him this year, I think this is the biggest embarrassment of all by a country mile, to spend that amount. He spent almost a million dollars more than Governor Bush did, which, I think, says it all, including really preposterous amounts arranging some of his fund-raisers. I mean, George Bush can get $1000 from a guy for a glass of ice water and a handshake. Gore is, you know, arranging dinners with dishes I've never heard of.

Had Gore really wasted money on foolish expenses? Or had he invested in computers and staff? Here at THE HOWLER, we aren't sure, but Oliphant didn't seem to know either. Check the logic: the fact that Bush can get donations without any effort doesn't mean that Gore can do the same, and Oliphant gave no specific examples of the wasteful spending he attributes to Gore. Indeed, Connolly and Glasser included a paragraph on Saturday that helped put Gore's campaign spending in perspective. Was Gore's percentage-spent a remarkable figure? Apparently not--four years earlier, Sens. Dole and Gramm had spent a higher percentage in the GOP race (see postscript). By all measures, the outlier here--the single outlier--was Bush's phenomenal fund-raising success. There was nothing unusual about the Gore figures, given recent past history.

Yep. There had been one important story here--Bush raised unprecedented sums. But the Post had decided it would go out and gimmick a second thrilling story. Through misleading anecdotes and unending spin--and by failing to report the basic data--the Post ginned up a second story. And twelve hours after the Post hit the stands, other pundits were reading it back.


They too spared no expense: Was Gore's rate of spending historically odd? Not according to basic data. Here is a paragraph from Connolly and Glasser showing that Gore's rate of spending is lower than in recent campaigns:

CONNOLLY AND GLASSER: While Gore is hardly the first presidential candidate to invest heavily in the early going, he may not like the historical precedents. It the end of the second quarter of 1995, Phil Gramm had spent about 62 percent of his bank account, and Robert J. Dole had drained half of his. President Clinton's campaign, on the other hand, run by the famously tight-fisted Harold Ickes, had spent just one-third of its $9.6 million war chest.

The scribes' gloomy spin is obvious here--free-spenders lose, and the tight-fisted win. But a different interpretation is clear. In 1995, Dole and Gramm, like Gore this year, were in a contested primary (Clinton wasn't). That's why they raised and spent early, and Clinton did not. Indeed, the scribes' willingness to spin all possible facts is made plain by this passage. On Friday, they pretended that Gore was having trouble raising money. Here, they show that they knew something else all along--that Gore has actually raised twice as much money as Clinton had raised at this point. In terms of spending, Gore has spent 42% of money raised--less than Dole and Gramm four years ago. But don't expect the Post to tell you. They're hard at work, spinning negative stories.