22 July 1999
Our current howler (part I): Hey look her over
Synopsis: Melinda Henneberger found an amusing new way to showcase her masterful wit.
Gore Unveils Crime-Fighting Plan, From Right and Left
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 7/13/99
Gore Unveils an Anti-Crime Initiative
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 7/13/99
Melinda Henneberger was discussing a major speech by Vice President
Gore she'd been forced to attend. Gore, of course, is the leading
contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Henneberger could have simply related what Gore said, in the
speech which unveiled his campaign's crime proposals. Her readers
might have gained a better understanding of Gore's platform in
this high-profile area.
But that, of course, would have flown in the face of the preferred
starring role of some modern-day scribes. Many scribes, like Henneberger,
now seem to believe that the news is really all about them.
Reporting the news must take a back seat to the need to showcase
the scribe's many skills. So in the third paragraph of Hennberger's
report, this is what she said:
HENNEBERGER: (paragraph 3) In at address at [Boston] police
headquarters, surrounded by uniformed police officers who made
the Vice President look unusually loose, Mr. Gore also pledged
to push for a Federal law establishing "gang-free zones"
with curfews on individual gang members and a ban on "gang-related
Whew! We simply roared here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters,
impressed with the scribe's matchless wit. Indeed, Henneberger
had a twofer ready. Tom Mennino had given a gift:
HENNEBERGER: (4) After giving Mr. Gore a Fenway Park T-shirt
for his newborn grandson, Mayor Thomas M. Mennino called the Vice
President a "visionary" and a "friend of American
citizens" who with the President had helped push crime in
Boston to its lowest rate since 1971. Recalling a speech Mr.
Gore made at a St. Patrick's day event two years ago, Mr. Mennino,
a Democrat, added, "They say he's wooden? Huh! I wish I was
as wooden as he was that morning!"
It was hard to know what possible relevance the comment had
to the subject at hand. But it did relieve the apparent tedium
of reporting what the VP had said.
Readers, if you're anything like us, you're probably asking
an obvious question by now. Why in the world would a writer like
Henneberger save her jokes until paragraph three? Such mordant
sallies belong in the lead, where the reader can quickly admire
the scribe's skill. After all, in Maureen Dowd's famous lead when
President Clinton went to Oxford, her priceless quip at Clinton's
expense went right into paragraph one!
As it turns out, Henneberger had a reason for delaying her
jibe; she had to show off her analytical firepower. In his speech,
Gore had made some crime proposals that weren't straight from
a playbook the scribe had approved. So Henneberger had to record
her analysis right at the top of the piece:
HENNEBERGER: (1) Vice President Gore outlined his plan for
fighting street crime today, essentially delivering two very
different speeches in one. On the one hand, he called for
gun control measures that go beyond anything President Clinton
(2) But he also sounded a number of conservative anticrime
themes, saying he would support longer sentences for all crimes
committed with guns...
Afraid that her readers might evaluate Gore for themselves,
Henneberger presented her "take" right away. This forced
her to postpone her Leno-like effort to work "stiffness"
into every Gore dispatch. (More on that to come.)
And can we make a remark on the writer's analysis, delivered
in the story's first sentence? Henneberger's take on the Gore
proposal is remarkable for its complete lack of insight. In his
speech, Gore made some suggestions traditionally associated with
the crime-fighting "right," and some gun control proposals
typically linked to the left. For example, he had suggested requiring
photo licenses for new handgun owners. He had also proposed longer
prison sentences for crimes committed with guns.
But the notion that Gore had made "two very different
speeches?" It's attention-grabbing, but completely sophomoric.
The idea that candidates must select their proposals from narrow
ideological play-lists has been outdated in national politics
for years. In both the DLC policies of Clinton and Gore, and the
"compassionate conservatism" of Gov. Bush, major leaders
have struggled for years to get outside narrow left-and-right
politics. As such, there is absolutely nothing surprising about
the speech the vice president made on crime this day, and Henneberger's
lead is a mark of one thing--the groaning lack of insight of the
writer who penned it.
But irrelevant humor and witless analysis are becoming hallmarks
of New York Times news writing, especially in its coverage of
Gore. Henneberger's report was just the latest Times piece in
which writers amused us with stale, pointless jokes--and inserted
themselves right into the story with immediate, ham-handed "analysis."
There was absolutely nothing about the Gore crime speech that
required the silly treatment it got in the Times (see postscript).
But Henneberger's report was part of a trend clearly observable
throughout the press corps, in which important news now serves
as a stage to showcase the brilliant reporter.
Tomorrow: Howard Kurtz interviews two major reporters.
The scribes betray an odd idea--that the news is really all about
Just the facts: Reporting the same day in the Washington
Post, Ceci Connolly reviewed Gore's speech in a straightforward,
comprehensive manner. Connolly detailed the proposals Gore had
made, and reported objections from the Bradley campaign and from
the incoming president of the National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers. She reviewed Gore's approach to gun control over
the past few months, and she said that the Gore campaign had not
yet said how it would pay for its proposed new programs. By some
incredible feat of self-restraint, she managed to avoid the latest
"stiff" jokes, and she omitted Mayor Mennino's irrelevant
remarks, which formed the fourth paragraph of Henneberger's posting.
And she expressed no surprise at the range of proposals Gore made.
Maybe if Henneberger spent a little less time thinking up pointless
jokes, she'd be more aware of where our politics has been heading
for the past ten years.