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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 clothing."

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 has approved...

(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 them.

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.