23 July 1999
Our current howler (part II): Telling it their way
Synopsis: A pair of pundits seem to believe that the news is really all about them.
In Race for 2000, a Tortoise and Hare Start
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 6/25/99
Howard Kurtz was remarking on the early coverage of the Gore
and Bush White House runs, and he couldn't help noting the "harsh
coverage and punditry" Vice President Gore was receiving.
He noted the way "the media's theater critics" harped
on the height of the stage at Gore's campaign kick-off speech,
and he quoted Margaret Carlson and the New York Times' Gail Collins
as they mocked the VP's speaking style.
It may seem odd that pundits go to such lengths to inform the
voters that a hopeful is boring, since it's one of those things
one would almost imagine the public could decide for itself. But
GroupThink (and spin) rule the celebrity press corps, and, since
the start of the Gore campaign, the New York Times has joined
the Washington Post in lecturing readers on the Gore boredom factor.
Melinda Henneberger's hilarious July 13 quip was the latest example
of reportorial chic, as the Dowd-like scribe used her space in
the Times to highlight her own brilliance at the expense of Gore's
crime speech (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/22/99).
Do scribes think the news is really all about them--a platform
for their views and brilliance? One could hardly avoid
getting such an impression from comments Kurtz reported in his
June 25 piece. Kurtz began one part of the article with an observation
about Gore kick-off interviews:
KURTZ: The tone of the early interviews is revealing. While
the vice president has stressed specifics, such as improving education
and health care for the elderly and curbing suburban sprawl, the
media have pursued other subjects.
Interviewers aren't required to follow a hopeful's agenda,
but Kurtz noted the emphasis, in three major interviews, on Gore's
reactions to Lewinsky matters. He then quoted Roger Simon on the
topic, and to us, the scribe's response was surprising:
KURTZ: Roger Simon, chief political writer for U.S. News
& World Report, defended the focus on Lewinsky: "It's
still the story that has shaped our time. We want to hear [Gore]
say what a terrible reprobate the president was, while defending
his record. We're going to make him jump through hoops. I don't
think there's anything wrong with that."
Based on Simon's odd reporting of Gore's kick-off speech, we
feel quite sure that he doesn't. But the notion that a reporter
will make a hopeful "jump through hoops" until he says
what the scribe wants to hear--all in all, that seems to us to
betray a misguided sense of the reporter's role in the process.
But then, readers will recall that Simon began his U.S. News
lead story with a passage about the sweat that builds on Gore's
upper lip when he speaks; and he was one of the scribes, unnamed
by Kurtz, who focused on the height of the stage at the VP's kick-off
effort (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/29/99). Perhaps Simon believes
that topics like these are significant matters he's duty-bound
to report. But his comments to Kurtz also suggested the possibility
that silent agendas--and Big Ego--drove his coverage.
And we were struck as well by James Warren's comments, as reported
by Kurtz in his article. Early on, Kurtz quoted Warren "likening
[Gore] to 'a Baptist minister on amphetamines'" in the VP's
kick-off effort. Needless to say, we were suitably impressed by
the scribe's clever phrase, but we were a bit surprised by the
things he told Kurtz:
KURTZ: Simon and others say it is easier for journalists to
criticize Gore because he is part of a 6-year-old administration,
while most are unfamiliar with the details of Bush's record in
Texas. "We know more about Gore, and maybe that's part of
it," said the Tribune's Warren. "We're sort of bored
with Clinton, and many of us think Clinton's a moral scum, and
probably subconsciously, at a minimum, we taint Gore by virtue
of his association."
Whatever a reader may think of Gore, Warren's comments strike
us as remarkable. Take the first point recorded above, attributed
to both Warren and Simon. The scribes attribute the negative coverage
of Gore to the fact that the press is largely ignorant of Bush.
If they've been quoted fairly, it doesn't seem to occur to either
scribe that it is their job to know "the details of
Bush's record;" and the assumption that knowledge automatically
breeds negativity is a revealing look at current press corps mentality.
Meanwhile, Warren's account of the Clinton "taint" shows
us how lazy our press corps can be. Because pundits think Clinton
is a "moral scum," they "probably" taint Gore,
"subconsciously, at a minimum." Is the taint justified?
Is it really "subconscious?" Warren seems neither to
know or to care. One would think a writer would want to be clear
on whether such a "subconscious" process was occurring--especially
a writer who is willing to describe a hopeful in the exciting
style Kurtz has described. And the statement that writers are
"bored" with Clinton? How in the world does that fit
in the stew? Are we being told that boredom determines
the way the press corps writes a White House race? Is the rest
of the press corps as nonchalant on the subject as Warren seems
to be in this passage?
By the way, anyone who has followed this press corps' reporting
will know it isn't just Bush of whom scribes have seemed ignorant;
in the embarrassing, three-month "farm chores" debacle,
the corps engaged in repetitive writing that flew in the face
of established facts about Gore. But the exciting description
of major public figures as "scum;" the unworried reference
to "subconscious" influence; the idea that boredom affects
the scribes' writing; the notion that reporters make public figures
"jump through hoops"--these comments all helped us form
an image of pundits who think the news is really about them, a
pallet on which they paint their brilliant pictures, not a tableau
they work hard to describe. At THE HOWLER, we think major hopefuls
are important people, and reporters should struggle to limn them
in full. Some writers have other equations in mind--and it shows
up in the stories they're writing.
Monday: How silly can press corps complaining get? Listen
to Kurtz quote Bob Schieffer.