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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.