26 July 1999
Our current howler (part III): Know all, tell all
Synopsis: Todays reporter likes nothing better than recording his or her matchless insights.
Gore Enlists the First Lady for Womens Support
Katherine Q. Seelye, The New York Times, 6/2/99
New York State of Mine
Eric Pooley, Time, 7/19/99
Commentary by Eric Pooley
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 6/14/99
Is there something wrong with attitudes of the sort that Kurtz
recorded in his June 25 piecewith the kinds of attitudes he ascribed
to Roger Simon and James Warren? Simon had said the press corps
would make Gore "jump through hoops" until he said what
they wanted. And Warrendescribing Clinton as "moral scum"said
that the press corps probably was punishing Gore for his connection
to Clinton, though he wasn't sure if it was subconscious or otherwise
(and didn't seem to be concerned by the thought).
It seems to us that, when reporters hold attitudes like these,
it leads to abuse on the part of reporters. And one thing is quite
clear, dear reader: often, today's reporter likes nothing more
than displaying his or her brilliant insights. Articles that purport
to be straightforward news are simply larded with interpretation
and spin. As we'll eventually see, it's a short step from writing
like this to acts of outright news management.
For endless interpretation, take a June 2 piece in the New
York Times by reporter Katherine Seelye. Seelye was covering a
Gore appearance with Hillary Clinton, at which Clinton endorsed
Gore's White House run. There was nothing about the presentation
of the piece to suggest it was anything but straightforward reporting.
But the article became a striking example of an increasingly common
kind of "reporting," in which simple, relatively trivial
events serve as platforms for the reporter's hype and spin.
Seelye's first paragraph introduced her habit of matching each
fact with subjective interpretation:
SEELYE (paragraph 1): With his support among women lagging,
Vice President Al Gore today sought the help of Hillary Rodham
Clinton to spark excitement for his Presidential candidacyeven
at the risk that her star power would upstage him.
Our analysts were struck by Seelye's final clause, which cast
a shadow across the event. Did Seelye have some sort of evidence
that Gore was concerned about being upstaged? If she did, she
didn't share it at any point in her piece. Instead, she quickly
moved on to paragraph two, where she let us know what the VP was
SEELYE (2): At a rally in a downtown hotel, Mrs. Clinton attracted
a crowd of about 300 women, and Mr. Gore basked in the reflected
glory, trying to show little concern that she too might run
for office and divert attention and money from his campaign.
An accompanying photo showed one of Gore's clever tricks; he
had craftily embraced the first lady at one point, and smiling
onlookers betrayed no awareness of the dark thoughts the VP was
concealing. In paragraph three, Seelye was fairly straightforwardthough
she was soon enough up to old tricks:
SEELYE (3): "No one has fought harder on behalf of America's
families and children [than Gore]," Mrs. Clinton declared
as she endorsed Mr. Gore for President...
(4) She also said that Mr. Gore "would not let the clock
be turned back" on abortion rights, not mentioning that
while he was in the House of Representatives he voted against
abortion rights many times.
Leaving aside the accuracy of that last characterization, there
seemed to be no event this day that Seelye wasn't prepared to
interpret. Later, she let her readers know who they'd have been
thinking about had they been there:
SEELYE (8): Today's event was notable, too, because it united
three figuresMrs. Clinton, Mr. Gore and his wife, Tipperwho
by their assemblage brought to mind the absent fourth.
The absent fourth, of course, was that man, Wild Bill Clinton,
who "loomed up in contradictory ways" that Seelye would
also be happy to explain (see postscript.)
It isn't that Seelye might not be able to justify her various
insights and interpretations. What struck us here was the sheer
ubiquity of her intrusions on the narrative's flow. Poor Hill
and Al couldn't make a move without Seelye explaining what lay
behind itor what they meant, or should have said, or what was
going on with someone else not even present.
What struck us as odd was the fact that this all occurred in
what purported to be a straight news storyin what was presented
as straightforward reporting, in the newspaper's unadorned news
pages. The New York Times, after all, has an editorial page, on
which it records its editorial judgments. It also has an op-ed
page, in which various people present points of view.
It also publishes, on its news pages, articles that are labeled
"analysis"articles in which the paper's reporters are
invited to present their views of the unfolding news.
But the invitation to Know All, Tell All now dominates even
straight news reporting. For an example of just how bad it can
get, here's what Eric Pooley said in a recent Time piece
about Mrs. Clinton's New York "listening tour:"
POOLEY: Looking for the sunny, specious hucksterism of the
campaign trail? Step right upHillary will give it to youThough
one can't help feeling she sometimes feels she's slumming, she
never lets it show.
How free are reporters to interpret all events? Pooley reports
what he "can't help feeling"even as he cheerfully admits
there's no sign that his impression is really true. Gruesomethe
highlighted sentence would be comically awful even if offered
as part of a Time opinion column But again, Pooley's piece
is Time's lead news storyan article that, to all appearances,
presents itself as straightforward news.
The comical passage from Pooley's piece shows us where our
"reporting" can go, when beat reporters are given free
rein to interpret as much as they wish to. It also shows us the
danger involved in reinventing reporters as seers. As we read
it, we couldn't help recalling the close of Pooley's June 14 interview
with Brian Williams, where the scribe rhapsodized over Governor
Bush's life story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/17/99). Pooley was
asked by Williams to speak to Bush's "blue blood" family
history. "He did everything in his power to play down that
Connecticut stuff," Pooley said. And then Pooleyon the show
to discuss a detailed Time biowent ahead and did the same
thing, gushing on Bush's behalf:
POOLEY: He hates to ride in a limo. One guy told me they were
going to give a speech, and their limo picked them up at the airport
and he was angry about it. He didn't want to get in that stretch
limousine. That's not his image.
Can you see how Pooley just sees right through cant? He closed
with more thoughts about image:
POOLEY (continuing): That's not his image. And he's, simultaneously
he's living down the family connection, and he's exploiting them.
At every juncture in his life...he's using Dad's connections all
the while, it's well known, he doesn't make any bones about it,
but at the same time he's minimizing the public aspects while
maximizing it in private.
See? Bush "doesn't make any bones" about using Dad's
connections, he just "minimizes the public aspects."
Of course! This comical interview highlights quite well the problem
with giving reporters free rein. Simply put, when publications
give reporters free rein to interpret, they are often turning
over editorial judgment to writers whose personal preferences
are comically obvious, and who will prove capable of offering
the silliest kinds of judgments, depending on who they're "reporting"
There are powerful reasons why history and tradition taught
us the wisdom of self-restraint in reporting. Pooley's comments
on Clinton and Bush help us see why it ain't such a great idea
to give this press corps free rein to Tell All.
Seelye speaks: And this is Seelye, telling us what was
"brought to mind" by Clinton's absence:
SEELYE (9): President Clinton, who was down the street at the
White House, was mentioned only in passing. Still, he loomed
in a contradictory way.
(10) On the one hand, the Gore campaign wanted to signal that
Mr. Gore was the opposite of Mr. Clintona devoted husband whose
private life would not lead to the kind of political upheaval
brought on by Mr. Clinton's extramarital affair...
(11) At the same time, as he boasted of his advocacy of numerous
issues important to women, the Vice President was really boasting
of the Clinton Presidencyin passing the Family Medical Leave
Act, in rebuffing any erosion of abortion rights and in restricting
children's access to guns.
In short, Gore supports Clinton's policies, but won't engage
in his private conduct. Seelye calls this "contradictory,"
which makes a provocative paragraph nine. But for those with the
slightest reasoning ability, there is nothing "contradictory"
expressed here at all. Again, we see one of the obvious pitfalls
of letting reporters Interpret All. Many of today's reportershow
else to put itare plainly not interpretive geniuses. We would
be better served if they were forced to rein in the instinct,
now plainly encouraged, to help us see what each event really
Tomorrow: More reason to rein in the press corps.