Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

11 August 2000

Our current howler: Motive mouths

Synopsis: Everyone swore that Gore’s choice was "bold." They ought to just stick to the facts.

News Is Carefully Timed To Steal G.O.P.'s Thunder
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 8/8/00

Lieberman will run with Gore; first Jew on a major U.S. ticket
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 8/8/00

Moguls Rattled by Gore's Choice of Critic of Entertainment Industry
Bernard Weinraub, The New York Times, 8/11/00

The celebrity press corps loves motive. They also love to all say the same things. Peter Marks noticed where that all led as Gore picked his VP this week:

MARKS: The aim, Democratic officials said, was to quell the postconvention Republican thunder with a pre-emptory saturation of news pages, Web sites and airwaves with the choice of Mr. Lieberman, a selection that allowed commentators to use words like "bold" and "historic."

Allowed them to use the word "bold?" It seemed like the law. For example, on the same day that Marks held forth inside the Times, the paper's lead headline on page one said this:

A Bold Move To Set Image

And here was Richard Berke's opening paragraph:

BERKE: After striving for more than a year to outrun President Clinton's restless shadow, Vice President Al Gore today made his boldest bid yet for autonomy.

The inside headline said it too: "Gore Makes Bold Move In Selection." All over the press corps, scribes have said "bold" in describing Al's selection of Joe. This morning, even Tinseltown says it:

WEINRAUB: Jeff Berg, chairman of International Creative Management, a top talent agency, said: "Some of the things Lieberman has said about lyrics, content and theme are in basic conflict with the creative process. I disagree with that specific theme. I still think the vice president made a bold choice in picking him."

By the way, if Berg can find a "creative process" in Hollywood, we tip our hat to him. We've always said that the only "creative" thing in Hollywood is its world-famous creative accounting. At any rate: As Marks sagely noted, it was a mantra in the press; everyone said Gore had been "bold." The word hasn't been flacked so many times since Procter & Gamble first rolled out those soapsuds.

Clearly, Gore's choice had been "historic." But how did scribes know it was "bold?" How did they know that Gore's calculations weren't simply political—that Gore hadn't decided that Lieberman, of the available choices, provided the best shot at election? The closest Berke came to explaining The Word came in this passage:

BERKE: However Lieberman is received, this much is clear: It was not a play-it-safe choice as was Mr. Bush's pick of Mr. Cheney. That reflects the political reality that as his convention approaches next week in Los Angeles, Gore advisers said they felt that they had to do something daring—yet not foolhardy—to gain ground.

If the advisers' statements to Berke were accurate, does that mean that the pick was "bold?" Clearly, the advisers were telling Berke that the choice was the best one politically.

Alas! The press corps loves to deal with motive, helping to build thrilling stories. The last time "bold" filled the nation's search engines was when Governor Bush proposed that Social Security should be partially privatized. Scripted pundits declared the choice "bold," although polling showed that American voters favored Bush's concept by more than 2-to-1. And by the way: In a recent interview, a famous pollster whose last name starts with "Z" told us that the basic principle which Bush endorsed had been polling favorably for more than four years! Was the Bush choice really "bold," given that basic fact? We don't have the slightest idea. But citizens won't have to worry their minds—pundits never reported the fact, which would have made it harder to tell their stirring story of motive and character.

Why did Gore pick Senator Lieberman? Why did Bush come out on SS? We don't have the slightest idea, and neither, of course, does the press corps. Our celebrity press corps ought to stop trying to worm its way inside hopefuls' minds. If pundits would simply report basic facts—What is Lieberman's record? What exactly has Bush proposed?—then voters could judge the merits of the hopefuls' decisions. But motive lets the celebrity press corps tell thrilling stories it likes. Example: Gore was "pandering" on Elian, and Bush was not—though both held the exact same position.

Why was Gore "pandering" in his stance on Elian? Easy—because pundits didn't like his position. (Pundits could have just as easily said Gore was "bold" for standing against party orthodoxy.) Why was Gore "bold" when he selected Lieberman? Because pundits universally admire Joe. The ascription of motive lets pundits convey their view of the merits of a hopeful's decision. And it lets the pundits narrate a drama—a drama which may not exist.

At any rate, pundits love to talk about motive. And pundits love to all say the same things. Pundits swore Gore's choice was "bold?" In so doing, they found safety in numbers.

Tomorrow we're off with the swells: We're off to L.A. for a week with the swells. We can't do THE HOWLER in such surroundings. But we'll bang out our "Howlings" column for Monday: Richard Cohen's latest piece in the Post.


The Daily update (8/11/00)

Likely errors: Laurence McQuillan bravely avoided saying that Gore's choice was bold. But in Tuesday's page-one lead story in USA Today, he announced a peculiar Gallup Poll. The poll, which was taken "Monday night after Lieberman's selection," showed that "Bush's lead has almost disappeared among registered voters," he said. "Bush's lead was reduced to 2 points, 45%-43%, in the poll that included Lieberman on the Democratic ticket."

Then the disclaimers began rolling in, like breakers on Annette and Warren's private beach:

MCQUILLAN: Gallup poll senior editor David Moore says polls of registered voters are not as accurate in predicting election outcomes as those of likely voters.

And furthermore:

MCQUILLAN: Moore also pointed out that polls conducted in one day are subject to error not found in polls taken over more than one day. But "clearly there has been a tightening of the race," Moore says.

What's the point of taking a poll that has so many built-in sources of error? It's silly to bother with polls at all in the immediate aftermath of the conventions. When USA Today built its lead story around this clunker, it took a sad song and made it much worse.

Gore turns to Lieberman
Laurence McQuillan, USA Today, 8/8/00