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29 August 2000

Our current howler (part I): Jay-walking

Synopsis: Does the celebrity press corps try to set up a "horse race?" Jay Nordlinger never heard such a thing.

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Jay Nordlinger
Reliable Sources, CNN, 8/26/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Tom Squitieri
Hardball, MSNBC, 8/28/00

Even when we took them off to a lake, the analysts refused to miss Howie Kurtz. They sat before a flickering set—well, OK, the show was on cable—and faithfully watched their Reliable Sources. The K-man opened like this:

KURTZ: The Gore bounce—is the press slavishly following the polls and kissing up to the vice president? Also, David Maraniss on his new book about Al Gore and, you can't escape it, media madness over "Survivor." Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb. We begin with Al Gore and his remarkable transformation in the media.

It's just like we've told you in SpeakOut today—everyone's talking about the way the press corps is suddenly down on Bush/high on Gore. Kurtz's overview went exactly like this:

KURTZ: In the months after he clinched the Democratic nomination, Vice President Gore got roughed up by the press. He was down in the polls to George W. Bush. He was stiff and wooden. The negative stories kept on coming. And the reviews weren't much better in Los Angeles, either. Most pundits panned Gore's Democratic convention address. But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the election. A lot of actual voters had a different take and the vice president started surging past Bush in the polls. Newspapers played up the new surveys and the tone of Gore's press coverage changed virtually overnight.

We agree with Kurtz's portrait of the long-standing Gore coverage. As you know, we think the remarkably negative coverage of Gore has been the media story of the White House campaign. We applaud Kurtz for noting that the negative coverage extended right through the end of Gore's speech to the convention. On the August 19 Reliable Sources, Kurtz showed tape of Peggy Noonan saying Gore's speech "was the most boring, boilerplate garbage," and he quoted Sam Donaldson saying the vice president "seemed like he was on speed." Rude, inappropriate comments like those capture the oddness of the long-term Gore coverage. Starting first in June 1999, Kurtz has been one of the only Washington pundits who have noted the odd tone of this coverage (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/99).

And so the analysts settled back for a look at the way the worms may be turning. In our view, the nit-picking coverage of Bush this week has led the discourse away from topics that matter. And we've been stunned to see a change in the weather in the way that Gore has been treated. This past Sunday, Bob Schieffer abruptly upbraided Dick Cheney for making a "cheap shot" against the VP. The truth is, Washington pundits, over the past eighteen months, have been in the business of making those shots. A Schieffer performance on Tim Russert this summer was among the oddest that we have encountered (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00).

But alas! We almost always have some minor problems when we watch Reliable Sources. The program "turns a critical lens on the media" in a rather strange way—by assembling a panel of media members, who then "turn a critical lens" on themselves, and on their employers and colleagues! No one else except the press corps gets to be critiqued this way—by a panel exclusively made up of members of the group which is under discussion. Can you say "conflict of interest," boys and girls? Somehow, names don't get named and punches get pulled when the celebrity press corps sounds off on itself. Nowhere else do we see so clearly the press corps' inveterate self-dealing.

Take, for example, an early exchange between Kurtz and Jay Nordlinger of the National Review. Nordlinger voiced surprise at the recent Bush coverage. And he mentioned one common explanation:

NORDLINGER: Well, the coverage has been remarkable and I think it's a little bit flabbergasting. George Bush is the same candidate he's always been ever since the beginning of the primaries, ever since even before the primaries. He's always made these verbal gaffes. He's always been a bit of a stumblebum. He is no worse a candidate now than he's ever been but there's been this rash of stories of, you know, Bush can't speak, he's in disarray, and so on.

I find it a little bit mysterious, I have to tell you. There is, there is a roll going on here. There is a roll for Gore and against Bush, and it's been a wonder to behold. You know, the usual explanation, the explanation that we always hear is that journalists like a horse race. They're glad the presidential campaign is competitive. They didn't want a blow-out.

"And you take issue with that?" Kurtz asked. Nordlinger's answer surprised us:

NORDLINGER: I think that's unsatisfying as an explanation. I mean, I know a lot of journalists and you know even more journalists and I've never heard a single one say you know, I really wish it were a horse race. I just don't buy it.

Say what? He's "never heard a single journalist" say that they root for a horse race? In fact, journalists say that all the time, at least when they go on TV. It was a standard, repetitive explanation last fall for the positive McCain and Bradley coverage. Indeed, we hope that Nordlinger set aside some time to play a little hardball last night. If he did, he'd have heard Tom Squitieri blurt out this familiar account:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Squit—The Bounce. Is the press so liberal? Is that what it's about? Are they just lovin' this Gore thing, or what?

SQUITIERI: Nah, it's not so much that they're liberal, they just want to have a real race.

We constantly marvel that pundits feel free to ascribe such unprofessional behavior to their peers. In a rational world, tilting coverage to produce a close race would be viewed as a firing offense. In our press, it's a standard aside. Perhaps Nordlinger is right in what he said—perhaps pundits never say such things in private. In this and one other later statement, Nordlinger seemed to imply that this theory was just a cover for that ol' debbil, Liberal Bias.

At any rate, pundits do say—all the time—that they like to produce a good horse race. But on Reliable Sources, no one questioned what Nordlinger said. And no one tried to explore his remark. No one tried to determine whether the press really does try to create a tight horse race.

On Hardball, no one else said a word about Squitieri's explanation. Our pundits typically seem unconcerned when other pundits make comments like that. But then, the press corps is able—like no other group—to control the discussion of its own conduct. No other group gets to judge itself in this way. In Reliable Sources' discussion this week, we thought that the conflict did show.

Tomorrow: Media members aren't media reporters. That fact caused a problem last week.