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5 September 2000

Our current howler (part II): Of all places!

Synopsis: The most striking thing about Mnookin’s piece is the fact that it turned up in Brill’s.

Spice Girls on the Bus
Seth Mnookin, Brill's Content, 10/00

The most striking thing about Seth Mnookin's piece is the fact that it turned up in Brill's. Writing for a magazine of media criticism doesn't mean that the press corps will always be wrong. But you'd think that someone writing for Brill's at least could imagine the possibility. For Mnookin, that seems like a stretch. Could there possibly be something wrong with the work of the three major scribes he discusses? He gives that thought a hasty brush-off, then rushes on to assail others' motives—subbing speculation about peoples' characters for the analysis which ought to drive Brill's.

Mnookin starts by alerting his readers: There's Big Trouble on the Gore bus. Three reporters covering Gore "have been derided as (and you can take your pick here) nasty, snide, caustic, bitter and biased," he writes. One would think a media critic would want to know if those charges were actually valid. But here's the sum total of actual comments from reporters upset with The Three:

MNOOKIN: While most reporters refused to speak for attribution, some say the three women made life on the trail less pleasant. Speaking of Connolly, Seelye, and Sobieraj's relationship with Gore, Cox Newspapers reporter Scott Shepard says, "It seems to go somewhat beyond adversarial and short of animosity. [I]t's certainly different from anything I've seen on other campaigns."

That's it! Did Shepard give Mnookin specific examples? If he did, Mnookin doesn't include them. In what way does Shepard think the three are "beyond adversarial?" Mnookin doesn't say. According to Shepard, the reporters' approach is "different from anything [he's] seen on other campaigns." But we're never told what he meant by that statement. Did Shepard refer to the Gore Three's reporting, or just to their personal relations with Gore? There is no way to tell from Mnookin's article. And no one else from The Bus is quoted; although we're told that "some" reporters have spoken to Mnookin, we're never told what those reporters meant in saying that The Three "made life less pleasant" (and we're never told why we should care about that). On its face, Mnookin's article principally concerns name-calling and discomfort on the Gore bus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/1/00). But Shepard's one general quote is the sum total of what Mnookin tells us about that fandango.

It is remarkable that Mnookin makes so little effort to find out what the reporters think, because he will very quickly rush ahead and announce to the world that they're sexists. Indeed, that's the whole gist of Mnookin's short piece, from synopsis right through to conclusion. The synopsis: "Why are three influential female reporters on the Gore campaign the target of criticism?" In case you couldn't guess from that lead, at the end of his piece, Mnookin tells us. Why are these reporters being called names?

MNOOKIN: Could it be because the reporters covering the vice-president for three of the most influential news outlets in the country are women?

Jane Mayer, who often writes about politics for The New Yorker magazine, speculates that the answer could be yes. "If Bob Woodward and Jeff Gerth wore high heels, they'd be called bitches too," she says...

In her comment, Mayer reveals herself as a skillful clairvoyant. In printing it, Mnookin shows that he would rather gossip and "speculate" than do the real work of his craft. Mnookin goes on to heap further scorn on those who dared to critique The Big Three:

MNOOKIN: [W]ith the conventions over and the campaign shifting into high gear, it's likely all this talk of condescending tone and press-corps cliques will fade into the background. Because, just as in high school, petty sniping and unfounded reputations dissipate when graduation is on the horizon.

From this, we gather that Shepard, the one reporter whom Mnookin named, isn't just sexist, he's "petty" as well. We're amazed that Brill's would trash a reporter in this way, while making no apparent effort to examine his actual outlook.

But Shepard, of course, got off fairly easy; the person most quoted in this scribbling was me! Little old me, who has never once been anywhere near the Gore bus; has never called the reporters by the bad names in question; and who has never written a word about Sobieraj. The article features four direct quotes from these writers' critics, and three of those quotes come from me! By any rational reading or standard, I am surely one of the people about whom Mnookin so freely "speculates."

Steven Brill ought to be embarrassed when work like this carries his name. I have written about Connolly and Seelye for roughly the same reason that I write about Mnookin today—because I think they've often been ham-handed spinners, who have diminished our public discourse. But even Seelye and Connolly have rarely penned work as hapless as Mnookin's current piece. In his nine-paragraph article (Nine paragraphs! Total!), he reduces eighteen months of work on THE HOWLER to a pair of utterly trivial examples. Has he ever read THE DAILY HOWLER? I can only hope that he has not. If he has, he baldly deceives his magazine's readers as to what THE DAILY HOWLER has actually said.

I have never said Connolly and Seelye are "biased." Indeed, I frequently argue against the "double standard" argument. (It's "the easiest claim on earth to make, and the hardest claim on earth to prove.") I have never called them "nasty," "snide," "caustic," or "bitter." As far as I can tell, I have never "taken to tracking what [I] see as their tonal problems," whatever that is supposed to mean. What I've done, I've done right out in plain sight—I have called them "spinners," again and again. Absent Mnookin, I wouldn't have done that again at this time, but tomorrow, I'll remind you why I've done so in the past. And I'll take a further look at Mnookin's laughable account of the wholly incomparable DAILY HOWLER.

Tomorrow: Has Mnookin read THE DAILY HOWLER? One only can pray he has not.


The Daily update (9/5/00)

The hands of time: A few weeks ago, we criticized USA Today for rushing a Gore-friendly poll into print (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/00). Last Friday, Richard Benedetto returned the favor to Bush. "Polls show Bush has electoral vote advantage," Benedetto's banner headline read. Benedetto said "the most recent polls" showed Bush with 211 electoral votes going his way, versus 170 for Gore.
Unfortunately, Benedetto's "most recent polls" weren't all that recent. Here's the part of the piece that brought our analysts right out of their straight-backed chairs:

BENEDETTO: Polls in often-competitive Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania show Bush well ahead. But they were all taken before the Democratic convention, which helped Gore bounce back in national polls.

Polls in other states, taken after the convention, mostly show Gore gaining ground.

Hay-yo! The fine print in Benedetto's list of states disappointed us further. It showed a number of states where "the most recent polls" came before the two parties' conventions.

There is absolutely no reason to be running "poll stories" based on useless data like these. Is this a "make-up" story by USA Today? We can't imagine why the paper would waste its space with such a wothless "analysis."

Polls show Bush has electoral vote advantage
Richard Benedetto, USA Today, 9/1/00