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13 September 2000

Our current howler (part III): Allen: Just the facts!

Synopsis: In today’s Post, Mike Allen offers some new information. But he doesn’t try to spin about "character."

For Bush's 'Typical' Family, Lots of Tax Restrictions
Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 9/13/00

On Bush tax plan and Social Security, Gore's rhetoric seen loose with facts
Glen Johnson, The Boston Globe, 9/10/00

We received a comment that those budget numbers in yesterday's HOWLER made "the eyes glaze over." Sorry—if people want to discuss the budget, there's no way to do it but right. Glen Johnson wanted to discuss Gore's claim about the size of Bush's tax cuts. In the process, he should have done this:

  1. He should have explained the (obvious) difference between the projected Social Security surplus and the projected general revenue surplus.

  2. He should have offered an estimate of the general revenue surplus from 2002 through 2011.

  3. He should have explained (without all the mystery) Gore's estimate that the Bush tax cuts will cost the treasury $1.9 trillion over that span.

If only Johnson had done those things, he could have helped readers judge Gore's claim—that Bush's tax cuts will use all the surplus. Readers could have decided, for themselves, what they thought about Gore's claim. And they could have decided, for themselves, if it was relevant in some way to Gore's character. Instead, Johnson served a tendentious brew, offering selective budget facts and recycled claims about old Gore statements. He was so eager to get readers to see it his way that he even indulged in a misquote of Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/11/00).

Sometimes you have to talk numbers and facts—and reporters should drop all the spinning. Steady Mike Allen of the Washington Post goes about things more ably this day. His page-one article deals with Bush's ongoing presentation of his tax cut plan. Allen provides a lot of info about Bush and Gore's taxplans—info that might educate readers. And although he seems to show the Bush campaign straining to paint their cuts in the best light, he doesn't engage in a tendentious effort to say what it means about "character."

Here's Allen's opening paragraph:

ALLEN (paragraph 1): Texas Gov. George W. Bush likes to say that anyone who pays federal income tax would benefit from his proposed tax cut and has been trying to dramatize the point by appearing with a supposedly typical family at each campaign stop and crowing about the savings they would receive under his plan.

But according to Allen, the Bush campaign has been rather selective in picking those "typical" families. Allen quotes a memo sent to GOP staff to help them in selecting the clans. The memo included qualifications the families should enjoy:

ALLEN (3): According to the e-mail, a suitable family must make between $35,000 and $70,000 a year, itemize its taxes and have no children in day care, no children in college, no one attending night school, no children younger than age 1 and "no substantial savings outside of 401(k)."

Yikes! "The screening points have the effect of eliminating families who would benefit most from Vice President Gore's plan," Allen writes. He quotes an expert saying that the restrictions would eliminate all but about 15 percent of couples making between $35,000 and $70,000 a year.

Allen's article includes a lot of info about how the two tax plans would work. He also seems to show the Bush campaign putting a bit of spin on their proposal. Many families in this income range save more money under Gore's plan. According to Allen, those are the families the Bush campaign is trying to keep out of view.

But Allen doesn't make a federal case about the ethics of all this screening. Here is his general assessment:

ALLEN (6): The [e-mail] is an unusual peek behind the curtain at the exquisite care that goes into selecting the props—human and otherwise—for modern, made-for-television campaign events. It also reflects the furious effort by each of the campaigns in a neck-and-neck race to portray itself as the champion of "working families," a phrase that Gore popularized and that Bush has taken to using in recent days.

Allen implies an obvious fact—both campaigns do what they can to paint their plans in a favorable light. Ironically, Johnson made the same point too, in his piece about Big Liar Gore:

JOHNSON: Exaggeration is a fact of life on the campaign trail. Candidates always present their proposals in the best possible light and their opponent's in the most unfavorable terms.

But then the scribe went off on a highly selective presentation of one pol's alleged failings—Gore's:

JOHNSON: Gore, however, has a long history of making statements that stretch the truth, such as his claims that he "took the initiative in inventing the Internet," or that he and wife Tipper served as the model couple for Erich Segal's novel "Love Story."

In this passage, Johnson misquotes Gore on the Internet flap, and misstates the tired old Love Story saw. It's the kind of thing scribes tend to do when they want to give you more than just facts.

Allen's piece involves lots of info. It shows Bush involved in a bit of a stretch. But Allen doesn't try to say that this shows Big Things about Bush's character. Allen's engaged in a reporter's work. Johnson engaged in Large Spin.

Every reader is free to decide what to think about Allen's facts. Personally, we don't think they mean all that much about Governor Bush or the Bush campaign. But Dem spinners on Crossfire could take those facts and swear they mean that The Dub can't be trusted. We're glad that Allen laid out the facts; we're also glad he left out the spin. We wish that Johnson had been equally wise. Globe readers would have been better served.


The Daily update (9/13/00)

From the foxholes: We've occasionally looked in on the Boston Globe since being struck by the paper's tendentious reporting in New Hampshire. We were struck again by the paper's reporting of Gore's hour with Oprah this week. Michael Kranish just couldn't help it. Spin alert! The scribe told us this:

KRANISH: By playing along with Winfrey's quest for the intimate details of his life, however, Gore might once again revive questions about whether he is too willing to exploit for political effect parts of his life some people might deem too personal. At various times yesterday, Gore retold the story of the near-death experience of his son, Albert Jr., and revealed he had given his wife a ring inscribed, "To the bravest person I know."

Well actually, that happened at two times. (Reporters who spin are at their best when they try to inflate simple numbers.) For the record, Gore mentioned his son in response to Winfrey's question about major turning points in his life. And Kranish is absolutely right. This almost surely will "once again revive questions about whether [Gore] is too willing to exploit for political effect parts of his life some people might deem too personal." It will do so on the Rush Limbaugh program.

Kranish also said this:

KRANISH: Gore, who was mocked early in his campaign for his sudden shift to beige and earth-tone casual clothing, showed up in a serious, dark blue suit, white shirt and blue power tie.

Even Chris Matthews didn't use this occasion to restate the old saw about earth tones. Deconstruction: Kranish works hard here to keep stating spin-points, although they are utterly irrelevant to the matter at hand.

Several times, Kranish suggested that Gore was pandering to Winfrey in his comments. But one scribe managed to type the word in. It was AP's Thomas Ferraro, in a story originally appearing on the Globe's web site under another name—Sandra Sobieraj:

FERRARO: The hourlong broadcast showed Gore alternately caricaturing his own reputation for pandering and then charming the mostly female audience with earnest talk of his family and "soulmate," Tipper.

Ferraro gave exactly no examples of Gore's alleged self-caricatures for "pandering." But he did get the key spin-point in. Meanwhile, we're beginning to see what the fuss is about concerning the AP's Sobieraj. In an article we pulled off the Globe's site Monday night, Sobieraj—we're not kidding—said this:

SOBIERAJ: The oft-reinvented candidate commiserated with the oft-reinvented TV star.

"You went through a big change in your life, I know," he said.

"Which one you talking about? I've had a few," she replied.

Gore: "So have I."

Amazing, isn't it? If you read the AP's accounts of this event, you hear explicit reference to pandering, earth tones, and reinvention. (Somehow, they failed to name Naomi Wolf, or say that Gore grew up in a fancy hotel.) As we suggested earlier, even Chris Matthews has been dropping this stuff, fleeing before a recent change in the polls. But a rearguard action rumbles on at AP. At the AP, it's still last November.