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19 September 2000

Our current howler (part II): Did the right thing

Synopsis: Why was the coverage of Gore getting better? Ceci Connolly had a humorous theory.

In Pursuit of Fairness
E. R. Shipp, The Washington Post, 9/17/00

Gore media coverage—playing hardball
Jane Hall, Columbia Journalism Review, 10/00

Commentary by Tim Russert, James Carville, Mary Matalin
Meet the Press, NBC, 9/17/00

Our excited analysts were still all a-buzz about E. R. Shipp's piece in the Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/18/00). In it, Shipp said the Post needed to try a bit harder to be fair in its coverage of Gore. In fact, the young scholars would love to be flies on the wall when Shipp discusses these topics with editors. "Post editors will deny that they have a mission to promote or destroy any candidacy in the news pages," Shipp wrote. Given our brief interaction with one such Post ed in the past, we'd love to have been there to feel the Big Chill when Shipp delivered her measured judgment—when she said that Jane Hall's "analyses in [the Columbia Journalism Review] should convince them that the question of fairness needs to be taken even more seriously."

Why do our analysts like to praise Shipp? Because so few voices within the press corps ever suggest that the press corps has problems. The Washington press corps controls the press, and it generally uses its control of the discourse to bury those wayward voices. As a result, Washington scribes are rarely held to anything resembling a normal standard. They get by with silly accounts of their conduct. Why, you could almost say they will "do or say anything" to tell you the story they want.

An amusing example closes Hall's piece in the CJR. "As the Democratic convention approached there were signs that Gore's press was improving," Hall wrote. She turned to the Post's Ceci Connolly for comment. We couldn't help chuckling at what the scribe said:

HALL: "Gore's access has improved in the past few weeks, and he has developed more of a regular rapport with the press," says the Post's Ceci Connolly. "People who have traveled with both Gore and Bush have been struck by how smart and knowledgeable Gore is, on Medicare and other topics."

"If I were Al Gore," Hall wrote, ending her piece, "I might hear such a statement and ask the media, 'Who's changed here, me or you?'"

Indeed, is it possible that Connolly and other scribes have just discovered that Gore knows a lot about Medicare? This is surely one of the silliest statements of the entire campaign. But that's the level of silly claptrap the Washington press corps routinely gets by with. When you and your buddies control what gets written, any hoohah starts to seem good enough.

We can't stress this next point strongly enough—it's the great structural flaw with the press corps. The Washington press corps controls the press—as a group, they write their own evaluations. And people who get to critique themselves tend to take things just a bit easy. The basic American principle—of checks and balances—gets lost when the press limns itself.

We thought we might have seen the syndrome at work on Meet the Press this Sunday. Tim Russert, hosting Carville & Matalin, played tape of the questions he asked Hillary Clinton at last week's New York Senate debate. Russert's ears may have been tingling a tad. "Is that a fair and appropriate line of questioning?" he asked his pair of on-the-spot guests.

What's a fellow pundit to do? Poor Carville, a gentleman, went first:

CARVILLE: Of course. Well, look, in politics, there's no bad questions; there's bad answers. And you just saw one and all of America just saw somebody throw a Senate race away.

Carville referred to Republican Rick Lazio. Having said that there's no such thing as a bad question, he went on to beat up on Rick. Matalin was more complimentary:

MATALIN: She wanted that question. That was a great question. She needed that question because she appears to be, on occasion, an ice queen. But she missed an opportunity to look even more human by just saying, "I'm sorry. I lashed out
in pain."

It turned out that Hillary had asked for the question—and to her credit, because the question was great! Matalin happens to be one of our favorite people, and Russert—a guy who everyone likes—isn't exactly Rasputin. But human nature is acted out when the Washington press corps critiques itself. Buddies tend to stick up for buddies; pundits trash "them" (the pols), not "us." No other group gets to write its own reviews. The laughable standards of our current press corps are a token of this structural problem.

This morning, one Cordelia stands up to Lear—it's Richard Cohen, in the Post (click here). Rare among pundits, he takes on Big Game. Has Cohen decided to rebound from recent lazy efforts? We don't know, but the approach which Cohen takes this day is rare in the chummy major press. That's why our analysts would love to have been there when Shipp shared her view in recent weeks. E. R. Shipp did the right thing. In the press corps, that seems to be a departure.


The Daily update (9/19/00)

A different drummer: More on that silly story Connolly wrote about Gore on September 10 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/18/00). In it, you'll recall, Connolly insisted that VP Gore was now acting just like Clinton. In fact, every little thing Al did reminded her of our main man, Bill. In penning her improbable story, of course, Connolly was perfectly executing GOP spin. The GOP wants voters to think of Bill "whenever they see" Al. For whatever reason (we don't read minds), Connolly's odd story helped them to do it.

Indeed, just how silly was Connolly's thesis? Two days before, in the New York Times, "Kit" Seelye had penned a story on Gore's support from cabinet members. Here's the way "Kit" got started:

SEELYE (paragraph 1): Vice President Al Gore may be trying to rid himself of President Clinton, but he is making no attempt to escape from the Clinton cabinet.

According to Seelye (and everyone else on the planet), Gore was "trying to rid himself of Clinton." But it wasn't going to work with Connolly! Two days after Seelye's piece, Connolly wrote that "the vice president was looking and sounding remarkably like the Bill Clinton of 1992, co-opting the language, tactics and themes of a man he once feared would cost him the election." Even his southern accent sounded like Clinton's, she said. Her article, of course, sounded like spin. The Post should never have printed it.

Gore Gets Powerful Help From Cabinet
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 9/8/00

Gore Coming 'Round Again to Clinton
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 9/10/00