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3 October 2000

Our current howler (part II): Big time!

Synopsis: It’s a big, big week for Gore and Bush. But it’s also a big week for spinners.

Gore's Image: Focused and Relentless
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 10/2/00

Gore: Methodical, Skilled, Aggressive
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 10/2/00

An Acquired Taste
James Fallows, Atlantic Monthly, 7/00

It's a great big week for Gore and Bush. But it's also a big week for spinners. On Monday, Katharine Seelye was telling her readers all about Gore's debate style. He was "ruthless," "relentless," a "bully," "maniacal" ("Kit" worked her way down the list). Then she served a great big whopper, playing off Sunday's This Week:

SEELYE: [I]n what has become a Gore tradition, he expects to have [ordinary citizens] at the debate in Boston. Analysts trace his success in the Iowa caucuses this year to his display of Chris Peterson, an Iowa farmer and flood victim, at a forum in Des Moines where he questioned Mr. Bradley's commitment to farmers and Mr. Bradley appeared not to know his own record.

Seelye's analysis is absolute nonsense—but a treasured bit of this campaign's press corps spin. As we saw yesterday, Gore asked Bradley why had voted, in 1993, against a piece of flood relief for Iowa (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/2/00). In that year, Bradley had voted in favor of an initial relief bill, then voted against a second relief package. Gore's question explicitly concerned that second, billion-dollar package, as we noted in yesterday's HOWLER. Gore referred to Peterson in his question:

GORE (1/8/00): ...Back in 1993, 300 of his 400 acres were flooded out. I joined with [Iowa senator] Tom Harkin to get the extra billion dollars of disaster relief to help Chris and the others who were flooded out. Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?

Gore's reference to "the extra billion dollars of disaster relief" would have been familiar to Iowa voters. (Gore audibly stressed the word "extra.") Bradley didn't answer Gore's question:

BRADLEY: You know Al, I think that the premise of your question is wrong. This is not about the past. This is about the future...

Gore asked the question a second time, and Bradley evaded again.

It's easy to see why Bradley wouldn't want to answer Gore's question. Rightly or wrongly, he had voted against a billion dollars of flood relief which had helped many Iowa farmers. But the press corps was deep in the Bradley camp, and they have pretended, from that day to this, that Gore had somehow asked a misleading question, and that Bradley had "forgotten his vote" (Cokie Roberts) or "appeared not to know his own record" (Seelye). On Sunday, Roberts presented the silly spin. Seelye here presents it again. In fact, Bradley surely knew his own record quite well—he had voted against Iowa flood relief! What's the mystery about the evasion? But Seelye pretends that Bradley forgot his vote—implying that Gore somehow pulled off a slick one.

This, of course, is the work we get from those who say Gore can't be trusted.

So watch your wallets when tonight's debate is done, because the spinners will be going full bore. In a rational world, a reporter would get bumped down a beat or two for a nonsensical "analysis" like the one Seelye pens—nine months after the event she bungles. But this of course is the Washington press corps—corrupt, inept, a hapless elite. On Monday, Ceci Connolly was spinning, too. The Post ran her gruel on page one:

CONNOLLY (paragraph one): It begins with a piercing blow disguised as a light aside.

(2) "I'd like to start by offering you a deal, Jack," Al Gore said four years ago in the opening moments of his nationally televised debate with Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential nominee and former NFL quarterback. "If you won't use any football stories, I won't tell any of my warm and fuzzy stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement."

(3) "It's a deal," Kemp replied, unaware he had just been called a dumb jock. "I can't even pronounce it."

(4) Once the trap has been set, the rest of the debate follows a tidy pattern...

Ceci's pathological style is on display right from the outset. What many would see as an amusing joke, she sees instead as a "piercing blow," a "trap," in which Kemp has been called a "dumb jock." Her crackpot imagery is drawn from cable shows in which crocodiles clamp down their jaws on small frogs. Whatever frightened this scribe long ago, Gore clearly makes her recall it.

Connolly too recites standard images of Gore's "ruthless" style in debate. ("By the time the 90 minutes are over, Gore will have succeeded in stripping bare his opponent's greatest vulnerability." The imagery is straight from "Wild Kingdom.") And humor strikes her very differently, depending on who throws the jibe. Here is part of her assessment of Gore's debate with Dan Quayle:

CONNOLLY: Gore was so determined to stay on message he appeared to be reciting lines. Quayle, on the other hand, was at ease, leaning on the lectern and tossing in asides such as, "Take a breath, Al. Inhale."

Gore had just been called a drug-smoker. But when Quayle aims an unlovely jibe at Gore, it's an "aside," and Quayle is "at ease," not an aggressor. Only Gore's jokes are "piercing blows" and a "trap."

But the real amusement in Connolly's piece comes when she starts to embellish. That's right, folks. Connolly is so eager to show what a phony Gore is, she just can't help reconstructing the truth:

CONNOLLY: For that encounter [the Gore-Bradley debate at Hanover], strategists devised a half-dozen ways for Gore to "break down the stereotype of being rigid," as one put it. He arrived early and as Bradley stood awkwardly on stage, Gore started working the crowd. During the debate, Gore greeted each questioner with a question of his own. Where do you live? How many children do you have?

Alas! Here at THE HOWLER, we were disinclined to believe the highlighted statement. So we made our analysts review the tape of the Hanover forum, checking to see how many questioners Gore had "greeted with a question of his own." Connolly says he questioned every one. Let's go back through the first dozen questioners:

Questioner 1: Asked Gore about morality in government. Gore asked him no questions.
Questioner 3: Asked Gore about campaign finance reform. Gore asked no questions.
Questioner 5: US intervention abroad. No questions.
Questioner 6: Same sex marriage. No questions.
Questioner 8: Mental health benefits. No questions.
Questioner 9: No questions.
Questioners 11 and 12: No questions.

It is clear from Connolly's article that she has recently watched tape of this debate. She was simply lying—there is no other word—when she said Gore had "greeted each questioner with a question of his own." Meanwhile, what were some of the shocking circumstances in which Gore did ask the citizens a question? Questioner 2 spoke to Gore about health care. Gore's questions were those of a human:

QUESTIONER 2: Hi, my name is Corey Martin and I live in Hanover. There's been talk tonight about health care reform and I'm the parent of a child who has diabetes and I spend a lot of time dealing with the insurance companies and what's covered and what's not covered and it eats up a lot of time and effort. So I'm wondering, if you were to implement health care reform, who would be the decision-makers? Who decides what's covered?

Like a human—perhaps Connolly has forgotten—Gore inquired about the age of the child (five), and asked if Ms. Martin had good insurance (she did). He told her he hoped we will find a cure for her child's disease, then gave a general answer to her larger question.

So no—Gore didn't "greet each questioner with a question of his own." That was an apparent lie which this scribe told her readers, in service to her endless, noxious spin. And Connolly embellished a bit later, too. She was chatting about ol' Smoot and Hawley:

CONNOLLY: As much time as he spends mastering policy material, Gore also devotes a good deal of preparation to creating a "visual moment," a sound bite or image that grabs headlines, Schroeder said.

In his 1993 debate with Ross Perot on the North American Free Trade Agreement on "Larry King Live," Gore presented Perot with a framed photograph of Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley, implicitly tying him to the pair often blamed for the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing depression.

Was that an example of the way Gore "devotes a good deal of preparation to creating a visual moment?" It's clearly presented that way. But oops—it looks like Connolly has embellished again. Here is James Fallows' account of the Smoot-Hawley photo from his detailed Atlantic piece in July:

FALLOWS: Reading an article on foreign policy, Gore had come across an old photo of Smoot and Hawley. The very morning of the debate Gore told Greg Simon about the picture and said that he wanted to have a framed copy of it by that evening, to hand to Perot. Simon's assistant, Kristin Schneeman, had previously worked as a documentary-film researcher. She helped to track down the picture at the Bettmann Archive and asked for a copy, pronto. A Gore supporter living in New York dashed to Bettmann, got the print, and carried it onto the next flight to Washington. Schneeman shopped for a suitable frame and rushed to the television studio, where she met the courier. Just before Gore walked into the studio, his assistants handed him this prop.

According to Fallows, Gore had "devoted so much preparation" to the Smoot-Hawley photo that he first mentioned it on "the very morning of the debate." But Connolly just couldn't help embellishing. At this point, readers, we're not even sure that she knows when she's doing it! In fact, to be absolutely honest about it, we're not sure that she knows who she is.

These book-end previews present prime examples of press corps spinners in action. They include all the Official Approved Images of Gore; treasured, bogus spin from the primary campaign; and even an example where the writer reviews tape, then dissembles about what is on it. No critique is too brainless to offer. Enjoy a laugh at Seelye's idea of attribution:

SEELYE: In his least appealing moments, Mr. Gore can seem sanctimonious and condescending. He likes to show how much he knows. Some call it the Eddie Haskell effect; he appears to be the model student, pandering to the teacher, but when the teacher leaves the room, he turns around and annihilates his fellow students.

The ugly imagery of "annihilation" fits the Official Approved Spin. But note Seelye's comic-book journalism. Who calls this "the Eddie Haskell effect?" "Some" do, the scribe reports. Forgive us for wondering if the people referred to are herself and her fellow crackpot, Ceci Connolly.

Tonight in Boston, Gore and Bush will be on stage, offering their ideas to the nation. But locked inside a stuffy room, press corps spinners will be watching and waiting. We strongly advise you to proceed with care when the press corps begins to tell you what happened. Our press corps is a troubled elite—corrupt, inept, profoundly unaccountable. We suggest you trust your own eyes tonight. The spinners will be out in force. On Monday, two scribes gave a preview.


Smile-a-while (10/3/00)

Gunning for laughs: Speaking of jokes, Connolly has her own comic style, as the Financial Times described in August. The paper noted that Connolly is "hostile to the [Gore] campaign, doing little to hide [her] contempt for the candidate and his team:"

FINANCIAL TIMES: Connolly expressed her feelings most dramatically on last month's plane trip to North Carolina where the Gores were taking their pre-convention vacation. To lighten the mood on board, the campaign had given reporters beach accessories including plastic water pistols.

According to several witnesses, when Gore came back to chat with the press on his plane, Connolly put her arm around the vice-president's shoulder and held the gun to his head. It might have been a joke. But for the secret service on board, as well as the Gore campaign, there were no smiles.

Observer: Tale of two press corps
The Financial Times, 8/17/00