12 October 1999
Our current howler (part II): Clothes make the man
Synopsis: The press corps vacuous coverage of Gore insults the public interest.
Leading Environmentalists Put Support and Money Behind Gore
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 10/8/99
Commentary by John Fund, Katrina vanden Heuvel
Hardball, CNBC, 9/24/99
Bradleys New Gains
E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, 9/24/99
Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/11/99
Memo to Gore: Express Yourself!
Seven contributors, The New York Times, 10/11/99
Is the press corps being unfair to Gore? It's a difficult type
of question to answer (more to come). And signs suggest that some
in the press corps don't take the concern all that seriously.
Last week, for example, Katharine Seelye reported an event in
which some environmentalists expressed their support for Gore.
They were responding, Seelye said, to Bill Bradley's endorsement
by the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Robert F. Kennedy
Jr. spoke out for Gore; Seelye seemed to give his comments a novel
SEELYE: "That [endorsement] was among the events that
brought us together," Mr. Kennedy said, citing these others:
"Gore's getting a raw deal in the press, that George W.'s
getting a free ride and sometimes your friends have to stand up
when there's a lot of momentum against you." The reference
was to polls showing that Mr. Bush is running even, if not ahead,
of the Vice President in crucial states like New York and New
Hampshire and that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican
front-runner, maintains a solid lead over both nationally.
Was Kennedy thinking of recent polls when he said Gore
was getting "a raw deal in the press?" The notion struck
us as quite a stretch, but it seemed to be Seelye's interpretation.
In fact, a number of pundits have recently suggested that Gore
has been getting an unfair ride from the press, including the
Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, whom we quoted in yesterday's HOWLER
(see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/11/99). Here, for example, was conservative
John Fund, talking about the Bradley-Gore race as he played some
FUND: Earnest idealistic liberals are all in Bradley's corner.
Also the media, which I think has some buyer's remorse for not
looking closely at Clinton in 1992.
Was Gore being punished for Clinton's sins? Katrina vanden
Heuvel seconded Fund:
VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, I don't often agree with John Fund,
but it is interesting this week to watch the press coverage. I
think there is, among the press corps, a Clinton fatigue and a
Clinton backlash that they are now taking out on Gore.
Such judgments are easy to make, and quite hard to prove, as
we'll discuss in more detail later this week.
But one judgment can be made, quite easily, about the
Gore campaign coverage. The fact that Gore coverage is remarkably
trivial would be rather hard to dispute. How vacuous is the corps'
treatment of Gore? Just think back to Dionne's recent column.
This is how the sensible scribe portrayed the ongoing coverage:
DIONNE: The Gore camp also has reason to complain that national
political commentary treats the vice president with about as much
respect as the Russian economy. If he wears a suit, he's a
stiff guy in a suit. If he wears an open shirt, he's a stiff guy
in a suit faking it...To paraphrase an old Chicago political
joke, if Gore walked on water, the headlines the next day would
read: "Gore can't swim."
Dionne, of course, is a respected Post columnist, who has written
well-received books on politics and policy matters. And what examples
did he cite about the Gore coverage? Examples concerning the vice
president's alleged stiffness and the kinds of outfits he wears!
This has become the thin, rancid gruel on which our public discourse
is feedingthe kind of standard by which Candidate Gore is routinely
judged by the vacuous press.
Just how silly is this coverage? Take a moment to give some
thought to the politician Dionne is discussing. In 1992, Gore
published the best-selling Earth in the Balance. The book
was described by biographer Bob Zelnick:
ZELNICK: As a work of psychological self-revelation, it is
better than Richard Nixon's Six Crises; as a policy blueprint
by someone on the cusp of supreme political power in this country
it is sui generis.
Since the time of its publication, Earth in the Balance
has generated substantial controversy; Zelnick disputes many of
its major points. But the book has been at the center of the country's
environmental debates since the day it first appearedand is likely
the most aggressive book on public policy ever published by a
In a rational world, one would have imagined that Gore's candidacy
might have served an important purpose for the countrymight have
served, for example, to focus debate on the important matters
explored in this book. Instead, the press corps rarely misses
a chance to discuss Gore's public manner and wardrobeoften misstating
facts, as we saw yesterday, to improve on the actual news. To
read the work of this vacuous crew, one would think we were looking
for a jester-in-chief, or conducting a search for Ralph Lauren's
next model. To date, the press corps coverage of the Gore campaign
has been an insult to the nation's interests. Which matters more,
Gore's clothes or his mind? There was Brian Williams again last
night, intrigued with fashion issues:
WILLIAMS: Let's talk appearances here. He stands up at a weekend
joint appearance and challenges his rival to debate. You and I
have said this last week he's trying to ditch the suits and the
appearance and all of this...
Empathetic Howard Fineman seemed to know how Brian felt:
FINEMAN: I mean, he's already gone through seven or eight changes
of clothing here.
Given such commentary, a bright observer like Dionne is left
complaining that Gore's wardrobe has been unfairly treated!
But if the coverage of Gore is empty and thin, does it follow
that the coverage is unbalanced? Dionne suggests that, to the
carping critics, everything Gore does is automatically wrong,
and a comic example of this syndrome was acted out over the weekend.
Richard Berke had written a page-one story for Saturday's New
York Times reviewing the Gore campaign to date. Brian Williamsupset
that polo shirts didn't look "natural" on Gore (see
yesterday's HOWLER)previewed Berke's report Friday night. As
usual, the handsome anchor vastly overstated the tone and substance
of the Berke report, and Berke's story provided a comic example
of the silly syndrome which Dionne had lamented.
Tomorrow: When Dowd reviewed Berke, Gore was danged
if he did. And he also was danged if he didn't.
Life of Brian: Last night, handsome anchor Brian Williams
was facing a major problem. He had to report good news
for Gorethe pending endorsement of the AFL-CIO. What to do? Here's
the way the Adonis-like tribune kicked off the nettlesome segment:
WILLIAMS: A big endorsement from big labor for Vice President
Al Gore. Now, while anticipated over the past several days, it
comes at a critical time. But will it help, really, after what
Gore woke up to in the New York Times over the past three days?
Wow! Gore must have been reading some horrible stuff, to offset
the long-sought endorsement! In the segment, Williams mentioned
only one newspaper story. He spoke to Howard Fineman:
WILLIAMS: These have been tough times as you know for [Gore].
The New York Times devoted this smiley-face graphic and half the
op-ed page above the fold today"Memo to Gore: Express Yourself,"
a very close-to-patronizing series of people's opinions on how
he can save the race...It gets rough.
There were six serious opinions expressed in the piece, plus
a spoof from comedian Al Franken. We thought you might want to
get the flavor of those embarrassing opinions about Gore.
Mario Cuomo penned this "rough" treatment:
CUOMO: Few people challenge Vice President Gore's intelligence,
personal rectitude and substantive command...Trading issues head
to head with any of his opponentsor just on the stumpAl Gore
will be charming, compelling and much stronger than he is as President
Clinton's "Mr. Vice President."
Nasty stuff. Howard Rubinstein went further, saying this:
RUBINSTEIN: [Gore] must emphasize that we have a sound economy
and a content public and that we remain the world's leader. Then
he must take credit for it. After all, he helped get us there.
Phew! And it gets even worse than that. Charles Rangel got
out the darts:
RANGEL: Bradley is not a serious threat; there's no substance
there. He's just a pleasant alternative to those Democrats who
want change. But this primary race is a healthy thing. It will
rev Al Gore up and test him for the main event.
How could Gore keep reading? Deborah Tannen offered a communicator's
TANNEN: Al Gore's talents are different [from President Clinton's].
He is warm and personable in private and articulate but formal
in public. That's why he excels in debate, because his private
style is just right for that setting. But he also needs to find
a way to bring his private strengths into the public sphere.
George McGovern said that Bradley "has taken the initiative
on issues like health care and campaign finance reform."
He also said he would like Gore to commit to "full public
financing of Presidential and Congressional elections:"
MCGOVERN: This is the most practical way to end special-interest
contributions and to allow the candidates with the most innovative
ideasalways Mr. Gore's strong pointto reach the public.
In these short opinion pieces, we hear that Gore is intelligent,
honest, substantive, sure to win, warm, personable, and articulate.
We also hear that he is partly responsible for the good economy,
the happy public, and our standing as world leader. He's innovative
with ideas, too. Only one of the six contributorsan ad exec who
worked for Jesse Venturaoffered comments that were "rough"
or "patronizing." Williams' viewers likely thought the
whole piece was a slam. But then, that's what Williams wanted
them to think. What he told them was baldly inaccurate.
The notion that this op-ed offsets the AFL-CIO endorsement?
It's another example of the ludicrous spin offered nightly by
the hunky cable anchor. And it illustrates a basic theme now evident
on this troubling program. In dealing with Gore, every bit of
news will be undercut and massively spun.