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14 October 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Kill the prig

Synopsis: Fred Barnes described how the press corps works. It sounded like Lord of the Flies.

Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/8/99

As Gore Slips, Top Advisers Second-Guess Early Moves
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 10/9/99

Commentary by Wolf Blitzer, Steve Roberts, Tucker Carlson
Late Edition, CNN, 10/10/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 10/11/99

Puff Daddy
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 10/4/99

Bradley’s New Gains
E.J. Dionne, The Washington Post, 9/24/99

Last Friday evening, Brian Williams opened his show with a preview of an upcoming Richard Berke piece. You could tell it had to be serious stuff, because Williams profiled the exciting article even before he got around to Gore's bad polo shirts:

WILLIAMS: Good evening. Tomorrow morning's New York Times contains a front-page story that paints a grim and bleak picture of the Gore campaign...The article...paints a devastating picture of hubris, over-organization, the hemorrhaging of money, and a campaign cold-cocked by the opposition...

Williams' portrait, true to form, was a bit of an overstatement. The Berke piece was a lengthy account of the past six months of the Gore campaign, featuring interviews with mostly-anonymous campaign officials about things they would now do different. The article opened with an April memo sent by former pollster Mark Penn, in which Penn advised Gore to "attack everything [Bill Bradley] says and does" lest Bradley gain traction with voters.

Gore did'nt take the brilliant pollster's advice. Here is Berke's "devastating picture of the hubris" that led to Gore's decision:

BERKE: But after intense internal discussions, Mr. Gore concluded that any mention of Mr. Bradley would only give his rival more attention. Even Mr. Penn went along with the consensus, according to many participants, convinced that Mr. Gore was safely ahead of Mr. Bradley in the horse-race polls.

According to Berke, "several people who played influential roles" in the campaign now believe that was a mistake. But to his credit, Berke is careful to note what would occur to a competent analyst:

BERKE: No one will ever know whether different decisions would have left the Vice President in a better position—or made matters worse.

Berke's cautionary note didn't occur to Williams, even after he saw it in print. On The News, Berke's sensible statement of uncertainty wasn't mentioned. And for the record, the term "hubris" doesn't appear at any point in the course of Berke's piece.

The humor, of course, lay in Williams' eye-rolling sarcasm—and in his implication that things would have gone better if Dumb Gore had just acted last spring. But what happened this past week, when Gore did "attack" Bradley? What else! An assortment of pundits criticized Gore for behaving in an undignified way. A sampler from Sunday's Late Edition:

WOLF BLITZER: Is this kind of direct assault by the vice that going to play?

STEVE ROBERTS: I don't think so. In fact I think it's kind of undignified and tacky, the way he's doing that...

TUCKER CARLSON: ...I think the Gore people are making a huge mistake by taking Bradley so seriously as they have been. I mean Gore is almost challenging Bradley to a bar fight, you know, poking him in the chest...and I agree with Steve. There's something undignified about that...He is the vice president.

We don't mean to criticize the scribes for their comments—Roberts made a perfectly reasonable criticism of Gore's specific comments about Bradley. But does anyone think attacks by Gore last spring would not have been slammed by the predictable press? Monday night, here were the words of a tabloid talker, watching tape of Gore taking on Bradley:

MATTHEWS: There's a man...where he's reading every word from his script, and then it must say in the script, "Now walk out from behind the lectern and start slashing with your arms, talking about slashing." And he did it like an automaton! That's what Churchill once said of Molotov. You know, "the closest thing to a human robot?" How can he think that works? I guess with labor guys that works.

To his credit, former congressman Ben Jones, the talker's guest, didn't seem to know what he should say.

That's right, folks. When the celebrity press corps gets on your case, there's nothing you can do they won't criticize. As we discussed in yesterday's DAILY HOWLER, you'll be danged if you do or you don't. And ever since the press corps got on Gore's case in the March 1997 phone-calls-from-the-White-House brouhaha, we have seen this syndrome acted out by the celebrities again and again. In our judgment, the press corps' approach to the Gore campaign has been the press corps story of the year. It's been a study of what a modern press corps can do—when it decides to make hopefuls "jump through hoops" until they say or do what the press corps wants.

Is Gore a perfect candidate—a hopeful above reproach? Although we normally don't critique the hopefuls, we think it's quite clear that he isn't (none are). In our view, Gore has had difficulty defining what his candidacy is about, the principal task of a White House hopeful. The failure to articulate an understandable theme is normally fatal to a White House campaign. But the press corps' obsession with trivia—with alleged stiffness, with clothes—has been an enduring embarrassment and insult to our system. And the degree of astonishingly bad "analysis" that has followed Gore around simply can't be explained by incompetence. To cite the most recent examples we've explored, no one can possibly be so incompetent as Brian Williams has seemed this past week. It is impossible to look at Williams' performances without wondering at the source of the howling errors which the fashion-obsessed, Adonis-like anchor has tossed off as big storms throw down rain.

And now, the first timid sounds of minor complaint emerge from within the press corps. In June, Howard Kurtz suggested the Gore coverage was odd; this month, E.J. Dionne just plain said it. And Fred Barnes, in a recent Weekly Standard, paints a truly remarkable picture of press corps incompetence and immaturity:

BARNES: Gathered in a pack they can be cruel and unfeeling, but not when they're on their own. They're softies, easily schmoozed, ever susceptible to being fooled by appearances...At the moment, the likability award is shared by George W. Bush and John McCain, rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush is fun to be around, gives everyone, including reporters, a nickname, and is something of a wise guy, which gets him in trouble from time to time but appeals to journalists.

One's cheeks rouge for the press corps to hear this account, of people "cruel and unfeeling in a pack" but willing to pander if given a nickname. Barnes offers this portrait as an amusing aside. But if his remarkable portrait of the press corps is accurate, it is a disturbing account of a massive fault line in our debased public discourse.

"Cruel and unfeeling when gathered in a pack?" According to Barnes, the press corps is Lord of the Flies! But just revisit the rude language of a talker, quoted above. You'll see how the press corps' most unbalanced members bravely act out Barnes' description.

We normally like to stay away from arguments about press double standards, because such arguments are virtually impossible to prove (which may explain why they're so popular with pundits). To cite an hypothesis suggested by Barnes' account, it would be virtually impossible to prove that Gov. Bush is getting a different sort of treatment from Gore (and it wouldn't be Bush's fault if he were). But it is fairly easy to demonstrate error—to show where specific press corps performances are exceptionally hard to explain or defend. And when such howlers follow one hopeful around, the time has come to ask ourselves why—to wonder if hubris has surfaced this year, in the person of scribes bearing hoops.

Folks, the farm chores debacle went on for three months, without a word of correction or protest. In Lord of the Flies, the kids ran in a pack. Barnes says the press corps does, also.


Coming: Tomorrow, Ceci does it again. Starting Monday, four full days on a Maraniss bio—and it doesn't concern Vince Lombardi.

We hate to be negative, but: We salute those scribes who emit peeps of protest, because it seems to be the immutable law—scribes don't attack other scribes. But don't expect too much from the press. Here's a fuller context for the Dionne complaint, including a striking last paragraph:

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."

Unfair? Absolutely. But that's the way of presidential campaigns. Geoff Garin, a neutral Democratic pollster, cites two immutable laws of politics: "Nothing succeeds like success; and never miss a chance to kick a man when he's down."...

That third paragraph is simply remarkable. Dionne concludes that Gore's press coverage has been "absolutely unfair." And what conclusion does he draw from that? "That's the way of presidential campaigns." Incredible! "Never miss a chance to kick a man when he's down," he quotes a pollster saying. But surely, Garin was discussing the conduct of political operatives, not prescribing how the press corps should act. This passage illustrates an important point. Within the press corps, the stricture against criticizing the press is so strong that even the best—when they dare to speak up—will immediately say that they haven't.

Does Dionne think it's "the way" of the press to be "absolutely unfair?" Incredibly, that's what his text says.