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
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 10/4/99
Bradleys 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
BERKE: No one will ever know whether different decisions would
have left the Vice President in a better positionor made matters
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 sarcasmand
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 president...is
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 commentsRoberts
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 dowhen it decides to
make hopefuls "jump through hoops" until they say or
do what the press corps wants.
Is Gore a perfect candidatea 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 triviawith alleged stiffness, with clotheshas
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'
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 errorto
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 whyto wonder if hubris
has surfaced this year, in the person of scribes bearing
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 bioand it doesn't concern Vince
We hate to be negative, but: We salute those scribes
who emit peeps of protest, because it seems to be the immutable
lawscribes 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 bestwhen they dare to speak upwill 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