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28 October 1999

Our current howler (part I): High minded

Synopsis: Debate preview! When CNN brought on Carlson and Carlson, it sounded more like Cheech and Chong.

Resolved: Debates are oddly influential rituals
Roger Simon, U.S. News & World Report, 11/1/99

Commentary by Tucker Carlson, Margaret Carlson
Inside Politics, CNN, 10/27/99


Roger Simon of U.S. News was looking ahead to the town hall forum—last night's forum with Bradley and Gore, on CNN from New Hampshire. Simon quoted Bradley aides saying Gore would surely try to "pull a Darth Vader;" he would try to "leave tire tracks," Simon said, on poor, helpless Senator Bradley. Simon milked the excitement for all it was worth. Then he typed this puzzling story:

SIMON: That is why the Bradley people carefully checked out the stools. In 1992, the Clinton-Gore campaign made sure the stools for their debate with George Bush and Ross Perot were so tall that Perot's legs would not be able to touch the floor...

Is that true? At THE HOWLER, we don't really know, but it makes an amusing story. But now, give your credulity a serious work-out. Read what the scribe typed up next:

SIMON (continuing directly): This time, the Bradley campaign made sure the stools were of proper height. "Besides," Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director, says, "we don't anticipate they can find a stool where Bill Bradley's legs will not touch the floor."

Exactly. True or not, the '92 story only makes sense because Clinton is taller than Perot. Since Bradley is considerably taller than Gore, the concern voiced here by the Bradley camp makes absolutely no sense at all. But Simon typed it up all the same, because it gave Bradley a chance to get out exciting spin. You can't be too careful when you deal with ol' Gore—when you enter the ring with "Darth Vader."

Welcome to the celebrity press corps, where writing doesn't have to make sense! Scribes like Simon will type up your tales—if they serve the press corps' interests. We'll return to Simon before our cycle is done, to look again at his town hall preview. But let the word go forth: His silly story set the tone for the press corps' preview of last night's forum. We saw the press corps at its reliable worst as it set the stage for the Dems' first encounter.

And just how bad can the press corps be? Let's visit CNN's Inside Politics. Hours before the CNN-sponsored forum, Judy Woodruff and Bernie Shaw were chatting with two Inside regulars. Woodruff asked Tucker Carlson (with Margaret there too) what the two candidates had to achieve that evening. There was more pressure on Bradley, Carlson opined. We swear it—this is what the scribe said:

TUCKER CARLSON: I think it's Bradley, though, who has the most to lose...[F]ew people know what Bradley's like on the stump. And I think, I think it's going to be a big surprise for a lot of viewers to see Bradley, a person who really sort of comes off like, well, like he's been smoking a lot of pot. [Laughter from Margaret Carlson and Woodruff] Kind of slow and laconic—and that's really appealing to a lot of people. Not clear how appealing it will be to a TV audience.

Carlson was referring to a three-term former senator—a former Rhodes Scholar—and a man who stands an excellent chance of becoming a nominee for the White House. We think it's safe to say it: Bradley has not been "smoking a lot of pot," and few people will think that's how he "comes off"—except the celebrity press corps. But today, celebrity pundits routinely compete to deliver the silliest, most disparaging comments. Indeed, Margaret Carlson knew just what to do. She applauded her bold, witty friend:

MARGARET CARLSON: Well, I love it, Tucker can be original [laughing]. All that's been said, I don't think anyone has yet said that Bradley comes across as someone who is high on grass.

But Tucker was sure he was right:

TUCKER: Have you seen him? It's unbelievable!

MARGARET: I know!

The giggling pair seemed like student reporters from Ridgemont High in a parody on Saturday Night Live.

But this, my friends, is what now passes for "analysis" by "political commentators." And if you've caught the Carlsons' weekly Inside segment, you'll know they were just getting started. It almost seems like pundit law—you have to say how dull these guys are. So Margaret Carlson went ahead, providing the predictable insight:

MARGARET (continuing directly): I know! It is going to be the debate of the dull and the duller...

We're sure we weren't the only ones thinking that this is a dangerous construction for these two to use. At any rate, Margaret lumbered on, fully explaining the dullness:

MARGARET (continuing directly): It is going to be the debate of the dull and the duller. And the question is, who's more comfortable? And in some ways, Bradley is more comfortable being dull. Gore's problem is he has a lot of high-paid advisers around telling him you can't be dull, you have to change. And so he's trying to change in public. Whereas Bradley's comfortable being dull...

Clearly, he's not the only one. Our analysts sullenly rolled their eyes at Carlson's predictable rant. But we always like to give full quotes. Here's how she wrapped up her work:

MARGARET (continuing directly): And the idea tonight is to connect with people. And the person who's more comfortable is the one who's going to connect. And if that means a little controlled substances, well, there you go. Bradley wins!

Phew! The analysts roared and exchanged high-fives as Carlson brought it back to the drugs.

There was a time, not too long ago, when it was simply impossible to imagine such scenes—impossible to imagine that a major network would put such a mess on the air. Even yesterday, Judy Woodruff—who was trying to be a sport—seemed a bit surprised by the cant:

WOODRUFF: So you're saying we're not really talking issues here, even though that what these questions are about? It's going to be how are they relaxed, how are they comfortable?

Woodruff, to her credit, was plainly puzzled. Margaret, though, helped her along:

MARGARET: Well, a lot of television is how you come across. And there's no time in these forums to really marshal an argument.

Yeah. As if "marshalling an argument" would do any good, with pundits like this to critique it.

Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don't know why CNN puts up with this mess. We can't imagine why Judy Woodruff doesn't make this sort of thing quickly stop. The weekly segment with C and C has become a stage for this kind of buffoonism. Over the past few months, the analysts have come to us, almost weekly, complaining about this sort of cant.

In fact, the forum last night was anything but dull, as we suspect will be true of tonight's GOP event; it featured two smart, experienced pols responding to very sharp questions. Only the pundits, before and after, marred what was otherwise an outstanding forum—but they did perform one public service as they offered their vacuous commentary. They did display, for all to see, the mess being made of our vital public discourse. And they clearly displayed why we need to unload this sad-sack celebrity press corps.

 

Tomorrow! Pundit minds think alike: Bill Press previewed the action on Crossfire. And guess what? He said it would be..."dull and duller!"