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29 October 2001

Our current howler (part I): No "N" to it

Synopsis: Richard Berke said he spoke to some Dems. He just wouldn’t tell us how many.

Bush Winning Gore Backers’ High Praises
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 10/20/01

Here at THE HOWLER, we spent the first twelve years of our adult lives teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools. So it’s not as if we’re offended by the fact that ten-year-olds need lots of instruction.

But our ten-year-olds had a point in their favor; they were actually ten years old at the time, unlike the ten-year-olds who began weeping and moaning all over the press corps in the past month. War had made them quite uneasy, and they began to behave as ten-year-olds do. They pouted and threw severe tantrums. In TNR, they began to cut-and-paste quotes they didn’t care for, calling it their "Idiocy Watch." But what was wrong with the offending comments? TNR didn’t bother to say; as pre-adolescents, we were supposed to just know. Speaking of idiocy, The Weekly Standard did the same thing, but those naughty lads were just a tad bolder; smoking defiantly as Teechur watched, they called their section "Chattering Asses." Perhaps the troubled young lads can amuse us next with cartoons of Mommy Sontag with a mustache.

And so, refusing to lecture to ten-year-old adults, we returned to our primary labors, grinding out our alleged future book, The Spinning of the President, Year 2000. But Richard Berke’s recent piece in the Times brought us back to our desk at THE HOWLER. Berke’s piece is such a textbook of spin that we felt we simply had to address it. Do j-schools ask their twenty-year-olds to labor long over pieces like this? If not, our j-schools should shut their doors at once, and admit that they serve no real purpose.

"Bush Winning Gore Backers’ High Praises," said the headline. "Foreign Policy Choices Seen as Ideal for Crises." Intrigued, we hungrily fell on Berke’s first graf. At that point, his claims were still hazy:

BERKE (pgh 1): As he leads the country in a war on terrorism, President Bush has won over some unlikely supporters, prominent Democrats who campaigned for Al Gore in last year’s presidential campaign.

Bush has "won over" some prominent Dems? What exactly did Berke mean by that? Continuing directly, the scribe’s prose became sharper:

BERKE (2): Many Democrats who once dismissed Mr. Bush as too naive and too dependent on advisers to steer the United States through an international crisis are now praising his and his advisers’ performance. Some are even privately expressing satisfaction that Mr. Gore, who tried to make his foreign affairs expertise an issue in the campaign, did not win.

Egads! Now Berke was cookin’ with gas! If Berke’s opening grafs really mean what they say, then some "prominent Democrats who campaigned for Al Gore" are now "privately expressing satisfaction that Gore…did not win." We sat up straight in our comfortable chair, startled by Berke’s apparent message.

We will admit that we wondered a bit at the reason for Berke’s new dispatch. We’ve seen his front-runnin’ work before, in the years when we ground out THE HOWLER. For the record, Berke has turned on Bush when the turnin’ was good, writing a ridiculous piece, post-Super Tuesday 2000, when all the pundits were crying large tears at the way the Texan had mauled Saint McCain (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/00, 3/17/00, 3/20/00, 3/21/00). And Berke was the guy who did the laughable work on that DemocRATS ad, back when Gore seemed to be taking control of the race. But don’t worry—when the tide swung back the other way, Ol’ Front-runner was up to that moment too, writing one of the campaign’s most repulsive pieces. Why was Gore such a big liar? he asked, pandering hard to GOP spin. And front-runnin’ Berke had a very good answer. Gore was such a big liar, he said, because his elderly mother had been such a big liar before him! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/9/00.) Incredible, isn’t it? Indeed, a scribe who will put his name on garbage like that is probably willing to do and say anything. Why, at a time of national unity when Bush’s numbers ran high he might even write a pandering piece about what a Big Loser that Doodoo-head Gore is!

So we resolved to take a look at the methods Berke used in his piece. At a time when our national unity is just so important, surely Berke would be very careful about how he researched such a touchy report. For example, the term "many Democrats" leads paragraph 2—but how many Dems had he really interviewed? We scanned down the page, seeking Richard Berke’s "N." And we chuckled when we came upon this:

BERKE (5): Perhaps out of a desire to rally around Mr. Bush, not one of more than 15 prominent Gore loyalists interviewed said their candidate would have done a better job.

How many Dems had Berke surveyed? He had interviewed "more than 15," he said. Here at THE HOWLER, we exchanged puzzled looks as to just what that phrase really meant.

More than 15? We were flummoxed. After all, one thousand Dems would be "more than 15"—but so, of course, would be twenty. We couldn’t help chuckling to recall the way our celebrity press corps conducts its business. How many people did Berke address? Though he pretends to let us know, in actual fact we don’t have a clue. But mark this well—no one in any other sector could pen so comically vague an account. It would take less space to write the real number—to tell us exactly how many he spoke to. But strangely, Berke prefers to use more words and give us less information.

So let’s just say it—Richard Berke spoke to sixteen Dems, and then he wrote, in paragraph 2, about what "many Democrats" are saying. Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue what "many Dems" now think about Gore. But there is no sign in this article that Berke knows, either—and that’s why we hope our bustling j-schools walk their kids through every graf in his article.

Next: Yo, Richard! How come you have so few quotes?


Smile-a-while (10/29/01)

The way we weren’t: Meanwhile, Maureen Dowd is also frazzled in the wake of last month’s attacks. On October 14, the pundit pondered the naughty way "we" were before this fine mess got started:

DOWD: Only five weeks ago, we inhabited a paradise of trivia, wallowing in celebrity, consumerism and cosmetic-surgery advances. Now we inhabit a paranoia of trivia, worrying about potential mortal threats in everyday actions—opening a letter, getting on a plane or train, going to the mall or a football game.

"We" had been demons of trivia, Dowd said. Yep—"we" had been wallowing in celebrity, consumerism and advances in cosmetic surgery.

Well sorry, Mo, but here at THE HOWLER, "we" aren’t signing up for that club. Here at THE HOWLER, only seven weeks ago, "we" were finishing a four-year run of slamming your love of sheer trivia. Who had "inhabited a paradise of trivia?" Many folks hadn’t, but one had—Maureen Dowd. For that reason, we had asked, again and again, why the Times put her column in print.

Indeed, speaking of The Way We Were, we had recent occasion to list the topics Dowd explored in The Summer of 99. (All right, all right; our work was done for an early chapter of The Spinning of the President, Year 2000.) And no, dear friends, we aren’t making this up—survey Dowd’s topics in that period, after she returned from a four-week vacance:

July 28: Dowd described her recent lazer eye surgery.

August 1: Dowd reviewed the movie "Runaway Bride."

August 4: Dowd discussed a Talk magazine piece about the Clintons’ marriage.

August 8: She interviewed Bob Dole on the prospect of being "first gentleman."

August 11: She compared the Talk magazine piece about the Clintons with an auction of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia.

August 15: Will Warren Beatty run for president?

August 18: Bush and the question of youthful drug use

August 22: Bush and the question of youthful drug use

August 25: Dowd reviewed a Showtime movie about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.

August 29: She ruminated on the life story of John McCain. "Never have so many men wanted to run," she mused, "to prove they are worthy to larger-than-life dads."

September 1: "I ran into Kato Kaelin the other night," she wrote—at the start of a piece about Monica Lewinsky’s fashion business.

September 5: Dowd penned a review of the Paris, the new Las Vegas casino-hotel.

Amazing, isn’t it? Pre-9/11, Dowd hadn’t had a serious thought since the Times unwisely put her in print. She’d been the "it-woman" of an addled press culture—reigning queen of its "paradise of trivia."

We’re all in this thing together now, and we do wish Dowd and her cohort well. But "we" don’t plan to sign up for her club, and "we" wish she’d stop signing up for us.