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1 November 2001

Our current howler (part IV): ADVANTAGE: Berke

Synopsis: The rules of engagement all favored Berke. He still couldn’t give what he promised.

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

Let’s face it—it was "ADVANTAGE: Berke" when the front-running scribe plotted his Gore-bashin’ piece. Just think of the helpful rules of engagement under which his timeless study went forward.

First, in a city with thousands of "prominent Dems," he could pick out any sixteen he liked for his interviews. No random sampling need apply. And because he was allowed to quote anonymous Dems, there was no need to reveal their possible animus. Did a "former Dem senator" really tell Berke he was glad Bush won and Gore lost? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But we make the following observation just to highlight our basic point—New Jersey’s Bill Bradley is a "former Dem senator!" Did Berke interview someone—like the high-minded Bradley—who might have a lingering animus toward Gore? We don’t know, and you don’t know either. That’s the beauty of our press corps’ slippery methods.

But there are other procedures Berke got to follow which scream out "ADVANTAGE: Berke." Those advantages? Berke could paraphrase what his Dems said, and he could quote selectively. Let’s return to that former Dem solon, examined in yesterday’s piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/31/01):

BERKE (7): One former senator who was a staunch Gore backer said he was relieved that Mr. Bush was president because he feared that the former vice president would think he had all the answers.

(8) "He may know too much," the former senator said. "And he would have tried to micromanage everything."

Did this former Dem solon actually say "he was relieved that Mr. Bush was president?" As we noted yesterday, that’s a paraphrase—Berke’s account of what this Dem said. The solon certainly may have said this, but Berke doesn’t quote him—and Berke works so hard to spin other statements that no, we don’t automatically credit his account. Review, for example, the ludicrous way Berke tried to spin Carter Eskew’s remarks (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/31/01). Berke’s paraphrase of this solon may be on point. But sorry—being sane, our doubts linger.

That’s right, folks—the power to paraphrase is the power to spin, as we have long tried to tell you. In truth, Berke doesn’t quote a single person who says he is glad that Gore lost. Berke got to pick any sixteen Dems—and he still doesn’t quote a single Dem saying it! The power to paraphrase is the power to spin, and it may be that Berke grabbed some power.

But something else is powerful too—the use of selective quotation. Look, for example, at what Berke does quote from the "former Dem senator." Gore "would have tried to micromanage everything," the solon says. And not only that—Gore "may know too much." Surely those statements—quoted straight from the Dem Sen’s mouth—show he is glad that Gore lost.

Well actually, no, they don’t show it. Let’s imagine that something else may have happened—and by the way, this goes on all the time.

Let’s imagine that this former Dem senator went took a walk through the pros and the cons. That is, let’s imagine he was asked to compare and contrast, and helpfully listed the strengths and the weaknesses he sees in both Bush and Gore. Then let’s suppose that Berke quotes him selectively, using only the bad things said about Gore. The quotes Berke gives are perfectly accurate—but they convey a completely false picture.

Did this occur with the former Dem Sen? At THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. We don’t know who this senator is, and we don’t have a transcript of his remarks; we’re forced to trust Berke’s intentions and judgment, and Berke engaged in laughable spin in "quoting" three major named Democrats. Jot it down, readers—absent a full transcript, anonymous quoting is utterly worthless unless you can put your full faith in the journalist. And sorry—after reading Berke’s treatment of Eskew’s remarks, we’d have to be crazy to do that.

So let’s review the Berkean method. He got to pick the Dems he wanted. He didn’t tell us who they were. He even got to pick and choose which of their comments he quoted. And with all that screaming "ADVANTAGE: Berke," Berke still didn’t deliver the mail. He still didn’t quote a single Dem who said he was glad that Gore lost.

Are there Dems who now are glad that Bush won? Without question, there certainly may be. And certainly, some may have said so to Berke, though there’s no real way to be sure from this piece. But Berke picks a seemingly minuscule "N;" fails to say how large it is; fails to say who his subjects are; and tells us how one Democrat "sounded." He pretends to be completely shocked when Gore’s top aide won’t trash Stupid Bush. In truth, this article should be presented in j-schools as a prime example of how not to function. So why would Berke pen such a piece? Tomorrow, we speculate freely.

Tomorrow: Incomparable musings.

Visit our incomparable archives: How big an advantage do spinners get when they pick-and-choose their interview subjects? Ceci Connolly wrote the book. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/00.