1 November 1999
Our current howler (part III): Highly subjective
Synopsis: How did the hopefuls "come across" and "connect?" The press corps just loves the subjective.
Commentary by David Brooks, Jim Lehrer
The NewsHour, PBS, 10/29/99
Commentary by Gwen Ifill, Elizabeth Arnold, Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 10/29/99
Controversial Feminist Paid by Gore Camp
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 11/1/99
CelebCorps' tasteful reaction to the Gore-Bradley forum continued
Friday night, on the NewsHour. Here's David Brooks, one
of Washington's brightest commentators, after acknowledging that
his own reaction to the Wednesday forum didn't match polls that
were taken the next day:
BROOKS: I thought Bradley wiped the floor with him. I thought
Bradley came out, said I'm a grown-up guy, I'm sitting here telling
you what I believe. Al Gore struck me, he took the focus group
viagra. He just came out oozing empathy
LEHRER [chuckling]: What did you say, "focus group viagra?"
BROOKS: Somebody compared him to an animal that had been caged
up and they let him loose and he came out oozing empathy.
So let's see. Bradley is a guy who "looks like he's been
smoking a lot of pot" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/99). Gore
is a guy who looks like "he's doing sex after reading a book
about how to do it" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/99). And
now he's a caged and unloosed animal, who has taken "the
focus-group viagra." We think it's striking that someone
as smart as David Brooks would want to express himself in this
wayor that Jim Lehrer, much like Judy Woodruff on Wednesday,
seems to feel that he must play along.
But the press corps' response to the Dem town hall meeting
wasn't just oddly smutty. The press corps also boldly showed off
its love affair with the subjective. How did the hopefuls "come
across?" How did they "seem?" Did they "connect"
with the audience? Whose jokes were funny? The press corps repeatedly
spoke to such questionsrarely displaying any awareness of the
phenomenal subjectivity involved.
Visit the set of Washington Week in Review, CelebCorps'
most high-toned forum. Never would panelists sully their work
with the cheap joking that filled other halls. Kicking off last
Friday's show, Gwen Ifill spoke with Elizabeth Arnold, reporting
from New Hampshire:
IFILL: Elizabeth, so which of these candidates, after you talked
to voters after the debates...which of the candidates actually did
By the time the program aired Friday night, there were polls
available which actually said how New Hampshire voters
had scored the Dem forum (Brooks had noted this fact; see postscript).
An objective answer to Ifill's question was available by
Friday afternoon. But Arnold proceeded with a different blend,
mixing her subjective impressions with random comments from voters.
She began with how Gore came across:
ARNOLD: ...Let's start with the Democrats. I would say that Vice
President Al Gore was so determined to appear relaxed and connect
with the people that he was practically leaping off the stage
for personal details of the questioners' lives.
Bill Bradley provided a contrast:
ARNOLD: ...Bradley, by contrast, came across as calm, subdued,
almost like he was the incumbent, and he came off, a few people
said to me today, as somebody who really believed in what
he says and isn't telling people what he thinks they want to hear.
That's how Bradley "came across." But "came
across" to whom? In the case of Bradley, Arnold cites
what "a few people" told her, seeming not to understand
the total absurdity of reporting such a meaningless sample. Arnold's
account of who "did best" blended personal impressions
with reports from stray voters. Is there anything obviously wrong
with that approach? Perhaps yes. Here's her take on John McCain:
ARNOLD: I would say Arizona Senator John McCain...connected, came
across directly answering questions. At one point he was asked
a question about legalizing marijuana, and he at first said, "That's
an excellent question," and then he ducked it
IFILL: And then he didn't answer the question.
ARNOLD: He said, "I'd like to duck it." But then
he told a great story about being asked a similar question and
thinking industrial hemp was a form of navy ship rope. But without
being obsequious, McCain was able to come off as affable and connected
with the audience.
By the way, one quick note about Arnold's assessmentsdespite
the tone of that last remark, Arnold was not in the hall when
this forum took place. Instead, she was watching on television
in a separate hall with the rest of the penned-up press corps.
She had no more access to how hopefuls "came across"
than anyone watching the forums at homea point rarely made as
the press corps explained how the hopefuls "came across"
and "connected." And by the waywas McCain's
story about the hemp a "great story?" Here at THE HOWLER,
we thought McCain was the star of the Republican forumbut we
thought his story about industrial hemp was silly, off the point,
his one error. Arnold betrays no awareness at all that her reported
judgment is completely subjectiveas is her judgment, offered
without qualification, that McCain "came across" and
"connected" a certain way in a room where she herself
was not even present.
But most striking in the quoted exchange is what was said about
McCain's actual answer. McCain most certainly did answer
the questionafter telling his "great story" about industrial
hemp, he quite plainly said, in some detail, that he would not
favor legalizing marijuana. But viewers of the august Week
in Review were explicitly told, by two correspondents, that
McCain had actually "ducked the question." In short,
the one factual matter that was raised in this exchange
was completely misstated for the show's viewers. Meanwhile,
viewers were treated to a subjective account of the way John McCain
Oh yeah! So what about our topic from Friday, the repeated
dispute between Bradley and Gore about the cost of their health
care programs? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/99.) Remember that?
The substantive point that Gore made repeatedlythe one that made
page one headlines in the Post and the Times, but was ignored
on three follow-up TV shows? Surely on this high-minded show,
the serious scribes would run straight to that topic. Sorry. On
Washington Week in Revieweven here!the pundits chose
instead to talk style.
After Arnold's assessment of how the hopefuls "came across,"
Mara Liasson raised a different sort of question. She noted that
Gore, in the past few weeks, has made several different criticisms
of Bradley. "Do we have a sense yet of what the debate is?"
she asked. "Is there a sense of what the debate is between
these two men?" Liasson wanted something other than
style. Arnold's answer struck us as surprising:
ARNOLD: I think you're right. At the end of the evening, it
was as if there really wasn't that much difference between them
in terms of substance. It was more in terms of style.
By Friday afternoon, as you may know, the forum's health cost
dispute had spread, with the Bradley camp explicitly challenging
Gore on the cost of his own proposed programs. It was the perfect
time for some panel member to ask Arnold to profile this subject.
It was clearly the central point of dispute from the forum; the
issue, quite plainly, was still being argued. But Jeffrey Birnbaum
had a better idea. Here was the panel's next question:
BIRNBAUM (continuing directly): Can you talk a little more
about the style and how the audience at least as you can judge
for them, how they reacted to Gore and the way he was about leaping
off the stage at them, and whether they really warmed to Bradley,
who isn't known as a warm type of politician, but nevertheless
might have been more attractive. Did the audience react that way?
Nothing "leading" about that question! Birnbaum
loved the pleasing image of Gore leaping right off the stage.
Arnold went on to give more detail about how (she thought) Gore
came across. Nopethe Washington Week audience never
heard about the growing debate about health costs. But they
did get to hear what the press corps likes bestsubjective statements
about who "came across," and about who told "great
stories." Throughout the press corps, for the most part,
surprise of surprises: Gore didn't.
Tomorrow: When the press corps gives subjective assessments,
they all like to say the same thing.
Facts are boring things: On the NewsHour, Brooks
noted that his reaction to Gore and Bradley did not comport
with new polls. Indeed, on Friday's Inside Politics,
Bill Schneider had reported such a poll; New Hampshire Dems
scored the forum a draw. This was the best objective answer to
Ifill's first question ("After you talked to voters, which
one did best?") But Washington Week viewers were deprived
of this information. Instead, they got Arnold's subjective assessments,
and her account of what "a few voters" said.
Earth (tones) to Connolly: In this morning's Post, Ceci
Connolly continues to stress things that matter. In paragraph
13 of a page one story, she offers this report:
CONNOLLY: [Dick] Morris speculated that [adviser Naomi] Wolf,
who has long contended that earth tones are more "reassuring"
to audiences, is the person behind Gore's recent wardrobe change.
Others confirmed that she has supported the vice president's shift
to brown, olive green and tan shades.
Finally, due to careful reporting, we're getting the background
on that! In paragraph 19, Connolly got around to discussing the
Bradley-Gore budget dispute that was discussed on yesterday's
talk shows. It is simply astounding to see the "news judgment"
that pervades the celebrity press.