2 November 1999
Our current howler (part I): Where does spin come from?
Synopsis: Where does spin come from? Were not sure. But Jeff Greenfield managed to call the shot on press coverage of the Dem town hall forum.
Bradleys Gestalt Therapy
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 10/29/99
No Cheap Shots
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 10/31/99
Commentary by Jeff Greenfield
Inside Politics, CNN, 10/27/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews, Howard Fineman
Hardball, CNBC, 10/28/99
Gores Alpha Adviser
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 11/2/99
It's hard to pick out the most ridiculous element of the press
corps' reaction to the Dem town hall forum. Could it be this part
of the Gail Collins piece that ran in the Times two days later?
COLLINS: Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat...[H]e
tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts
to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. ("How
old is your child, Corey? Are you unionized, Earl?")
In this passage, Collins works in the mandatory "Clintonesque"
reference, and scolds Gore for calling audience members by name,
which he did with three of his thirteen questioners. (GOP hopefuls,
perfectly appropriately, used first names with four of their first
seven questioners. Maybe they're "Clintonesque" too.)
She also enjoys a bit of invention; there were no uses of Spanish,
none at all, in the course of the televised forum. But what exactly
was the exchange in which naughty Gore called "Corey"
by name? The question, Gore's third, went like this:
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Corey Martin and I live in Hanover.
There's been talk tonight about health care reform and I'm
the parent of a child who has diabetes and I spend a lot of
time dealing with the insurance companies and what's covered and
what's not covered and it eats up a lot of time and effort. So
I'm wondering, if you were to implement health care reform, who
would be the decision-makers? Who decides what's covered?
Gore inquired about the age of the child (five), and asked
if Ms. Martin had good insurance (she did). He told her he hoped
we will find a cure for her child's disease, then gave a general
answer to her larger question.
The notion that it was inappropriate for Gore to inquire about
Ms. Martin's child is a notion so utterly heartless, so obnoxious
and dense that it simply demands a bit of attention at the start
of today's DAILY HOWLER. Indeed, Collins' obtuseness explains
a basic element of our world; it explains why some of us are elected
officials, and some, instead, write empty columns for papers much
like the New York Times. Can Collins possiblypossiblythink
Gore was out of line when he spoke as he did to Ms. Martin? And
can anyone explain why it is people like Collins, writing utter
drivel like this, who sit at the top of our national discourse,
and sometimes influence who will be the next president?
Or maybe the silliest thing written about the forum was Sunday's
opening passage from Mary McGrory. Incredibly, here are the first
two paragraphs of her Washington Post column. We swear we aren't
making this up:
MCGRORY (paragraph 1): Vice President Albert Gore came to his
fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley
carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to
his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown
suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tieand black boots.
(2) Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was
meant to be a ground-leveling statement"I am not a well-dressed
man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate
himself with the nation's earliest primary voters by trying to
look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio
station. Maybe it was the first step in shedding his Prince Albert
How does Gore offend? Not just by getting off his stool when
he speaks (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/99), but also by
wearing blue shirts! Incredibly, this is the way the Washington
Post is willing to have last week's town hall discussedan event
in which two bright men met with plainly concerned citizens, staging
a smart, hour-long forum to decide who should be the next president
(the most powerful elected official in the world). Work like this,
most plainly put, is an insult to the democratic processand a
revealing look at the exceptionally low caliber of our powerful
but empty mainstream press corps.
We think it's important to focus on just how bizarre
the corps' coverage got to beon how far from reality the comments
strayed by the time the corps got its spin going. As we mentioned
yesterday, at least three major punditsCollins, McGrory, Margaret
Carlsonexplicitly criticized Gore for getting off his stool when
he spoke, although every candidate, in each of last week's
forums, got off his stool to answer every question. In
this press corps, once a spin has been agreed on, everyone has
to run to support it. And the evidence offered to support the
spin can be just as silly as a scribe might like. No one ever
will say a word about the oddness of CelebCorps' comments. There
is no standard of luciditynone at allwhen the press has agreed
on a spin.
But where does the press corps' spin come from? By Friday evening,
everyone knew it, and the brave little press corps spoke loud,
with one voice. Gore had been programmed, rehearsed, inauthentic.
It was quite clear: he had been Clintonesque. All of them know
it by Friday nightalthough on Wednesday, immediately after the
forum, a good number of pundits, not yet scripted, had gone on
TV and said things quite different. They had said that Gore had
not seemed programmed; he'd seemed relaxed, and both hopefuls
did well (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/99).
So just where does the press corps' spin come from?
We don't know, but we've picked up some signs. Last Wednesday,
Jeff Greenfield previewed the forum on Inside Politics
less than three hours before it began. What approach might Bradley
take that night? Greenfield discussed Bradley's career, as he
believes Bradley sees it:
GREENFIELD: From the very beginningI mean, literally for yearsBill
Bradley, who has been wanting to run for president, has tried
to figure out if he can run for president "his way,"
to paraphrase Frank Sinatra. And I think he's been very conscious
of running a campaign that says, "I'm not like these other
politicians. I don't rehearse. I don't use focus groups.
Perhaps you note some of the basic spin points that were stated
in the press corps last weekend. Greenfield continued:
GREENFIELD [continuing directly]: And to the extent tonight
that Al Gore comes inhe has a very talented group of consultants
around himover-prepared with a sound bite, a phrase, that
sounds rehearsed, to the extent that Bradley has one thing
going on his mind throughout this contest, it is to draw the distinction
between himself as a natural human being, sort of Jimmy Stewart,
and Al Gore as a kind of political automaton.
AgainGreenfield here was trying to preview what Bradley's
approach would be. In so doing, he virtually pre-wrote the familiar
script we would later hear voiced by the press corps:
GREENFIELD [continuing directly]: And I think if there's one
strategy, if that's the right word, that I'd expect to see Bradley
try to employ tonight, it's to reinforce this notion that the
difference is not so much ideological as "I'm more authentic
than Al Gore."
You couldn't ask a scribe to be more on the money. Except Greenfield,
describing Bradley's view of the race, had perfectly stated
the unvarying spin that would later emerge from the press corps.
The following night, for example, a tabloid talker had his first
shot at describing the forum. He spoke with Newsweek's
Howard Fineman. Authenticity quickly came up:
FINEMAN [first Q & A]: I think [Gore's] main problem is
showing that he's the kind of authentic character who understands
what he's about and knows exactly what he wants to do, which I
think is what voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere are looking
for this time. This election is going to be all about authenticity,
Chris, at least here in New Hampshire. I've been all around the
state today and that's what people are talking about.
He knew what the whole state was saying! The next day, of course,
we would learn from GallupNew Hampshire Dems who watched scored
the forum a draw. But a talker couldn't wait for a verdict:
MATTHEWS [continuing directly]: Who's the winner, by view of
the people talking up there?
FINEMAN: Well, last nightI think it was close...I think Gore
got the points across he wanted to, as if he was ticking them
off on a debate flow chart. But I think Bill Bradley, in terms
of this authenticity thing that I'm talking about, probably carried
the day because he looked secure in who he was...
Fineman went on to tell us that Bradley looked "relaxed
and comfortable" at a town meeting that morning. Gore, though,
when he "got points across," had been "ticking
them off on a debate flow chart." Translation: Gore was rightbut
Gore looked rehearsed. And talk about ticking points off on a
chartFineman was listing the very same points that Greenfield
had presciently sketched out the day before.
By Friday, everyone in the media knew Gore was rehearsed; the
image appeared again and again, all throughout the criticism.
He had "taken the focus group viagra." The spin was
so firm, and the pundits so ardent, that it turned out Gore was
"Clintonesque" just because he got up off his seat.
And it turned out he had also been Clintonesque when he asked
about a child who was sick. But that hadn't been what scribes
had said when they gave flash reactions right after the forum.
What had happened to drive the corps' outlook? On Saturday, Al
Hunt gave a clue.
Tomorrow: At first, Al Hunt thought Gore had
won. Then he began talking to others.
Let's play beanball: The Bradley world view which Greenfield
described suffused a talker's Thursday night program. When Norah
O'Donnell said it was odd to be "criticizing a presidential
candidate [Gore] for trying to connect with voters," a talker
asked, "But was it an authentic connection or was it something
some consultant told him to try?" Earlier, the talker said
that Gore's answer to a question about misconduct in the Clinton
administration "very clearly was dictated by his polling
data." When Moore mentioned that Gore had thanked the people
of New Hampshire for their role in the campaign, the talker asked,
"What did he mean by that, his polling data is showing him
behind?" No one ticks off points on a chart quite like this
excited tabloid talker.
Wolf man: Six days after the Dem town hall forum, we
haven't seen a major paper evaluate the claim Gore spelled out
three timesthe claim that Bradley's health care plan is uselessly
expensive, using up money that could go somewhere else. But this
week's Time gives the scribes a chance to discuss masturbation.
This morning, Richard Cohen is in high dudgeon about Naomi Wolf's
role in the Gore campaign. In a column which relies heavily on
the words "apparently" and "reportedly," the
sex-starved pundit writes this:
COHEN (paragraph 1): "The male body is home to me, my
rocket, my whirlpool." So writes Naomi Wolf in her book,
"Fire With Fire," which will soon be required reading
along the campaign trail.
And we're sure it will be. Pundits will use any excuse to avoid
reading the Emory health study which Gore cited at the Wednesday
Would Bradley's proposal crowd out other concerns? Don't ask,
folks. These people doesn't care.