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3 November 1999

Our current howler (part II): Your press corps in action

Synopsis: A phone call from the Dem town hall forum shed some light on CelebCorps’ strange conduct.

Commentary by Judy Woodruff, Gail Collins
Inside Politics, CNN, 11/2/99

Bradley’s Gestalt Therapy
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 10/29/99

Commentary by Elizabeth Arnold
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 10/29/99

Commentary by Jeff Greenfield, Gloria Borger
Larry King Live, CNN, 10/27/99

Commentary by Howard Mortman, Bob Somerby
The Hotline, America’s Voice, 11/1/99

Commentary by Christina Hoff Sommers
Hardball, CNBC, 11/2/99

You know, HOWLER readers, it really is true. No scribe can say something so flat-out foolish that another scribe ever will notice. Yesterday, on Inside Politics, the following exchange did occur:

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you look back at last week's town meeting with Gore and Bradley, how did they come across?

GAIL COLLINS (11/2): You know, I thought, I actually did tend to think Gore did better than a lot of people did at the time. He seemed really energetic, he seemed to really care, he seemed to really want people to like him and people like that sense that a politician is really trying to please them.

Collins then said how Bradley came across. Of course, we already knew she thought Gore had done well. She'd said so, in her New York Times column:

COLLINS (10/29): Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard. On Wednesday he hijacked the auditorium early on, begging for a chance to do a pre-debate Q-and-A. ("This person has a question! Do we have time for his question?") He tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. ("How old in your child, Corey? Are you unionized, Earl?") At the end, he refused to be dragged off-stage. ("Can I say one more word? I would like to stay!") He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework. Mr. Bradley, lounging on his stool, arms folded across his chest, looked like the high school athlete watching the class nerd volunteering to stay and clap erasers.

Woodruff politely went on to the next topic. It's the law—scribes simply never tell other scribes that their remarks make no sense on this earth.

Yep. We really think we've seen it all in the wake of last Wednesday's Dem town hall forum—we've seen the press corps come out of the shadows, and show off their full-blown dysfunction. Let's tick off the highlights. We've seen them engage in a kind of uniform thinking that is simply impossible to attain when folks think on their own. (Gore was programmed, inauthentic, Clintonesque. They fought over how best to say it.) In support of this spin, we've seen them make comments that make no sense on this earth. (It was "Clintonesque" when Gore got off his chair!) And we've seen one other embarrassing fact—many scribes said something different on Wednesday night, when they had to give their flash reactions. Comments made right after the forum didn't match up with the spin that would come—the uniform spin that the scribes would all offer by the time Collins typed up her column.

So where in the world did the press corps' spin come from—spin so absurd that it lets scribes complain that programmed Gore even got off his chair? (And he'd called people by name! Call the cops!) Why are folks willing to do this? On Friday, two days after the forum, Elizabeth Arnold reported in from New Hampshire to Washington Week in Review. How had folks responded to Bradley and Gore? Arnold's reply was surprising:

ARNOLD: I would say in terms of the undecideds, of which there were many—[pause] we in the press obviously are very cynical about the vice president and his attempts to appear relaxed, but it actually worked. A lot of people as I said were pleasantly surprised by the vice president, and sort of liked the fact—the word "feisty" was used—liked the fact that he was actually challenging Bradley.

Really! According to Arnold, it was "obvious" that the press corps was "very cynical" about Gore, but we don't recall when that fact was announced. When was that? We had supposed the press was just doing its job, trying to report things that happen. (Why would scribes resent an "attempt to appear relaxed?" Arnold wasn't asked, and didn't answer.) But Arnold wasn't the only scribe who briefly discussed the corps' attitude toward Gore. Immediately after the Wednesday forum, Jeff Greenfield appeared on Larry King Live. Inevitably, King asked about those "light-colored suits." Greenfield gave this tactful answer:

GREENFIELD: You know, Al Gore's biggest problem is that, particularly among journalists, there's a feeling that it's like a guy who learned to dance at Arthur Murray's. Like you can almost see him trying to figure out where the steps are on the floor, and where those dotted lines are. And I think, fairly or not, there's this notion that if Al Gore is wearing a light-colored suit, he's focus-grouped it—he's done a poll...I think that we journalists put these people under such a microscope that every time they change their clothes, we figure there's a deliberate political reason. There might well be.

By the way, why would scribes care if a hopeful had focus-grouped suits? It was another question not asked and not answered.

Yep. In all the hoop-la surrounding the forum, small signs emerged of some sort of a problem in the press corps' attitude toward Gore. After the forum, Gloria Borger reported to King's show, live from New Hampshire. King asked for general reaction:

KING: Gloria, what was your read, you were there—what was the mood in the hall, what did it feel like, what was your approach?

Borger's reply struck us as odd:

BORGER: First of all, Larry, there's 300-plus journalists here and I should tell you we were not in the hall, we were kind of in a room down the hall watching this on a large screen. And every time Bill Bradley said something of note the Al Gore rapid-response folks would come in with a printed page and distribute it, which was the rapid response from Al Gore. You may recall this from the Clinton-Gore campaigns, those things seemed to work pretty well. At this point, they almost seem to be a self-parody.

We thought it odd that Borger would bother with this, offering this as her first observation—odd that she thought the public would care that Gore's team dared distribute such slanders. We've reviewed the four Gore "reality checks," supplied by a scribe on the scene that night, and though they seem to be of uneven quality, we're not sure why such work would offend. Here's the text of the "Reality Check" on campaign finance, for example:

REALITY CHECK: Bradley is a newcomer to the campaign finance debate. In the Senate, Bradley set a prodigal example for campaign finance reform. He outspent his 1990 opponent 15-1 and refused to abide by voluntary spending caps; he declined to refuse PAC money and accepted more in PAC money than his opponent raised overall. In addition, Bradley did not author his own campaign finance reform bill until January of 1996, nearly five months after he announced he was retiring from the Senate. In contrast, Gore first cosponsored a campaign finance reform bill in 1979 and authored his own bill in 1986.

Do you think that's important? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it's hard to see why such a note is a "parody"—unless, perhaps, one had already decided that Bradley is authentic, not a pol.

Does the press corps have an attitude about Gore? We might as well tell you that we got a phone call Wednesday night, right from the room where the press had been watching; our interlocutor said that, to his surprise, the various pundits had laughed and groaned at Gore's remarks all throughout the forum. And this Monday night, on the Hotline show (America's Voice), Howard Mortman, the Hotline's national editor, seemed to say pretty much the same thing. He spoke with a visiting press-watcher:

MORTMAN: I phoned in to Bob, to be fair to Bob, I do stick to the story that the media groaned, howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something—

BOB SOMERBY: I think that's amazing. I think that's amazing—

OTHER VOICE FROM PANEL: What happened with Bradley?

MORTMAN: Stone silence. Really.

And do you know what we think? We might as well say it. We think it's amazing—simply astounding, that the press would engage in that conduct.

But you'll remember, dear readers, we've warned for some time of the attitude lurking behind stray remarks—behind the remarks of Roger Simon, for example, that the corps would make Gore "jump through hoops (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/99). And we suggested last spring, with the farm chores debacle, that an attitude simply had to lay behind the press corps' egregious dissembling. But then, does anything surprise you from a celebrity press corps which will put up with nonsense like that remark from Gail Collins? Does anything surprise you from a celebrity press corps that has abandoned all known earthly standards?


Tomorrow: Where does the press corps' spin come from? Sometimes, it comes from Bob Novak.

Wolf watch: Are you seeking amusement from the Naomi Wolf claptrap? If so, keep an eye on pundit use of "apparently" and its various surrogates. None of them have the slightest idea what Wolf has done for the Gore campaign. But they're eager to get their spin underway. So they've been leaning on various qualifiers.

Last night on Hardball, two minutes in, Christina Hoff Sommers got her first chance:

SOMMERS: Apparently Naomi Wolf has been hired by the campaign—by Al Gore—to help him assert his masculinity.

In other words, she doesn't know. Two minutes later, Sommers said this:

SOMMERS: You can imagine the serious people on this campaign must be mortified that he's listening to this young woman.

And that's right—you can always "imagine" what "must be" the case. (Wolf, by the way, is 37.) Two minutes later, it happened again. A talker got Sommers to cite Wolf's "inner slut" comment. Then this exchange occurred:

MATTHEWS: And how does that relate to what [Gore's] trying to achieve in the campaign?...

SOMMERS: Well, apparently he's felt that he needed a way—

She was interrupted by the talker at that point. Darn it! We never were able to really get straight on what is apparently true.

Early on, Sommers said, "This is pathetic." At THE HOWLER, we agree with that view.