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7 November 1999

Our current howler (part I): By Emory bored?

Synopsis: Eleven days after the Dem town hall forum, still no word on that Emory health study.

Gore’s ‘Alpha’ Adviser
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 11/2/99

Democrats Echo Themes in Face-Off
Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 10/28/99

Gore and Bradley Mostly in Concert on Array of Issues
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 10/28/99

Gore Steps Up the Attack Against Bradley on Health care
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 10/29/99

Gore Blasts Bradley Health Plan
Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 10/29/99

Naomi Wolf, Feminist Consultant to Gore, Clarifies Her Campaign Role
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 11/5/99

Commentary by Paul Gigot, Jim Lehrer, Mark Shields
The NewsHour, PBS, 11/5/99

NOTE: MONDAY, NOVEMBER 8—When THE HOWLER says "jump," the press says "How high," and it's never been more clear than today, with stories about the Gore and Bradley health plans in several of the papers we cover. We're going to go ahead and file this story (from yesterday) anyway. For this week, we've planned stories exploring the way the press has covered substantive disputes from the Dem town hall forum. We salute the papers who have written health care stories today. But most pundit commentary since the debate has dealt with clothes and hand gestures, not substance. And pundits have offered surprising explanations. We'll continue with the topic tomorrow.


SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 7: What's the best thing you can say about the Bush pop quiz flap? It's been less silly than the Gore pop psych nonsense. By the end of last week, the celebrity pundits were happily playing with the fatuous Naomi Wolf story. You'll recall Richard Cohen, in the Post:

COHEN (paragraph 1): "The male body is home to me, my rocket, my whirlpool." So wrote Naomi Wolf in her book, "Fire With Fire" which will soon be required reading along the campaign trail. Wolf—sometimes a feminist, sometimes not, but always controversial—has just been revealed as a secret Al Gore campaign adviser apparently teaching the vice president how to be a rocket and a whirlpool.

As we pointed out last week, the word "apparently" tells us that the sexed-up Cohen doesn't really know what he's talking about (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/99). But then, when are our pundits ever more happy than when they know not whereof they speak? Reading Cohen, we didn't doubt for a minute that the temptress Wolf's books would soon be required press corps reading. It would give the scribes a good excuse to avoid the thing they all seem to dread. It would let them avoid reading the Emory health study Gore cited at the Dem town hall forum.

That's right, folks. Here we are, eleven days post-forum. And still no sign that anyone has reviewed the Emory health care study Gore cited—the study about the relative costs of the Bradley and Gore health care plans. It came up in Gore's second answer:

GORE (10/27): Just today, the respected Emory School of Public Health came out with a non-partisan analysis of both my plan and Senator Bradley's and they said that his plan costs $1.2 trillion [over ten years]. That is more than the cost of the entire surplus over the next ten years. We have to look ahead and save some of the surplus for Medicare. If you wipe out Medicaid, and wipe out the chance to save Medicare, and wipe out the surplus, then you might get a few more people [covered] in the short run, but you give two thirds of the money to those who already have health care. You're going to hurt, you're going to shred the social safety net. So I think that the cost is way excessive.

Bradley had said that his proposed health plan would cost $55-65 billion per year.

Gore's complaints about the Bradley plan were voiced three separate times in the forum. The disagreement about health costs was widely cited as the evening's central point of dispute. Claire Shipman, in her live report to Brian Williams, noted that Gore had raised the issue several times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/99). And next-day coverage stressed the dispute, as in this passage from the Washington Post's page one story:

CONNOLLY AND BALZ (10/28, paragraph 2): In a nationally televised town meeting, Gore sought to accentuate his differences with his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. He repeatedly challenged the potential cost of Bradley's health care plan, saying that it would wipe out the entire $1 trillion surplus over the next 10 years and "shred the safety net."

Here's the New York Times, in its own page one story:

BERKE (10/28, paragraph 1): Vice President Al Gore, in his first televised encounter with former Senator Bill Bradley, pointedly but gently press his rival tonight to defend what Mr. Gore called costly proposals that he warned would "shred the safety net."

The Wall Street Journal's headline read, "Gore Jabs At Bradley On Medicare."

Nor did the hopeful drop his point in the aftermath of the forum. On October 29, the New York Times headline said, "Gore Steps Up the Attack Against Bradley on Health Care." On the same day, the Washington Post said this, describing Gore's day on the trail:

CONNOLLY AND BALZ (10/29, paragraph 1): CLINTON, Iowa, Oct. 28: Vice President Gore today launched his harshest attack on former senator Bill Bradley, ridiculing his rival's health care plan as a big, but bad, idea that would ravage many vital domestic programs and block new initiatives.

And why had the Post's scribes led with the topic?

CONNOLLY AND BALZ (4): The health care debate was by far the sharpest disagreement to emerge from Wednesday's town meeting at Dartmouth College. Democrats and Republicans both said today the question about how much Bradley's plan would cost presented potential trouble for him.

Phew! Apparently, if Bradley was wrong on the numbers—the way Gore said—he'd have some mighty big 'splainin' to do.

But Bradley has nothing to fear from health costs, even if he is somehow wrong on his numbers. As we type, it has been eleven full days since hopeful Gore made his charges about Bradley's plan. Pundits without end have had big fun joking and dissembling about "shadow slut" matters. But no entity we cover has made any real effort to follow up on the health care dispute.

Who's right on the numbers? We don't have a clue. We read this celebrity press corps.

The Washington Post? In the paper's October 29, day-two coverage, Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz identified the author of the Emory study as "former Clinton administration health analyst Ken Thorpe;" they said that the Bradley campaign had "produced its own collection of experts to defend the former senator's approach as both visionary and fiscally responsible." The writers quoted one such expert, Harvard professor David Cutler, saying, "Fundamentally, the Bradley plan is more expensive" (than the Gore health plan). But that's as detailed as the analysis of costs ever got. The writers quoted Bradley aides on Medicare; according to the aides, Bradley "wants to preserve Medicare but also supports adding a prescription drug benefit." But there was no effort to explain what Gore had meant in saying that Bradley's plan failed to "save Medicare," and no mention whatever of Gore's assertion that Bradley's plan would "wipe out Medicaid."

Katharine Seelye, in the New York Times, also identified Thorpe as the Emory author. And she offered a slightly more detailed look at what Prof. Cutler had said:

SEELYE (10/29): The Bradley camp also claimed its own supporting academic experts...[Cutler] has said that Mr. Bradley's critics say the plan would cost more than it would because they wrongly assumed he provided a more generous insurance policy than he actually did.

"In short," the Bradley statement said, "Gore is attacking Bradley's plan simply because it is comprehensive and bold."

Seelye's writing in this passage doesn't make too much sense—first the Bradley camp says the plan is smaller than Gore thinks, then they say the plan is being attacked just because it's so big. But Seelye provides a shade more insight into the dispute about the plan's cost, though she never attempts to tell her readers how "generous" Bradley's policy would be.

So—eleven days after the Dem town hall meeting, where do we stand on the key health dispute? Neither the Post nor the Times has ever told readers how "generous" the Bradley plan actually is. Neither paper has made any effort to evaluate the Emory study. Neither paper has explained what Gore meant in saying that Bradley's plan fails to "save Medicare." Neither paper has explained Gore's claim that the Bradley plan "wipes out Medicaid."

We've seen little effort to probe the dispute that lay at the heart of the Dem town hall meeting. What we have seen, though, is lots of big fun as celebrity scribes offer jokes on alpha males.


Tuesday: If voters want substance, what should they do? Tucker Carlson made a striking proposal.

Wolf men: Last Friday, Melinda Henneberger published a lengthy account of an interview with Naomi Wolf. In the interview, Wolf said she'd never advised Gore on his clothes. Also this:

HENNEBERGER: Ms. Wolf calls the idea that she has been instructing [Gore] on how to be a dominant "Alpha male" rather than a subordinate "Beta male" a total fantasy...Yes, she did mention Alpha versus Beta males, she allows, but only once, in passing, either in a conversation or a memo..."It was just a truism, something the pundits have been saying for months, that the Vice President is in a supportive role and the President is in an initiatory role," she said. "I used those terms as shorthand."

But you'll surely recall what we've told you before, dear readers—this press corps hates spoiling good stories. Friday night on the NewsHour, no one mentioned Wolf's denials, although Paul Gigot quickly said this:

GIGOT: The biggest story of the week on Al Gore is the fact that he was paying $15,000 a month to Naomi Wolf, a feminist writer, to give him advice on how to be an alpha male as opposed to a beta male. That's not the message the vice president wants to leave in primary states.

Later in the segment, this exchange occurred:

GIGOT: It's a question of authenticity. Do you really need advice from somebody at 15 grand a month—

LEHRER: On how to be—

GIGOT: —on what kind of man to be?

LEHRER: Yeah. Yeah.

No one cited Wolf's statement in the Times—not Gigot, not Lehrer, not Mark Shields. When a story is good, the corps keeps it around. Mentioning denials (of a lightly-sourced story) would pretty much spoil the fun.

Meanwhile, Shields showed off another old trick:

SHIELDS: It's certainly a plus for Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Bill Maher, you name it. The guys have ammunition for at least a week.

The pundits love to pretend that it's late-night comics who somehow keep joking about these stories. In fact, it's the pundits themselves. As an example, here's Shields himself, from this very same answer, just two sentences later:

SHIELDS: I'm going to have to say this about Al Gore. I saw him in several different settings this week. We'd seen Al Gore, the sort of wooden, phlegmatic Al Gore who was just a heartbeat away from the vice presidency [Hay-yo!] in the past. Then we saw sort of the hyper Al Gore, who was sort of John Kasich on speed [Hay-yo!]...

We've told you before: many pundits today see a White House race as a chance to showcase their fabulous wit. But in failing to mention Wolf's statements in the Times, these three engaged in journalistic malpractice.

Speaking of health care: The analysts are in D.C. all day Monday, taking part in the annual Comedy Concert for Children's Hospital at the Warner Theater (7 PM). We do expect to be filing on Tuesday. But if you're in the Washington area, come out and support the cheerful people who run this fine institution.