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16 November 1999

Our current howler (part III): Poll watchers

Synopsis: Gore has gone back ahead in New Hampshire state polls. There’s a good chance that you haven’t heard it.

The outside shooter and the fighting pilot
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 11/15/99

Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 11/8/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Howard Fineman
Hardball, CNBC, 11/9/99

No One Like McCain
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 11/16/99

It's surprising how often pundits state the "underdog" theory (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER)—the theory that pundits and scribes help underdog hopefuls to create a better race. Suddenly the theory is all over the air—discussed, for example, on last night's Larry King Live, following a call on the subject. At any rate, it's surprising that pundits state the theory so freely, because it describes a case of gross press misconduct. Adjusting one's coverage to create a tighter race would violate a newspaper's implicit trust with its readers. Have journalists done this in the current race? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. Motives are always hard to establish, and it's virtually impossible to lure the press into lucid discussion of its actual conduct.

Motives are hard to establish. But an intriguing example of the "underdog" treatment was perhaps played out in last week's Newsweek—the "Straight Shooters" issue which Eric Burns criticized on Fox News Sunday this week (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER). The cover story, you'll recall, concerned hopefuls Bradley and McCain. "Straight Shooters," the cover announced—"How Bradley and McCain are scoring with the politics of authenticity." Inside Newsweek, Howard Fineman's lead story ran under this synopsis:

NEWSWEEK: Bradley and McCain are selling this year's hottest commodity: the aura of authenticity that comes from a life that starts outside politics.

It's a theme that Fineman has stated again and again on cable news broadcasts in the past month.

But what if the "straight shooters" aren't scoring with voters? Fineman's theme was that the "authentic" and "plain-spoken" McCain and Bradley—hopefuls who are "comfortable with themselves"—were getting big play from the voters. But tucked in his story lurked this:

FINEMAN: [Gore and Bush] are front-runners now, but both seem overhandled and underprepared—and fearful that they'll blow it. A Newsweek poll of voters in New Hampshire, site of the first primary next February, gives them cause for concern. McCain is gaining on Bush, who leads by 44 percent to 27 percent. In the Democratic race, Gore leads Bradley by 46 percent to 36 percent.

The polling was done November 4-5, according to Newsweek's data. But did those Gore-Bradley numbers give Gore "cause for concern?" In fact, the numbers were newsworthy for a quite different reason—they were the best New Hampshire polling results Gore had achieved in months. Readers may remember the press corps' great arousal when Bradley drew close to Gore in New Hampshire (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/99, 9/29/99, 9/30/99). These new numbers suggested a new possibility—they suggested that Gore may have reversed the trend, and retaken the lead in the state.

So what does an enterprising magazine do? That's simple—it buries the numbers. Last Monday night, Fineman appeared on The News with Brian Williams. Williams ushered Fineman onstage like this:

WILLIAMS (11/8): For more now on the Bush campaign, we look to the author of this week's Newsweek magazine cover story on the two fast-gaining number two men, the underdogs in the race for president, Messrs. McCain and Bradley.

Fast-gaining? According to the numbers in Newsweek's new poll, Bradley had gone from a (roughly) six-point lead a month ago to a current ten-point deficit. (The 44-27 Bush-McCain numbers were also McCain's worst in recent weeks.) But Newsweek's poll wasn't mentioned during Fineman's appearance, in which Fineman discussed both Granite State races. And no one mentioned the poll the next night when Fineman appeared on the inventive show Hardball. A tabloid talker did say this about the Gore-Bradley Granite State race:

MATTHEWS (11/9): Let's talk about these two guys because people think that this race is getting very close between Bradley and Gore and there may well be an upset, and Gore can be the loser of that upset.

Earlier, Fineman said this of the New Hampshire race:

FINEMAN (11/9): If you haven't noticed it's turned into one heck of a race, and Bill Bradley's starting to throw the elbows around. Al Gore's going to need all the help he can get.

The primary is getting "very close?" The primary has turned into a race? These comments were six weeks out of date. It's certainly possible that Bradley will win New Hampshire—but pundits had generally made Bradley the favorite in New Hampshire some weeks back. In his two appearances, Fineman never mentioned the new polling figures which suggested that Gore might well be back in the lead. By the end of the week, a second new poll—from American Research Group—showed Gore leading Bradley in New Hampshire, 46-40. In short, two new polls now showed Gore leading, by more than the pundits' beloved margin of error. But last night on Hardball, the polls again went completely unmentioned, as pundits chattered on about the Gore campaign's problems. Pundits who touted polls showing Bradley ahead dropped new polls down the memory hole.

Does the failure to mention these two new polls tell us something about the pundits? At THE HOWLER, we simply can't say. We don't know if this is the underdog theory being acted out; or if this is press-hates-Gore-due-to-Clinton at work; or if this is an example of impartial, if shaky, news judgment. Motives are hard to establish. We also hurry to assure our readers of a point we have made in this story cycle before—if a talker is deliberately spinning this news, that is no reflection whatever on Bradley. And it doesn't provide any reason at all to vote for Vice President Gore. (We stress again that Senator Bradley may well win the Granite State race.) At THE HOWLER, we don't judge the hopefuls, we judge the scribes, and we simply can't say what this episode means. Motives are hard to establish, dear friends. But patterns—though subjective constructs themselves—are at least a slight bit more apparent.

We do restate the basic point we have made to our letter writers. Our harried analysts have simply not found much unfair coverage of the underdog hopefuls. We've tasked them and tasked them to bring us examples of unfair coverage of other hopefuls than Gore. And again we ask you to give us examples of unfair coverage which you feel we have missed.


Tomorrow: Is Bush next? We read inside lines.

Underdog, mush: Why do we bother to have lots of pundits, when the pundits all say the same thing? Richard Cohen, in this morning's Post, recycles this week's official comments:

COHEN: McCain is the darling of the press...Unlike most other candidates, he does not ration his time with the press. Reporters sit with him in the back of his campaign bus and ask him anything they want.

Etc., etc. And so on. Where have we seen all this before? Oh yeah—we've seen it everywhere this past week! The desire of the pundits to all say the same thing is the most striking trait of our celebrity press corps.

Cohen at least doesn't mention the "swoon," although he quotes Carl Bernstein, who does. But if you want to see the swoon at work, just read Cohen's column:

COHEN: To some, McCain is a loose cannon, a self-righteous, intemperate grand-stander...But that is not the man on display in the back of the bus. Instead, he is instantly winning. He confesses to occasional doubt, small corners of ignorance and suggests—is this just wishful thinking?—that he is on an intellectual journey. In a Vanity Fair piece by Carl Bernstein, Rep. Barney Frank calls McCain "a thousand percent anti-gay," yet when I raise the subject, he is hardly homophobic—not rigid, not zealous, and, seemingly, amenable to persuasion.

Is Senator McCain "a thousand percent gay?" At THE HOWLER, we have no idea. But we do know this—the way to explore a question like that is not just to ask the hopeful. What did Rep. Frank mean by his statement? Cohen doesn't seem to have asked. What is Sen. McCain's voting record? Cohen offers no research. Instead, he asks McCain if he's antigay, and happily tells us he doesn't "seem" so. At THE HOWLER, we don't know if Sen. McCain is "antigay" at all. And we'll never know, reading columns like this.