16 November 1999
Our current howler (part III): Poll watchers
Synopsis: Gore has gone back ahead in New Hampshire state polls. Theres a good chance that you havent 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 airdiscussed, 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
Motives are hard to establish. But an intriguing example of
the "underdog" treatment was perhaps played out in last
week's Newsweekthe "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 Bradleyhopefuls 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 underpreparedand 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 reasonthey 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 possibilitythey suggested that
Gore may have reversed the trend, and retaken the lead in the
So what does an enterprising magazine do? That's simpleit
buries the numbers. Last Monday night, Fineman appeared on The
News with Brian Williams. Williams ushered Fineman onstage
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
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 Hampshirebut
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 pollfrom
American Research Groupshowed 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 beforeif 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 patternsthough
subjective constructs themselvesare at least a slight bit more
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
Etc., etc. And so on. Where have we seen all this before? Oh
yeahwe'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 suggestsis
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 homophobicnot 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 thisthe 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.