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Caveat lector

17 November 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Beatin’ the bushes?

Synopsis: That press corps loves to run in a pack. Their next target could be George Bush.


A Gregarious Bush Warms to Politicking
R.W. Apple, The New York Times, 8/21/99

Shaking Hands, and Looking for Checks in Them
Joel Brinkley, The New York Times, 11/15/99

When Does a Mistake Mutate Into a Gaffe?
Eleanor Randolph, The New York Times, 11/17/99

Stage Presence
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 11/22/99

In Race for 2000, a Tortoise and Hare Start
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 6/25/99

It seems we just can't please them all—one of our letter-writers is still not happy with THE HOWLER's very thoughtful approach. In a follow-up to an earlier missive, she writes this:

LETTER: I read the Monday [11/15] column and was fairly disappointed. I agree with you that McCain and Bradley have received better treatment than any other. I disagree that only Gore has been bashed and that the others have gotten free rides. How could you overlook the "pop quiz" to list the foreign leaders sprung on Bush? Not exactly a fair representation of Mr. Bush's foreign knowledge. No other candidate has been subjected to the same level of "gotcha" journalism...

For the record, we haven't said that McCain and Bradley have gotten better treatment; we try to stay away from comparative statements until they are virtually forced upon us. What we have said is that mainstream pundits generally say that the hopefuls have gotten great treatment, which may help explain why the DAILY HOWLER hasn't spilled over with news of their trashing. As for the matter of the Bush pop quiz, we've been hoping to block out time to discuss last week's twin distractions—the pop quiz given to Gov. Bush, and the flap about Naomi Wolf. The press corps needs a constant source of exciting new distractions, and these two stories helped the corps avoid the need for substantive discourse. Our views on the pop quiz don't coincide with the writer's, but we again point out what we've noted before—the pundit class was virtually unanimous in criticizing the interview by Andy Hiller (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/10/99). Our writer describes this as "gotcha" journalism—but so did almost every Washington pundit. Those scribes! They repeatedly said they didn't know the answers, as if that were relevant in any way, shape or form. Indeed, anyone who thinks these slackers are qualified to hold higher office has really let his standards go to seed. Were we supposed to be surprised that the scribes didn't know very much? We report that every day in THE HOWLER!

We have never said, and do not believe, that Bush has received a "free ride." We do think that, of the four major hopefuls, his coverage has been closest to par. We have seen a steady stream of detailed articles describing his record as governor in Texas—articles which have been generally ignored by TV pundits, who are much too concerned with Al Gore's clothes to discuss such hopeless arcana. Have the major papers been fair with Bush? On balance, we think they've erred on the side of respect. For example, the Washington Post did a lengthy seven-part series on Bush's life—and devoted one paragraph, in a seven-day study, to the stadium deal that made Bush wealthy. (The conservative American Spectator had treated the topic in length, and we think it is the most awkward part of Bush's non-political career.) In our view, the Post's treatment had a light smell of whitewash, though we didn't mention it here in THE HOWLER. On cocaine: we prefer that hopefuls not be asked about what drugs they did when they were twenty years old. This summer, we defended Gov. Bush on this score on The O'Reilly Factor, with Bob Dornan swearing Bush should tell all! But every candidate since 1988 has been asked about his past drug use, and only Bush has refused to answer (we have no particular problem with that approach). On balance, we wish the pundits would stop asking the question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/99), but we do not think the treatment of Bush was particularly odd or surprising.

But all reasonable things must come to an end, and we think there are signs that things may change in the press corps' treatment of Bush. The herd is running hard to McCain—they have decided that he and Bradley are "authentic," and every ounce of common sense is being sacrificed to that great vision. Richard Cohen, for example, heard that Sen. McCain was "antigay." So he asked McCain if that is true, and exulted when McCain said it isn't! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/16/99.) When pundits write things as silly as that, other hopefuls may be in for some trouble, and we have recently seen a few small signs that the coverage of Bush may be changing.

Take the New York Times. Over the summer, the paper's coverage of Bush was little short of laughable. The paper spilled over with fawning headlines. On August 26, when Bush hit the trail after the cocaine flap:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (8/26): Shrugging Off Pressure, Bush Regains His Form

Four days later, on fund-raising:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (8/30): Bush Fund-Raising Machine Plows Ahead

On August 18, we had learned about Governor Bush's crime policies:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (8/18): Bush's Law and Order Adds Up to Tough and Popular

How was Bush's health? Funny you should ask:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (9/29): Bush Is in Terrific Health, Doctor's Report Proclaims

We haven't commented on the Times' fawning summer-long coverage of Bush because we stay away from "double standard" claims, and because we think that, in our current press culture, it's better when newspapers err on the side of being positive. But on August 4, the Sunday Times published a page-one story about a Texas ranch Bush was planning to buy, complete with a color photo of an empty field—a story which had no imaginable news value, but which did allow the Times to construct images of a future presidential retreat. "What exactly does he plan to be getting away from?" the Times coyly asked, in paragraph two. But the utter foolishness of the Times' Bush coverage hit its peak on August 21. R.W. Apple wrote a "political memo" on Bush. Headline?

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (8/21): A Gregarious Bush Warms to Politicking.

Incredibly, after two paragraphs describing Bush's enthusiasm for campaigning, Apple went ahead and said this:

APPLE (paragraph 3): Nobody would ever mistake him for Vice President Gore.

That was the entire third paragraph! Apple then treated readers to the following passage, one of the silliest bits of writing this year:

APPLE (5): ...Mr. Bush—now referred to by newspapers around the country not as George W. Bush, or even George W. but simply as W.—demonstrated real mastery of one-on-one campaigning.

(6) His style is an amalgam of East and Southwest, Yale and the oil patch. Call him the Madras Cowboy.

(7) Watch him with a classroom full of second graders in Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans. After a relaxed discussion of how caterpillars turn into butterflies, a youngster asked him why the sun had a smiling face. Beats me, the Governor replied: why does the chicken cross the road? Well, his interlocutor said, the cow crosses the road to go to the mooo-vies.

Apple shows no sign of knowing that it is inappropriate for journalists to call one candidate (and one only) by a nickname (as many journalists did all summer). We avert our gaze in simple embarrassment from Apple's paragraph 6. Meanwhile, what of Apple's description in paragraph 7 of Bush's "masterful campaigning?" It could surely be written of any hopeful who has ever walked into a classroom. Apple then pens a gushing account of Bush reading to kids in a Roanoke classroom. Later, he comes up with this:

APPLE (15): Not even Dwight D. Eisenhower, a victor in history's greatest war just a few years before, had this kind of entourage this early in 1951.

But of course, no one ever had "entourages" of any kind this early in White House campaigns in the '50s. Surely Apple knows that. Never mind—he moves on to this:

APPLE (16): Nothing seemed to faze Mr. Bush in the slightest as he moved slowly past market stalls...

All right, all right! We'll elect him! This ridiculous profile typifies the coverage the Times was giving Bush this summer. We hope this helps our writer understand why we do not think that Bush, on balance, has been given some kind of rough time in the press. (We note, for clarity: nothing in this silly Times coverage is the fault of Gov. Bush. We evaluate the scribes, not the hopefuls.)

But the Times, it may be a-changin'. Our meticulous analysts are picking up hints of a new attitude up in New York. On Monday, for example, the Times published a story about Bush's fund-raising. Here was the paper's headline:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (11/15): Shaking Hands, and Looking for Checks in Them

After a long, long season of fawning headlines, this one jumped out at our eagle-eyed savants; it adopted a sour tone toward Bush that the paper has rarely displayed. Indeed, in Joel Brinkley's lengthy story, it became apparent that Brinkley had been phoning Bush donors, asking them what personal gain they hope to get from their contributions. The question could be asked of any candidate's donors, but it sounds a sour attitude toward Bush that has rarely appeared in the Times—and that happens to fit rather neatly into Sen. McCain's campaign themes. In today's paper, a similar note; Eleanor Randolph writes an "Editorial Observer" about the Bush pop quiz fall-out:

RANDOLPH: In his latest explanation, Mr. Bush told Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show yesterday that he should have handled the picky questions the way Bill Bradley, the Democratic presidential candidate, did. That is, he should have responded that he was "not going to play pop quizzes" and talked instead about "how I intend to keep the peace." He used these phrases twice, in the same interview, showing that he now has a well-rehearsed answer to a question that he will hear from time to time for the rest of the campaign.

Bush supporters, take note. Whatever Randolph's intentions, if any, the theme of the "well-rehearsed answer" tend to function as media shorthand for "inauthentic;" complaints about memorized answers have been made against Gore, although anyone who has ever watched more than one interview will know that McCain and Bradley communicate this way too. So does every modern candidate—and when this sort of "observation" starts being directed at Bush, there may be a change in the weather going on.

A final note which our alert press-watchers picked up in Dana Milbank's current TNR piece. Milbank describes the press corps as it watches Bush on the night of the Rep town hall forum:

MILBANK: [N]obody seemed to buy [Bush's] excuse [for being absent]—particularly after Laura Bush, in a pre-debate interview on New Hampshire television, confessed that, if Governor Bush had really needed to go to the debate, "I'd have said, 'Sure, we can work it out.'" When the governor, in the same interview, justified his absence by declaring, "I love my wife," a ripple of laughter spread among the journalists who had gathered in the pressroom before the debate.

It isn't quite an entire room "erupting in jeers," as apparently happened when Gore spoke at the Dem forum. But watch out when those scribes get to laughing. Later, Milbank writes this:

MILBANK: [T]hings seem to be going McCain's way. He's gaining on Bush (polls in New Hampshire show his support at nearly 30 percent). And some in the press believe that Bush is heading for his "Gore moment," a time when he can do no right...

We're not quite sure what Milbank means, and we don't criticize him for this reporting—far from it. But we'll tell you what this cryptic note may mean—it may mean that the time is coming when the thundering herd does to Bush what it's done to Gore all year. Gore has been able to "do no right" this year because the press corps has chosen to write it that way. If that happens to Bush, we will stand and complain. So should others who care about our democracy.


Tomorrow: Epilogue on alleged bias.

Talk about repetitive: In Howard Kurtz's instructive June 25 article about Gore coverage, the complaint about repetition appeared:

KURTZ: [Bob] Schieffer said he was struck by how Gore's response to the Lewinsky question on three network shows "was almost to the comma the very same answer."

"He's an acquaintance," Schieffer said of Gore. "I've seen him in various settings over the past 10 or 15 years, and he can be very funny. But somehow when that light goes on you see a different Gore and he comes off a little wooden."

Every candidate gives word-for-word answers. Please don't make us go back and type them up. This complaint against Gore was highly selective, and it has now surfaced for the first time against Bush.