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.
Letter to THE DAILY HOWLER
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
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 allone 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 distractionsthe 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 beforethe 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" journalismbut 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 Texasarticles
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 lifeand
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
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 McCainthey 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
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 fielda 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
NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (8/21): A Gregarious Bush Warms to
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
That was the entire third paragraph! Apple then treated readers
to the following passage, one of the silliest bits of writing
APPLE (5): ...Mr. Bushnow 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 mindhe 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 Timesand 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 candidateand when this sort of "observation"
starts being directed at Bush, there may be a change in the weather
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
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 reportingfar from it. But we'll tell you what this
cryptic note may meanit 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
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.