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19 November 1999

Our current howler (part I): Let’s play airball

Synopsis: A tabloid talker’s powerful new alliance threw up a brick Wednesday night.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Susan Glasser, Stuart Stevens
Hardball, CNBC, 11/17/99

‘My Daughter Is Alive’
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 11/17/99

Career Montage and Testimonials
James Dao, The New York Times, 11/17/99

Bradley biography emphasizes career in Senate over sports
Mimi Hall and Elizabeth Lipstock, USA Today, 11/17/99


A tabloid talker was just plain excited at the start of his show Wednesday night:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, here's a big-time media announcement. Starting tonight, NBC has a new alliance with the Washington Post and Newsweek. Joining me now from the Washington Post is Susan Glasser. Thanks for joining us, Susan. This is going to be a very powerful alliance here between us and the Post.

Wow! The analysts' eyes grew wide as saucers. A powerful new alliance for their favorite talker! Imagine the learning that was sure to take place!

And soon the talker and his hand-picked crew were examining new ads from TV. A new ad running to support Bill Bradley had captured a talker's attention. At its close, the ad praised a Bradley legislative achievement, with a woman named Maureen Drumm saying this:

BRADLEY AD: [Maureen Drumm] When I was pregnant with my second child, Bill Bradley proposed a law that women be allowed to stay in the hospital for 48 hours. Thanks to Senator Bradley, my daughter is alive today. That's the type of man that I want in the White House.

But the talker was having none of it. He turned to his new ally, Glasser:

MATTHEWS: Well, let's go to the heart of Bill Bradley. We haven't been too hard on him around here. We're going to be tough tonight. Bill Bradley—where's the dishonesty in that ad?

Coolly, Glasser outlined the problem:

GLASSER: Well, I think the controversy that's already broken out is the third part of the ad, which is the woman, Maureen Drumm, saying that her daughter is alive today because of Bill Bradley, which is a pretty sweeping claim. It's a little bit of a reach to say that 48-hour hospital stays translate into life or death—

A talker interrupted with the nugget:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): Especially since the bill he put in didn't pass till two years after the kid was born!

GLASSER: Well, not only that but—

MATTHEWS: Well, that's enough, by the way. If the kid's alive because of a long hospital stay by the mom and that little hospital stay is something that occurred two years before the bill was passed you have to say that the ad is BS. On that count.

Glasser agreed; she said the ad was especially problematic because Bradley had promised "a higher standard." Matthews said the ad called Bradley's "authenticity" into question, and said Maureen Drumm had "made up a story." Glasser and a talker both wryly remarked that Drumm was "sticking to her story." No one, in the course of the discussion, ever challenged the facts of the case as the two allies had laid them out.

Unfortunately, anyone who had read Glasser's paper that very morning would have known that the facts here were being misstated. Here is part of a Howard Kurtz "ad watch" in the Post that very morning:

KURTZ (11/17): [Bradley] campaign spokesman Anita Dunn credits Bradley for the birth of her third child because she would have been afraid to have the baby without the 48-hour law. (Kurtz's emphasis)

The third child had been born after Bradley's bill passed. The facts had been explained in the New York Times, also:

DAO (11/17): Ms. Drumm's remarks are somewhat confusing because the bill did not pass until after her second daughter was born. But Ms. Drumm said in a interview that passage of Mr. Bradley's bill gave her the confidence to have a third daughter in 1998.

Or maybe you read USA Today:

HALL AND LIPTOCK (11/17): Maureen Drumm's narrative makes it seem as if Bradley's legislation literally saved her second child's life. But that child was born before the bill became law. The daughter she refers to is her third child. Drumm explained that it was the passage of the law that gave her the courage to have a third child.

In short, Drumm had a dangerous first pregnancy; the bill was proposed during her second pregnancy; she credits the law with giving her the courage to have a third child. Her testimonial is a bit of a stretch, and her narrative has been poorly edited. But the facts of this case are quite plainly not what the tabloid talker and his new ally said. And there is no evidence—none whatsoever—that Drumm has "made up a story." Does a talker ever know what he's talking about? Three different papers explained these facts Wednesday morning, including Glasser's own paper, which she seems not to have read. As for Glasser, and NBC's new alliance—our cheeks rouged when the powerful new allies said this, toward the end of their embarrassing performance:

MATTHEWS: Susan, you guys broke this, in the Washington Post. I get the idea from you [that] you did your homework on this. Is this going to be part of the campaign wars, people like you at the Post, studying each ad and understanding all the inconsistencies and dishonesties?

GLASSER: Well absolutely. That's a part of our job.

The analysts roared. They knew it would be a campaign like none other with the powerful new alliance on the job.

 

One stood apart: It's always sad when an adman is more careful with facts than two journalists, but that's how it went Wednesday night. Stuart Stevens, an ad guy from the Bush campaign, said this about Bradley's ad:

STEVENS: I'll be honest, I don't know a thing in the world about this. Those are smart people over there, I think that either they just flat out made a mistake, which happens, or they have some reason to argue that what they say is true.

Hurrah for Stevens, who admitted he didn't know. In fact, three things happened with this ad. Its testimonial was a stretch to begin with; the agency did make an error (editing Drumm's story); and they do have reason to argue that Drumm's story is true. But a tabloid talker chose this as a topic for his program—and was plainly unaware of the basic facts that were explained in three papers that morning.

Could it be? Is it possible that this Wednesday show was really taped Tuesday? At the outset, Matthews refers to a Glasser story which ran "today." But Glasser's story ran on Tuesday. Nothing in the program's broadcast told viewers they were getting stale, day-old bread. But then, viewers never really know what they're getting when they turn on this embarrassing gong show.

Visit our incomparable archives: When we last visited Glasser, she was failing to mention absolutely basic data in back-to-back page-one stories. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/99 and 7/19/99.