30 November 1999
Our current howler (part II): Tongue-tied
Synopsis: Some pundits couldnt think of a thing when asked to explain Gores tough coverage.
Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Bernard Kalb, Rich Lowry, Melinda Henneberger, Matt Cooper
Reliable Sources, CNN, 11/27/99
Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Roger Simon, Marie Cocco
Reliable Sources, CNN, 10/16/99
For Some Ads, Reality Is Just a Stage
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 11/26/99
Our analysts came up with a new favorite this weekendRich
Lowry, editor of National Review. On Reliable Sources,
Lowry caught the analysts' eye by saying that "sympathetic
reporters like Elizabeth Drew" have spun the story that John
McCain is being smeared (more on that later this week). Later,
our young scholars exchanged admiring glances when the scrub-faced
young editor said this:
LOWRY: I think the big story here iswith the exception of
teen-agers, no one in America is so susceptible to peer pressure
and trends as reporters...The press always takes something with a
grain of truth to it and blows it up in a frenzy for a month or
two and then moves on to something else.
We liked the cheek of the irate scribe; some day we think he'll
come to see that the grain of truth isn't required. Howard Kurtz
seemed surprised by Lowry's comment:
KURTZ: I've heard the press accused of a lot of thingsnow
add adolescence to the mix.
In fact, we've seen two major scribes in recent weeks offer
Lowry's unflattering metaphor. Michael Kellyin a trademark case
of misplaced high dudgeonsaid reporters act like they're thirteen
years old (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/10/99). Eric Pooley is a bit
less cruel; reporting on the October 27 town hall forum, he described
how the assembled pundits had jeered at Gore "like a gang
of fifteen-year-old Heathers" (see THE DAILY HOWLER,
Yep. The analysts admiringly nodded their heads when the bold
young Review head-man spoke. But even Lowry wasn't prepared
for one tough question Kurtz later posed. Kurtz was pressing his
council of scribes to explain the rough coverage Gore has gotten:
KURTZ: Rich, why do you think there has been so much
focus, for so long now, on Gore's, you know, the internal strife,
should he separate from Clinton, what is he wearing, does he like
earth tones? I mean it seems to be a steady drumbeat in the press
of focus on these kinds of questions.
It's a question the cautious Kurtz has been asking since his
article on the subject last June (link below). As we noted yesterday,
all the scribes agreed that Gore has gotten much rougher treatment
than Bradley (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/99). Why is that? Lowry
started off with his grain-of-truth theory. But along the way,
even he flailed and floundered:
LOWRY: I think there's a nugget of reality there. His campaign
has stumbled around a bit, he moved up his announcement date,
he's changed his slogan three or four times, he moved his campaign
headquarters. There is a sense of disarray there. But I think
the bigger problem
The analysts leaned forward, expectant:
LOWRY: ...But I think the bigger problem is just that the press
is familiar with Gore, he's the front-runner, it wants to
see a race, it's puffing up Bill Bradley.
Back to the "press wants a good race" theory, by
way of an odd middle passage. The press is "familiar with
Gore?" That's the problem? When Kalb asked Henneberger
what she thought, the stumbling around really got started:
KALB: So it's a pro-Bradley media?
HENNEBERGER: I don't know if it's a pro-Bradley media but,
you know, he, it's a new story. I mean, Al Gore, people here have
been covering him, you knowyes, Bradley was in the senate, but
this is a whole new, um, thing. I think many, um, reporters are
charmed by his history as a basketball hero
At this point, the scribe was cut off. We're not trying to
be unfair by transcribing the stammering, but Henneberger seemed
to have remarkably few thoughts on this rather obvious question.
(She's been covering Gore most of the year.) She started to say
that scribes have been covering Gore a long timeas if that would
explain very negative coverageand then she realized that, hype
to the side, they've covered Bradley a good long time too. Matt
Cooper offered a coherent pointscribes tend to favor pols who
challenge their own parties. Mercifully, the segment was over.
For the record, all the scribes had accused the press of exceptional
professional misconduct. Imagine the idea that the press has slammed
Gore because Bradley was a basketball star! But the scribes
offered their theories with no apparent alarmgeneric self-critique
is old hat for the corps. Gentleman's C's may be lethal for Bush,
but scribes give the press corps failing grades rather casually.
No names are ever mentioned, of course. (NOTE: If Bradley is
getting favorable coverage, that's a reflection on the press,
not on him.)
We were struck by a dog that didn't barkby a thought no scribe
ever voiced. No one suggested the possibility that there may be
a political reason for the coveragethat the press corps may have
an animus about Gore, derived from his association with Clinton.
It was striking that Kurtz didn't raise the idea, because in his
June column in the Post, he quoted two major journalists making
that precise point. Roger Simon said Gore would have to "jump
through hoops" until he said what the press corps wanted
to hear. And James Warren said the press considered Clinton "moral
scum," and was "tainting" Gore for his association
(see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/99).
But on Reliable Sources, it occurred to no one that
Gore's coverage could reflect a politicized press corps. And
it had occurred to no one when Kurtz raised this question on the
October 16 program. On that occasion, Kurtz had Simon himself
on the panel, perhaps hoping the scribe would restate his point.
But Simon took a different view. Here's the exchange that occurred:
KURTZ (10/16): Roger Simon...if you took all of the positive and
negative coverage of Bradley and put it on a scale, I don't think
there's any doubt that it would be wildly unbalanced on the plus
side. Why is that?
SIMON: He's not Al Gore. [Laughter] He's doing well in the
polls. He's a fresh face...The Gore campaign feels that it's the
victim of a vast press conspiracy that goes something like thisbecause
the media were unable to get Bill Clinton, they're going to try
to get Al Gore. I don't believe that for a second.
Politely, Kurtz failed to mention Simon's comment from June,
and the conversation moved on to other theories.
Nope. The press corps, such skillful psychiatrists with everyone
else, is often tongue-tied when asked to explain its own conduct.
Kurtz has had very little luck in examining the coverage of Gore.
But no pundit has ever disputed his viewthat Gore has received
very negative treatment. How strong is the force of conventional
wisdom on Gore? We return to Kakutani tomorrow.
Tomorrow: A puzzling review of Earth in the Balance
shows the power of conventional wisdom.
Dr. Kurtz, professional therapist: Or maybe he's really
a dentist. Because Dr. Kurtz was pulling teeth with
his panel on October 16. When he asked Chris Bury why Bradley
was getting a free ride, Bury replied that "free rides never
last." It fell to Kurtz to ask the scribe why free rides
ever happen at all. Marie Cocco said scribes can't "force
candidates to make mistakes;" Kurtz had to point out that
mistakes can be magnified. Bernard Kalb started one meandering
question asking why Gore had received bad coverage; he somehow
ended up asking, "How many Gores are there?" Throughout,
Kurtz seemed to be struggling with a remedial group he was hoping
to pass on to the next grade.
Why does this happen? Because when CNN wants to critique Washington
journalists, it assembles a panel of Washington journalists!
No other group in our society is ever critiqued this
way. Imagine a show about the GOP Congress where every panelist
was a GOP congressman. But on Reliable Sources, that goes
on every week. The results are completely predictable.
Et tu, Howie? Concerned by Gore process stories on Saturday,
Kurtz wrote this on Friday:
KURTZ (11/26, paragraph 1): Political ads are designed to create
a feeling of authenticity, the sense that the candidate is a real
person who cares about real problems. That's why a radio ad for
Vice President Gore features two black women chatting about health
(4) Sounds real enough, but the women are actresses reading
from a script. The Gore camp decided not to use ordinary folks
for the commercial playing on African American stations, though
listeners have no way of knowing.