Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

15 December 1999

Our current howler (part II): They’ve just met the greatest guy...

Synopsis: Can the press corps determine what McCain is really like? Forgive us if we lack total confidence.

Commentary by Mara Liasson, Brit Hume, Fred Barnes
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 12/8/99

The power and the story
Nancy Gibbs and John Dickerson, Time, 12/13/99

Senate Inquiry in Keating Five Tested McCain
Jill Abramson, The New York Times, 11/21/99

Nothing succeeds like access
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 12/8/99

Honest John, on the loose
Roger Simon, U.S. News, 9/27/99

John McCain, happy warrior
William Greider, Rolling Stone, 10/28/99

On December 8, Howard Kurtz wrote an excellent piece about the press corps' love affair with McCain. According to Kurtz, reporters often choose not to report certain unconventional things McCain says (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/9/99). On Special Report, the gang talked it over. Mara Liasson didn't see any problem:

LIASSON: I think what Fred is talking about, this whole notion that reporters aren't mentioning certain things [McCain] says, I think there's a good reason for that. They're not considered "gaffes" because reporters have a context. They talk to him for hours and they realize, when he says "gooks"—


BRIT HUME: Oohhh, Mara—

LIASSON: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me explain this...

And Liasson did give an explanation, with which we partially agree. We think her statement is so on-point that we're going to reprint it in full:

LIASSON (continuing directly): I think the whole notion of gaffes comes from this incredibly super-structured, weird relationship where you can't get close to the candidate, he says something and we all pounce on it. If you have two hours to talk to John McCain and he calls the Vietnamese "gooks" but you know that this isn't a bigot talking, he's saying it in a joking way, you have a context to put it in. I think the access that John McCain has afforded the press is great. And I bet that if reporters did talk about the fact that he dissed the French or called the Vietnamese "gooks," they'd have a whole context to put it in. It wouldn't just be "Candidate uses slur against Vietnamese."

We agree that McCain isn't likely a "bigot," and that the press corps doesn't have to run and tattle every time he says the word "gooks." (Or even when he jokes about Chelsea Clinton.) Our problem is with Liasson's alternate suggestion—her suggestion that journalists will punish hopefuls who don't give them this kind of access. When a politician doesn't give access, Liasson says, "[the politician] says something and we all pounce on it." And that surely describes the press corps' tendency in their coverage of Vice President Gore. In late November, two reporters were so eager to "pounce on things" that they somehow invented a Love Canal quote—and the Washington Times, which first quoted Gore right, soon joined the fun and used the wrong quote instead.

Should the press corps censor what it reports because it knows what McCain is really like? Sorry—we know of no reason to believe that the press corps has that capability. Liasson's account implies that they do; so do the accounts we printed yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/99). Listen again to Gibbs and Dickerson discussing McCain's tendency to repeat certain anecdotes:

GIBBS AND DICKERSON: And then there are the stories he tells—to which, if there's a pattern, it's to exalt other people and deflate himself. A presidential candidate is not supposed to tell you about the rules he broke or the strippers he dated, or the time he arrived so drunk that fell through the screen door of the young lady he was wooing. The candor tells you more than the content, and reporters sometimes just decide to take McCain off the record because they don't want to see him flame out and burn up a great story.

This remarkable passage says many things. Most remarkably, it suggests there are stories we aren't being because reporters fear they could kill a good story. And why are reporters willing to behave this way? Because they know what McCain's really like. In Gibbs' telling, they know that McCain's behavior on the trail is principally a manifestation of his candor, and they also know what McCain's stories show—a tendency toward self-deflation.

But is this what McCain's conduct shows? Forgive us for playing the skeptic. Isn't another interpretation equally plausible? Isn't it possible that McCain's stories are intended to gull the press and shape his eventual coverage? It is clear in these press accounts that McCain himself routinely brings up his unconventional behavior. It's also clear he brings up Vietnam:

JILL ABRAMSON: Asked why he did not get out of politics after the Keating mess and why he decided to run for president knowing that the [Keating Five] ethics investigation would be dredged up again, Mr. McCain replied with a joke.

"I don't know," he said. "Several sharp blows to the head when in prison accounts for it."

What is McCain's intention here? Is this an effort at self-deflation? Obviously, we have no way of knowing, but this joke can be read as something else—as an effort to dodge an unpleasant question by changing the subject to one that works better. Based on the profiles, McCain tells this joke a good deal, and some scribes draw a certain conclusion:

KURTZ: As for why he's running for president, McCain invokes the issue that his strategists would love to avoid.

"Well, my wife, Cindy, believes it's because I received several sharp blows to the head while I was in prison," he joked.

Kurtz assumes the argument from candor; he says McCain's advisers hate to hear him allude to the "mental health" matter. But mightn't they instead be pleased to hear him bring up his POW experience? Roger Simon, in a favorable profile, makes this observation:

SIMON: Though he says he is "embarrassed" by and "bored" with the constant repetition of his Vietnam experience—"I mean, Jesus, it can make your skin crawl"—his campaign exploits it at every opportunity...

One can't help recalling what Simon says when one reads this account from Bill Greider:

GREIDER: As the day ends, the bus heads toward the hotel in Concord. It's dark, and the group is exhausted, but McCain is opening doors for further conversation.

"You know, people talk about how bad the POW camp was in Vietnam," he begins, "but really we had a lot of fun."...The reporters get out their notebooks again.

We know of absolutely no reason why Senator McCain shouldn't be the next president. But sorry—we lack all confidence that the traveling press corps can figure out what McCain is "really like." When they build their practices around the belief that they can, we think they flirt with misconduct and error. Tomorrow we limm a few more problems with the coverage of McCain's candid tales.


Tomorrow: Stories are more fun than issues.

That week: Jonathan Chait offers an intriguing report on coverage of the Bush tax plan (reference below). Chait explains the odd first-day coverage, in which page one stories characterized the plan's effects in ways that are hard to defend. As Chait reports, the Washington Post said the Bush plan would "focus its deepest reductions on the working poor and the middle class." This sweeping characterization is hard to square with later analyses by actual economists.

Chait explains a Bush leak strategy—reporters were allowed to see the plan as long as they didn't show it to specialists. Hapless scribes played along, and seemed to echo the campaign's outlook in their Day One reports. Chait notes that expert analyses were reported "in small follow-up stories that ran only after the favorable impression had hardened."

Which brings us back to Cokie Roberts. On the 12/5 This Week, Roberts didn't know that Bush's tax cut was larger that this year's House effort (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/99). When Roberts' error about that came to light, here's how the pundit continued:

ROBERTS: Yes but you know what the single most important thing he said about that tax plan was, was he said, and I'm quoting here, he says "it's aimed at the person with the toughest job in America, the single mother raising children." That's where his campaign is different. He's going after that vote in a way that no Republican has and it is the reason that he's running so far ahead in the polls.

As a statement of the simple politics, Roberts may be right. But the panel never tried to evaluate the accuracy of Bush's quote. Is the plan "aimed" at single mothers? In what way, and to what extent? No one learned from this show on this day. And do you think that Roberts actually knew? Five days after the plan was released, she still didn't know the tax cut's size compared to other recent proposals.

We express no view about whether Bush's plan is too big, too small, or just right. We do think pundits should know basic facts—and the "don't-tell-the-experts" deal Chait describes is an affront to rational discourse.

(Jonathan Chait, "Don't Worry, Cut Taxes," The New Republic, 12/27/99. See also David Corn, "Bush's Tax Flim-Flam," The Nation, 12/27/99.)