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

23 December 1999

A Howler epilogue: Audible sighs—and a whisper

Synopsis: After Meet the Press, the Manners Police were out in full force. But the Times’ Robert Pear short-changed substance.

Gore-Bradley vs. Lincoln-Douglas
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 12/21/99

Bill the thinker and Al the fighter
Jill Lawrence, USA Today, 12/20/99

Unspoken issues extremely apparent
Walter Shapiro, USA Today, 12/20/99

Bradley rejects Gore challenge
Susan Page, USA Today, 12/20/99

No radio or TV? No way, Bradley responds to Gore
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 12/20/99

Gore Dares Bradley To Jointly Forgo Ads
Mike Allen and Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 12/20/99

Health Care Proposals Help Define Democrats
Robert Pear, The New York Times, 12/20/99

After Bradley met Gore on Meet the Press, the Manners Police were out in full force. So was the Boredom Council. Gail Collins, the group's fearsome mullah, was in despair once again with the hopefuls:

COLLINS: We have had three Democratic debates so far, and three with all the Republican candidates. They've been useful, but I think I am thinking for us all when I say you can have too much of a fairly good thing.

Trust us. Collins doesn't speak for any of us at the DAILY HOWLER's incomparable campus. "Why is it that we get bored with these debates so easily," Collins asked. She didn't seem to know where the answer lies—not in the stars, but in pundits:

COLLINS: There is, of course, the famous battle over health insurance...This is exactly the sort of policy dispute we're always telling you to pay attention to. I am therefore more than a little embarrassed to admit that listening to the Democrats arguing about health care plans is only slightly more fun than getting stuck in an elevator with somebody who wants to explain why the new millenium does not begin until 2001.

Let's just say it—Collins is bored by policy matters. So why in the world is she paid by the Times to write about things that bore her?

But boredom-with-substance is very, very "in." That explains the Manners Police. The press corps, composed of other bored souls, seeks any excuse to avoid substance. The health care thing bores them silly too—most of them have excellent health care—and they end up glancing about during health care debates, and counting up sighs of the hopefuls. Collins was one of many scribes who peculiarly complained on that score:

COLLINS: [Gore] also specializes in sighing with deep exasperation whenever his opponent manages to get three words in edgewise.

Jill Lawrence was similarly troubled:

LAWRENCE: Gore emitted exasperated sighs and groans whenever Bradley spoke.

These two statements are simply ridiculous—plainly, baldly false. Lawrence's editors should be embarrassed for putting such nonsense in print. But Lawrence and Collins weren't the only ones who made a point to note Gore's sighs. In fact, Lawrence was only one of three scribes who mentioned the sighs in USA Today's Monday paper:

WALTER SHAPIRO: Just eight minutes into the debate, Gore audibly dissented in the midst of a Bradley answer on the problems of Medicaid by uttering a loud sigh of exasperation. At other times in the debate, Gore groaned, shook his head in disgust, tapped Bradley's arm for emphasis and displayed virtually every other disruptive tactic known to hyperactive fifth-graders. At any moment, you expected the vice president to start hurling spitballs.

Susan Page also alerted the paper's readers:

PAGE: Their third debate was punctuated by Bradley's interruptions, Gore's exaggerated sighs, and bristling exchanges by both men.

Richard Berke, in the New York Times:

BERKE: Throughout the debate, Mr. Gore sighed loudly at many of Mr. Bradley's claims, as when the former senator described his proposal to replace Medicaid with subsidized health insurance.

Mike Allen and Ceci Connolly, in Monday's Washington Post:

ALLEN AND CONNOLLY: Viewers could hear Gore sighing theatrically off-camera during several of Bradley's answers...

Because so many members of the Boredom Brigade were so upset with Gore's alleged sighing, we actually made our grumbling analysts so back and review the tape. They found Gore sighing eight minutes into the forum (at the point Shapiro noted), and then again 29 minutes in, just as host Tim Russert announced the first commercial break (this was not while Bradley was speaking). Gore sighed again, for a third time, seven minutes into the next block of time. Indeed, each hopeful interrupted the other at various times, and Russert regularly interrupted both hopefuls. But there were long, long periods of unbroken time when Bradley and Gore spoke without interruption—periods during which the twitchy Collins no doubt began to glance about the room in deep angst.

Why do the Manners Police sit around counting sighs? We'll suggest one answer a bit later. But the press corps' failure to deal with substance was made painfully clear this same day. In the New York Times, Robert Pear penned a lengthy article discussing the hopefuls' competing health plans. Here is the entire account Pear gave of a principle point of dispute:


The Coverage

Mr. Bradley says his proposals would provide health insurance for 30 million of the 44 million Americans who have no coverage.

Aides to Mr. Gore say his proposals would cover 11 to 15 million people.

In a lengthy article, that was Pear's entire treatment of how many people the two plans would cover. Pear merely reported what the two campaigns say; he made no effort to evaluate the statements. He provided the same sort of treatment of another major question, reciting what the two campaigns say their plans would cost. He made no effort—none at all—to evaluate whether Bradley's cost estimates are accurate. Incredibly, Pear didn't even mention, at any point in this piece, that Gore disputes Bradley's estimates on cost.

As Pear wrote, it had been more than seven weeks since the October 27 town hall forum where the health plans came center stage. Incredibly, a viewer of that forum would have known more about the health care debate than someone who read Pear's article. Seven weeks later, Pear not only failed to provide any help in evaluating the disputes between the hopefuls. He never even tells readers that a major dispute exists about the two programs' costs.

No, what the corps does well is count up sighs, and comment on hopefuls' deportment. The press corps' love of the subjective and trivial came through again Monday morning, loud and clear.

But why, oh why, did all the writers mention the sighing of Gore? Again, we could pick out only three times—in 51 minutes of discourse—where the hopeful emitted these sighs. Frankly, we found it hard to believe that every pundit would note this trivial point without help. And sure enough, there was Mike Allen, helping show Where The News Comes From:

ALLEN AND CONNOLLY: Viewers could hear Gore sighing theatrically off-camera during several of Bradley's answers, prompting the Bradley camp to issue an "official deep-sigh count" of seven.

We don't know where they got the number seven, but we now think we know where the scribes got this topic. By the way, no one except for Allen and Connolly mentioned the whisper-on-sighs from the Bradley campaign. But all the pundits ran to present it—and Lawrence, writing something that was blatantly false, happily spun the tale up.


Didn't get the memo: On Monday, Caryn James wrote a "Critic's Notebook" in the New York Times, devoted to critiquing the hopefuls' performances on Meet the Press. She discussed wardrobe, demeanor, and "performance style"—but she never mentioned the naughty sighing that every Monday news account mentioned. Why did James alone fail to mention the sighing? Any chance it's because she isn't a political writer, and wouldn't be on the Bradley camp's fax list? By the way, CNN's Late Edition offered instant reaction on Sunday, discussing the Meet the Press debate in its panel segment. Although Susan Page gave a subjective account of how the hopefuls came across, no one mentioned the sighing there, either.

Note—we don't criticize the Bradley campaign for its handout, although we do think that counting up sighs gives a pretty thin gruel. The press corps' preoccupation with hopefuls' deportment would be silly whatever its provenance. But one of the weaknesses of our national discourse is the willingness of scribes to all say the same thing. It's doubly sad to see that their texts are provided by the campaigns they're "covering."

Why scribes should just stick to the issues: There was nothing wrong with Bradley's performance at the October 27 forum. And there was nothing wrong with Bradley's performance on Meet the Press last week. But Bradley was much more aggressive this Sunday, interrupting Gore quite frequently. There's nothing particularly wrong with the fact that he did, but listen to one scribe spin it:

SHAPIRO (continuing from above): ...At any moment, you expected the vice president to start hurling spitballs.

For his part, Bradley abandoned any pretense of following Gandhian restraint in his increasingly personal battle with Gore. The former basketball star, known for his sharp elbows, defended both his personal space (glaring at Gore every time he moved too close) and his record (freely interrupting the vice president whenever he disagreed).

Note the imagery used by the scribe to describe Bradley's "free interruptions." While Gore is pictured "hurling spitballs," Bradley is associated with "Gandhian restraint." Shapiro also associates Bradley's interruptions with Bradley's status as a world-class athlete. And Bradley's interruptions are defensive in nature—he was "defending his personal space and his record." When was it that Gore "moved too close?" Shapiro described Gore "tapping Bradley's arm for emphasis." Our analysts went back and prepared the transcript of the exchange where that action occurred. The hopefuls were discussing education vouchers:

GORE: You know, I favor competition, Bill. I favor competition within the public school system. I favor more chances for parents to send their children to whatever school they want to send them to. But the reason I oppose vouchers, Tim, is even if you say it's not going to come from public school budgets, it does. Because history shows, experience shows, there's a set amount of money that communities have been willing to spend on education. And if you drain the money away from the public schools for private vouchers, then that hurts the public schools. Now Bill, every time—

BRADLEY: What does that mean?

GORE: Every time—

BRADLEY: What does that mean?

GORE: It means that it draws money away from public schools—

BRADLEY: But you're talking about a federal experiment—

GORE: Now [touching Bradley's arm] I didn't interrupt you, Bill. Let me just finish now...

And it was true—Gore hadn't interrupted Bradley's discussion of voucher experiments, during which Bradley had made some good points. (Lawrence told readers that Gore sighed and groaned "whenever Bradley spoke." Baldly false.) There was no big harm in Bradley's interruptions, and Gore went on to finish his point. But this seems to be the exchange that Shapiro described as "Bradley defending his personal space and his record" while Gore "tapped his arm for emphasis." In fact, Gore was tapping his arm to ask him to stop interrupting. Shapiro had described that as the work of a Gandhian basketball star defending his personal space.

Each hopeful got to make his point on this show. But Shapiro's account (in paragraphs 2 and 3 of his column) is pure, unvarnished, subjective spin. It shows why scribes should stop playing Miss Manners, and talk about substance instead.