23 December 1999
A Howler epilogue: Audible sighsand 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 liesnot 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 itCollins is bored by policy matters. So why
in the world is she paid by the Times to write about things that
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 toomost of them have excellent health
careand 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
These two statements are simply ridiculousplainly, 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
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
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 interruptionperiods
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:
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
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 effortnone at allto 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
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 timesin 51 minutes
of discoursewhere 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"
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 itand Lawrence,
writing something that was blatantly false, happily spun the tale
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.
Notewe 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
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 naturehe 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
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 trueGore 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
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.