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The Daily update (6/2/00)

For a preview of next week's DAILY HOWLER, note these side-by-side stories in today's New York Times:

Gore Urges Doubling of Funds in War Against cancer
James Dao, The New York Times, 6/2/00

Bush Delays an Execution For the 1st Time in 5 Years
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 6/2/00

The Dao article describes a Gore presentation concerning cancer research. Bruni describes Bush's decision to grant a 30-day reprieve for a death row inmate.

Our focus? Note the emphasis in the Dao piece on the Gore campaign's "tactics." Before telling readers much of what Gore has said, Dao is careful to outline the "tactical shift" he sees at work in the Gore presentation. In paragraphs 4-6, he tells his readers about this matter. Only after they have been fully warned do they get to hear what Gore actually said.

Quite appropriately, Bruni places no such screen between Bush and the Times' readers. Bruni simply reports what Bush said and did. He doesn't warn the readers what Bush's action may mean about his campaign tactics. In fact, at no point in his lengthy piece does he even quote a Dem strategist questioning Bush's motives. Bruni does inject a notable paragraph 8; in it, he tells readers how "Mr. Gore's allies would like to use the [execution] issue."

A few weeks ago, we quoted Lawrence O'Donnell, on Hardball, saying that the Times had decided to stress the Gore campaign's tactics (see "The Daily update," 5/9/00). This practice has been widespread throughout the press corps this week. Howard Fineman was spotted in the thick of the fray. We examine the matter next week.


The Daily update (5/31/00)

Speaking of hopeless: If it's utterly hopeless writing you're after, we suggest you read Paul Duggan's piece in this Monday's Washington Post. We have rarely seen such a detailed compendium of all the elements we routinely flay. Duggan discusses Gore's "attacks" on Bush's record. He starts with a tendentious paraphrase:

DUGGAN (paragraph 1): You're a Texan, born and raised. It's your home, and you're proud of it.

(2) But Vice President Gore seems to pity you.

We always warn you to watch your wallets when journalists tell you what candidates "seem" to be doing. Duggan's synopsis unfolded:

DUGGAN (5): In fact, to hear Gore describe it, you live in a backwater, a Third World state—the Appalachia of the southwest...

It's a bit of hyperbole we've suffered before. "Kit" Seelye beat Duggan to it:

SEELYE: Mr. Bush's recent policy initiatives have prompted the Gore campaign to intensify its critique of Mr. Bush's record, painting Texas as a near-Third World backwater where children are poorly educated and go without health insurance, and where chemical polluters control environmental regulations.

Has Gore ever used the term "Third World backwater?" Neither Duggan nor Seelye offers a quote. The language, dear readers, is theirs, all theirs, a ham-handed hunk of hyperbole. It's the way that "reporters" make their tales more exciting—and sometimes mock pols they disfavor.

At any rate, tendentious paraphrase checked off on his list, Duggan now turned to another task—the collection of utterly worthless "evidence." How do Texans feel about Gore's critique? Read on, though you'll never find out:

DUGGAN (8) [B]ased on an unscientific survey of ordinary Texans recently more than a few folks in the Lone Star state are offended.

(9) "I take it personally," said Richard Welch, 56, as Austin office worker whose ancestors settled in Texas before it was a state...

Hopelessly, Duggan says that his "survey" is "unscientific." In fact, it's no "survey" at all. In a state of twenty million souls, Duggan finds someone who makes a comment he likes. His addled editors put it in print, and pretend he's conducted a "survey." We've commented on this hopeless practice before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/00). Now Duggan returns to hyperbole:

DUGGAN (10): If you're a Texan, you must be saddled with worries, to hear Gore and his surrogates tell it. So much hunger in your state. So few physicians. SAT scores in the tank. The vice president seems to wonder: How do you find the strength to get up in the morning?

As you know, it's very important to reprint Standard Soundbites. So Duggan finds a Texan who knows one:

DUGGAN (11): "Well, I'm very happy, thank you," says Pam Deeds...

(12) As for Gore: "It bothers me sometimes when he says these things. But he's a politician. He wants to win the presidency. So I guess whatever he has to say, he's just going to say it."

Bingo! Duggan's "unscientific survey" just happens to find a Texan with an official, approved soundbite.

As an op-ed piece, this would be hopeless stuff, but sadly, this appeared in the Post as reporting. Ironically, the lengthy piece appeared beneath a photo of a smoggy skyline; the caption informs us it's Houston. "Smog covers the skyline of Houston," it says, "which rivals Los Angeles as the U.S. metropolitan area with the worst record of exceeding ozone standards." Duggan mentions this fact in paragraph 17, after showing off his skills at burlesque. But he makes little attempt to inform his readers if any of this is Bush's fault, contenting himself with repeating quotes from Bush and Gore campaign spokesmen. Poor Duggan! "For every statistical accusation, there's a statistical defense," he laments. Exactly. And guess what? It's the business of journalists to sort through the claims, and try to determine what's accurate.

Finally, hopelessly late in his piece, Duggan speaks to someone who may be an expert—not a Longhorn snagged at some watering hole, or a spinner from somebody's war room. It's Bruce Buchanan, "a University of Texas political scientist." In paragraph 34 of a 39-paragraph piece, Buchanan finally says this:

DUGGAN (34): In George W. Bush's Texas, said Buchanan, "we have all the resources we need to address our problems, but Texas hasn't done it. The question is, to what extent will Bush be held responsible?...Voters tend to pick up on these charges only when they touch on some larger anxiety they already feel about a candidate." [Duggan's ellipsis]

Buchanan seems to imply that Bush is at fault. If so, then Gore's critique makes sense. Is Buchanan right? We don't have a clue. We explain that in two words: Paul Duggan.

Painting Gloom, by Numbers
Paul Duggan, The Washington Post, 5/29/00

Gore Challenges Bush Credibility on Policy Speeches
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/13/00


The Daily update (5/24/00)

It's all in the way you look at it: We couldn't help chuckling at one brief portion of Nicholas Kristof's profile of Governor Bush in the Times. The page-one profile appeared this past Sunday:

KRISTOF: Mr. Bush has often said that "the biggest difference between me and my father is that he went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High." That may be an exaggeration of the younger Mr. Bush's populist credentials, because he is also a product of Andover, Yale and Harvard. But there is still something to it.

We have no complaint about Bush's remark, but we were struck by the way this scribe found the grain of truth in Bush's "exaggeration." In 1988, Gore told scribes that he had observed certain funding conditions when he had attended rural schools in Tennessee. Though it turned out that what he said was accurate, it was still being spun as an example of fibbing twelve years later in the Boston Globe (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/00). But when Bush repeatedly downplays his prep schooling, Kristof finds the grain of truth in what he has said. (In the 6/16/99 New York Times, Mike Allen notes that Bush has made this presentation about schooling since his 1994 race for governor.)

Even more amusing, Kristof himself slightly understates the extent of Bush's novelizing. Lardner and Romano, in a Post profile:

LARDNER AND ROMANO: In 1959, the Bushes finally pulled up stakes and moved to Houston. George W. had just finished the seventh grade at San Jacinto Junior High...Bush has often invoked the school as proof of his Texas pedigree, compared to that of his father. "He went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High," Bush likes to say. What he doesn't say is that he spent just one year at the school—his last year in public education.

The writers note that Bush then enrolled at the Kinkaid School, "a private academy in one of the nation's wealthiest suburbs," before going on to Andover at the start of the tenth grade. Bush spent one year at San Jacinto; two years at Kinkaid; and three years at Andover. Bush had left the Texas public schools two years before leaving Texas for Andover.

We couldn't care less where Bush went to school; we certainly aren't troubled by Bush's presentation. But we can't help noting: Some "exaggerations" are more equal than others. Our conclusion? Read profiles with care.

Values Grown in the Conservative Soil of West Texas
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 5/21/00

A Sister Dies, a Family Moves On
George Lardner and Lois Romano, The Washington Post, 7/26/99


The Daily update (5/23/00)

Code-dependent: When one reads Katharine Seelye, one must read the code. A standard element appeared this morning:

SEELYE (paragraph 1): Vice President Al Gore voiced perfunctory support for the China trade agreement, reading a statement in front of a labor group that opposes the China bill and is rallying in Washington against it.

Why did Seelye tell readers, in her very first sentence, that Gore was "reading a statement?" When you see that, you're seeing a code. "Reading a statement" (like "perfunctory") is becoming a term of art with Seelye, injected into articles to suggest that Gore is insincere.

Readers, pols "read statements" all day long. They don't just speak off the cuff. When Governor Bush addressed AIPAC yesterday, for example, it was fairly clear he was reading from a TelePrompTer. That is a totally normal practice. But nowhere in Alison Mitchell's report are we told that Bush was "reading a statement." The reason? Mitchell, a professional, wasn't trying to spin you. She wasn't trying to broadcast hidden messages challenging Bush's sincerity.

We'll say of Seelye what we said of Ceci Connolly last week; you really ought to watch in awe. Seelye is a consummate spinner. We may not see her like soon again.

(Reading a statement: Seelye code. See also "Reading from note cards")

Union Welcomes Gore, Despite China Views
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 5/23/00

Bush Says Clinton Misstepped in Israel
Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 5/23/00


The Daily update (5/22/00)

Can't quite bear to say it: We'll have more to say about the biographical profiles now being run in the New York Times; on Sunday, we thought Nicholas Kristof's portrait of Governor Bush's childhood was striking in various ways. But we thought certain aspects of today's Gore profile deserved an immediate comment. We almost choked on our bagel this morning, for example, when we read this passage about Gore's childhood:

HENNEBERGER: [S]ome of what is generally assumed about Mr. Gore's childhood is not true: he did not, for example, live in luxury back in Washington during the school year.

Say what? But we've read it again and again and again, in all of our greatest newspapers! But Henneberger kept on debunking:

HENNEBERGER: Mr. Gore's parents were both famously frugal and were not well off until after their son had grown.

But what about that fancy, luxurious, and elegant hotel? We've read about it everywhere:

HENNEBERGER: [They] lived in a hotel because it was owned by a relative who gave them a break on the rent.

Some summers, the Gores had to pack up their four-room suite and put their belongings in storage so the place could be sublet while they were in Tennessee. And Al shared a bedroom with his sister, Nancy, who was 10 years older, both before and after her college years.

This is life in that "fancy hotel" we've so long heard portrayed. A four-room apartment, with sibs sharing a room, is the "elegance" we've heard described at such length.

But alas! Even the debunking Henneberger—and we salute her reporting—couldn't bear to turn in the clan. She immediately says that it is partly Gore's fault that "the contours of his unusual upbringing are not better known." After blaming the victim for the spin, she issued an outright howler:

HENNEBERGER: Though his political opponents have successfully portrayed him as a pure-bred Washington creature, with only photo-op moments in the heartland, he did have a life there, on the family farm, and by all accounts a more intense emotional connection to that place than to the nation's capital.

"His political opponents" have portrayed Gore this way? So has the Washington press corps! Here, for example, is Kristof, Henneberger's colleague, writing the day before her piece appeared. Kristof has just described young Bush getting spanked by his grade school principal. But even when writing a profile of Bush, he can't resist passing on the Gore spin:

KRISTOF: [Bush's] Midland childhood is a striking contrast to that of another boy growing up at the same time, Al Gore, who instead of being paddled in Mr. Bizilo's office was attending the elite St. Albans School in Washington, swimming in the Senate pool, and listening on an extension as his father the senator spoke on the telephone to President John F. Kennedy.

Kristof later describes the young George W. Bush going off to Washington to visit his grandfather, the senator. Is the contrast really quite as "striking" as some have said? And is there any sign that it makes any difference?

At any rate, Henneberger takes a standard approach. The press corps loves to pretend that it is "political opponents" or "late-night comics" who pass on favorite elements of spin. In the case of the Gore upbringing, Henneberger's own colleagues, all through the press corps, have misdescribed simple parts of the candidate's profile. And just how flat-out dumb has it gotten? Last June, Jim Nicholson led a band of useful pundits off to visit Gore's boyhood "suite." Obedient writers trooped along, wasting their time and abusing readers' trust. And what was wrong with Taking The Tour? In an accompanying article "(A Young Prankster"), Henneberger's text helps explain. She points out that "the old Fairfax [is] now a much tonier Westin," and notes in passing that "[t]he Gores' two-bedroom apartment has been totally rebuilt." Last June, we pointed out the absurdity of touring an old hotel that has gone through several major renovations. But there was the hopeless press corps—Ceci Connolly was one-writing up the nonsensical outing. If you want brain-dead, they'll provide it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/99.

In the future, we'll revisit Henneberger's debunking piece, and help you recall the names of the "political opponents" who spun simple facts under the bylines of major newspapers. In the meantime, we again strongly advise you to disregard—disregard totally—the corps' efforts to "explain" the hopefuls' childhoods. White House candidates have public records as adults. We advise you to judge them on that.

Behind Elite Image, a Simple Upbringing
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 5/22/00

Values Grown in the Conservative Soil of West Texas
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 5/21/00

A Young Prankster At Home on the Roof
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 5/22/00


The Daily update (5/19/00)

Profile in discouraged: If you enjoyed Judy Mann on Elian (see "The Daily update," 5/18/00), you're going to love Joan Vennochi. We stumbled upon her April 25 Boston Globe piece just last night on the web. Mann trashed Gore for "shameless pandering" on Elian; she said historians may one day say it brought down his campaign. But—pundits have done this for more than a month—she failed to mention that Governor Bush holds the exact same position.

We thought it gave a good example of why scribes should go easy on motive. Scribes have enough trouble just getting facts straight, without trying to go inside hopefuls' heads. But Vennochi went a step beyond Mann. Here was the start of her column:

VENNOCHI (paragraph 1): The battle over Elian dominates the news. But I am still thinking about John McCain's battle for courage in today's political arena. Maybe they are not unconnected.

McCain had just apologized for misrepresenting his views on the Confederate flag. Vennochi referred to McCain's original misstatement as a "lack of courage" and a "weakness." Still, this was her closing comment:

VENNOCHI (9): As McCain acknowledged last week, "Honesty is easy after the fact, when my own interests are no longer involved." Still, he finally said and did what he believed, and that is worth something to those who wanted him to do it when it mattered more politically.

In this passage, Vennochi assumes that McCain is being forthright now. She ignores the fact that his interests are still involved. But cheerfully, she closes with the standard portrait of McCain doing "what he believed."

Now she turned to the Elian case. And she knew lack of courage when she saw it:

VENNOCHI (12): Obviously the relatives in Miami will say and do virtually anything to use Elian in their very personal war with Cuba. What about our presidential candidates? Will they do the same in their war for votes in November?

(13) Democrat Al Gore already showed spinelessness in this matter, taking the position before the weekend raid that the boy should be granted permanent resident status rather than be returned to the father. Now the Republicans are churning up the political seas even more, trying to turn the government's actions into a statement about giving in to communism instead of one about recognizing parental rights.

Vennochi does the usual hopeless job in explaining Gore's position (Gore favored giving resident status to "the father" as well as Elian, for example). But again—after saying that Gore is "spineless" in his stand, she never mentions that Governor Bush holds the exact same position. Bush is never mentioned. But the crowning touch comes at the end, when Vennochi goes back to McCain:

VENNOCHI (15): It is probably no accident that the action to rescue Elian [from his Miami relatives] was taken by a lameduck administration. As McCain noted just a week ago, "Honesty is easy after the fact." Still, this was a political gamble that took political courage.

(16) As a result, a boy is reunited with his father. No one should have to apologize for that. [End of column]

We couldn't help chuckling to see McCain called back at the end of the piece. We're told in this column that Senator McCain is still involved in a "battle for courage." And McCain, of course, was flatly opposed to sending Elian back to Cuba.

McCain's position was stronger than Gore's. Was McCain, like Gore, being "spineless?" Oops—his position isn't mentioned in this piece. In fact, only Gore is mentioned by name in connection with the "spineless" posture. This is hopeless, hopeless, embarrassing writing. It's been all over the press this past month.

We agree whole-heartedly with what Mann wrote; if Gore loses in November, historians may see the Elian case as the matter which killed him. But we hope that historians will see something else—the hopeless way this remarkable case was critiqued by the group-thinking press corps.

Political courage
Joan Vennochi, The Boston Globe, 4/25/00


The Daily update (5/18/00)

Just us chickens: Many pundits have been asked to explain Gore's recent slide in preference polls. Polls were even in mid- to late-March; now Gore's behind, by six to eight points. George Will notes an obvious potential factor:

WILL: Also, Gore hurt himself with what was perceived as an opportunistic split the administration regarding Elian Gonzalez. This confirmed many voters' suspicions that Gore's hunger for office is unseemlyGore's behavior regarding Elian made Gore seem to be appetite, straight through.

Will describes the "opportunism" as "perceived." What led to that perception? Maybe it was a month worth of columns like Judy Mann's in Wednesday's Washington Post. Mann berates Gore (again!) for his motives on Elian. The headline? "Gore is pandering away the presidency." Have we ever mentioned that Washington pundits are expert at reciting Approved Scripts?

MANN (paragraph 1): When future historians chart the downward course of Vice President Gore's presidential campaign, they will probably start with Elian Gonzalez. Gore's collapse in the face of Miami's professional anti-Castro claque captured everything that is wrong with the campaign and everything that is wrong with the candidate.

Mann's column, alas, captures everything that is wrong with our hapless press corps. She never says how she knows that Gore is "pandering." And, though she batters Gore for his stand, she never mentions that Governor Bush holds the exact same position. Gore is an idiot, and Bush isn't mentioned. It's amazing, given her invective:

MANN (2): While the Clinton administration took the sensible position that the child should be reunited with his father and returned to Cuba, Gore took the position that Elian's fate should be resolved in the family court, probably the most no-win idea advanced in the whole controversy. To suggest that the dispute between Elian's father and his Miami relatives should be treated as a custody dispute flies in the face of the law and everything we know about child welfare.

Actually, this is only a "no-win position" for Gore; Bush holds the same position, but Mann doesn't say so. She inveighs against "this psychotic episode" and Gore's "shameless pandering" without ever mentioning this crucial point. Nor does she mention that the INS originally held that the case belonged in family court.

Mann and Will make one advance over the pundits we've seen on TV. We have seen no pundit—not one—mention Gore's month-long pounding over Elian when they discuss the change in the polls. They have instead tended to fall back on a useful old story—Gore is the vice president, easy to disregard. But Gore was also the vice president back in March, when he was even with Bush in the polls. We agree with Mann that Gore's pounding over Elian may turn out to have decided the White House race. If so, we hope that historians will also express puzzlement over writing as gruesome as Mann's.

Final note—who's the one person we've seen on TV citing the pounding Gore took on this case? It wasn't a pundit, it was John McCain, on with The O'Reilly Factor. McCain mentioned that Gore's motives were "perceived."

The Gore Gap
George Will, The Washington Post, 5/18/00

Gore Is Pandering Away the Presidency
Judy Mann, The Washington Post, 5/17/00


The Daily update (5/17/00)

She, Ludicrous: Doggone it—Maureen Dowd really had it all goin’ on. She was working off a silly movie (Gladiator), and getting in all the key spin-points. She mentioned "earth tones," "flip-flops," and "pandering on Elian," and had even managed to work in the line about Gore reminding Teacher to give the class homework! As we mentioned during the Elian flap—Castro dreams of party hacks who will read scripts the way this crew does.

But then, she had to go and get smutty. The column was sub-titled "Back inside Gore’s head:"

DOWD: Why can’t people see it?

I am Maximus.

He is Commodus...

But when will the crowds start screaming my name?

Al-bert-us! Al-bert-us! Al-bert-us!

Tipper’s the only one who ever screams my name.

Darn it! Like tiny minds all over the globe, Dowd had to slip in a dick joke! Welcome to the great New York Times, where you go to meet all the deep thinkers.

By the way, it’s always amusing to see Maureen Dowd going back "inside X’s head." In 1997, Dowd, writing from a world away, penned a column explaining Gore’s reason for making a remark about Love Story (the remark turned out to be a misquote). Three years later, Dowd’s clairvoyant explanation of what Gore hadn’t said is still widely cited by tribunes and heralds. Nope—scribes shouldn’t go inside a pol’s head. But Maureen Dowd, curious, still likes to go there. You would too. [Your punchline here].

I, Gladiator
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 5/17/00


The Daily update (5/16/00)

Balz gets it right: Luckily, there are still some adults at the Washington Post. Need proof? Check Dan Balz on May 15. Balz previewed Monday's speeches on Social Security in a balanced and intelligent manner. "[Governor] Bush and Vice President Gore began trading charges on the subject weeks ago," he wrote, and he laid out the basic differences between the hopefuls. Balz stated the differences between Bush and Gore without creating silly homilies about Bush and Gore's characters. He quoted several experts on the matter, they also managed to discuss the arguments without forcing in endless contrived spin-points.

Balz did something else that stands out at his paper; he alleged a misstatement by Gore on a minor point without making a federal case out of it. Balz discussed "a proposal by President Clinton last invest some government money in the stock market to raise the Social Security system's overall rate of return:"

BALZ: Gore claimed the administration only talked about the plan. "It was never proposed," he said, a statement that ignores the reality that Clinton included the measure in his fiscal 2000 budget and again this year in his fiscal 2001 budget (although it was temporarily discarded in legislation last year in hopes of finding common ground with the Republicans).

Is that a misstatement by Gore? We don't have the foggiest. But Balz was able to report the matter without engaging in extended ruminations on What It Really Tells Us About Gore's Hopeless Character. If reporters report the things hopefuls say-if they report when hopefuls make big or small errors-then readers eventually will begin to notice if one hopeful makes a lot of misstatements. It isn't necessary for reporters to interpret every single event that occurs. Balz is able to restrain himself here. Others at the Post just can't do it.

Take Ceci Connolly's report from Oregon on Saturday, May 13. Connolly always knows What Everything Means, and she's rarely reluctant to tell you. In her article, Connolly was reporting an appearance by Gore at Portland Community College in which he spoke about Social Security. The caption of the Post's accompanying photo showed Gore "during discussion on Social Security." But Connolly didn't report a single word Gore said about the SS issue. Instead, she focused on local Oregon issues. A familiar theme lurked in paragraph one:

CONNOLLY (1): Vice President Gore today attempted to clarify his views on possible breaching of several Snake River dams to protect endangered salmon after some prominent supporters criticized him for his silence.

The notion that Gore is constantly shifting murky views is a favorite theme in Connolly's work. In Oregon, Gore said he would not take a stand on the Snake Rive issue "without consulting all of the parties involved and without utilizing hard science." In short, he didn't state a judgment. This was presented throughout Connolly's article as an "attempt to clarify his views," "leaving his view unclear," and "vagueness." The headline said Gore "tread lightly."

We did get a good chuckle from one part of the report. At one point, Connolly said that (what else) "Gore also left unclear his views on several other controversial Oregon issues, including assisted suicide, medical marijuana, and the future of the old-growth forest." In the next sentence, we found out why he'd been so "unclear" on the issues. In the course of an hour-long Q & A session, no one had asked him about them! Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts roared as Connolly shoe-horned her message.

Forcing in her favorites themes, Connolly didn't report a single word of what Gore said about SS. Yesterday, Balz helped bridge the gap. Recalling old standards, enacting old virtues, heroically, Balz got it right.

Social Security Reform Becomes Defining Issue
Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 5/15/00

Gore Treads Lightly in Oregon
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/13/00


The Daily update (5/15/00)

Real excitement: On May 15, we filed an entire story on Ceci Connolly's latest. It was packed with excitement from start to finish. You know what to do. Just click here.


The Daily update (5/12/00):

Motive mouths: As you know, we always advise the scribes to go easy on motive. Motive is hard to determine. And so we couldn't help chuckling when we read a dispatch by Katharine Seelye on Wednesday morning. Seelye Told All about a statement Gore made to the Anti-Defamation League:

SEELYE: [T]oday, his little humor routine aside, Mr. Gore used his speech to about 450 members of the Anti-Defamation League to draw a contrast between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush.

Speaking of defamation, by the way, Seelye's reference to Gore's "little" humor routine was her daily aside to her readers. She's the Queen! But we were mainly amused by Seelye's explanation of Gore's speech. Gore had "used the speech," Seelye explained, "to draw a contrast between Bush and McCain." Here's how the crafty veep did it:

SEELYE: Without naming the two Republicans, Mr. Gore said it was wrong not to condemn South Carolina's flying the Confederate battle flag atop the Statehouse in Columbia. Mr. Bush has said repeatedly that it is up to the state to decide whether to bring it down. Mr. McCain said the same thing in the Republican primaries, but last month he expressed regret for not having spoken out against the flag...

Mr. Gore's remarks allowed room for Mr. McCain's reversal but not for Mr. Bush's continued refusal to condemn the flying of the flag.

Seelye was parsing extra-hard. We chuckled because we had already read Ceci Connolly explanation in the Post:

CONNOLLY: On a day of Republican peacemaking between George W. Bush and John McCain, Democrat Al Gore took the opportunity to chastise the pair for defending the Confederate flag earlier in the primary season.

According to Connolly, Gore was "chastising the pair"—Bush and McCain. According to Seelye, Gore was "drawing a contrast" between them. Each scribe explained the veep's clever motive. But they explained it in two different ways.

No, nothing will turn on this minor dispute between the two warring factotums. But we thought it provided a comic example of the problem with reading pols' minds. In the past month, a major turn in the polls may have resulted from the press corps' spinning of motive on Elian (more next week). Motive is easy to guess at, but hard to determine. Our pundits rarely seem to have heard. (In this case, to state the obvious, Seelye's interpretation was much more elaborate.)

By the way, both scribes explained What Gore Really Meant before noting that he hadn't mentioned Bush or McCain by name. When you're dealing with scribes of exceptional brilliance, interpretation will always come first.

After McCain-Bush Act, Gore Tries Catskill Routine
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 5/10/00

Bush's Openness Ends at Fundraisers
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/10/00


The Daily update (5/11/00):

Thanks for the help: Lawrence O'Donnell was right-on on Hardball (see "The Daily update," 5/9/00). New York Times scribes seem to be quite eager to help readers see that Gore's slick. On Tuesday, Gore spoke in support of the China trade deal to an annual meeting of AP honchos. "[Gore] spoke more forcefully yesterday for the agreement than he usually does," Seelye wrote. And then, she told readers why:

SEELYE (paragraph 3): Mr. Gore has been tepid in his support so far for the agreement, largely because organized labor, which backs him, opposes it. But speaking up for it serves Mr. Gore's political purposes now by helping to counter the impression, reinforced during the controversy over Elian Gonzalez, that he does not take principled stands and instead panders to those whose support he seeks.

In this passage, Seelye purports to explain Gore's approach in recent months, and purports to explain Gore's approach on Tuesday. She also manages to do something else—she works in two negative spin-points about Gore, right in paragraph 3. Gore panders, and he doesn't take principled stands; these points are repeated early on in the article. Indeed, that is the obvious conclusion one would draw from her description of the Tuesday statement. Gore is just taking a political position—in effect, he's now pandering on China trade, too.

That interpretation came early on in her piece. But the analysts emitted low, mordant chuckles when they glanced at the scribe's next paragraph:

SEELYE (continuing directly) (4): At the annual meeting of Associated Press publishers and editors yesterday in New York, Mr. Gore did not raise the China issue, but was asked about it in a question-and-answer session. Uncharacteristically, he delved into the reasons he believes the trade bill should pass; normally, when he mentions the issue at all, he gives it fairly short shrift.

Oops! Gore hadn't even brought up the topic. If he hadn't been asked about the bill, he wouldn't have "mentioned the issue at all." Despite that, Seelye got a labored (and negative) interpretation of Gore's motives right into paragraph 3 of her article.

Is Seelye correct about Gore's motive? We don't have the foggiest notion. She doesn't, of course, explain how she knows—scribes at the Times just don't do that. In an article on the same event in the Post, Ceci Connolly shares one part of Seelye's assessment; she says that Gore "offered one of his most spirited defenses yet of permanent normal trade relations with China." But she didn't presume to tell us why. Maybe the Post's ouija board caught a virus.

Gore Gives Firmest Support Yet for China Bill
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 5/9/00

China Deal Favors U.S., Gore Tells Publishers
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/9/00


The Daily update (5/10/00):

Harder than anyone knew: Whew! It's harder to read a daily paper than any of us here ever knew. On Tuesday, we received a reply from Ceci Connolly about her Cinco de Mayo report. As you may recall (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/8/00), Connolly penned the following paragraph in a May 6 story which was datelined Friday, May 5:

CONNOLLY: Bush focused his message today on the virtues of education, entrepeneurship, faith and family—all themes that fit today's Cinco de Mayo celebration. "We have a lot in common," he told a breakfast crowd sprinkled with Hispanics. And when he learned that Gore often jokes to Hispanic audiences that he hopes his second grandchild will be born on Cinco de Mayo, Bush whispered to an aide: "Completely pathetic."

We were surprised by that last sentence, because Frank Bruni had reported Bush making a similar comment on his campaign plane on Wednesday, May 3.

It turns out we weren't reading carefully enough. Here's what Connolly wrote us:

CONNOLLY E-MAIL: [A] date at the top of the story is used to identify when the piece was filed. The text of the story indicates comments made on the same day with the word "today." A careful reading of the Bush story you ask about reveals that the piece summed up portions of his entire three-day California swing.

Let's be clear—we're sure we'd like Connolly if we knew her personally, and we do appreciate her prompt reply to our incomparable inquiry. But we were amazed to learn how hard it is to read a modern newspaper! Who would have known it—that only sentences which say "today" describe events from the datelined date? Would anyone on earth have understood that the quoted statement by Governor Bush was not made on May 5?

It may seem like a minor point. But Connolly's report created an impression that Bush may have been staging events for scribes. We're glad to know that isn't the case. And from now on, we'll read much more "carefully."


The Daily update (5/9/00)

O'Donnell, watching the Times: Lawrence O'Donnell, guesting on Hardball, told it straight about Gotham's Times. He discussed Gore's recent criticism of Bush on Social Security:

O'DONNELL: Chris, it's interesting. These are winning issues for the Democrats. When the Democrats demonize Republicans on entitlements like Social Security, the middle class entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, it has always worked, it has never failed.

For the record, it clearly doesn't sound like O'Donnell agrees with Gore's approach. Leaving O'Donnell's views to the side, we were intrigued by his comments when he touched on the approach of the Times:

O'DONNELL (continuing directly): There's a very interesting thing developing this week which is the media, especially the New York Times, seems to be making a decision about how complicit they want to be in the Gore tactic. You notice they're doing less reporting now on what Gore is actually saying and much more analysis about the tactic of it and why he's saying it. They didn't do this in the fall when it was Gore versus Bradley on health care stuff.

O'Donnell was apparently referring to articles in the Times last Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday, Gore criticized Bush's Social Security approach in a speech; James Dao (with Frank Bruni) covered Gore's speech in a front-page piece the next day. But, at least on page one, Dao gave more space to Bush's comments on Gore's honesty and style than to what Gore had actually said. One example:

BRUNI: "Someone running for the highest office in the land should stick to the facts," Mr. Bush said. "I think it is a pattern to say things, to stretch the truth. He's the man who said he invented the Internet."

Given the context, some might draw a bit of mordant humor from Bush's reference to "inventing the Internet." But it isn't likely to be the mainstream press corps, which has also drawn pleasure from the labored paraphrase with great regularity in the past.

On Friday, Dao followed up with a page-one "News Analysis" headlined "Giving Bush the Bradley Treatment." Now Dao devoted an entire report to the subject of Gore's primary tactics versus Bradley. He said Gore had used a "harshly aggressive strategy" this winter, and had used "loaded words against Mr. Bradley, suggesting that he was an aloof elitist who viewed politics as 'intellectual exercise.'" In bold print, an inside box offered up a prediction: "An echo from late winter may not resonate in the fall." And Dao again quoted the Bush campaign questioning the VP's honesty:

DAO: In adopting Mr. Bradley's strategy of calling Mr. Gore dishonest, Bush aides have also appropriated one of Mr. Bradley's sharpest debate lines, which they often strip across news releases: "Why should we believe you would tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?"

Is there anything troubling about the degree of "analysis" run in the Times on this issue? Actually, there probably is. To start with, many Times reporters have extremely weak analytical skills, as we have seen time and again. In the current matter, for example, it doesn't seem to enter Dao's head that Governor Bush is engaging in "harsh attacks" by calling Gore dishonest—or that Bush is perhaps engaged in stretching the truth by his tendentious Internet paraphrase. In the world according to analyst Dao, when Bush calls Gore dishonest, that is a "sharp debate line;" when Gore said Bradley viewed politics as an "intellectual exercise," that was a slashing attack. In our view, reporters whose analytical skills are so limited should be encouraged to stick to hard facts.

It will be very important to analyze statements about the seminal SS issue. But Times reporters have extremely poor judgment. O'Donnell's remarks, and those of Matthews, make us worry about this debate. More to come.

Commentary by Lawrence O'Donnell
Hardball, MSNBC, 5/5/00

Jabs Fly in Presidential Ring Over Social Security's Future
James Dao and Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 5/4/00

Giving Bush the Bradley Treatment
James Dao, The New York Times, 5/5/00