Daily Howler logo
HALF THEIR NARRATIVE! The Man, Eric A, is only half right about a crucial narrative: // link // print // previous // next //

NONE DARE CALL IT DOWDING: For years, we’ve told you—they plainly aren’t human. We thought that thought again Wednesday morning, when Maureen Dowd complained about the way those pols won’t cop to their mistakes:
DOWD (9/19/07): It's a lost art, slinking away.

Now the fashion is slinking back.

Nobody wants to simply admit they made a mistake and disappear for awhile. Nobody even wants to use the weasel words:

''Mistakes were made.'' No, far better to pop right back up and get in the face of those who were savoring your absence.

We should think of a name for this appalling modern phenomenon. Kissingering, perhaps.
Or perhaps we should just call it “Dowding!” Indeed, no one has made more “mistakes” through the years than the Times’ most insipid columnist. Dating back to 1992, she has invented an amazing array of bogus stories about various White House candidates—most fatefully, about Candidate Gore. (Along with colleagues Rich and Henneberger, she invented the fateful groaner: Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!) But wouldn’t you know it? When Evgenia Peretz asked a bunch of scribes about the way they covered Gore, they couldn’t bring themselves to admit their mistakes! And as always, Dowd was especially worthless. It seems she wouldn’t speak to Peretz—at least, not on the record:
PERETZ (10/07): As for Dowd, a Democratic operative recalls running into her and having an argument with her about her columns on the 2000 debates, in which, he felt, she devoted as much attention to Gore's sighing as she did to Bush's not knowing that Social Security was a federal program. "I basically said, 'How could you equate the two?'" he recalls. "'How could Gore's personal tics deserve as many column inches as the other guy being an idiot?' And her defense was 'Well, I voted for Gore.' I thought, Well, that's great. But hundreds of thousands of people who read your column probably didn't." (A source close to Dowd says that she does not write a partisan column, keeps her votes private, and certainly would not have disclosed that information to a political aide.)
Dowd has many mistakes to acknowledge. So she sent out “a source close to Dowd.”

But then, Dowd is blatantly sick, unwell. Even for Dowd, this grimy nonsense defined a new low this Sunday:
DOWD (9/16/07): [Giuliani] can't campaign on the economy because he's W. redux, facing a possible recession because of the mortgage crisis. He can't campaign on Rudy's from-the-mountaintop ''12 Commitments'' because no one knows what they are, and they don't mention the word ''Iraq.''

But he can be the only man in the field tough enough to slap around a woman.

The irony is that if you could loosen up Hillary with a few Jack and gingers, she would probably be closer to her reinvention than to his caricature. She probably secretly supports the surge, knowing that after it sputters, she may reap the whirlwind. And then the Republicans, who have lied, stalled and mismanaged in every way imaginable, will paint her as Ms. Cut and Run, turning her back on the military again.
Perhaps she meant the line about “slap[ping] around a woman” to be a jab at Giuliani. It didn’t read that way to us—and her subsequent line about “loosen[ing] up Hillary with a few Jack and gingers” didn’t address our discomfort. But then, it’s long been clear that Dowd is unwell—a deeply tortured throwback specimen on matters of gender. On Sunday, Dowd made her latest astounding “mistake.” Three days later, as socios do, she keened and wailed about the way these big pols won’t cop to theirs.

HALF THEIR NARRATIVE: How poorly do we liberals understand the presspolitics of recent White House elections? Eric Alterman may well be our best-known liberal-progressive press critic; we strongly recommended What Liberal Media?, and we strongly recommend it today. But our young analysts started to cry when they read the opening paragraph of Eric’s new piece in The Nation.

At first, though, the youngsters were full of hope. Eric starts with two accurate statements:
ALTERMAN (10/1/07): For the people who cover them for a living, elections are not about issues or evidence or even truth; they are about the narrative. Campaigns struggle to define it long before voters are paying attention—because once the narrative is determined, it's virtually impervious to revision.
You are correct, sir—on both counts! Given the way our “press corps” works, modern presidential campaigns truly are “about the narrative.” But then, Eric’s second statement is also accurate; once the corps’ preferred narrative has been set, almost nothing on earth can change it. Journos stick to their cohort’s established tales—in all weather, through thick and thin.

So Eric was right about the uses of narrative. (In fairness, narrative may be more rigidly applied in one campaign than in another.) But tears welled up in the analysts’ eyes as his opening paragraph continued. Eric began to describe a recent campaign—and omigod! What he said was just wrong. Here is Eric’s full opening paragraph. Ouch! This just isn’t accurate:
ALTERMAN (10/1/07): For the people who cover them for a living, elections are not about issues or evidence or even truth; they are about the narrative. Campaigns struggle to define it long before voters are paying attention—because once the narrative is determined, it's virtually impervious to revision. This was the case with the "Gore's a liar; Bush is a dope" story line of the 2000 election. As Margaret Carlson—then of Time—explained to Don Imus, "You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get into the weeds and get out your calculator, or look at his record in Texas...but it's really easy, and it's fun, to disprove Al Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us."
Gore's a liar, Bush is a dope? In truth, that wasn’t the narrative of Campaign 2000, although Cokie Roberts (and other apologists) began to peddle this bogus line when the press corps’ conduct became so absurd that it began to be mentioned in passing (quotes below). But no, that wasn’t the press corps’ narrative; that was their narrative about their narrative. They always have a bogus story they’re prepared to peddle about their own conduct. If we want to be clear about White House presspolitics, we should stay clear on this part of our past.

Eric is right in half of that construct. Clearly, Gore is a liar was the central press narrative of Campaign 2000. For twenty months, the “press corps” struggled, strained and strove to present this tale to the rubes. (Because Gore wouldn’t hand them actual lies, they invented his lies, then pretended he’d said them.) But “Bush is a dope” was not a press narrative, although the Cokie-heads have struggled and strained to make you think it was. Under this formulation, after all, the press corps had two unflattering narratives—one for Bush, and one for Gore. It sounds like they were brainless, but trying to be fair. And sorry—that ain’t how it was.

Was the press corps eager to say Bush is a dope, the way they kept saying that Gore is a liar? Sorry—that just didn’t happen. Consider two iconic episodes—episodes in which the press went a million miles out of its way to avoid trashing Bush as a dope:

November 1999—Bush’s pop quiz: On November 3, 1999, Candidate Bush failed a nasty “pop quiz,” served by TV reporter Andy Hiller. Bush failed to name three major world leaders; his pique was evident on the embarrassing tape, which was played widely, even on Fox. But did the press corps use this awkward incident to say that Candidate Bush was a dope? Sorry, no—that wasn’t their narrative. That weekend, a string of pundits went on TV where they recited three talking-points, all of which took Bush’s side in the matter. Over and over they made these three points. They said that Bush wasn’t a dope:
1) We’re electing a president, not a Jeopardy! champion.
2) We couldn’t have answered those questions either.
3) This is a case of “gotcha journalism.”
These talking-points were widely recited; even the Jeopardy point was voiced by seven big pundits, each one speaking in his own voices (Jim Lehrer, Larry Sabato, Clarence Page, Howard Kurtz, Morton Kondracke, Michael Barone, Robert Novak). And by the way—where had these Bush-friendly talking-points started? Duh! Bush himself had called the pop quiz “gotcha.” And here was his spokesperson, Karen Hughes, with the AP’s Glen Johnson:
JOHNSON (11/5/99): A Bush campaign official defended his performance.
"The person who is running for president is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy contestant,"
said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.

"I would venture to guess that 99.9 percent of most Americans and probably most candidates could not answer who is the president of Chechnya," Hughes added.
Hughes’ Jeopardy! line went out on the wire on Thursday, November 4. Starting the next morning, it was widely recited on weekend shows, by conservative and mainstream journos alike. (No, they didn’t attribute their statement to Hughes.) Was the press corps trying to say Bush is dumb? Quite the contrary! They were quite literally reciting the Bush campaign’s key talking-points, insisting he wasn’t so dumb! For more detail on this startling incident, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/06.

So no, the press wasn’t trying to say “Bush is dumb” in November 1999. But so what? Eleven months later, they got another great chance—and the corps took a pass once again:

October 2000—Bush and Gore’s first debate: It was in the wake of this crucial debate that Roberts pimped her fake, phony line. And it was the press corps’ strange treatment of this debate that Margaret Carlson explained to Imus in the statement Eric has quoted. Uh-oh! A handful of people were starting to ask why the press corps was working so hard to flog Gore’s “lies” in the wake of that first debate. To his vast credit, Howard Kurtz was one of those people. Speaking with Kurtz, Roberts presented that fake, bogus notion about the press corps’ alleged twin narratives:
KURTZ (10/15/00): The broadcast networks all played up Gore's mistakes after the first debate, as did major stories in the New York Times ("Tendency to Embellish Facts Snags Gore") and The Washington Post ("GOP Homes In on Gore's Credibility")...

"The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore isn't straight enough," said ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts. "In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator." If another politician had made [Gore’s] mistake [about attending a fire with Jamie Lee Witt], "people wouldn't have paid any attention," Roberts said.
But if the story-line was Bush isn’t smart enough, the press would have jumped all over his gruesome first debate, in which he made some of the stupidest blunders in presidential debate history. Most comically, Bush insisted, again and again, on a baldly mistaken version of his own prescription drug plan, even as Gore explained the real facts, again and again—and again. “You can just look at the [Bush] web site,” Gore finally told moderator Jim Lehrer, noting that the accurate information about Bush’s plan was available there—despite the bungled version which Bush was so adamantly presenting (calling Gore a liar as he did so). But in the aftermath of this debate, the press corps went a thousand miles out of its way to avoid explaining this embarrassing blunder by Bush, as we’ve discussed in the past.

Indeed, how hard did the press corps work to avoid discussing Bush’s blunders? The New York Times’ Frank Bruni thought Bush was doing so poorly at this debate that he was blowing his chance for the White House. “He made a few ridiculous statements,” Bruni wrote. “I remember watching the first debate from one of the seats inside the auditorium and thinking that Bush was in the process of losing the presidency.” But Bruni didn’t rush to say such things—to promote the notion that Bush is dumb. That quote is taken from Bruni’s book, which didn’t appear until the spring of 2002, as Bush was dumbly preparing to take us to war. In real time, Bruni fawned and pandered to Bush, despite the “ridiculous statements” he’d made. The morning after that first debate, Bruni led his report in the New York Times with an anecdote designed to embarrass Gore. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/02, for an account of this typical incident.

No, Virginia. The press corps wasn’t promoting a narrative in which Bush “wasn’t smart enough.” Cokie simply said that to Kurtz, trying to wriggle away from the truth. Gore's a liar; Bush is a dope? The press corps struggled, strained and strove to pimp that first story-line to the rubes. But Bush is a dope was hard to find in the press corps’ actions.

Eric is right as rain about those narratives; the boys and girls of the mainstream press corps are happiest when they all say the same things. Gore is a liar? They themselves endlessly lied to say it! But Bush is a dope? We must demur. If you examine that campaign’s coverage, you’ll see that this story was AWOL.