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WHAT REALLY HAPPENED! Josh Marshall omits one part of the tale. Incomparably, we pose a tough query: // link // print //
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2004

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: We’re going to do an unusual thing and comment on someone we read every day. That person is Josh Marshall. We read him because we expect to learn things from him, and we are rarely disappointed. But we do find his latest post a bit frustrating. Marshall discusses Paul Krugman’s column on the press corps’ spinning of White House debates. Let’s start with a minor complaint about something he says:
MARSHALL: As Krugman alludes to, the initial public reaction to the [first] Bush/Gore debate had the then-veep coming out on top, if narrowly. It was only after several days of pundit churn that Bush became the winner. The Bush team won the post-debate debate.
Again, we lodge a minor objection to the claim that Gore prevailed only “narrowly.” In fact, Gore won the five instant polls by an average margin of 9.6 percent (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/04). In American politics, this is a landslide—especially so in this case, since more Bush voters had watched the debate. We think Americans need to know how remarkable the spinning of this debate really was. So let’s say it again: People who actually watched the debate gave Gore the win by a robust margin. Indeed, as we have often noted, many Gore-bashing pundits went on TV and said Gore had “cleaned Bush’s clock” (links below)

But now, a somewhat more substantial complaint: As he continues, Marshall describes the process that turned this victorious effort into a disaster for Gore. In this passage, Marshall is referring to the “built-in advantages” Republicans have “on the cable nets, talk radio and chat TV:”

MARSHALL (continuing directly): More than just these built-in advantages, though, Democrats, I think, have seldom really appreciated that there is such a thing as a post-debate debate. I don't mean that they don't know about putting out surrogates or trying to spin the results. Of course, they do. But in 2000 at least (and certainly in analogous situations in this cycle) the effort was very reactive and scattershot. And that inevitably leaves the Democrats trying to parry or deconstruct the ways that Republicans are trying to define what happened. In that way, they're fighting at best for a draw.
Marshall goes on to describe GOP efforts to pre-spin this Thursday’s debate. “Republicans are already leaking hints and taunts about whether Kerry will sweat profusely under the lights, whether he's too tanned and other similar nonsense,” he writes. “But the antic nature of these taunts doesn't mean they won't be effective. They're meant to throw the other side off balance and, in a related manner, to provide grist for a catty and frivolous press corps.”

Yes, we do have a catty and frivolous press corps—a press corps deeply attuned to sheer nonsense. But Marshall’s account of the Bush-Gore debate leaves out an important fact. It’s an important fact every Dem should know about their party’s—no, their country’s—recent history.

Which key fact does Marshall omit? Here it is: In Campaign 2000, we had a “catty and frivolous press corps” that was trashing Al Gore every chance that it got. It’s absurd to think that the crucial, post-debate trashing of Gore happened because the GOP put on a better spin effort. Indeed, Marshall has discussed this very phenomenon in the not-too-distant past. In August 2002, that catty corps was gearing up to trash Gore if he entered the 2004 race. On Reliable Sources, Marshall described their long-standing “disdain and contempt” for the Democrat hopeful:

HOWARD KURTZ (8/10/02): Josh Marshall, don’t a lot of reporters believe deep down that Gore ran a horrible campaign and doesn’t deserve another shot?

MARSHALL: I think it’s even more than that. I think deep down most reporters just have contempt for Al Gore. I don’t even think it’s dislike. It’s more like a disdain and contempt.
And the gentleman’s truth-telling wasn’t finished. “[T]his was, you know, a year and a half before the election, I think you could say this,” Marshall continued. “This wasn’t something that happened because he ran a bad campaign. If he did, it was something that predated it.”
According to Marshall, you could see the press corps’ “contempt and disdain” for Candidate Gore eighteen months before November 2000. And Marshall’s remark is perfectly accurate, as we incomparably said at the time (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/12/02). But today, we’re back to a certain default position. When Josh describes the remarkable spinning of that first Bush-Gore debate, we’re told that the Bush campaign was brilliant and the Gore campaign somehow failed to perform. But we don’t hear a word about the press corps’ “disdain and contempt.” An obvious element of this story has once again disappeared.

Yes, the press corps is catty and frivolous. And yes, the Bush camp went out there and spun. But Marshall’s narrative disappears the most important part of this crucial transaction—the “disdain and contempt” the press corps exhibited throughout that twenty-month White House campaign. Quite plainly, this “disdain and contempt” explains why the Bush camp’s post-debate spinning quickly became instant Hard Press Corps Lore.

The spinning of that first debate transformed the 2000 race. Given the narrow way this election was decided, it is surely one of the most remarkable stories in modern press corps history. We think it’s important that you understand what actually happened in that crucial week—that week in which Gore handily “won” that debate, then took a bad beating in the polls. And it’s simply absurd to tell that story without discussing the press corps’ disdain for the candidate. Did the Bush camp stage a brilliant post-debate debate? It’s easy to be a brilliant spinner if the press corps is eager to repeat all your cant. As Marshall explained in August 02, that was the case four years ago when that healthy victory by Gore turned into a Candidate Nightmare.

We close with our most troubling rumination. As we have said, we read Josh Marshall every day, and we’re rarely disappointed. But we’ll ask an obvious question this morning, one which extends beyond this one writer and beyond this one post: Do career journalists find it hard to tell the whole truth about the cohort in which they earn their living? Yes, Josh did say that they’re catty and frivolous. But we can’t help thinking that we see, once again, a back-sliding away from this truth of this matter. All Americans need to know the way George Bush found his way to the White House. That first debate was a crucial event, but Marshall’s account of that startling episode omits a major part of the tale. Do career journalists find it hard to tell the truth when their cohort behaves very badly? We often wonder about matters like that when we span the left-leaning Net. This morning, after reading this bowdlerized post, we step up and wonder out loud.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN THIS TIME: Will Bush win the post-debate Spin War this time? Quite sensibly, Marshall says the Kerry campaign should “hit the ground running with a plan in mind” to counter the GOP efforts. For ourselves, we suspect that the Kerry campaign already thought of that. But let’s keep one thing clearly in mind. This campaign has not been covered in the lunatic manner of Campaign 2000. In Campaign 2000, the entire press corps, mainstream and conservative, was trashing Gore from March 1999 on. (For the record, that’s twenty months, not eighteen.) That hasn’t been the case with Kerry. No, the overall coverage hasn’t been good. But at various times it has been quite clear that major players in the press corps felt that Bush had to go. Had Kerry entered this debate even in the polls, there would have been little chance that he would have been trashed in anything like the way Gore was.

Unfortunately, Kerry is starting to look like a loser. That will make the press less likely to take his side in post-debate spin. But no, we think it is very unlikely that the press will do what it did four years ago. After that first Bush-Gore debate, the press corps ignored major howlers by Bush, and ranted about silly, small errors by Gore. They assembled loops of Gore’s troubling sighs, jacked up the volume and played them all week. We’ll be surprised if we see something like that this week. The “contempt and disdain” that Marshall described was reserved for Gore, not for Kerry. On MS this morning, Dandy Don Imus was still calling Kerry his man.

KURTZ GETS IT PRETTY MUCH RIGHT: But yes, that post-debate spin really matters. We compliment Howard Kurtz for his frankness on yesterday’s Inside Politics. The affable press-watcher had some good, clean fun with his sputtering host, Judy Woodruff:

KURTZ (9/28/04): Well, of course, all of America is waiting to see what you and Wolf have to say after the debate, Judy.

But more important, perhaps, is that people underestimate the role of the press, because what sound bites are we playing over and over again after the debate, what various pundits and commentators and pontificators have to say, what controversies reporters focus on in terms of any misstatements or exaggerations or charges and countercharges and the spin of the campaigns themselves, as trumpeted in the media.

All that in the 48 hours after the debate help shape our perceptions about who won, who lost and who didn't do so well.

Woodruff, of course, was very surprised, and tried to steer her guest back to her original question, which concerned pre-debate expectations. But Kurtz refused to be stampeded. As he continued, and he laid out key fact about that first Gore debate. These key facts rarely make it to cable:
KURTZ: The classic example of this was four years ago in the first Bush-Gore debate. The instant polls showed a lot of people thought that Vice President Gore had won.

But the Bush team did a very skillful job of turning into a controversy, which the press then vacuumed up, various misstatements, rather minor in retrospect, that Gore had made. And that changed the whole story line to Gore had exaggerated to the point that he had to actually apologize in the second debate.

So the role of the press here is crucial, because the debate doesn't end when the candidates walk off that stage in Coral Gables.

No, Kurtz didn’t trash the press corps enough, but he didn’t blame the Gore campaign either. At least he did outline the basic facts about that remarkable Bush-Gore debate. Americans need to understand the process that put George Bush in the White House. When we read Clymer and Krugman, and when we hear Kurtz, the truth about the Bush-Gore race is slowly beginning to be told.

Of course, many Big Honchos in the press continue to remember past spin campaigns fondly. Tomorrow, we;’ll watch that hopeless Meet the Press gang as they fondly remember the times when silly, mindless press campaigns affected the way American voters viewed these important debates.

A SWIFT BOAT COMPLAINT: A long-time e-mailer has a complaint about our Swift Boat ruminations. He disputes a comment we made about David Broder’s two-months-too-late column (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/04):

E-MAIL: At the end of your 9/27 column, which blasts the news media for not reporting how bogus the Swift Boat claims are, you say: “Is Broder right? Were the Swift claims 'largely inaccurate?' That, of course, is a matter of judgment.”

But in saying this, aren’t you doing the same thing you accuse the media of doing: counting "one, two, three, four," then failing to put two and two together? After spending mondo inches of cyberspace to reassert that their claims wouldn't hold the water their boats floated on, why would you state that their claims are "a matter of judgment?" What am I missing here? Their claims are "largely inaccurate." Period. Judgment has nothing to do with it.

Sorry, we disagree with that. As we have noted, it’s hard to assess the principal claims of the Swift Boat Vets—claims about murky, 36-year-old events on a river half-way around the world. For example, was there enemy fire on the Bay Hap River the day Kerry pulled Jim Rassmann out of the drink? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know. And how about this: Was William Schachte on that Boston skimmer the night Kerry won his first Purple Heart? We don’t know how to judge that one either. Neither, of course, does David Broder. But Broder’s too lazy to say so.

Yes, these charges are hard to judge. And this is precisely the problem when accusers step forward, in a White House campaign, making ancient but ugly charges, charges which are inherently hard to assess. In the future, how should journalists judge such accusers? We have suggested an obvious standard; such accusers shouldn’t be visibly crazy, and claims they make which can be assessed pretty much have to be accurate. As they say in the law: False in one, false in all. If accusers are lying about the things we can check, why should be grant them credibility about nasty claims which are hard to assess?

Of course, by this pair of simple standards, O’Neill and Corsi should have been driven from the public square by a jeering and outraged press corps. We will definitely continue our endless series about the clowning found in their book (for the next few days, we’ll stick to posts about the spinning of White House debates). We think this all should be put on the record, and we want to develop a standard by which future such accusers should be judged. A gang of crackpots came after Clinton; and now, a gang has gone after Kerry. This attack-by-crackpot will happen again. The press corps has to be held to tough standards of conduct when this sort of thing reoccurs.

GOOD LORD: Let’s return to debate-spin for a moment. We don’t know when we’ve seen such uninformed letters as the missives in this morning’s Times about tomorrow’s debate. The first writer, from Michigan, is surprised to learn that the hopefuls won’t be able to question each other, and can’t imagine why in the world Kerry accepted such a procedure. (This rule obtained in 2000 as well. And Kerry’s team got three debates out of the negotiations, which may have been a concession by Bush.) The second writer, from Ohio, thinks that “media image makers” took part in shaping the new debate rules. We don’t know why he thinks that. The fourth writer, from Massachusetts, makes a completely illogical criticism of Adam Clymer’s Sunday column. The fifth writer is upset that Ralph Nader (one percent of the vote) has been cruelly kept from the proceedings.

But it’s the third letter-writer, from South Carolina, who brought us right out of our chairs. Indeed, the bagel dropped from our mouths as he begged the nation’s reporters to tell him all about body language:

To the Editor:

''Real news'' is not the only thing that matters in presidential debates. A candidate's performance can weigh as heavily as his arguments.

Body language is an important function of what scholars call ''rhetorical criticism.''

Rhetorical criticism of a debate allows journalists to shed light on how candidates react and communicate under fire. Therefore, front-page debate articles that stress body language can illuminate characteristics of a candidate that may not be found in a printed transcript.

We must remember that journalism is an art, not a science. There are no equations that can yield true fairness in a newspaper article. So in an effort to seem fair to all sides of a debate, journalists can also be fair to the public, but not by concentrating on the ''real news.''

Instead, journalists can write more articles that guide the voters on how to judge the debates themselves.

T— M—
Greenville, S.C.

Good Lord! We’re not sure what those last two paragraphs mean. But the writer seems to be asking for more front-page articles about this thing scholars call “body language!” And don’t worry—a catty, frivolous, vacuous “press corps” will be right there to oblige.