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BUZZ AND SPIN! Krugman and Clymer have given fair warning. But many scribes love their gods, Buzz and Spin: // link // print //
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2004

BUZZ AND SPIN: Hallelujah! Clymer, Krugman, Marshall and Kurtz have all pre-complained about pundit spinning of tonight’s debate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/04). In the Post, readers even saw a stinging cartoon on the subject, drawn by Tom Toles. Beyond that, recitations of what happened four years ago, when Gore got trashed, have echoed all over the web. At The American Prospect, for crying out loud, Rob Garver even provided some frank attribution! Oh, no wonder—he’s a “freelance journalist,” the tag-line on his fine report says.

At any rate, hallelujah! It’s great that these high-profile worthies have put the pundit corps on notice. But make no mistake; many scribes can’t wait to engage the mindless spinning that defines their odd tribal culture. Indeed, as we watched last night’s Hardball, our blood ran cold. The Boston Globe’s Anne Kornblut explained why her cohort had deigned to come to Miami:

KORNBLUT (9/29/04): I guess I shouldn't say we're here for the weather, the restaurants, after all this. I think we're here, especially the print reporters, we're here for the turning-point, the big moment in the debate when something happens. I mean, this is going to be one of the most—

MATTHEWS: Will you know it when you see it, Anne, do you think?

KORNBLUT: I would like to think so. The buzz starts, usually starts, in the filing center where we're all sitting.

Oh great! Yes, Pundit Culture still exists, eager to grab some trivial matter and declare it the “turning-point,” the evening’s “big moment.” And Kornblut will know this Turning-Point when she sees it. She’ll know it when she hears “the buzz,” which will start right there in the hall.

In years past, we called this process the “novelization of news,” the decision to shape a pleasing news story in much the way fiction is normally crafted. In this process, trivial events may be given great moment; if necessary, facts get sanded down, shaved, reworked and repaired to make preferred stories work better. And all week, as Clymer, Krugman and Marshall pre-complained, the Pundit Fraternity showcased their culture, ceaselessly telling their treasured old tales about Big Moments in past debates. All pundits know what these “turning-points” were. And all pundits know to recall them.

And yes, you know these treasured tales too, because you’ve heard them recited so often. Dukakis should have punched Bernie Shaw in the nose when he was asked that rude, stupid question. Ronald Reagan was wonderful—brilliant—when he told his joke about Mondale’s age. Al Gore outraged viewers in that first debate—the debate viewers actually said that Gore won. And, of course, that one other idiot tale. On Meet the Press, Tim Russert and Doris Kearns Goodwin recited it much the way ancient Greeks sat around singing The Iliad:

RUSSERT (9/26/04): I remember so well when President Bush was in the debate in 1992 and looking at his watch. It was seen as a metaphor, fairly or unfairly, that he had been disengaged and not focusing on the economy.
GOODWIN: Oh, exactly! In fact, that came right at the same time where somebody had asked a question about, "How does the debt affect you powerful people?" And he just said, "I don't get it." What she really meant was how does the recession—and then Clinton, of course, with his empathy, goes out, "I understand what you're feeling," and he won it at that moment.
“Oh, exactly,” Goodwin replied. Indeed, if our Pundit Chorale had a coat of arms, that would be the group’s brilliant motto.

I remember so well! That’s right, readers! All week long, pundits have known to slam Bush Senior for checking his watch in that troubling moment. Every producer has run the tape and let pundits coo all about it. But does any sane person really believe that American voters were really turned off when Bush took that one-second glance at his watch? That American voters even noticed? In yesterday’s Post, Howard Kurtz explained, again, just how this foolishness works:

KURTZ (9/29/04): [W]hen Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot met in a town meeting debate in Richmond, the initial press coverage was that the debate was largely uneventful, though Clinton was described as better at feeling the audience's pain. A Maureen Dowd sidebar in the New York Times, however, noted that Bush was “checking his watch” as the questioning about the economy dragged on, and the media soon seized on that glance as symbolic of a president bored by domestic policy.
Good Lord—it’s always Dowd! That said, let’s explain, once again, how this process works. The Pundit Chorale seizes on some dumb event—on something that would have affected almost no one—and they decide it captures their great, brilliant world-view. Subsequent to the debate itself, they turn this point of utter trivia into A Major “Symbolic” Revelation. They play the tape of the incident again and again, then recite their tale through the annals of time. “I remember so well,” they all say of such incidents. Indeed, after watching the tapes for the ten thousandth time, how could a person forget them?

So all hail Clymer and Krugman and Marshall and Toles! All hail Garver and all the rest! Yes, pre-complaints have been widely heard as we prepare for tonight’s debate. But we’ll have to wait to see what occurs. After all, Kornblut is seeking a Magic Moment, and that press room will be packed with her tribe. Their coat of arms says “Oh, exactly,” and they worship great gods—Buzz and Spin.

NOTES ON DOWD: Thanks to Kurtz, we reviewed that Dowd news report from 1992. Actually, no, it wasn’t egregious, although, if Kurtz’ reporting is accurate, it did lead to one of the Great Tribal Stories. But five years later, Dowd’s op-ed columns on Gore-and-Love Story actually were both inane and egregious, and they created one of the Dumb Tribal Tales that later decided the 2000 race. By the way, Dowd’s latest invention, that fake NASCAR quote, has now been thoroughly, completely debunked. Yes, Dowd was making things up again, and her bogus quote spread all through the Times, exposing Kerry to serial ridicule (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/21/04). And what pleasure—to watch the way this latest Dowd hoax was “exposed!” Indeed, to see one New York “journalist” soft-soap hard for several others, read Mike Pesca’s report in Slate. We’ll present a special “Smile-a-while” feature about this whole story on Saturday.

STILL GORE-ING GORE: Yesterday, we asked a great question about liberal career writers: Are they willing to tell the truth about the conduct of the press corps—the press corps in which they’ll earn their future livings? More specifically, will liberal writers ever tell you the truth about the press corps’ trashing of Gore during Campaign 2000? To see how strange the narratives get even at our most “liberal” sites, consider Sean Aday’s bizarre report at the liberal (and worthwhile) web site, Gadflyer.

In his piece, Aday discusses the lessons Bush and Kerry should learn from Campaign 2000. At one point, he offers this bizarre account of what happened to Gore in September of that year:

ADAY (9/28/04): Most importantly, both candidates should understand how abruptly things can change, and why. In 2000, Gore's momentum turned on a dime during a brutal five-day period in mid-September marred by self-inflicted wounds—notably claiming falsely that his mother-in-law paid more for the same prescription drug for herself than he paid for his dog, and that his parents sung him a union lullaby as a child that wasn't written until he was an adult (the fact that Gore was joking was lost on the press, who played it as a serious act of deception)—that played directly into the Republican caricature of him as untrustworthy.

The press, which just days earlier had virtually anointed Gore president, turned on him with a vengeance. His poll numbers quickly plummeted.

That presentation is simply bizarre. Aday refers to a pair of damaging stories that spun up in mid-September 2000. In the first story, published on September 18, the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson claimed that Gore had misstated the facts about the cost of dog pills. In the second story, published on September 20, USA Today’s Walter Shapiro claimed that Gore had told a whopper about an old union song. As Aday correctly notes, the press corps “turned on [Gore] with a vengeance” when this pair of stories arrived. Al Gore is a liar, just like Bill Clinton! The pleasing tale was widely re-bruited, and Gore began to sink in the polls. This formed the prelude to that first debate, when the press corps seized on small errors by Gore and ignored his opponent’s large howlers. And yes: This is the way the press corps behaved all through Campaign 2000, even if many “liberal” writers prefer to semi-forget.

Aday is right about several points. This was a deeply damaging week for Gore; indeed, this was a Week That Was, a week that transformed the 2000 race, a week we promised to discuss back on September 7. But how bizarre is Aday’s presentation? He himself notes what became crystal clear—Gore’s comment about the union song was a joke, a joke he told at a union event, a joke at which his audience laughed. But so what? Even knowing that Gore’s remark was a joke, Aday trashes Gore for it anyway, describing it as a “false claim” and a “self-inflicted wound” that “played directly into the Republican caricature of him as untrustworthy.” Logic like that would be strange and depressing even from a conservative writer, but here it is at a liberal site, typed again by a liberal writer. And Aday doesn’t really let himself wonder why the press corps engaged in this conduct—why the press corps trashed a candidate for daring to tell a pointless joke. Instead, he blames Gore for telling the joke, even describing it as a “false claim!” This is the type of puzzling nonsense we read today at “liberal” sites.

But let’s not stop with the spectacle of Aday trashing Gore for telling a joke. Let’s consider that first story too. Is it true, what Aday writes? Is it true that Gore “claim[ed] falsely that his mother-in-law paid more for the same prescription drug for herself than he paid for his dog?” Did Gore make a “false claim” in this matter? Your press corps has never backed off from this claim, and obedient Aday recites it again. But did Gore really make a false claim? Unless Aday has come up with new information, we’re amazed to see this claim at an excellent liberal site, pushed by a liberal writer.

Did Gore “claim falsely” about doggy pills? As noted, Walter Robinson filed the Globe report, one of his many odd reports about Gore’s alleged lying. But try to believe that it really happened! Although Robinson’s report became a cause celebre, he had no record of what Gore had actually said—didn’t present a single quote in his entire report! Plainly, Gore had said something on August 28, when he held a meeting with Florida senior citizens and discussed the cost of prescription drugs. But what exactly had Gore said? As far as we know, no one ever produced a full record of what was actually said that day. And sorry—the fragments we have of Gore’s remarks all do seem to be accurate. In the interest of brevity, let’s work from Gene Lyons’ real-time summary of this scandal in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

LYONS (10/11/00): Then there was the flap over Gore's mother-in-law and his dog. Again, the real problem was creative reporting. Speaking to Florida seniors, Gore said that pharmaceutical firms often charge humans more than pets for the same drugs. He cited an arthritis potion taken by his mother-in-law and his Labrador retriever.

According to The New York Times, “Mr. Gore, speaking of the drug Lodine and its prices, said, 'While it costs $108 a month for a person, it costs $37.80 for a dog.’” A Boston Globe reporter tried to learn if those exact sums were being paid to treat Tipper's mother and Shiloh the dog, although it's not clear that Gore ever said that they were. (The article paraphrased his remarks, often a tip-off to spin.) Challenged, his campaign said Gore took the numbers from a congressional report whose accuracy nobody disputes.

So here’s the run-down. Gore cited accurate numbers from a congressional study—numbers which other major Dems had often publicly cited. As he did so, he noted two more accurate facts—his mother-in-law was prescribed the drug in question, and so was his arthritic Labrador, Shiloh. But you know the way the press corps worked in the 2000 race, even if “liberal” writers don’t want to discuss it. As they did all through the 2000 campaign, the press corps went to work extra-hard, trying to torture another “false claim” from this trivial, pointless story. To this day, we know of no full record of what Gore said, and we know of no evidence that he made a false statement, even deep down in the weeds where the press corps, as always, went to search.

That remarkable week in September 2000 was very much a Week That Was. First the dog pills, then the union lullaby—the mainstream press went back to work, trying to call Gore a liar. Their conduct that week was deeply cracked. Just how crazy and cracked is your press corps? Eventually, Bob Novak and the USA Today editors came up with the solution for Gore. Both acknowledged that Gore had been trashed for telling a joke. But did they attack the press corps for this? No—they had a different solution. Gore should just stop telling jokes, these two crackpot worthies now said.

It couldn’t be the press corps’ fault; it had to be Gore’s, for telling a joke! Four years later, liberal career writers still peddle this nonsense, covering up for the depth of the press corps’ misconduct and preferring to say that Gore “falsely claimed.” Our question: Will these weak-willed, self-serving boys ever dare to tell you the truth? Will they tell you the truth about the press corps, in which they will make their fine living?

THE PRICE PAID: How absurd would pundits be in slamming Gore for this pair of comments? Their work would be deeply absurd. Of course, no one was dumber than Novak and USA Today’s editors; each said that Gore’s remark had in fact been a joke, then said he should simply stop telling them. But Gore would be savagely pounded as a result of this pair of new stories. On September 21, 2000, for example, William Kristol wrote an almost lunatic column for the Washington Post op-ed page. “Many politicians are exploitative,” he wrote. “But no other politician exploits his own family in this way.” And yes, the scribe was speaking of Gore; according to Kristol, the candidate had “violat[ed] the boundaries of family privacy” and had “exploit[ed] his own kin” with his disturbing remarks about Lodine, an arthritis medication. The issue wasn’t “simple dissembling,” Kristol said; no, “the issue is Gore’s apparently conscienceless exploitation of his own family.” But then, Gore’s conduct was hardly surprising. When he had kissed his wife on stage at the Democratic Convention, the candidate “took our decadence to new depths,” Kristol thundered. Believe it or not, this was the scribe’s conclusion: “Al Gore is not a totalitarian. But his willingness to use his family members for political purposes reveals a self-regard and self-absorption, a ruthlessness and lack of restraint, that have taken him into new territory, well beyond George W. Bush, beyond even his master, Bill Clinton.”

Al Gore is not a totalitarian! According to Kristol, when Gore told some seniors that his mother-in-law took arthritis pills, he had been ruthless and exploitative, and had shown his lack of a conscience; he had gone “beyond even his master, Bill Clinton!” But he wasn’t as bad as Pol Pot or Stalin, Kristol said, trying to offer some balance. And yes, this lunatic column really did appear in our most important political newspaper. Simply put, the Washington press corps had lost its mind in the eighteen months it had spent trashing Gore.

Today, our liberal writers forget all this; instead, they tell you about Gore’s misconduct. Gore “falsely claimed”—created a “self-inflicted wound”—when he told a silly old joke. And so we ask you one more time: Will liberal career writers ever tell you the truth about the powers-that-be in their press corps? Or will they always put career interests first as they tell you these ludicrous tales?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Six weeks before Shapiro’s report, the New York Daily News had described Gore telling the very same union lullaby joke. The simplest Nexis search would have shown it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/24/03; scroll down to “HOWLER HISTORY—NO JOKING MATTER.” Also note Howard Fineman’s astounding explanation of why the press began trashing Gore at this juncture. We don’t really believe Fineman’s explanation; we would guess that the truth is worse. But at any rate, career liberal writers seem to know that they mustn’t dwell on such startling history. Fineman made an astonishing statement. You’ll read about it one place—right here.