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Daily Howler: How will the corps assemble its spin? Howard Fineman says THE HOWLER got it right
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THE HOWLER GETS IT RIGHT! How will the corps assemble its spin? Howard Fineman says THE HOWLER got it right: // link // print //

BUZZ, SPIN AND NARRATIVE: It will take a while for spin to form. But we did emit dark chuckles when Aaron Brown asked the Boston Globe’s Nina Easton about last night’s just-concluded debate. The great gods Buzz and Spin weren’t yet active. So Easton bowed low to her cohort’s third great god—Narrative:
EASTON (9/30/00): I think very much tonight you saw—you saw clearly two different men. You saw a thinker and a believer.

You saw in John Kerry—if you want, nuance and complexity, this was your guy. If you. if you want boldness, clarity and so forth, George Bush was your guy. And I do agree with Terry [Neal]. I think it was more of a draw than the initial polls we're seeing.

If you want nuance, your guy was Kerry. If you want clarity, your guy was Bush. And if you want Narrative, just call for Nina Easton! Would anyone have described the debate this way except in fealty to this great god? Brilliantly mouthing these familiar old spins, Easton reminded us how her tribe works. In time, their great god Buzz will send new Spin to earth. But while they wait for Spin to appear, some pundits bow low to Narrative.

THE HOWLER GETS IT RIGHT: As we awaited the big debate, we read a piece by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman. And readers! Fineman agrees with every word we’ve written about the way his cohort functions. Where does the press get its spin on debates? Yes, he actually wrote this:

FINEMAN (9/30/04): Pivotal moments [in White House debates] aren't usually apparent at first glance. They are like an old-fashioned photographic print in a chemical bath; they take time to emerge. Often there isn't a pivotal moment, even a hidden one, so it takes even longer for the press to invent one outright, since drama is what we live on. In 2000, at UMass in Boston, I went on MSNBC after the first Gore-Bush debate and said I thought that Bush had “won” it by not losing it. I was right, as it turned out, but I did not get the real news—which, it became clear after a day or two, was all about The Gore Sigh.
Amazing, isn’t it? Since drama is what this cohort lives on, sometimes they just invent one! Fineman is stealing all our lines. He just doesn’t seem to see that he is describing journalistic misconduct.

By the way, did Fineman really say, after Bush and Gore’s first debate, that Bush had “‘won’ it by not losing if?” If so, he ought to alert the authorities. Here’s a chunk of what he said on MSNBC. It’s the only statement that Nexis records:

FINEMAN (10/3/00): The weak points for George Bush were pretty clear. He, obviously, doesn't know very much about foreign policy, and that was evident tonight. He is less presidential. Let's face it. He hasn't been in Washington, isn’t close to the office, and sometimes when he got down to the third level, third or fourth level of discussion on his proposals or Gore's attacks, he didn't answer them point by point.

And when he said—when he was asked, "What is the biggest crisis you face?" and "How have you handled it?" and he asked for the question to be repeated, that, obviously, wasn't a strong point.

But the key thing to remember here is that undecided voters, those voters in the middle who are looking for answers, are not necessarily going to add up the budget numbers. They are not going to argue to the third or fourth level of detail on budget projections that are probably fantasy anyway.

They're looking for someone who knows and understands them and who seems like a trustworthy decent guy who will bring the change to Washington that they may want, and I thought Bush, in the end, did a better job than some people might have thought in making that point to those particular voters.

That concludes Fineman’s only recorded statement. The full statement includes no remark about Bush “winning it by not losing it.” In fact, there’s no statement about Bush “winning it” at all. Meanwhile, Fineman appeared on Imus the next morning. Nexis provides a summary from Video Monitoring Services of America. According to the poorly-penned precis, here’s what Fineman said there:
VIDEO MONITORING SERVICES (10/4/00): Studio Interview—Howard Fineman, Newsweek, says that GW Bush survived this. Don says that they were hoping for some big disaster from this. Howard says that they are both highly regarded by many people don't really want to vote for them [sic] and there are many undecided voters who are watching the media more than the presidential candidates. Howard says that GW Bush learned a lot on education and Medicare and Gore, who is so practiced over this, won this due to coming in on this and GW Bush doesn't know the arguments enough here.
We’ll check to see if we have the tape, but it doesn’t sound like Fineman said Bush “won” the debate on Imus, either. In fact, the Hotline quoted Fineman from both these shows, but they don’t have his “Bush won” remark either. But you know the way this cohort functions! Maybe Fineman invented another “drama” while typing up yesterday’s piece.

At any rate, here is more of Fineman’s statement about the way his cohort functions. Yes, he even calls them a “tribe,” just as we do at THE HOWLER:

FINEMAN (9/30/04): But for all their hard work and wily ways, the super surrogates [from the campaigns] aren't the ones whose words construct the conventional wisdom about a presidential debate. It happens as one reporter and writer peeks over his or her shoulder at what others in the tribe are saying and writing. That process will move faster than ever this year because of the Internet and the blogosphere.

And yet it may take longer than last time for a consensus to emerge. Why? Because there is no longer a "media." There are two, three, many media. Fox will have a take; the New York Times will have a take; Don Imus will have a take. And it will take time for all of them to agree on what they saw with their own eyes.

As Anne Kornblut said on Hardball, she’ll know when a Big Moment happens because The Buzz in the press room will tell her. You may have thought we were being too harsh when we poked fun at Kornblut’s statement (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/04). But Fineman rushes to our defense! Incomparably mouthing our very own words, Howard Fineman says THE HOWLER got it right!

TOMORROW: Most likely, we have those old Fineman tapes. If so, we’ll report what he said.

IN SEARCH OF THE SPIN: What spin will emerge from last night’s debate? Fineman suggests there may be several; again, he echoes our recent analysis. In Campaign 2000, the mainstream press corps joined the conservative press in an outrageous, twenty-month trashing of Gore. Therefore, after that first debate, everyone agreed on the drama: Outrageous Gore sighed and lied! What a liar! (Of course, most good career “liberal” writers still know not to discuss this matter.) But this time, many elements in the mainstream press are less than pleased with Bush’s war. That’s why we said we didn’t think that Kerry would get trashed the way Gore did. Fineman says much the same thing in the last quoted passage. “There are two, three, many media,” he says. Different segments of the corps may have different “takes.”

But what will those “dramas” turn out to be? On NewsNight, Marty Kaplan had a suggestion. Aaron Brown shot it right down:

KAPLAN (9/30/04): Tonight, with those split screens, I think the wind came out of the president and found another place to go. I watched it on C-SPAN, which only had split screens for the whole evening. And the president looked disturbed, whiny, confused—

BROWN: But just going back to the point—and we learned this in the Gore-Bush debate of four years ago, that the early take on the debate can change once we weigh in, the spinners weigh in, the pundits weigh in and so on. My point being here the cutaway thing probably isn't going to be the story tomorrow.

KAPLAN: I'm not so sure. I think the rolling eyes, the squinting, the Al Gore sighs were the story out of the 2000 debates. And I think the body language equivalent of that is this.

In our view, only a fool would base his vote on how Bush looked while Kerry was talking. But yes, that certainly could be “the story,” at least in some parts of the press.

BROKAW REINS IT IN: This time, Brokaw reined it in. When the debate finished up last night, he offered the kind of balanced statement a professional anchor might make:

BROKAW (9/30/04): The adversaries shaking hands at the end of 90 minutes of a very lively and occasionally tense exchange of views, almost all of it about Iraq and terrorism and how best to deal with that in the world. Clear differences in policy, approach and style between these two men who shared a fraternity at Yale, but at this stage in their lives, very little else although they both said that they believe it's important to stay the care—course in Iraq.
Brokaw was detached and professional. But four years ago, the world was different. The entire press corps had spent two years trashing Clinton’s successor, Al Gore. So Brokaw started on Gore right away. Incredibly, here’s the very first thing he said after Bush and Gore’s first debate:
BROKAW (10/3/00): The conclusion of the first debate. The election is just five weeks from today. It ran over—about five minutes altogether. There were some very spirited exchanges. The two candidates stuck to their fundamental positions. You did have a feeling that if you'd asked Vice President Gore what he had for breakfast today he would have said, “Two eggs over easy, coffee and a waiter who was complaining about the tax cut of the Texas governor.”
Amazing, isn’t it? Twenty seconds post-debate, Brokaw made his first sardonic, belittling comment about Clinton’s vile successor. “The Texas governor stayed on his message,” he continued, “which was that, They haven't gotten things done for the last eight years in Washington. I can do better.”

Of course, the undisciplined anchor had displayed the same problem after Gore’s convention speech. As soon as the hopeful finished his talk, Brokaw went sardonic again:

BROKAW (8/17/00): Vice President Al Gore with one mention of Bill Clinton saying, “I am my own man,” here tonight. Separating himself in one small way, at least. He ran through the speech in about 45 minutes. Bill Clinton would have been going until about 11:15.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! But why was this undisciplined man making instant jokes about Clinton? Well, let’s remember what Dick Cheney said at the GOP conclave, just two weeks before. “Mr. Gore will try to separate himself from his leader's shadow,” Cheney said, referring to Clinton. “But somehow, we will never see one without thinking of the other.” It was the stated Bush campaign theme: Every time you see Al Gore, we want you to think about Clinton. Two weeks later, an undisciplined anchor went on the air. He was thinking about Clinton too.

And yes, Brokaw is deeply undisciplined. Last night, he restrained himself at the close of debate. But after speaking with John Edwards, he introduced Rudy Giuliani. And even on our most important occasions, the gentleman can’t keep it straight:

BROKAW (9/30/04): We now have a surrogate for President George W. Bush, and that is the best-known mayor in America, even though he is out of office now, and that's Mayor Rudy Giuliani.


Even on our most important occasions, Brokaw simply won’t do away with the silly, pimping celebrity intros. No, we’re not saying that Brokaw tried to help Bush; his questions to Edwards and Giuliani were fair. But do anchors like Brokaw ever give these august occasions the respect they deserve? Adam Clymer had it right in that Sunday New York Times column. “The test for journalists is whether they can appreciate the importance of the event,” he wrote. Yes, Rudy’s intro was a minor point. But will Tom Brokaw ever give these occasions the respect they deserve?

LEHRER, THREE FOR THREE: We thought Jim Lehrer was quite fair last night. But here at THE HOWLER, it was Flashback Central when he posed a familiar question to Bush. The query came late in the session:

LEHRER (9/30/04): New question, President Bush. Clearly, as we have heard, major policy differences between the two of you. Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?
Good Lord! Does Lehrer ever do a debate without inviting Candidate Bush to assess his opponent’s character problems? Four years ago, when Bush battled Gore, Lehrer’s performance was simply egregious. Incredibly, Lehrer ended the first and second Bush-Gore debates by inviting Bush to discuss Gore’s character. Here’s the question he asked at the end of Bush and Gore’s first debate:
LEHRER (10/3/00): Governor Bush, are there issues of character that distinguish you from Vice President Gore?
On and on the discussion went, with Lehrer seeming to urge Bush on with his follow-up questions. And then, in Debate 2, he did it again! Here was his final question:
LEHRER (10/11/00): Last question for you, Governor. This flows out some—flows somewhat out of the Boston debate. You, your running mate, your campaign officials have charged that Vice President Gore exaggerates, embellishes and stretches the facts, et cetera. Are you—do you believe these are serious issues—this is a serious issue that the voters should use in deciding which one of you two men to vote for on November 7?
Thanks to Lehrer, each debate ended with a discussion of Gore’s alleged character problems. And then, last night, in a golden oldie, he asked Bush for comments about Kerry’s troubling character! Lehrer has now posed this question at three consecutive debates with Bush. In every one, he has asked the Texan to discuss his opponent’s character. (Lehrer didn’t ask the questions at the 2000 “town hall” debate.)

Four years ago, the real “character problem” in the White House campaign was that of the Washington press corps itself. Lehrer was basically fair last night. But is there any chance—any chance at all—that George W. Bush could debate a Dem without this question being asked? Lehrer has now gone three-for-three. In the next debate with questions from a moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer will be in charge. And there’s no imaginable problem there! Schieffer’s brother, Tom Schieffer, is Bush’s former business partner. And Schieffer staged one of Campaign 2000’s silliest spectacles, telling Tim Russert that he couldn’t imagine why Bush would have gone to Bob Jones University! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00, to remember how silly the clowning got when the press corps—mouthing only one “drama”—decided to take out Al Gore.