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COTTLE CONQUERS THE RUBES! Should the press corps focus on substance? Ridiculous, Michelle Cottle says: // link // print //
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2004

COTTLE CONQUERS THE RUBES: Three more debates, starting tonight! How should the press corps cover these sessions? On Sunday’s Reliable Sources, the New Republic’s Michelle Cottle took a firm stand. The press should avoid talking substance:
HOWARD KURTZ (10/3/04): Michelle Cottle, this was a serious, substantive debate, where the president had some trouble defending his position on Iraq, therefore he was accusing Kerry of having inconsistent positions, flip-flopping and so forth. So why are media types harping so much on facial expressions? Is it really that important?

COTTLE: Absolutely! That's what matters! Going into this debate, the media was chided to pay attention to substance over style. That's absolutely ridiculous.

“That’s what matters,” Cottle said. The press should focus on style, not on substance. Kurtz seemed a bit surprised—and Cottle went on to explain her great thinking. We include the full exchange because we think it’s so striking:
KURTZ (continuing directly): Ridiculous?

COTTLE: It's absolutely ridiculous. Americans sitting at home, especially undecided voters, who the research shows make these decisions based on kind of how they feel about the candidates, they're not watching this going, “Oh, my God, Kerry's absolutely right, we should have bilateral negotiations with North Korea.” No, they want to see if he looks strong, if he looks resolute, if he looks presidential, or in Bush's case, if he looks testy, like he doesn't know what he's talking about. Those are the sorts of things that these televised debates tell people.

KURTZ: So it's all about the theater, it's all about the performance, it's all about the image and it's not about this—what they actually had to say about the fact that all these Americans are dying in Iraq?

COTTLE: To a certain degree, yes. People of course want to know if they're going to come out there and lie, and that's how the media follows up with its fact-check. But what people are gauging as they're watching this is how the presidential candidates come across.

According to Cottle, voters want to know two things. They want to know if candidates lie. And they want to know who looks strong and/or testy. They want to know how the hopefuls “come across.” That’s what the press corps should cover.

We find this sadly revealing. How do voters cast their votes? Voters consider the darnedest things—on that there can be no dispute. And yes, it’s true—in some extreme instances, a candidate’s conduct in a debate may seem to suggest things about his character. But that doesn’t mean that a hopeful’s facial expressions provide a good guide to the state of his soul. Surely, there are more serious ways to examine his character—by considering the decisions he has made over his career, for example.

But facial expressions and clothing are fun, and policy discussion can be quite boring. As Bush has said again and again, that sort of thing can be hard work! And so, persistently, pundit culture has drifted in the direction described by Cottle. Increasingly, vacuous pundits read facial tics and ignore things that actually matter.

Might we make an obvious point? American voters can tell for themselves if candidates seem resolute, testy or boring. People like Cottle bring no expertise—none at all—to this matter. But in theory, people like Cottle should be able to help voters untangle the issues discussed. They should be able to help voters sift through claims being made about life-and-death matters. What was that exchange on North Korea about? Most voters don’t have the slightest idea. Expert pundits should be able to tell us.

But no! More and more in the past decade, pundits like Cottle just want to have fun. They want to talk earth tones and tics; as we see in Cottle’s statement, they literally mock real life-and-death issues. They want to meet the rubes at rube-level. On that, Cottle deftly succeeds.

GERGEN’S REJOINDER: After Cottle defended the journalism of tics, Roger Simon defended the journalism of polls. Finally, David Gergen had heard enough. Like noble Nestor addressing the Achaeans, the seasoned scribe rose and spoke at once. “How young you are,” noble Nestor told Diomedes. So too did Gergen chide Cottle:

GERGEN (10/3/04): May I respectfully disagree on two counts with—

KURTZ: Please.

GERGEN: —my esteemed colleague Roger Simon and with Michelle. First of all, on the question of the debates, whether substance versus style, I've had the opportunity, the privilege of working with several candidates in preparing for presidential debates, and I can just tell you, you spend one heck of a lot more time trying to make your substance right, getting the foundation right, and then you think about the style. But the substance is a foundation. If you've got nothing to say—and one of George W. Bush's problems in this debate was he showed up with so little to say—then all the rest of it, the style then sort of plays into that narrative about somebody who is not quite ready and not quite up to the debate.

According to Gergen, the president of the United States “showed up with little to say” in a debate about life-and-death issues. But so what? Cottle wants to focus on the gentleman’s facial expressions, a subject on which she has no expertise. But then, maybe the pundit has “nothing to say” about those real issues too.

Was Bush’s demeanor worth discussing? In this case, almost surely, it was. But people like Cottle must be told to wean themselves from their vast love of earth tones. Pundits like Cottle just want to be vacuous. For more remarks on style versus substance, see Paul Krugman’s ruminations in this morning’s Times.

PASSING THE (GLOBAL) TEST: We know—hacks like to clown about substance too. If we had an actual press corps, that corps would use its analytical skills to shape saner disputes about matters of substance. Example? In the next few days, the Pundit Corps will have to tackle the Bush campaign’s spinning of the term “global test.” The statement in which Kerry used that term is now being tortured out on the trail. It will almost surely be tortured tonight. Edwards will be the first to be tested. But the press corps will be tested, too.

Has any campaign ever been built around so many small, absurd, tortured claims? Kerry voted for higher taxes more than 350 times! Kerry opposed every major weapon system! And now: Kerry “would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions.” Yesterday, Bush said that to the rubes in Ohio. By the way, how do we know that Kerry would give foreign leaders that power? Easy! We know he’d give foreign leaders that power because he said just the opposite!

But so what? Campaigns fall apart when our major pundits are concerned with body language, not substance. And alas! Again and again in the past nine months, the pundit corps has shown little skill when confronted with small, absurd, tortured claims. Their analytical skills are very slight. Facial tics—that’s their real topic! Their concern: What was Bush’s body language when he made this new statement?

WHERE IT ENDS: Where does it end when we talk about style? Last night, GOP lawyer Cleta Mitchell went to Scarborough Country. We’re not sure if we’ve ever seen clowning on such a scale. Scarborough has denounced Bush’s debate performance as “inexcusable.” But when he asked Mitchell about Bush’s effort, he heard a quite different view.

How fake will “people” like Mitchell be? Here’s a bit of prologue:

MITCHELL (10/4/04): You say he lost the debate. I have to tell you that I listened to the debate primarily on the radio—I was in Oklahoma, I wasn’t here inside the Beltway, I was in my home state of Oklahoma—I listened to it mostly on the radio, and I got a very, I had a very different impression. The president was strong and positive. I didn’t notice his bad posture.
Did you know they don’t have TV in Oklahoma? That seemed to be the drift of Mitchell’s comment. But how fake will people like Mitchell be? Hold on for the full thrill ride:
MITCHELL (continuing directly): I did notice John Kerry’s fingernails. I don’t think I want a president with a French manicure. But maybe that’s just a female view. But—

SCARBOROUGH: I missed that somehow.

MITCHELL: Well, you have to look. I was telling everyone in my family! I said, “What’s wrong with his fingernails?”

Listening to the debate on the radio, Mitchell managed to spot Kerry’s nails. Is Mitchell human? Clearly, she is not. But this is the kind of brainless clowning that increasingly eats up your lives.

Of course, those of you who read Josh Marshall understand the background to this. If you don’t, go read Marshall’s posts right now—this one, for example, and many others. But to Cottle, Mitchell is basically on the right track, even if she ought to stop lying. Never mind those life-and-death matters, the ones discussed by Bush and Kerry! Focus on them is “absolutely ridiculous!” Instead, let’s check out the candidate’s fingernails! Maybe we can get cuticle cut-aways! Which hopeful has been chewing his nails? Surely, that’s key to their character!

Final point: In Campaign 2000, several pundits did express concern with Gore’s short nails. Result? We’re now in Iraq.

WHO AMONG US DIDN’T CHEER: Loud cheers echoed off our walls when we read a recent post by Marshall. No, it wasn’t his work on the cuticle caper. It was his take-down of a Sunday New York Times graphic, in which a plainly uninformed Timesman rolls his eyes at Fake Old Kerry. Read Marshall’s short piece to get the facts. We cheered when we read his conclusion:

MARSHALL: I'm assuming there'll soon be a little bubble over the Times writer's head saying: "If I spent more time learning about public policy and less time with Dowdesque thumb-nail cultural criticism maybe I wouldn't make such a fool of myself."
Three cheers for Marshall! And yes, we cheered the incomparable word “Dowdesque!” Who among us hasn’t noticed? Like Cottle, Maureen Dowd likes it silly—and her mind-set infects the whole corps. No, liberal career writers don’t like to discuss this. So who among us didn’t cheer when intrepid Marshall boldly did?

Postscript: Carl Cameron posted fake Kerry “quotes” on Fox. Maureen Dowd (and five others) ran a fake Kerry “quote” in the Times. Are you beginning to notice a pattern? That there are fake, phony “quotes” all around us?

TOO LATE NOW, BUT WHY NOT FIGHT BACK: This is off our normal beat. But it’s amazing that Kerry can’t do a better job defending his vote on that $87 billion. Here’s his exchange with Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America:

SAWYER (9/29/04): The one thing the Bush administration has played more than any probably, which is, “I voted against the $87 billion after I voted for it.”

KERRY (videotape): I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.

SAWYER: And they say this is classic about why you're—

KERRY: No, that's not classic at all. It just was a very inarticulate way of saying something, and I had one of those inarticulate moments late in the evening when I was dead tired in the primaries and I didn't say something very clearly. But it reflects the truth of the position, which is I thought to have the wealthiest people in America share the burden of paying for that war. It was a protest. Sometimes you have to stand up and be counted and that's what I did.

At least Kerry gave a clear explanation. He said his negative vote was a “protest”—that he wanted “to have the wealthiest people in America share the burden of paying for that war.”

But why should Kerry apologize for his vote? And why should he write it off as a “protest?” No, we’ve never really done this before. But why didn’t the hopeful fight back?

POSSIBLE KERRY STATEMENT: Diane, as a senator, I get paid to vote “yes” on good bills and “no” on bad ones. And that bill to provide the $87 billion—that was a bad bill, in my opinion. I wanted to see a better bill providing that money to our troops. I wanted to see that funding paid for by us, not by our grandchildren, and I wanted to see an actual plan for how that money was going to be spent. Diane, do you know that $20 billion of that money was designated for reconstruction projects, and that now, a whole year later, only five percent of that money has been spent? That’s just incredibly bad planning! Those of us who said we wanted to see a plan before we authorized that money turned out to be right. This was just another case in which the Bush Administration had no real plan for their actions—none at all! They insisted that we hurry up and approve that money—and they had no idea how to spend it!

Diane, those troops were always going to be funded. That was never at issue—not at all. Everyone knows that, including the president, who talks about every day this as just another silly diversion. What was at issue was this president’s bad judgment and inability to plan—and his willingness to let your grandchildren pay for what you and your pal Charlie Gibson should be funding. I can’t believe a guy like that gets to moderate a presidential debate!

OK, that last part was a joke.

You’ll note this doesn’t even touch on the way Bush said he’d veto his own bill! Good Lord! What a flipper! First he proposed this important bill. Then he said he’d veto it!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For notes on Bush’s (perfectly reasonable) veto threat, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/17/04, with links to previous discussions.