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HOWLER HISTORY! Pundits knew how to spin the pop quiz. And look who their talking-points came from!


NEW MORNING: He mentions Clinton. He mentions Daschle. Somehow he doesn’t mention Gore, the “loony” fellow who made the most accurate statement. But in today’s column, “The Rightward Press,” E. J. Dionne becomes the most prominent national pundit to state (a bit of) the obvious truth about the modern press corps. Perhaps Dr. Krauthammer, in his next column, will say that Dionne’s loony too.

Dionne provides a major service with his column. We couldn’t help chuckling at one passage, though. See if you can limn it:

DIONNE: [Conservatives] continue to pound away at any media deviation from their version of political correctness…Editors who worry about conservative criticism are not paranoid. You just wonder: Where have the liberals been?
Where have the liberals been? Change “the” to “we” in that sentence and you have the real question. In the last election, where were liberals like Dionne (and Beinart; and Shields; and Hunt)? They were silent, cowering in the corner, while the RNC and the Washington press corps made a joke of your White House election. That War Against Gore (and now Kerry) continues. Let’s hope that Dionne will speak up.

At any rate, yesterday’s snow destroyed our ability to function. Today, we include a few items about current events. Then we review another instance from Campaign 2000—an episode where RNC spin seemed to script our fine press corps.

Try to believe that she actually did it! Try to believe that Judy Woodruff went on TV and engaged in this clowning. Try to believe that you live in a world where nonsense like this rules the day:

WOODRUFF: Just two days after moving closer to a presidential race, John Kerry already is in denial mode. His office says the senator does not pay $150 to get his hair cut, as claimed by Matt Drudge on the Internet. The Boston Herald quotes a source as saying that Kerry pays more like $75 to get what some have called the best hair in the Senate.

The Drudge Report, which we’ve not yet confirmed, says Kerry’s do is the work of a stylist at the chic Cristophe salon. And you may remember Cristophe from the $200 trim that he gave Bill Clinton on board Air Force One while it sat on the tarmac at LAX in Los Angeles. Clinton learned then what Kerry may know now. Even hair can be a cutting issue when you are or want to be president.

Try to believe that she did it! Try to believe that she yammered about where Kerry cuts his hair, and about how much he spends. Try to believe that she cited Drudge—whose claims she hadn’t confirmed!!! And try to believe that she even brought up the old song-and-dance about Bill-on-the-tarmac. After that, try to believe one more thing. Try to believe that pseudo-shrinks call Al Gore “loony” for the things he recently said. Do RNC talking points now run the media? From Drudge’s lips to CNN viewers’ ears: It’s the state of our sad modern press corps.

Campaign 2000 was all about earth tones. This one, it seems, will be all about hair. And clowns will run to perform circus tricks, reciting their Drudge in deep doses. In fact, it’s the sheer stupidity of Woodruff’s remarks that all Americans should take as an insult. Try to believe that, even at a time of war, our circus clowns still perform this way. And let’s not pretend that we all can’t see whose hopefuls get mocked in this fashion.

Try to believe that she actually said it! Try to believe that she actually said, “Just two days after moving closer to a presidential race, John Kerry already is in denial mode.” And try to believe that your public discourse is in the hands of such consummate harlequins. On Tuesday, Woodruff tumbled out of the Volkswagen bus, wearing big orange shoes she’d been given by Drudge. How long do we, as American citizens, intend to accept such open clowning? How long do we plan to let Circus Clowns make a joke of our White House elections?

BILL WHALEN, CIRCUS CLOWN: We’ve been saying this for months—Democrats need to understand how their party lost the White House. We’re saddened—but we’re not surprised—to learn that readers are telling Josh Marshall to stop discussing the Kerry hair story. These hapless Democrats need to know how their party lost the White House. And there’s something else they need to know. They need to know that the same techniques that took down Gore are now being turned on Kerry (and on Gore). In a word, Marshall’s readers are fools to suggest that current clowning should be ignored. Guess what? Bill Whalen, our newest great Circus Clown, knows just what he is doing.

What happened to Gore in Campaign 2000? The operation was hardly a secret. On May 19, 1999, Alison Mitchell described the nascent campaign in the New York Times. Headline: “House Republicans, in a Shift of Focus, Begin a Public Campaign Against Gore.” Here’s how the piece began:

MITCHELL: After years of battling with President Clinton, House Republicans are shifting their sights to Vice President Al Gore and using ridicule as their weapon of choice.

The office of the House majority leader, Representative Dick Armey of Texas, has become an unofficial clearinghouse of anti-Gore press releases and activity, with Mr. Armey mocking Mr. Gore over his pronouncements on air travel, the Internet and traffic congestion.

“For years Congress ran multiple investigations of Mr. Clinton,” Mitchell wrote in her prophetic piece. “But with Mr. Gore, Republicans are betting that well-timed ridicule can be more devastating than any inquiry. In essence, they are trying to do to him what Democrats tried to do to former Vice President Dan Quayle: make him the foil for comedians on late-night television.”

This campaign was successful for one major reason—the Washington press corps was eager to play the game which Mitchell described. Indeed, as soon as Gore hit the trail in March ’99, the press corps conducted a nasty campaign which came to it straight from the RNC. The press corps ran with the ludicrous claim that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. And the press corps ran with the farm chores tale—a simple, unvarnished press hoax. The entire press corps took part in this scam, half of them by their rank silence.

Everywhere else, there’s a word for such conduct—this conduct is referred to as fraud. But your “press corps” kept it up for twenty months; in the process, the Dems lost the White House. The mewling readers who beg Marshall to stop simply don’t understand how Gore lost his race. And they don’t understand that the same techniques are now being aimed at Big John.

Two final notes on Mitchell’s piece. Mitchell’s report on the War Against Gore was outdated even when written. She wrote as if the RNC would aim at “ridicule”—but the effort had already gone beyond that. During Campaign 2000, the RNC and the Washington press corps didn’t make Gore a figure of fun—they endlessly slandered him as a Big Liar. And this ugly campaign was well underway at the time Mitchell’s piece appeared. Mitchell was one of the only scribes who even hinted at what was occurring. But even she chose to underplay the campaign that was changing the race.

And, of course, the final point—Mitchell didn’t mention the press corps! When she wrote, the Washington press corps was deeply involved in invented the Internet and the farm chores hoax. They were blabbing the Love Story nonsense all about—an utterly bungled press fable. The spin campaign which Mitchell described could not have succeeded without the corps’ help. But as we’ve told you: Your press corps will never tell you the truth about its own behavior and attitudes. Alison Mitchell went as far as she could, but deceiving you is one of the rules. Like old Pravda hands, Mitchell sent you some hints. But tell you the truth? Not allowed.

Where does spin come from? The Bush pop quiz

HOWLER HISTORY/SPINNING THE QUIZ: The documentary evidence is perfectly clear. In Campaign 2000, the RNC routinely scripted the press corps. In March 1999, as campaigning began, the RNC scripted invented the Internet, and then it scripted the farm chore hoax (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/02 and 12/4/02). And the press corps ran as fast as it could to recite the RNC’s prescribed spin-points. Given the fact that these tales were so bogus, the press corps’ behavior is especially startling. Anywhere else, there’s a term for such conduct. We think that you’ve heard that term: Fraud.

We won’t try to limn all examples. But today, we’ll recall one comical case, from November 1999. Candidate Bush hit a nasty pop quiz—and pundits ran to take Bush’s side. But where had the pundits gotten their spin-points? Settle back and emit mordant chuckles as we show you where spin really comes from

Democrats need to understand the way their party lost the White House. In today’s episode, we describe a relatively minor event. But citizens need to understand the way their dysfunctional press corps really functions, and the events discussed today make certain patterns more clear.

KAREN’S SONG: In early November 1999, the Washington press corps was hitting Gore hard. The Naomi Wolf frenzy was in high gear; eager pundits recited a wide array of ludicrous charges. Wolf had told Gore to wear earth tones, they said, although there was no evidence supporting the claim. It showed that Gore doesn’t know who he is, pundits insisted, posing as shrinks. The ludicrous coverage went on for a month. And it’s almost impossible to find a pundit who spoke out against the weird coverage.

But your pundit corps had a different reaction when Candidate Bush hit a bad spot. On November 3, 1999, Bush ran into a nasty “pop quiz” during an interview with TV reporter Andy Hiller. Hiller asked Bush to name the leaders of four countries then in the news—Pakistan, India, Chechnya and Taiwan. Bush answered correctly on Taiwan only, and was visibly uncomfortable in the exchange. And yes, the awkward session was captured on tape, and the tape played widely on TV (including on the Fox News Channel). The episode reinforced fears that the Texas governor might not be up to the role of world leader.

Hiller’s “quiz” came three days after the Wolf story hit. But pundits handled the episodes very differently. Without question, the pop quiz incident damaged Bush. As noted, the tape aired widely, and awkward questions were asked about his performance. But there was another side to the “pop quiz” flap. With startling uniformity, mainstream pundits took Bush’s side; they criticized Hiller for staging the quiz, which was uniformly denounced as unfair. The Standard Account? Hiller had engaged in “gotcha” journalism, asking a set of nit-picking questions which even the journalists themselves couldn’t answer. All of a sudden, mainstream pundits were more than willing to challenge the work of the press.

Hiller was widely attacked for his quiz. On the November 5 Today show, NBC’s David Bloom quoted Larry Sabato, the ubiquitous insider media critic. Sabato said, of the pop quiz, “It really is pure, unadulterated, gotcha journalism. We’re electing a president, not a Jeopardy! champ.” Elsewhere, Sabato called the quiz “the cheapest of cheap shots”—and his views were widely echoed on the weekend talk programs. On the November 5 NewsHour, for example, Paul Gigot, Mark Shields, and Jim Lehrer all agreed—there was an “ambush, gotcha quality” to Hiller’s “ankle-biting” questions, which “gave journalism another black eye.” Lehrer referred to Hiller’s “Jeopardy! questions,” and Mark Shields voiced “a sense of relief that I wasn’t asked” them. “Well, you join millions with that one,” Lehrer said—and indeed, all over Washington, pundits were saying that they would have failed the quiz too. On PBS’ Washington Week, Jeff Birnbaum accused Hiller of “gotcha” journalism, and Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal said he couldn’t have answered the questions. On the November 6 Capital Gang, Robert Novak called Hiller a “wise guy reporter” engaged in “gotcha journalism.” “The real problem,” Novak said, “is that winning Jeopardy! games and leading the nation require different skills.” Margaret Carlson called it “gotcha” too. On Meet the Press the following day, William Safire also said “gotcha.” The quiz was “fun and games,” but was “phony.”

As usual, pundits All Said The Same Thing in a textbook display of Group Thinking. On Sunday, November 7, for example, a range of journalists rushed to say that they would have failed the quiz too. Steve Roberts expressed the point on Late Edition. Ditto for his wife, Cokie Roberts, who was hosting This Week. David Maraniss did the honors on Meet the Press. Meanwhile, over at Fox News Sunday, all the pundits professed total ignorance. Indeed, Hiller’s questions had been so fiendish, the scribes couldn’t answer them still:

TONY SNOW: And now, it’s panel time…Let’s begin with a pop quiz. First, can anybody here at this moment name the prime minister of Chechnya?
JUAN WILLIAMS: Absolutely not.
SNOW: I’m clueless, too.
HUME: I heard it the other day, I read the name, I still can’t say it!
Hiller’s questions were simply unanswerable! For the record, the quiz was called “gotcha” journalism by Fred Barnes, Juan Williams, Deborah Orin, Al Hunt, Andrea Mitchell and Martin Schram, joining Lehrer, Sabato, Birnbaum, Novak and Carlson in that pleasing group assessment. Jeopardy! comparisons were also widespread, voiced by Morton Kondracke, Clarence Page, Michael Barone and Howard Kurtz, along with Lehrer, Sabato, Mitchell and Novak. Your pundits routinely speak with one voice; this time, though, that voice spoke for Bush. To state the obvious, such episodes are quite hard to square with the iconic theory of “liberal bias.” During this first week in November, pundits said nothing while Gore was trashed, but spoke up quickly when the target was Bush. Was the press corps spilling with liberal bias? The “pop quiz” punditry flies in the face of this pleasing but moth-eaten theory.

The uniformity of expression was startling. Pundits recited a set of points—but where, oh where had the spin-points come from? The record on that is perfectly clear. The points were first uttered by Bush aide Karen Hughes on Thursday morning, November 4. Engaging in early damage control, Hughes was interviewed by the AP. “The person who is running for president is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy! contestant,” she said. “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.” Her points went out on the AP wire—and were quickly recited all over the press. (Snow even knew which country to cite!) In this case, as in so many others, the Bush campaign had little problem getting its talking points into the discourse. Indeed, the campaign’s spin-points provided the script for almost all of the talk shows. This, of course, is exactly the process described by Al Gore just last week.

Were pundits wrong in their Group Assessment? That is a matter of judgment. But those who assume that the press corps was itchin’ to display “liberal bias” will have a hard time with this classic performance. On Thursday morning, Karen Hughes spoke, comparing the quiz to a Jeopardy! session. And in the course of the next few days, the following pundits, in their own voices, all called the quiz Jeopardy! too:

  1. Larry Sabato
  2. Morton Kondracke
  3. Jim Lehrer
  4. Robert Novak
  5. Clarence Page
  6. Howard Kurtz
  7. Michael Barone
  8. Andrea Mitchell
Meanwhile, Hughes’ second point—most Americans couldn’t answer these questions—was recited so widely across Talk Show Land that it almost seemed that a future Dear Leader had commanded All Pundits To Speak.

Do this many people All Say The Same Thing unless some group dynamic is working? Obviously, no, they do not. In this case, the dynamic seems to have started with Hughes—and your pundits were soon singing sweetly. This, of course, is a minor episode—much less crucial than invented the Internet. But we love the sheer foolishness of this event. Read on to see who spoke up first.

FIRST RESPONDERS: How closely did pundits track the Hughes points? Again, here’s what she told the AP:

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, 11/4/99: “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.”
Here was Bloom’s report the next morning:
BLOOM, 11/5/99: [M]edia critics question the reporter’s tactics…We’re electing a president, Sabato says, not a Jeopardy! champ.
However it happened, Sabato recited the Bush point perfectly. But someone else may have beaten him to it. Get a load of a certain “all-star,” reciting on Special Report:
HUME, 11/4/99: In an interview with Boston station WHDH, presidential candidate George W. Bush was asked some questions he apparently was not prepared for by the station’s interviewer…So the question arises—you’ll recall that Mr. Bush had a little trouble one time distinguishing between Slovakia and Slovenia. Is this just a momentary thing? Will this—or could this hurt him?

KONDRACKE: I don’t—Look, I don’t think these questions—he would fail at Jeopardy!, right? He might be in third place on a game show. But you know, this is—

HUME: I got to tell you, the only question that he, that he was asked that I could answer off the top of my head was the one he could [answer], Lee. I could—

KONDRACKE: Yeah. Exactly. Me too.

Ohmigod! Mort Kondracke was first responder, deftly reciting the Jeopardy! point. And when he was slow to state Hughes’ second point, Hume stepped in to provide it. “Exactly. Me too,” Morton said.

We know, we know—you’d have to be loony to think that the press was actually trying to recite them Bush points. And no, this episode didn’t determine the race; the endless trashing of Gore did that. But the next time you hear some well-scripted soul say that the press corps is full of lib bias, you might recall that autumn day when Candidate Bush hit a bad patch. The pundit corps could have laid him low. They could have yelled every name in the book. Instead, they gathered to sing two key points—points first expressed by the Bush camp itself. “Liberal bias” was nowhere in sight as your pundit corps sang its group spin-points. “Me too,” the brave pundits said.