Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler Banner Graphic
Caveat lector

WHY GOOD GUYS SLEPT (PART 4)! Why did “good guy” pundits sleep? Citizens should demand explanations:


READ EACH EXCITING INSTALLMENT: This week, we offer a four-part series, “Why Good Guys Slept,” discussing the failure of liberal pundits to discuss the press coverage of Candidate Gore. Democrats need to understand this important part of the last election. Read each exciting installment:

Why Good Guys Slept, Part 1: Liberal pundits agree—THE HOWLER was right. But almost nothing was said in real time.

Why Good Guys Slept, Part 2: The press corps booed and jeered at Gore. Your pundits corps knew not to tell you.

Why Good Guys Slept, Part 3: When pundits describe the 2000 race, there’s something they know to leave out.

Now enjoy today’s thrilling “grand finale.”

WHY GOOD GUYS SLEPT (PART 4): In Campaign 2000, why did so many “good guy” pundits fail to report the War Against Gore? Why did so many spin campaigns go unchallenged by major press organs? We can’t mind-read individual pundits, and we won’t try to do so here. But from March 1999 on, major pundits stood silently by while Gore was trashed as a fake and a liar. The “farm chores” flap was a brilliant example. Gore’s statements on the subject were perfectly accurate—and the press corps was full of reporters who knew it. Indeed, even as the attacks began, Bob Zelnick’s new bio of Gore was released; it described the “chores” in great detail. But Gore was trashed as “deeply dishonest” and “delusional” for his remarks about the chores, and all through the major media, no one questioned or challenged the attacks. E. J. Dionne and Al Hunt didn’t speak; the New Republic stood silently by. Indeed, as we saw yesterday, TNR pundits are still reciting those Standard Press Stories, pretending the twenty-month War Against Gore simply never occurred.

Why did so many pundits stay silent? Case by case, we simply can’t say. But to get an idea of the conflicts involved for younger journalists on the way up, consider Seth Mnookin’s piece on the Washington Post’s Ceci Connolly in the October 2000 Brill’s Content.

By the summer of 2000, Connolly’s punishing coverage of Gore had the press corps talking. But given the clubby nature of the insider press, you had to go off-shore to read it. On August 17, the Financial Times hammered Connolly hard (along with the New York Times’ Katharine Seelye and the AP’s Sandra Sobieraj). “The Gore media…sometimes appears to step over the line in its pursuit of critical coverage,” the paper said. Connolly, Seelye and Sobieraj? They were “perhaps the most influential reporters on the Gore campaign,” FT wrote. “They can also be the most hostile to the campaign, doing little to hide their contempt for the candidate.” There was that word again: contempt. Two years later, Josh Marshall would say that the press corps’ “disdain and contempt” for Gore had been apparent since May 1999.

Connolly’s work had been appalling. Her most famous moment was the puzzling misquotation of Gore which created the damaging Love Canal flap, but all through the 2000 campaign, she churned an array of bogus stories. (For one small but suitably nasty example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/5/02.) Indeed, by the spring of 2000, her trashing of Gore was becoming the stuff of press corps legend. Unflattering spin-points were jammed into articles. Bogus “facts” were simply invented. With impressive regularity, citizens quoted in “random” interviews turned out to have negative thoughts about Gore. The comedy came when the Post assigned Connolly to take a short western swing with Bush; writing from California in May 2000, she produced one of the most fawning profiles of any candidate in the entire campaign. But in a later, post-election interview, she remembered things quite differently. “I was very tough on Al Gore,” she told Eric Boehlert of Rolling Stone, “the same way I was tough on George W. Bush when I covered him briefly.” Hay-yo! To all appearances, Connolly couldn’t stop her trademark dissembling even after the campaign was over. Seelye’s work was also routinely unfriendly, as the Financial Times rightly said. The FT noted the gentler tone Post and Times scribes were taking with Bush.

Into that maelstrom walked Brill’s Seth Mnookin—and he gave the embattled scribes a complete pass. In one of the most cursory examinations in human history, Mnookin declared that Connolly and Seelye “have made only one notable mistake, inserting a much-dissected wrong word in a quote of Gore’s discussing Love Canal,” and he said that their coverage “does not rise to the level of biased reporting.” The “one-mistake” judgement was utterly silly, but Mnookin was prepared to explain all the griping. Why were people complaining about Connolly? Mnookin suggested the critics were sexist! Why all the griping? Here’s why:

MNOOKIN: Could it be because the reporters covering the vice-president for three of the most influential news outlets in the country are women? Jane Mayer, who often writes about politics for The New Yorker magazine, speculates that the answer could be yes: “If Bob Woodward and Jeff Gerth wore high heels, they’d be called bitches, too,” she says.
It’s just that easy when major scribes want to give major scribes a free pass! Shortly thereafter, by the way, another arch-sexist turned up in print; Jane Hall aggressively criticized Connolly’s work in the Columbia Journalism Review the next month. The Post’s ombudsman, arch-sexist E. R. Shipp, supported Hall’s critique. “Post editors will deny that they have a mission to promote or destroy any candidacy in the news pages,” Shipp wrote, “but the analyses in CJR…should convince them that the question of fairness needs to be taken even more seriously.” For the record, E. R. Shipp is a woman, like Hall. (Also for the record, Mnookin quoted our own work three times as he dismissed the C&S critics.)

Why did Mnookin judge as he did? We don’t have any way of knowing, and we don’t wish to suggest any view of his motives. But Mnookin now writes for a bigger publication—he writes for Newsweek, which is owned by the Post. Would Mnookin be in that job today if he had written less favorably about the Post’s Connolly? We can’t crystal-ball that one, either. But the conflicts for the press corps’ young up-and-comers are ubiquitous and they’re quite obvious. Indeed, a similar situation obtained at The New Republic, which said next to nothing for two solid years as the press corps’ “disdain and contempt” for Gore were displayed. In September 1999, editor Chuck Lane left TNR—and he soon hired on at the Post. Political reporter Dana Milbank followed Lane a few months later. If TNR had written more freely about Connolly’s odd work, would those job transfers have been available? We don’t have the slightest idea. But when young scribes hope to write for the Post, they won’t likely be slamming the Post’s basic work. More generally, up-and-coming career journalists are free to present policy critiques of the left or the right, but they aren’t likely to go around blowing the whistle on the insider press corps’ prevailing behaviors. In October 1999, 300 journalists knew enough to keep quiet about the booing and jeering of Gore. And all through the twenty-month Campaign 2000, journalists seemed to know that they mustn’t talk about the “brutal” treatment Gore was getting (Scarborough), or about the “disdain and contempt” their cohort was showing Paul Waldman discusses this matter in the current issue of The American Prospect. But very little was said in real time, when American citizens should have been told about Gore’s “contemptuous” press.

Simply put, “good guy” pundits rolled over and died during Election 2000. When Gore was booed and jeered at Dartmouth, your pundits knew enough not to tattle—and they knew that they mustn’t tattle about the slander campaign Waldman describes. In individual cases, we can’t explain why so little was said. But when “good guy” pundits rolled over and died, they walked away from their professional obligations. American citizens should be very angry at the misfeasance that was so widely shared.

Some journalists did speak up in real time. At Salon, incomparable pundits Joe Conason and Eric Boehlert penned pieces critiquing the trashing of Gore. At Washington Monthly, Robert Parry penned a cover piece about the endless false tales that were designed to make Gore a Big Liar (when this piece first appeared in Parry’s own magazine, it was heavily sourced to THE HOWLER). In 1999, Howard Kurtz made three separate efforts to raise the issue of “the harsh coverage and punditry” Gore was receiving (Kurtz pretty much dropped the topic by the end of 1999). But E. J. Dionne? Al Hunt? Mark Shields? Kurtz’s head-scratching panels of pundits? For the most part, “good guy” pundits stood aside and let the trashing of Gore go unchallenged. Now we’re being told all about it. Citizens need to ask their pundits why they slept in real time.

In the current American Prospect, Waldman makes remarkable statements about the press corps’ conduct. “[R]eporters hated Gore’s guts,” he says. “Reporters decided before the 2000 campaign began that Gore was dishonest, and while he occasionally gave them support for this impression, he was also skewered for lies he never told.” We agree with most of what Waldman says; indeed, much of it seems to come straight from THE HOWLER. But while we agree with thethings Waldman says, why in the world is he saying them now? Reporters decided before the 2000 campaign began that Gore was dishonest? Waldman alleges astounding misconduct. Why did our “good guys” sleep while this astounding misconduct went on? With Gore now driven from public life, Democrats need to be told.

WE’VE GOT YOUR STUDY RIGHT HERE: Is the press corps spilling with liberal bias? In Tuesday’s Post, Michael Kelly presented a Lichter study of Campaign 2000 which seemed to suggest that Bush and Gore got roughly similar press coverage. (To Kelly, of course, data suggesting similar treatment were evidence of continuing liberal bias. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/19/02.) To state the obvious, it’s almost impossible to examine press coverage in the quantitative, “objective” way Lichter attempts. But as we mentioned, the particular study which Kelly cited covered network evening newscasts only, and it included the one brief period of the twenty-month race when Bush got worse coverage than Gore. One wider study of the 2000 coverage gives a quite different impression.

The study was released on July 28, 2000. “According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Democrat Al Gore was far more likely to be the subject of negative news stories this year,” Judy Woodruff reported on Inside Politics. “Forty-two percent of Gore stories covered the degree to which he is tainted by scandal…When the media reported on Bush,” she continued, “it was more likely to deal with positive themes. Forty percent of all stories were on Bush’s main campaign message, that he’s a different kind of Republican.”

Woodruff grossly misstated the data, as the Project for Excellence itself had done in its own synopsis. But this report by the Project, a Pew organization, did produce some startling info. Properly described, those data provide a counterpoint to the limited study cited by Kelly.

In particular, Pew’s study examined the way the press was reporting on character. According to its authors, the study “identified what we considered the six most common character themes in the race thus far, three for Bush and three for Gore.” Pew reviewed a range of newspaper/magazine stories and TV broadcasts for five separate weeks from February through June, trying to see how often the press had focussed on each of the six basic themes. All told, Pew examined 2004 newspaper stories and 400 TV and cable broadcasts. Result? “If presidential elections are a battle for control of message through the media, George W. Bush has had the better of it on the question of character than Albert Gore Jr.,” Pew said. This summary was a vast understatement.

Which “character themes” did the study select? Again, Pew identified three common themes about each hopeful. In each case, two themes were negative, one was positive. Here were the three common themes for Candidate Bush:

  1. Bush is a different kind of Republican (positive).
  2. Bush lacks the intelligence or knowledge for the job (negative).
  3. Bush has relied heavily on family connections to get where he is (negative).
Here were the three common themes for Gore:
  1. Gore is experienced and knowledgeable (positive).
  2. Gore is scandal tainted (negative).
  3. Gore exaggerates or lies (negative).
In each case, the positive theme was a talking-point widely used by the campaign itself. Having identified these basic themes, Pew studied the newspaper reports and TV broadcasts to see how often each theme had been mentioned.

The data were startling. In Bush’s case, the positive theme—“Bush is a different kind of Republican”—was the dominant theme by far, found in 320 stories. By contrast, the most common Gore theme was negative—“Gore is scandal tainted”—which was found in 344 stories. On balance, Gore’s negative themes appeared far more often. The contrast between the two hopefuls is stunning. Here was the actual breakdown:

Gore: 613 negative stories, 132 positive stories
Bush: 265 negative stories, 320 positive stories
Those numbers paint a startling portrait of the coverage in the spring of the year.

Were there methodological flaws with this study? Though Pew did make some basic mistakes in the way it interpreted some of the data, it is hard to find a great deal of fault with the data themselves. What complaints can be lodged against the study? Here’s one: Perhaps there was some other negative theme about Bush that Pew simply failed to look for. While this would be a logical possibility, it’s hard to guess what that theme might have been. Clearly, the idea that Bush “wasn’t up to the job intellectually” was a principal claim of the Texan’s detractors; but Pew encountered this theme far less often than either of the negative themes about Gore. Eric Black, media reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, cited conservative complaints about the Pew study, but those complaints seem weak. Black: “Conservatives who have rebutted [the study] point out that many issues on which they believe the media’s liberal bias works against Bush—such as the death penalty, Social Security privatization and tax cuts—are not counted.” But in fact, the media gave Bush overwhelmingly favorable coverage on the matter of privatization (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/15/02, 5/17/02, 5/20/02). Indeed, it was Gore whose character was slashed on that subject, while Bush was heralded as a “bold leader”—a theme which came straight from the Texan’s campaign. Meanwhile, there were widespread negative themes about Gore which Pew didn’t look for. As we’ve seen, reporters endlessly flogged the notion that Gore was constantly reinventing himself (for an especially ludicrous example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/19/02); and reporters endlessly flogged the idea that Gore was constantly on the attack. Most likely, if Pew had researched longer lists of negative themes, the numbers would only have risen for Gore. The spring of the year was a season for spinning—and clearly, the press corps trashed Gore.

Evan Thomas described the phenomenon in his book-length, post-election report for Newsweek. “Gore was portrayed in the press as an attack dog who would say anything to win,” he wrote. “By April his aides were wondering if they had won the primaries but were losing the [war in the press].” With Bush, though, things were different. “While Gore was getting picked apart in the press, George W. Bush seemed to be cruising along on a wave of favorable publicity.” Thomas wrote. “By mid-May, Bush sensed that he was winning the [war in the press]. His staff was amazed at how well things were going.” Thomas’ views are subjective, of course—but Pew’s study strongly supports them. Pew’s data reflect a stark reality: In the spring of the year 2000, Gore was relentlessly slammed by the press.

Go back and look at those startling numbers. Those numbers reflect cable TV’s endless trashing of Gore and the oddball work in the Post and the Times. And by the way—guess what happened when Pew’s report surfaced? A few reporters, like Woodruff, mentioned it in passing—and then, the story died a quick death. Your press corps knew not to say that they booed and jeered Gore—and they knew not to dwell on that startling Pew study. Remember: Your press corps never tells you the truth about its own behavior and attitudes. You were kept in the dark all through Campaign 2000. As citizens, you ought to ask why.