10 January 2000
Our current howler (part I): Ties that blind
Synopsis: Battles rage about the future shape of the incomparable DAILY HOWLER.
Debates Air More Than Candidates Viewpoints
David Von Drehle, The Washington Post, 1/10/00
Spate of Early Debates Sparks Fierce Battles
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 1/10/00
McCains Ideas on Taxes and Social Security Defy Conventional G.O.P Wisdom
Richard Stevenson, The New York Times, 1/10/00
David Von Drehle takes us behind the scenes of the presidential
debates in a page-one story in this morning's Post. And again
we meet the condescending air that typifies current press culture:
VON DREHLE: Voters can learn a great deal when the candidates
appear together. For example, they learn that guys like Lincoln
and Douglas don't come along very often.
Neither do guys like Reston and Mencken. The condescending
mention of Lincoln and Douglas has become a standard hack reference
in political writing. So too the endless trivialization:
VON DREHLE (continuing directly): What else? Well...
Bill Bradley apparently owns only one necktie. [Von
It's something we've noted again and again: In a modern world
defined by fashion ads, today's scribes mostly care about clothing
and style. Having reported that Bradley seems to wear just one
tie, Von Drehle makes the standard contrast:
VON DREHLE: But Bradley's tie may also be saying that here
is a man too lofty to be bothered with mere haberdashery. In contrast
to Gore, who has tried everything from banker-blue suits to cowboys
boots and earth tones, Bradley has had his one tie, and his one
blue shirt, andas he revealed during a campaign stop last fallthe
same pair of black shoes he has worn for more than a decade.
Again, a standard trope we've mentioned before. In the world
of condescending scribes, hopefuls are danged if they doand they're
danged if they don't. Bradley doesn't change his outfits enough.
Gore, of course, changes too often.
This trivialization and condescension has driven us on at THE
DAILY HOWLER; we rarely have to look far to find it. Listen, for
example, to Peter Jennings, quoted today about last week's Dem
PETER MARKS: "It was quite edgy," said Peter Jennings,
the ABC newsman, who refereed the Democrats here [in Durham, N.H.]
on Wednesday night. He wondered, he said, if the palpable antagonism
between the candidates could be picked up by the cameras. "The
thing I was dying to tell the audience was how much goes on backstage,"
Mr. Jennings said. "Gore has dressing room A; Bradley wants
to have dressing room A. Everything has to be equal."
What is Jennings "dying to tell the audience?" Triviautter
trivia. This attitude shows through, again and again, in the corps'
treatment of Campaign 2000.
We think the press corps plays an honored role in the world's
most important public discourse. And we think that discourse is
the American public's most valuable public possession. With that
in mind, we've tried to examine the performance and attitudes
of our current Washington press corps. And, since coverage of
Campaign 2000 began in the aftermath of last year's impeachment,
we have found a lot to criticize in the way the press corps goes
about its crucial duties.
We'll inform you now that battles are raging here at DAILY
HOWLER World Headquarters. The investment of time that THE HOWLER
requires is proving extremely hard to sustain. It's also true
that we've grown dead tired of the negativity that's grown out
of this project. We're tired of carping in the way that we do,
and we're looking for a new tone of voice.
THE DAILY HOWLER will almost surely morph into a somewhat different
project. We'll keep you posted in the days to come about these
Not enough: In this morning's Times, Richard
Stevenson tries to address the problem we described last weekthe
press corps' studied failure to mention the simplest facts about
the projected budget surplus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/6/00).
Stevenson writes this:
STEVENSON: The most recent official projections are for the
surplus to total $3 trillion over the next decade, of which $2
trillion would come from excess Social Security revenue. The surpluses
could evaporate if the economy turns down or if Congress spends
at higher rates than now assumed.
The highlighted phrase provides deniability; technically,
Stevenson has now told readers that the projection of a $1 trillion
non-SS surplus assumes certain rates of future spending. But he
has not told readers what every journalist knows, what he himself
reported last summerthat those spending assumptions are completely
bogus, and will never come to pass. Later in this passage,
Stevenson points out that revised budget projections may soon
mean that candidates have more money "to play with."
But writers shouldn't play with facts. Readers deserve to be told
what Stevenson explained last Augustthat the non-SS surplus projection
is totally bogus, based on absurd assumptions. When candidates
say how they'll spend this surplus, they must be askedby writers
like Stevensonif they plan to stick to the spending caps on which
the surplus projection is based. The answer, surely, will turn
out to be "No." At that point, a rational discussion
of spending plans can finally get started.