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21 January 2000

The Howler update: A press corps scorned

Synopsis: Whatever happened to Bradley’s friendly coverage? Inquiring scribes want to know.

Bradley's Most Influential Adviser? Bradley
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 1/21/00

Gore hit with name from campaign past
Sandra Sobieraj (AP), The Washington Times, 1/14/00

Time Present, Time Past
Bill Bradley, Vintage Books, 1997

Bradley's Appeal Competes With a Frequently Gruff Side
James Dao, The New York Times, 1/15/00

In Iowa, Bradley's Style Leaves Some Cold
Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 1/13/00

Commentary by Brit Hume, Morton Kondracke, Mara Liasson
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 1/20/00

Commentary by Don Imus, Jonathan Alter
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 1/21/00

For Front-Runners and Underdogs Alike, Iowa Caucuses Could Be Crucial
R.W. Apple, The New York Times, 1/14/00


What happened to Bradley's friendly coverage? Inquiring scribes want to know. If you've watched the talking heads of late, you've seen this topic discussed. Last night, the Special Report panel kicked the question around; this morning, Don Imus questioned Jonathan Alter about it. All of a sudden, everyone's asking why the press corps has dumped Dollar Bill.

In truth, the press corps hasn't exactly been trying to bring Dollar Bill to his knees. Many scribes, for example, have mentioned the fact that Bradley recently began to "go negative;" the Manners Police turned their sirens on, and lamented the hopeful's conduct. But even when describing that conduct by Bradley, the horrified scribes have been gentle. Melinda Henneberger, in this morning's New York Times:

HENNEBERGER: And when he finally did fight back, for example by raising Mr. Gore's complicated history with tobacco companies, what may have been perfectly legitimate questions were seen as out of bounds because he had set himself up as a candidate who was above that kind of give-and-take.

But Henneberger omits a Bradley criticism that doesn't seem to be "perfectly legitimate"—the solon's comments on Gore's 1988 critique of the Dukakis furlough program. In an interview with the Boston Herald, Bradley criticized Gore for raising the issue. The Washington Times ran an AP report:

SOBIERAJ (AP): Meanwhile, there was new criticism from Bradley on old issue: He said Gore was responsible for making a national issue of the case of murderer Willie Horton in the 1988 campaign..."Gore introduced him into the lexicon," Bradley said in an interview reported by the Boston Herald. "It bothers me a great deal... I wouldn't have used Willie Horton."

Bradley was also quoted saying, "The racial dimension to that—there were probably a lot of other people who fit into that category."

In fact, there were two furloughed murderers who committed crimes, and—as we reported here in December—Gore never mentioned Horton by name; never ran any ads on the subject; never mentioned anyone's race; and, according to Dukakis himself, brought the issue up one time in the campaign's 45 debates. But what was most surprising about Bradley's critique was its contradiction of a previous statement. Here's what Bradley wrote about the case in his 1997 book, Time Present, Time Past:

BRADLEY: In 1988, the race card was played more subtly. The Bush presidential campaign skillfully linked the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, with a black man named Willie Horton, who had raped a woman and stabbed a man while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison...Oddly, the first politician to mention Horton (but without racializing it) was not Bush but Senator Al Gore. In the New York Democratic primary that spring, he attacked Dukakis for his prison-furlough program. The Republicans, though, emphasized Horton's blackness.

In his book, Bradley specifically says that Gore did not "racialize" the furlough issue. The contradiction with Bradley's recent statement is obvious, but we're willing to bet you haven't seen anyone bring it up. This awkward performance by a press fave went straight down the memory hole. In our view, it's hard to claim that the press has been trashing Bradley in the past several weeks.

But there were two curious articles about Bradley last week, in the Times and the Washington Post. The page-one articles, appearing just two days apart, each said that Iowa voters were being turned off by Bradley's "gruff," "aloof" manner; in each article, the assertions were backed up by the press corps' standard complete, total lack of real evidence. James Dao, in the Times, and Mike Allen, in the Post, presented the press corps' usual brew: random interviews with a handful of voters, and completely anecdotal observations. Here's an example of the intellectual rigor the two scribes put on display:

DAO: Mr. Bradley's style may have created the most problems for him during nationally televised joint appearances with Mr. Gore, in which he has frequently returned fire with scornful sarcasm...[Bradley] aides acknowledge that some undecided Democrats may have found the performances annoying.

Neither article presented any evidence from any survey indicating that voters had been turned off by Bradley's "gruffness." In fact, neither article presented any evidence from any poll or any survey at all.

Neither article mentioned any poll—but in fact, there had been a recent well-publicized poll suggesting that Bradley was sliding in Iowa. The weekend before these two stories appeared, the latest Des Moines Register poll of likely caucus-goers had shown Gore leading Bradley by 21 points, a gain for Gore over the paper's prior survey. Were Dao and Allen responding to Bradley's perceived slide, getting ahead of a coming story? We, of course, have no way of knowing. But the odd pair of stories triggered the claim that the press had a new take on Bill.

Meanwhile, how have pundits explained the perceived change in the coverage? How else—they've described the press corps engaging in conduct that is completely self-serving and unprofessional. From last night's Special Report:

BRIT HUME: There was also a story in the Washington Post about the press around Bradley, and how it's turned. Something's happening with the press and Bradley—

MORTON KONDRACKE: He was supposed to be the John McCain of the Democratic Party but he's "aloof," therefore he's "elitist." He's not mixing it up with the boys—and the girls. And so he doesn't have the same rapport.

Mara Liasson agreed that Senator Bradley hadn't been playing well with other boys and girls:

LIASSON: I think something different is happening to McCain. People aren't saying, "Oh, I think that McCain is a phony." They're not changing their minds about his personality. They still like him...I think that Bradley, basically people feel they haven't gotten to know him the way they have McCain and that maybe his claim that he's a different kind of politician is just, uh, that he is kind of aloof and a little bit holier than thou.

Bradley doesn't tell the scribes jokes on his bus, so the scribes have been turning against him. This morning, Imus mentioned the change in the weather, telling Alter that Margaret Carlson "thinks it's because Bradley has gotten snippy with the press:"

ALTER: I think there's a lot to that. There's just such vanity in the press that if he doesn't—

IMUS: Suck up—

ALTER: —kiss the butts of the press, he doesn't catch a break.

Later, Alter said it's "pathetically self-indulgent for the press to judge a candidate by the way he relates to us. I mean, I guess we do that with McCain [laughing]." We think it's an exaggeration to say that Bradley can't "catch a break" from the press corps at this time. But we agree with the last part of Alter's statement. Pundits have repeatedly said that a hopeful's coverage is determined by whether the press corps likes him. In a rational world, that's a firing offense. It's described as the norm in the press corps.

 

Low "n:" Pundits love the anecdotal. And they love to trash those hopefuls. Last Friday, R.W. Apple quoted a Drake U. perfesser, saying no hopeful had "caught fire" in Iowa this year. They're just too goddamned boring. The perfesser predicted that caucus turn-out would be less than normal next Monday night. Meanwhile, Apple himself was right at Ground Zero. But he might as well have been reading the flight of birds as he assessed the perfesser's prediction:

APPLE: Travel around the state, and voter enthusiasm seems muted, to say the least. Here in Perry, a trim little town of 7,300, set amid the deep black soil of rich farmlands, only 3 of 12 people interviewed at random said that they planned to attend the caucuses.

Centuries of effort by statisticians is thrown away by Apple's central implication—that random interviews with twelve people in one town can give him meaningful information. Everyone knows that isn't true, but—as we told you Tuesday and Wednesday—human beings find every possible way to be led astray when they sit down to reason. It's hard-wired, a part of our birthright. Meanwhile, leaving aside Apple's hopeless "n," our analysts came right out of their chairs at the scribe's mathematical reasoning. Two paragraphs before the passage we cite, Apple had quoted the good perfesser; "the usual turnout" for Iowa caucuses is 100,000 in each party. But Iowa's population is around 3 million (2.9 million in 1996), and 1.2 million Iowans voted in Congressional races in 1998. If 25% of Iowa adults (not voters) turn out next week, normal attendance will be more than doubled. Yet Apple reported his 3 out of 12 as a sign that interest in Iowa "seems muted." We hope you can see the point we've been making—we human beings reason extremely poorly. That's why journalists should be very careful to observe basic rules in drawing conclusions. One of those well-known rules of reason? You don't draw conclusions from what twelve people say! Everyone knows it; nobody cares. It's simpler to make this stuff up.