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25 January 2000

Our current howler (part II): The $91 question

Synopsis: Michael Kelly says voters are over-informed. We’d like to know what he’s been reading.  (PLUS: Imus and Stahl do Iowa. Do not miss!)

Campaign Reform: Let's Pretend
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 1/19/00

Commentary by Al Gore, Bill Bradley
Democratic presidential forum, C-SPAN, 1/5/00

Commentary by Don Imus, Lesley Stahl
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 1/25/00

Tonight: Windy With Gab Flurries
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 1/24/00

Michael Kelly has no use at all for good government types he's been seeing. He scorns the thought that we actually "need more serious discussion of the issues." He's amazed that someone might want more debates. He asks: "Does anyone believe the nation needs to be exposed to more Steve Forbes, more Orrin Hatch?"

KELLY: At no other time in the nation's history has the electorate been so redundantly informed as it is now. We are awash in information about the candidates, about their views on the issues, about their public and private lives. Odd then, this call for more.

At THE HOWLER, we'd like to know what the scribe has been reading. We have watched every candidate forum, here at our sprawling World Headquarters—and we don't have the slightest clue about many basic points of dispute. Take, for example, an exchange that occurred at the January 5 Democratic debate. Bradley voiced a basic complaint about Gore; according to Bradley, Gore doesn't accurately describe the program with which Bradley would replace Medicaid. Responding, Gore held his ground, referring to a "$150-a-month voucher" which he had already cited:

GORE: ...I do talk about what has been proposed as a replacement for Medicaid. And it is entirely inadequate. Let me tell you why, Peter. He says, use this capped voucher to buy into the Federal Employee Benefit Program. Look here in New Hampshire [holding up list]. There are about a dozen different insurance policies that are under the Federal Employee Benefit Program. Not a single one of them can be purchased for anything close to $150 a month...

Replying to Gore, Bradley made an intriguing point about Medicaid costs in Tennessee:

BRADLEY: Al is saying all the time about the $150 cap. That's not a cap; it's a weighted average. Some places will be more, some places will be less. And I might point out that the average Medicaid cost in your home state of Tennessee is $91 a person. So you can say that the people of Tennessee haven't been very generous. But you can't say that my proposal would deny health care to Americans who need it.

It sounded as if Tennessee's Medicaid recipients could be covered for less than $150 per month, freeing up money for use in other states where health costs may be higher. Is that accurate? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue, because host Peter Jennings shooed the discussion along, complaining that each of the hopefuls had already devoted two minutes to the health care topic. Two minutes! We later learned that Jennings was wishing he could tell viewers about stuff from backstage (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/00). At any rate, we never saw any follow-up discussion—on air or in print—of Bradley's response to Gore.

By the time the hopefuls met on January 17, Gore seemed to imply that, even where Medicaid recipients could buy into health plans under Bradley's proposal, they would have large additional out-of-pocket expenditures. Bradley didn't address this claim in his response to Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/24/00). Have you seen anyone ever review this exchange? On our sprawling campus, we haven't.

According to Kelly, voters today are simply awash in information on issues. But here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue about these basic health care disputes. Under Bradley's plan, could Medicaid recipients in Tennessee get coverage for $91 a month? Would they have to pay out-of-pocket after that? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue, because moderators like Jennings hurry hopefuls along, and because journalists haven't raised a finger to clarify these points of contention. Journalists write about manners and style, ignoring major policy issues. Does Bradley's trademark health plan make sense? Or has Bradley built his presidential campaign around a large plan he can't defend? One would think that political reporters would want to explore such fundamental questions. But Kelly's comments to the side, today's voter has no possible way to answer these questions, which go to the heart of Bradley's competence. Voters can't hope to judge Bradley's plan because the Washington press has refused to explore it.

That's right, folks: journalists have simply refused to explore the facts of the health care debate. But they've made up for their sloth in another way; they've actively lectured on manners. For example, listen as Kelly continues along in the passage we've quoted above:

KELLY (continuing directly): We are awash in information about the candidates, about their views on the issues...Odd then, this call for more. And especially odd coming from Gore, whose major contribution to the history of debates has been to show that a skilled demagogue can use a debate quite as effectively as a 30-second attack commercial to distort his opponent's record and malign his opponent's character.

Kelly says that Gore has been a demagogue, distorting and maligning poor Bradley. Kelly's charge is a serious charge in this Year of Living Decorously. But you can scan Kelly's column as much as you like—he doesn't provide specific examples of the serious misconduct he alleges. Kelly says Gore has demagogued Bradley, but he provides us exactly no examples. (Of course, if the voters were so well-informed on the issues, it wouldn't do Gore much good to "distort" them. But never mind minor problems like that.)

Kelly's approach has been quite common among major press corps pundits. Routinely, pundits complain about Gore's critiques of Bradley—often using the strongest language—without supplying a single example of what Gore has said that is wrong. In doing so, the pundits engage in the same negativity which they constantly say they despise in the hopefuls—and the voting public goes uninformed about basic facts of the health care debate.


Tomorrow: Major pundits tell us who's naughty and nice. They don't bother to tell us who's right.

Clueless in the morning: The pundits are out in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, telling us what results "mean." We urge you to notice obvious fact—it's unclear that the results "mean" a thing. Roughly ten percent of eligible voters took part; Alan Keyes, therefore, received 14% of 10% of eligible Republican voters. In a rational world, this would "mean" that Keyes gets a certain number of delegates, and virtually nothing beyond that.

But fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly—and pundits have to speculate. Some have less info than others. This morning, Don Imus somehow got it into his head that only 2000 Iowa Democrats had taken part in the caucuses. He kept showing a screen with these totals:

Gore: 1269
Bradley: 696
Uncommitted: 33

Anyone who had read a word about Iowa would have known there was somethin' bad wrong with these numbers. (The numbers represented delegates selected at the caucuses, not voters or attendees.) But Imus belabored the point for hours. Here he was, about two hours in:

IMUS: All right, there were fewer that 2000 voters—fewer than 2000 people participating in the Democratic side of this stuff last night in Iowa. Bradley got 1269 votes! 1269 votes and he was running and screaming and hugging everybody—

BERNIE: You mean Gore.

IMUS: —and sweating like James Brown—


IMUS: Bradley had 698 votes, and 33 people couldn't figure out what they wanted to do so they were uncommitted. But I mean, I don't think that that means a lot.

Maybe he's better at measuring sweat than he is at counting up voters. But hold on, folks—it got better. Lesley Stahl came on in the 8 o'clock hour, and Imus presented his thesis:

IMUS: Well here's what I don't understand, why Gore—I mean, I realize there weren't that many people who were able under the rules to participate in the Democratic side of this, but I mean he got 1200 votes and Bradley got 600. What does that mean?

Did you expect Stahl to straighten Don out? Sorry—you still don't understand this celebrity press corps:

STAHL: Isn't it stunning? That 1200 and 600 and these kinds of votes can force candidates like Hatch out of the race, and determine the whole beginning of the campaign?

Lesley didn't have a clue either. (Be sure to buy her book.) Obviously, there are many pundits who would have known that Imus' numbers were totally wrong. That doesn't mean that their speculations will hold a lot of water. And remind us, please, to scold Matt Cooper when we see him in Manchester later this week. Cooper was quoted by Howard Kurtz in the Post; Kurtz was mocking the "media primary" in which "journalists magically divine whether a victory is sufficiently impressive:"

KURTZ: "It's more alchemy than science, more prophecy than reporting," says Matt Cooper, Time's deputy Washington bureau chief. "I admit it's a sort of a goofy exercise in many ways, but I don't know what the alternative is."

Luckily, we do know what the alternative is. It's obvious—go off the air. Report the basic facts of the Iowa voting, and then put on a sitcom. Those basic facts would include: how many votes each hopeful got; how many delegates each hopeful won; how many Iowa voters turned out; and the date of the New Hampshire primary. Pundits don't know if Iowa will affect New Hampshire, and they don't have a clue what the Iowa vote "means." And Imus? Amazingly, we'd all be better off if he'd just play his songs about the size of the president's penis.