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26 January 2000

Our current howler (part III): Don’t tell

Synopsis: GroupThinking pundits call Gore a demagogue. They don’t bother with any examples.

How to tell them apart
Eric Pooley, Time, 1/17/00

Gore's Breakout
David Broder, The Washington Post, 1/11/00

The Politics of Bradley Destruction
Tucker Carlson, The Weekly Standard, 1/3-10/00

Bumps Along the High Road
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, 1/24/00

Gore's '92 Promise on Incinerator Propels Ohio Demonstrators in '00
Francis X. Clines, The New York Times, 1/13/00

Eric Pooley—he's with the Manners Police—had an odd thing to say about Gore:

POOLEY: Last Wednesday (1/5) in Durham, N.H., and on Saturday (1/8) in Johnston, Iowa, Gore was hammering away at Bradley's health-care plan, as usual...And he didn't even distort Bradley's positions. He merely pointed out that Bradley's proposed monthly health-care subsidy, the one that's supposed to replace Medicaid, wouldn't be enough to buy coverage for poor people in either state.

In this passage, Pooley says that Gore is right about the Bradley health plan. Pooley says here, in his own voice, that Bradley's $150 "weighted average" wouldn't "buy coverage for poor people" in Iowa or New Hampshire. But you know how rigorous this press corps can be. Later on in his article-six paragraphs later—Pooley no longer seems sure:

POOLEY: Health care is the most dramatic policy difference between [Gore and Bradley]...Gore calls the [Bradley] proposal "risky" because its payments might not be enough to let the poor buy health insurance.

This utter lack of intellectual rigor is typical press corps procedure. At first, Pooley says Bradley's plan won't buy coverage. One page later, it might.

So it goes when a reader tries to get information about the Democrats' health plans. According to the Post's Michael Kelly, voters are "awash in information" about the campaign's basic issues (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/25/99). But at THE HOWLER, we've had a hard time finding this info; sadly, by the press corps' lazy standards, Pooley's is an ambitious attempt to examine the Bradley health plan. Generally, pundits simply trash Vile Gore for being so rude as to criticize Bradley. They call him very unpleasant names, upset at his terrible manners. But they make no effort—none at all—to figure out if his claims may be right.

Here, for example, is David Broder, writing about Gore-on-Bradley:

BRODER: On Bradley's other signal issue, health care, Gore may also be gaining ground. Few voters appear to understand the fundamental differences between the candidates' proposals, but Gore is hammering home the demagogic message that Bradley would "abolish Medicaid" and jeopardize Medicare by failing to set aside funds for its future needs. The endorsement Gore gained last week from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Health Care to most Democrats, lends credibility to his claims.

Note that Broder contradicts Kelly; he says voters don't understand the health plans. But why don't voters understand these plans? In part, due to writing like this. Broder accuses Gore of a "demagogic message," and he even lists two such claims; but wouldn't you know it, he never explains what is actually wrong with the pair of statements he cites. Bradley would, of course, "abolish Medicaid," replacing it with a $150-a-month "weighted average" (Bradley's term). What is supposed to be "demagogic" in saying something like that? And is it "demagogic" to claim that Bradley is careless in failing to provide increased funding for Medicare? McCain devotes new funding to the program, as does Gore. What exactly is "demagogic" in saying that Bradley should too?

Broder pens a type of column which many have written in recent weeks—columns in which pundits accuse Gore of "demagogic," "brutal," or "ruthless" behavior, but never explain how his charges are wrong. The writing isn't just intellectually lazy—it commits the very crime it deplores. What, dear reader, is more demagogic than a passage like the one Broder pens, in which a public figure is called a "demagogue," and absolutely no effort is made to explain what he's said that is wrong?

For another example, take a Tucker Carlson piece in the Weekly Standard. Carlson describes a Gore campaign speech:

CARLSON: Gore spent perhaps a third of his speech attacking Bradley's health care proposal. Bradley's plan, he told the audience, is both recklessly profligate and heartlessly stingy. At a cost of at least $1 trillion, it is a wild-eyed spending scheme that would wipe out the budget surplus and imperil Medicare. At the same time, Gore said, Bradley's plan "would require seniors to spend $800 of their own money before getting one penny" from prescription drugs.

Carlson makes a presentation many scribes have enjoyed, mocking Gore for claiming that Bradley is both "profligate and stingy" at the same time. It sounds as if it doesn't make sense, so pundits have enjoyed some Good Solid Fun. But it is perfectly possible that Bradley's expansive plan could spend a trillion dollars and fail to provide adequate coverage. How much will the Bradley plan cost? How much would seniors pay out-of-pocket? Don't bother reading Carlson's piece, because he never tries to figure that out. The facts are never explored. Carlson does, however, say that Gore "has been at his nastiest" since beginning his "assaults," and he says how "infuriated" Bradley's poor staffers are at—what else—"Gore's demagoguery." The Manners Police are on the scene—but the facts are left unexplored.

As usual, the gang of pundits are all saying the same thing—Gore's criticism is "ruthless," "demagogic." But no one ever seems to say what Gore has said that is wrong. And—as with Broder—if the scribes do specify what is wrong, they never bother to argue their case. Jonathan Alter, in Newsweek:

ALTER: The vice president, by contrast [to Bradley], is a political Soprano—unsure of his identity but deft with a weapon. To listen to Gore, you would think that Bradley's plan to extend health-care coverage to the uninsured was a federal sting operation instead of the expression of a fundamental Democratic tenet.

Colorful language, but completely imprecise. The next paragraph does make specific complaints, whose accuracy Alter never argues:

ALTER (continuing directly): First, the vice president used funny numbers to nail Bradley's plan for being too costly. Then, zooming in from the opposite direction, he hammered the plan for scrapping Medicaid and even made the malicious suggestion that Bradley—a bleeding heart in this campaign—was out to hurt the poor blacks and Hispanics covered by it. This ignored the inconvenient fact that the original 1993 Clinton-Gore plan also scrapped Medicaid, which is deeply flawed. Bradley's plan only hurts the poor if it's twisted beyond recognition.

There's quite an array of charges here: funny numbers, malicious suggestions, a health plan twisted beyond recognition. It's no wonder that Alter says Gore is "an expert at slicing up opponents," a "proven master of tough tactics," and a "political Soprano"—a hoodlum. But Alter makes no effort to show that any of his charges are accurate. Like Carlson, he has some fun with the left-right groaner—Gore, "zooming in from opposite directions," says the plan is too costly and too stingy. This sounds funny, but it could be true—Alter doesn't bother to argue. The Clinton-Gore plan also scrapped Medicaid, Alter says, and this is presented as a contradiction by Gore. But Gore has said he doesn't care if Bradley dumps Medicaid if it's replaced with something better (and he says that Bradley's plan isn't). This argument makes perfect sense, which Alter simply ignores. Did Gore use "funny numbers" against Bradley's plan? Alter doesn't argue that claim, either. Nor has anyone else at Newsweek—the claim has gone completely unexplored, all throughout the press corps. But then, so has everything about Gore's critique. Scribes are content to play Manners Police, calling Gore names for being so rude. If a voter wants to know what is actually true, there's no one in the press corps to ask.

Over at Time, Eric Pooley has now said that Bradley's health plan doesn't add up. At THE HOWLER, we don't know if that's true, because no one has argued the case. But last month, Pooley also was slamming Gore's manners while refusing to say how Gore was wrong (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/99). This month, he's saying that Gore is right. Others are still wrapped up in manners.


Tomorrow: Manners Triumphant! John Judis also says Gore is right. But it doesn't matter—he still says Gore's "ruthless!"

Facts 'Rn't them: It often seems that the celebrity press corps lacks the basic concept of "facts." Take a large piece by the New York Times' Francis Clines on a dispute about an Ohio incinerator. The article took up an entire half-page, and was accompanied by two large pictures. In the article, Clines describes a festering dispute in which a community group accuses Gore of breaking a 1992 campaign promise.

The article is littered with the overwrought charges of the aggrieved group. Clines also provides the administration's position:

CLINES: "You promised!" [community activist Terri Swearingen] and her colleagues have shouted at the vice preside t across Mr. Gore's seven years in office even as the administration insisted it discovered that it was legally unable to block the plant's opening because in the final weeks of the Bush administration, approval was granted to test the plant's furnace.

Gore's office tells Clines that "the initial test permit from the Bush administration 'can't be revoked unless we can prove it violated health and safety standards.'" Two reviews showed it did not, Gore's staff says.

So is this a case of a politician breaking a promise? Or is this just a crackpot local community group? Readers have no way to know, because there is no sign anywhere in this piece that Clines has made any effort to find out. Clines quotes the name-calling local group; and he supplies the response from the administration. But, although the facts are seven years old, he doesn't seem to have researched them himself. There is no sign in this article—none at all—that Clines has tried to find out what's true.

The result? A great big article—top half of a page—quoting exciting charges against a hopeful. Do the charges have any basis in fact? To all appearances, Clines didn't try to find out.