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 title Graphic
Caveat lector

27 January 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Manners triumphant

Synopsis: Manners triumphant! John Judis says that Gore is right. But so what—he still calls him "brutal!"  (PLUS: Pundit see, pundit do—postscript on Wed Dem debate.)

Commentary by Peter Jennings, Bill Bradley
Democratic presidential forum, C-SPAN, 1/5/00

John Judis, The New Republic, 1/24/00

When the Manners Police takes over the discourse, the discourse can get pretty silly. One of the silliest moments of the current campaign occurred at the 1/5 Dem debate. Peter Jennings—still a-quiver from backstage excitement—threw the hopefuls a leading question. Has anyone taken "a vote or a quote out of context," he asked, insisting that the candidates answer in just one word.

Why was this a bit of a leading question? Because, although Jennings didn't let on that he knew, Bradley had been complaining for weeks that his health plan was being distorted. After Bradley's one-word answer was "yes," Jennings asked him for an example:

JENNINGS: Mr. Bradley, being that you think Mr. Gore has taken a vote or a quote out of context, choose one that you think is particularly offensive.

Before we get to Bradley's example, do you want to know what we find offensive? We find Jennings' attitude "particularly offensive"—his sense that manners are more important than facts in the ongoing health care debate. This was Jennings' introduction of the health care issue this night, and he focussed on who-was-offended-by-what, not on the facts of the health plans. He didn't principally care about what might be true. He was concerned that someone's feelings might be hurt.

Bradley hadn't asked the tangential question, but he did offer up an example:

BRADLEY: The one that was most particularly offensive to me was when he said in his campaign that I was going to hurt African-Americans and Latinos with the health care plan that I have offered...[T]o say to me, who's had a deep commitment to the racial unity of this country since I started in politics, that I would go out and harm African-Americans and Latinos consciously as a part of a policy I think really offended me.

Has Gore ever said that Bradley "would go out and harm" minorities "consciously as a part of policy?" We'd be amazed if such a statement exists, but this is the kind of foolishness that results when Manners Police run the public discourse. Much more important than who is offended is the simple question of who is right—is it true, as Gore claimed in reply, that Bradley's plan would harm low-income people? Jennings cared about manners and feelings, and made no effort to determine the facts. Soon he was scolding the hopefuls for talking so long—two minutes each on this subject! Imagine!

In this exchange, a viewer was given no way to know whether Gore's charges were actually right, but a wonderful irony had been played out. Jennings, concerned that quotes were being taken out of context, generated a pointless discussion of same. And what happened in that pointless discussion? Immediately, Gore's comments were misstated! So it goes when our decorous press corps wants our discourse to be about manners. So it goes when our discourse is run by people who don't care about facts.

The truth is, it's hard to watch the lazy way the celebrity press corps has handled this debate without finally drawing an unlovely conclusion—celebrity pundits, who have good health care themselves, just don't care what is true in this area. To all appearances, pundits don't care whether Gore's statements are true or false. At THE HOWLER, we have begun to suspect that Bradley's plan doesn't add up; we think that if Bradley had a way to answer Gore's claims, he surely would have done so by now (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/24/00). But mainstream pundits play it dumb when they write about Bradley's health care performance. They consider every possibility but one—they never consider the possibility that Bradley has failed to "strike back" because Gore is simply right in his charges.

A few hardy souls have begun to say that Bradley's health plan may not compute. Yesterday, we mentioned Eric Pooley, in Time. Here's John Judis, in TNR:

JUDIS: Bradley's plan would replace Medicaid, but it doesn't appear to offer comparable benefits. It also seems to offer employers an incentive to stop insuring their employees. And, as quickly became apparent, it would cost almost double what Bradley claimed—eating up almost the entire budget surplus and making it impossible...for Bradley to offer any other big initiatives. Bradley's staff warned him about the program's projected costs, but he didn't listen. He went ahead with his "big idea."

Gore immediately went on the attack, and Bradley's replies verged on incomprehensible.

Readers, may we lecture you on human nature? Sometimes, people give replies that are "incomprehensible" because comprehensible replies would undercut their position. But the possibility that Bradley is simply fudging almost never occurs to the press corps, who are invested in a familiar story—Bradley is authentic, and Gore is "brutal."

How deeply lodged is that pleasing story? Even Judis tells it! Having just said that Gore is right—that Bradley's plan costs too much, and provides too little—Judis goes on to give this astounding review of the candidate with whom he agrees:

JUDIS: Gore, in his brutal assault on Bradley, seems to have finally found a political identity...Gore's ruthless new strategy has worked. Perhaps too well.

In today's press world—run by the Manners Police—you're still "brutal" and "ruthless" when it turns out you're right! In today's press, it's Manners Triumphant! According to Judis, Gore's "brutal assault" is hurting Gore among weak Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans. And in our view, that may well be true in this Year of Living Decorously. In this wholly crackpot year, a pol will still get called a bunch of vile names for making a claim that turns out to be true! The Manners Police run the discourse this year. The truth? It can go take a flier.


Pundit see, pundit do—postscript on Wed Dem debate: The low point in commentary after the Dem debate was this lazy comment by David Gergen (on Larry King Live):

Gergen: Al Gore on this health care issue has somehow managed to make Bill Bradley's health care proposal sound like it's way too expensive but it doesn't do anywhere near enough.
Yes indeed, there they went again...the attempt to be knowing by mocking Gore for saying that Bradley's health plan is both profligate and stingy. This now-standard construction, which we've discussed above, typifies the intellectual sloth of the celebrity press corps. Because Bradley's plan is quite expansive, it is perfectly possible, as a matter of logic, that it "costs too much" (uses up the entire projected surplus) and "provides too little" (cuts back benefits to low-income recipients). It is perfectly possible that an expansive plan might fit both descriptions. The press corps is too lazy to figure out if Bradley's plan does fit this mold. So, in best pundit-see pundit-do mode, they repetitively sound the silly note which Gergen is the latest to emit.

What are the facts about Bradley's plan? Here at THE HOWLER, we still don't know—we're waiting to see an analysis. But facile phrases don't help us find out—and neither do our celebrity pundits. To all appearances, it's been so long since these guys figured anything out they don't recall what it's like any more.


HOWLER HOLIDAY: All the analysts will be in Manchester, N.H. right on through Wednesday, February 2. To readers in the Manchester area: Come see THE HOTLINE Political Comedy Festival, Palace Theatre, Saturday, January 29, 7 P.M. Appearing along with our talented staff: Comedian Will Durst and impressionist Jim Morris. Guest host: The Sly Fox—Tony Snow!! And yes—it helps the children.