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28 February 2000

Our current howler (part II): Grilling "Tanya"

Synopsis: Kurtz and Kalb tried to raise Nelson’s point. Two separate panels weren’t buyin’.

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Jake Tapper
Reliable Sources, CNN, 2/5/00

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Bernard Kalb, Bob Schieffer, Jodie Allen
Reliable Sources, CNN, 2/12/00

Commentary by William Bennett
Late Edition, CNN, 2/27/00

Commentary by Al Hunt
Capital Gang, CNN, 2/26/00

It's amazing how rarely it occurs to the press that there may be a problem with their "rolling bull sessions"—with the general hilarity they so enjoy on Senator McCain's campaign bus. Should network honchos be "scoring tickets" for what David Von Drehle called the campaign's "must-see show" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/00)—for the chance to sit in "the primo seat: an easy chair beside McCain?" Appearing on C-SPAN, Lars-Erik Nelson said these scribes have become the McCain campaign's "laugh track" and "cheerleaders." And Nelson openly states that he likes McCain—one can only guess what Bush admirers must be thinking. But it rarely seems to cross the corps' mind that they may be playing a dangerous game, riding all over town laughing at jokes and enjoying lots of fresh, tasty doughnuts.

Just review some recent banter from CNN's Reliable Sources. Howard Kurtz tried to start a discussion about Nelson's concern. You can guess how far that got him:

KURTZ (2/5): Jake Tapper, you've spent a fair amount of time on the Straight Talk Express, as I have. I understand you have your own favorite chair there.

TAPPER: I have a bunk. [Laughter]

KURTZ: Let's face it, McCain is funny and an interesting guy to be around and accessible. Any effort on the part of reporters to resist his obvious charms as they're chronicling the day-to-day campaign?

Tapper quickly wandered off point. Moments later, Kurtz tried again:

KURTZ: When you're on the bus, do you make a conscious effort not to fall under the magical McCain spell?

TAPPER: Oh, you can't. You become like Patty Hearst when the SLA took her. In fact, I think McCain was referring to me as "Tanya" at one time.

Tapper's answer was hip and entertaining—and completely avoided Kurtz's important question. Kurtz moved on to other topics.

Is there a danger that scribes on the bus may become "hopeful's pet," swayed by the jokes and the free, gooey doughnuts? One week later, the indefatigable Kurtz and his co-host, Marvin Kalb, tried once again to find out. One of those network honchos was guesting this time. The confab started with him:

KURTZ (2/12): Bob Schieffer, the Bush folks, as you know, say the press has just been swooning over McCain. Now you've been on the bus this week in South Carolina, as I have. It's been the world-famous tourist attraction in fact for journalists of all stripes. Is there some kind of media romance going on?

Schieffer thought the bus was fun, but he didn't think that was the point:

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think the media is in love with a good story, not necessarily in love with John McCain, and this is a very good story. It has all the elements of a good drama. You know, this is the little guy taking on the establishment...But I mean, I have to say, it is a lot of fun to be on that bus because there's a lot of excitement being generated. And you can feel it, you can sense it when you get off the bus. And I think reporters have to be very careful. It can become very beguiling, as it were. But I don't think—

KURTZ: Part of a traveling circus.

SCHIEFFER: To be part of the traveling circus. But I don't think it's so much that the reporters are pro-McCain. Reporters love a good story, and this has turned into a good story.

Schieffer at least expressed the view that reporters need to be careful. At the same time, he expressed another standard view—reporters really just love a good story. Frequently, reporters seem to think it's OK to slant the news—if it's done to keep a "good story" going. In that regard, our analysts almost came out of their chairs when Jodie Allen said this, moments later:

KALB: Just an asterisk of a follow-up. A week later—since there are always polls on the political scene—a week later, is the media more pro-McCain than it was a week ago? Unfair question?

ALLEN: Is it more pro-McCain? You know, Bernie, I'm not sure. They're certainly paying more attention, but I think actually, usually, the reverse effect sets in. They're already saying, "Well, you know, we want him to stay in. We have to have a horse race. If we go too far, the whole thing may be over." So I mean, you know, now you've got the other side. And actually Bush is now getting a little more attention.

Speaking post-New Hampshire (but pre-South Carolina), Allen said the press was now trying to give Bush a break, to keep McCain from winning the whole thing too quickly. Needless to say, Allen was describing grossly unprofessional conduct, as pundits often do when they chat on these shows. No editor in America would ever tell readers that this was the philosophy of his newspaper—that reporters should go out and slant the news to keep exciting horse races going. But no one else showed the slightest sign of being concerned by Allen's statement. Her statement recalled a point we made last fall—journalists routinely state that they favor underdogs in the interest of creating a good race. The conduct is plainly inappropriate. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/15/99, 11/16/99, 11/17/99.)

Scribes who don't see a problem with that aren't likely to worry about joking with hopefuls; Schieffer soon was talking again about how much fun it is to be on that bus. To his credit, Kurtz tried again to make his point. But our analysts couldn't help chuckling a bit at what the frustrated host finally said:

SCHIEFFER: ...We haven't seen a campaign like this in 25 years. It's sort of like the old days. I mean, he has made—it's a fun campaign. I mean, you know, that's the difference. Politicians—


SCHIEFFER: It used to be—

Here's where the exasperated Kurtz broke in. And here's what the exasperee said:

KURTZ: But we're not there just to have fun. We're there to hold them accountable.

Howie, the press isn't there to have fun at all. They're there to perform a crucial examination. John McCain is asking to be the most powerful man in the world. The conduct of his examination shouldn't revolve around jokes, fun or even free doughnuts.


Tomorrow: One blushes to see the questions asked during the press corps' "rolling bull sessions."

Also tomorrow: David Barstow popped the question. Brit Hume tenaciously followed up. Helping revive a slumbering corps, Barstow and Hume got it right.

Brutal: The phone calls were brutal during Bill Bennett's segment on yesterday's Late Edition. Here was one from Brookville, Kentucky:

CALLER: We seem to already be seeing some hypocrisy from the McCain camp and I would kind of compare it to Clintonistic, double-talkin' spin. Doesn't that kind of explain his favor among the Democrats, and Bush's lead among Republicans?

Ouch! The complaint was general, and so was Bennett's reply. But minutes before, a Virgina caller had lodged a specific complaint:

CALLER: Friday evening at Richmond, Virginia, at the Republican Party's Victory Gala headlined by Governor Bush, there were fliers distributed that say "Paid for by McCain 2000" on them claiming that Governor Bush's plan does not put one red cent into Social Security...I was curious how you felt that the McCain camp was still distributing this kind of literature.

Bennett's answer was grossly inadequate:

BENNETT: Well, if that is inaccurate, and I'm not up on the details, and it was distributed by the McCain campaign, they shouldn't be doing it...

Not up on the details? Why is someone so hopelessly uninformed appearing on CNN as a commentator? The issue raised has been central to this campaign for well over a month now. The entire "ad war" in South Carolina started with Bush's complaint about this claim by McCain. By the way, it is this lazy treatment of the McCain campaign's shaky claims that has helped create the present situation, in which indignant callers complain about various incidents where McCain seems to have been less than frank.

The corps has been holding Saint McCain to few standards. For a more striking example, read on:


No standards at all: We've noticed over the past few weeks that John McCain can-say-no-wrong in the eyes of Al Hunt. On the 2/12 Capital Gang, for example, Kate O'Beirne gently noted that McCain was distorting Bush on SS; Hunt insisted it just wasn't so (while seeming to us to miss the point of O'Beirne's remark). But last Saturday night, on Capital Gang, we saw what love for a hopeful can do. This was Hunt's remarkable idea of the "outrage of the week:"

HUNT: Mark, like John McCain we have an adopted daughter from Asia and thus are sensitive to Asian slurs. But I have no empathy for those who criticize Senator McCain for calling his North Vietnamese captors quote "gooks" end quote. During the 5_ years he was a prisoner of war, they viciously tortured and beat him, even intentionally breaking his arms. There are far harsher words that would be appropriate, and in this instance it has nothing to do with race or national origin.

People generous enough to be adoptive parents deserve the thanks and the respect of us all. (That would include the McCains and Hunt/Woodruff.) And we agree—there are far harsher terms that could be applied to people who torture prisoners. But the word in question is about race, and it is not appropriate for Senator McCain to be using it. You don't become a "gook" by committing torture—you become a torturer. The "swoon" has reached the point of pathology when a good person like Al Hunt doesn't know that—and thinks it an "outrage" when someone suggests that McCain shouldn't use such a word.