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by Bob Somerby
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When pundits agree

Bob Somerby, Capital Style, April 2000


 
LIKE ALL COMMITTED POLITICAL JUNKIES, I'm looking forward to the general election this fall. We'll thrill to the give and take of debate, with a wide variety of brilliant insights from Washington's deft opinion-makers.

Yeah. Right. Sure. As if! Actually, if recent history is any guide, nothing like that will ever happen. At one time, our pundits were famous for free-wheeling debate. But it isn't that way any longer.

It was early in the primaries when I noticed: talking heads all seem to say the same things. And not just every now and then—they seemed to say the same things all the time. What had happened to the arguments, the tantrums, the attacks? Something was definitely missing.

Soon after, I got a chance to explore Pundit Culture up-close-and-personal. I was invited to perform at the Washington Improv, as guest comedian at their "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest. I'd worked this event for the previous two years, dazzling crowds with my charm and my wit. And since Washington's celebrity journalists, to their credit, volunteer each year for this charity outing, some of the pundits we see every week would be on hand this very evening!

Warning: One thing had changed from previous years, which might make the night a bit awkward. I now was engaged in a daring new venture—I publish a web site critiquing the media. And some of the same scribes I'd been reviewing were going to be right there at the contest! Time's Margaret Carlson would be a judge, for example. And I'd been razzing her for at least several weeks.

Would the evening be awkward? I didn't have a clue. It isn't like anyone ever reads my web site. But at any rate, I'd have a rare chance—a chance to observe major scribes in the wild. Maybe I could solve my latest riddle: Why do pundits all seem to agree?

 

IT ALL STARTED at the first Democratic debate in New Hampshire, matching Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Within 48 hours, everyone knew what had happened. Gore had been "programmed to relax," but instead had seemed manic. Bradley seemed authentic, presidential. And because the pundits all agreed on the story they'd tell, they fought to see who could tell it more colorfully. Journalists battled tooth and claw, trying to make the tale better.

Sameness? If you own a TV or read a newspaper, you encountered the views I describe. Elizabeth Arnold, on Washington Week in Review, two nights after the October 27 forum:

I would say that Vice President Gore was so determined to appear relaxed and connect with the people that he was practically leaping off the stage for personal details of the questioners' lives.

Those were the press corps' two basic concepts—Gore was "determined to relax," but seemed hyper. Mary McGrory, in Sunday's Post, had noticed the very same things:

Gore has been programmed to relax, which is still a reach for him...He demonstrated hyper-animation, quizzing the questioners, asking them about their children, walking to the front of the stage.

Even that! To the front of the stage! Howard Fineman, on MSNBC, the very night of the forum:

What I saw was a guy, namely Al Gore, trying very hard to be relaxed, and doing it, as Lisa [Myers] said, even if in a mechanical, Al Gore way.

Talk about your beta males (and females)! A string of pundits stood in line to say the same things about Gore. And just how manic had Gore's conduct been? "Practically leaping off the stage" was for starters. David Brooks, on the NewsHour:

Al Gore struck me—he took the focus group viagra...Somebody compared him to an animal that has been chained up and they let him loose.

That "somebody" had been Jacob Weisberg, in Slate:

Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage and fed on nothing but focus groups for several days. Upon release, he began to scamper furiously in every direction.

Gail Collins (New York Times) saw that too:

Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard...He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework.

To Collins, Gore was "overstimulated," a nod to McGrory's "hyper-animated." I hadn't seen this many people all say the same thing since I last saw the tape of that big Moonie wedding. Over and over, scribes said the same things. That's what happens When Pundits Agree.

 

IS THERE SOMETHING UNUSUAL about all this agreement? Not at all—it's the norm in the press corps. Throughout the primaries, we saw it again and again. Everyone knew that McCain was straight-shooting (though he plainly flip-flopped on several issues). Everyone knew Gore was distorting Bradley's health plan (clear examples were a bit hard to come by). Everyone knew Bradley was above the fray (till he started attacking Gore every day). And when George W ran into that nasty pop quiz? Everyone said they wouldn't know that stuff, either.

But is it wrong or troubling when pundits agree? Actually, it probably should be. Given human nature, this kind of uniformity rarely occurs without some group dynamic. If a hundred pundits had watched Gore and Bradley from a hundred soundproof rooms, there's no chance that they all would have thought the same thing. And it's a basic no-brainer which we all understand: diversity of viewpoint is good for democracy. Stronger ideas crowd out the weaker when a variety of viewpoints all get expressed. It really should be a troubling thing, to see so many pundits all say the same thing. It suggests that the strength which comes from open discussion is being traded away deep inside Pundit Culture.

 

WHEN I GET TO THE IMPROV, I go to the showroom to check out who's already there. Team Molinari is in the house, prepping for Susan's silver medal performance. Former champ Matt Cooper, now with Time, drifted in to perform his guest set. He eventually introduces me to Margaret Carlson when she comes in a little bit later. I think I detect a slight chill in the air. But then again, that could be all wrong.

As pundits and scribes file into the room, they greet one another with cries of good cheer. There is Margaret with her namesake, Tucker Carlson, chatting away just like they do on Inside Politics each week, with Bernie. I hobnob with U.S. News' Roger Simon, who has been dragged out to cheer on a friend. Pundits seem to like other pundits—they seem to enjoy catching up on old times. It's almost like they're a part of a club. But you know clubs—members do think alike.

 

AT ANY RATE, THE GORE-BRADLEY FORUM showed how bad it can get when pundits all tell the same story. When scribes all agree to tell the same tale, they stand out if they make the tale wilder. In this case, the pundit spin on the Democratic debate hit its zenith with Da Judge—Margaret Carlson. She banged her gavel on Capital Gang:

In this forum, Bradley came across as more authentic than Gore does because [Gore's] been told to adopt some of the Clinton personality tics—getting off the stool, asking the [questioners'] names—and that worked in the last election.

Incredibly, getting off the stool had become "Clintonesque" as pundits strained to make the tale even better. In fact, there had been forums at Hanover on two straight nights, one for the Democrats and one for the GOP. And a simple look at the tape tells the story—every candidate got off his stool to answer every question! Every question!

And was it "Clintonesque" to use first names, responding to citizen questioners? Again, let's go to the tape. Gore used names in responding to three of 13 questions. The following night, at the GOP debate, four of the first seven questioners were addressed by first names. Overall, five of the seven candidates used first names with questioners. The truth is, Carlson's comments, widely repeated, really made no sense at all.

But another problem was perfectly plain to anyone with a working VCR. A mere 48 hours after the forum, everyone knew that Gore had been manic. The chorus of pundits recited their script with more precision than the June Taylor Dancers. But on the night of the forum, right after it ended, a number of commentators went on TV live. And except for Fineman, quoted above, none of them expressed the later group viewpoint. Journalists giving their instant reactions seemed to have seen a quite different event.

Here was Lisa Myers, on October 27, giving Brian Williams her take on the forum:

I think both men did very, very well...The pressure was really on Al Gore tonight. He had to prove he isn't a stiff. And I think he came across as relaxed. He told a joke, which a few people laughed...He did a good job.

Try finding someone—anyone at all—saying that two days later. Williams, though, quickly agreed:

Good points all—Gore was looser, and Bradley was Bradley.

Gloria Borger, on Larry King Live:

I think it was a good night for both of them. I hate to be so mooshy about this, but I think both did what they wanted to do...I think Al Gore got an opportunity to show off his expertise, to talk about his experience and he also took a couple of whacks at Bill Bradley.

Not a word about manic behavior. In fact, a variety of commentators appeared in real time on The News with Brian Williams and Larry King Live. And only Fineman's view even dimly resembled the drumbeat we'd hear two days later. And how about the next-morning papers? Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz, in the Post, weren't reciting the pundit script either:

For the most part, the hour-long event was marked more by civility and general agreement on a wide range of issues than by disagreement and rancor...Both men appeared relaxed throughout.

Within days, everyone knew that this was wrong. What had produced this new viewpoint? I'm not a pundit—I have no way of knowing. But sometimes, if you just watch closely, Pundit Lore seems to come out of thin air. Suddenly, pundits all have the same take—and there's no way to tell where it came from.

 

THE FUNNIEST CELEBRITY CONTEST, by the way, was won by Senator Joseph Lieberman. I first met Jokin' Joe at a political event, where his impish humor was quickly apparent. A country star warbled on a makeshift stage, and Joe muttered sly, non-stop quips sotto voce. I knew right then it had to be. We needed this guy for the contest.

In his set, our new Funniest Celeb got off a quip reflecting one of the corps' latest scripts. When Bill Bradley was in the Senate, he'd give a speech, Joe confided, and everyone would say the speech was boring. Now, Joe joked, he gives the same speech, and everyone says that he's "comfortable in his own skin."

And The Champ was right—every pundit had said it. That's what happens When Pundits Agree.

My own set, at the end, went fairly well. I did a few evergreens I had done two years earlier. That allowed me to offer my favorite riposte, about President Bush's old theme song, "Don't Worry, be Happy." Punch line? "He had to be the only guy who would run a War on Drugs with a reggae theme song." The collection of pundits and civilians just roared. Ladies and gentlemen, that's good solid fun.

That's right—it's good solid fun when we all laugh together. It's good fun—in a comedy context. But when pundits speak out on important topics, they ought to say what they really think. No fair hanging out with the other top scribes, and getting group stories together.

I always see it when I hang out with the scribes—they seem to be friends, and they all like each other. They're almost like a fraternal order—why rock the boat with dispute and disagreement? Somehow they all end up saying one thing; nobody ever seems to get out of line. It's good fun for the pundits When Pundits Agree. But it makes a joke of our great public discourse.