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10 April 2000

Our current howler (part II): The drama of the scripted press corps

Synopsis: Clinton lacked character; Dole was out of touch. All events had to fit this great template.

Typecasting Candidates
E. R. Shipp, The Washington Post, 3/5/00

Spending Income Tax Day Calling Clinton to Account
Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 4/16/96

There They Go Again
Editorial, The Washington Post, 6/4/96

Hunting the Angry Voter
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 3/18/96

Saxophone vs. Sacrifice
Joe Klein, Newsweek, 3/18/96

Is Forbes For Real?
Nancy Gibbs, Time, 2/12/96

Why do we say this year's race almost seems to involve a "script?" Because we've noticed, in recent years, that scripts are the way of the press corps. We thought the Post's ombudsman, E. R. Shipp, was right on point when she wrote this in her March 5 column (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00):

SHIPP: But The Post has gone beyond that kind of ["who's winning the horse race"] reporting in favor of articles that try to offer context—and even conjecture—about the candidates' motives in seeking the office of president. And readers react—sometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often not—to roles that the Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.

It's hard to read the press corps' coverage of the candidates—coverage which is remarkably uniform, by the way—without being drawn to the metaphor of a "drama," or script. Our press corps tends to "novelize" news—tends to make stories simpler and more pleasing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/99). And once the hopefuls' roles have been cast, evidence which would tend to contradict assigned roles finds its way down the memory hole.

In 1996, examples abounded throughout the press coverage of the Clinton-Dole White House race. The scripting in that year was simple: Clinton lacks character, Dole's out of touch. And once the basic roles had been cast, reporting had to fit that script. Throughout the 1996 reporting, many muddled and contradictory events were reconfigured to fit that great template.

One comical example involved a repeated GOP theme: You can't trust Clinton because he hasn't kept campaign promises. On April 16, 1996, Dan Balz reported a Dole campaign appearance outside Philadelphia:

BALZ (paragraph 1): Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) offered the American people an unusual reason to vote for him for president in November. If they do, he said today, he would keep the promises President Clinton made as a candidate four years ago.

Balz assessed Dole's reason for presenting the theme, and then quoted the GOP hopeful:

BALZ (2): It was Dole's way of attempting to impugn the president's integrity, an issue he hopes to make a central theme of the presidential race this year.

(3) "When candidate Clinton ran in 1992, he came to Pennsylvania and he promised tax cuts, he promised a balanced budget, he promised to end welfare as we know it," Dole said in suburban Philadelphia at a noontime rally. "He hasn't done one of those things. So another reason to vote for Bob Dole is that we can keep promises that Clinton made in 1992."

Throughout the 1996 race, RNC chair Haley Barbour repeatedly stated this central theme. He repeatedly stated that you can't trust Clinton because Candidate Clinton said he would balance the budget, and President Clinton hadn't done so. In June, a Post editorial praised Dole for pursuing this very theme:

THE WASHINGTON POST (1): As a presidential candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton promised to both cut taxes and the deficit. The contradiction caught up to him after he won...

(2) Bob Dole recounted a little of this difficulty in a campaign speech yesterday. He complained that the president had violated both of the promises. Mr. Clinton as a candidate had suggested not just that he would reduce the deficit but that he could eliminate it—balance the budget—which of course he has not. That provided Mr. Dole with the text for his recurrent observation that "the words this president speaks have very little to do with the actions he takes." They'll fight about that for the rest of the year.

In the next paragraph, the Post said Dole had "fairly attacked the president for making inconsistent promises four years ago and breaking both." In context, one of those promises clearly was an alleged promise to balance the budget. (The deficit had been substantially reduced. See below.)

There was only one problem with the Dole theme, which was persistently recited right through November. In 1992, Candidate Clinton had most certainly not said that he would balance the budget. Clinton could barely have made his proposals more clear; he published them in a widely-publicized campaign book, Putting People First. Thanks in part to the influence of Paul Tsongas and Ross Perot, 1992 was the year of the detailed campaign statement; Clinton's book was a 230-page recitation of the Clinton-Gore program. On the second page of the book, Clinton said this about reducing the deficit:

CLINTON: Our plan will cut the deficit in half within four years and assure that it continues to fall each year after that.

In 1992, Candidate Clinton promised to cut the deficit in half by 1996. Every journalist in America knew it. No one voted for Candidate Clinton thinking he had promised to balance the budget. He hadn't just said it; he had put it in writing, in a book that still sits on library shelves, and can still be found in some bookstores today. Despite this, he was routinely attacked, in 1996, for failing to keep a different promise, one he had plainly not made. We invite you to find an instance where Barbour or Dole was corrected on the repeated false premise.

By the way, there is a comical aspect to this misadventure reported in Bob Woodward's The Agenda. In 1992, Candidate Clinton was advised not to publish Putting People First, Woodward writes. The reason? Publication of so many specific proposals gives opponents too many "specifics" to pick at.

But Clinton did go ahead and publish the book, and met the goal on deficit reduction; by 1996, the deficit had been cut by more than half, just as the candidate had said. Did journalists go back and pull the quote and use it in their coverage of the '96 race? No—instead, the RNC invented a different "pledge," and "impugned Clinton's integrity" for not having kept it. The Post, in its June 4 editorial, praised Dole for "fairly" raising the theme.

Obviously, we don't offer this as a detailed account of the coverage of this issue. We offer the Post editorial as a comical example of a tendency we are currently observing in the 2000 race. In 1996, Clinton lacked character; Dole was out of touch. All events had to fit this great template. When Dole said Clinton had promised to balance the budget, it was actually Dole who was fibbing. But that fact didn't fit the pleasing script. So the Washington Post cheered him on.


Tomorrow—postscript on scripting: A pair of nebulous articles in the Washington Post allowed scribes to recite standard themes.

Don't confuse us with actual conduct: Back in 1996—long before work had begun on the DAILY HOWLER's sprawling campus—we were amused by a pair of stories about Dole in the March 18 Newsweek. On page 26, Howard Fineman offered an assessment of Dole's chances in the fall. How would Dole do with the "angry voter" bloc? Maybe not all that well, Fineman said:

FINEMAN: The radical middle is particularly turned off by negative campaigning. That means Dole may have already exacerbated his problems by the way he's run so far. Newsweek has learned that the Dole team paid nearly $1 million to a firm that made telephone calls planting negative information about Dole's rivals...In the primaries, Dole phone banks zeroed in on Steve Forbes, [Pat] Buchanan and Lamar Alexander. [Ross] Perot called the practice a "disgrace." In his own ranks, Dole created a bitterness that makes it harder for him to win over his two remaining GOP rivals [Buchanan and Forbes].

It was the second serious complaint that had been raised about Dole's campaigning in the primaries (see below). But on page 22 of the same edition of Newsweek, Joe Klein was reviewing Dole's character. In an article entitled "Saxophone vs. Sacrifice," Klein compared Dole's upstanding World War II generation (which had sacrificed) to Clinton's pampered baby-boomers. (Clinton was pictured in his high school band suit, next to Dole in his army uniform!) Klein wrote about Dole's character:

KLEIN: Bob Dole represents qualities that seem to have vanished in the cross-fire of modern American dirtball politics: moderation, patience, a respect for tradition. His Senate colleagues rhapsodize about his courtesy and rationality. There may well be a public yearning for such qualities, after the Clinton tumult. There is certainly a nostalgia for the simple (if constrictive) verities that obtained in Bob Dole's America.

These two stories—by Fineman and Klein—ran back-to-back in the Newsweek issue.

Indeed, Dole's campaign had generated an earlier controversy in New Hampshire, running baldly false ads about the Forbes "flat tax" program. Time had described the earlier problem in its February 12 edition. Nancy Gibbs started by quoting New Hampshire governor Steve Merrill as he narrated the widely-discussed Dole TV ad: "The Steve Forbes income-tax plan increases the deficit and raises our taxes. The typical New Hampshire household will pay $2,000 more in taxes," Merrill said.

But the Dole ad was baldly false. Time went on to explain why:

TIME: The ad uses the analysis of an economist for the New Hampshire Association of Realtors, a group that opposes Forbes' flat tax. The analysis doesn't take into account the personal exemptions [Forbes] proposes..."

For a family of four, the Forbes 17% tax rate was only applied to income over $32,000. The robotic Forbes had said it, over and over, for the preceding six months. The NHAR "analysis" pretended not to know, and calculated tax bills as if Forbes' 17% levy would be applied to a family's entire income. There is no chance on earth that the Dole campaign didn't know the "analysis" was screamingly bogus. Simply put, it would be impossible to craft a TV ad which more baldly misstated an opponent's core proposal.

Neither one of the Dole campaign flaps were mentioned in the Klein Newsweek piece. There was already a hint of a script in the air, and Klein didn't spoil the drama or fun with facts that contradicted the casting. Klein's fawning treatment of Dole's superior character set the tone for campaign coverage which followed, and foreshadowed this year's remarkable coverage of another war-hero hopeful, John McCain.

Klein's article was broadly generational, like a good deal of the coverage of McCain this year. Can we err on the side of generosity, readers? Having read their work, we can certainly understand the self-loathing felt by many of our boomer scribes. But here's our question: In their completely understandable self-critique, do they have to take their entire g-g-g-generation down with them?

Visit our incomparable archives: For two detailed discussions of press coverage in 1996, see "Clinton speaks" and "The Speaker's new language," available at THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99. The articles deal with the press corps' coverage of the 1995-96 Medicare discourse.