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4 May 2000

Our current howler: The New Mexico Five

Synopsis: Conducting "random" interviews with town hall survivors, Ceci Connolly got across favorite points.

Gore Turns to Tested Themes and a Direct Approach
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/30/00

Gore Takes Questions for Four Hours
Laura Meckler (AP), The Los Angeles Times, 4/29/00

Gore's Visit Shows Value of N.M. Votes
Michael Coleman, The Albuquerque Journal, 4/30/00

Gore Masters Town Hall Meetings
Laura Meckler (AP), The Los Angeles Times, 4/29/00

Ceci Connolly observed The Veep at a town hall event. The Albuquerque forum took place on April 28. There were 250 people present:

CONNOLLY: Twice he was asked about Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy rescued from a shipwreck last Thanksgiving. Despite his many and varied statements on the case, most notably breaking with the president as to whether to return the boy to his father, Gore told New Mexicans he could not comment on an ongoing court case.

It's exactly the thing the people hate—a pol who just won't take a stand! But then we read Laura Meckler's report ("Gore Takes Questions"). Had she seen a different meeting?

MECKLER: Gore answered questions on topics ranging from the environment and immigrants to Elian Gonzalez and political gridlock.

Say what? In fact, Meckler had been at the very same forum. But she didn't seemed to have noticed Gore refusing to comment on Elian:

MECKLER: One man questioned him at length on his position that Elian Gonzalez' fate should be decided by a family court that would consider the child's best interests.

"The decision shouldn't be on the basis of politics," Gore said.

The man responded, "If I could really believe that this had nothing to do with the calculation of trying to win Florida I would feel a lot better about voting for you."

"Well thank you," Gore responded.

Meckler had seen Gore "questioned at length" about the Elian matter. Somehow, she neglected to mention the fact that Gore had refused to answer the questions. Michael Coleman also reported the event. He didn't mention Elian questions at all. He did, however, write this:

COLEMAN: Gore declined to answer questions about imprisoned Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, explaining that it would be improper to comment on a pending court case.

Huh! It was exactly what Connolly had Gore saying about the Elian matter.

But then, there's often a hint of Rashomon when Ceci Connolly reports live events. Recently, she led with Gore "prolonging a controversy" in a major speech—a "controversy" no other scribe mentioned (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/25/00). And twice in December, she reported Gore comments that didn't turn up on the tapes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99, 12/7/99, 12/18/99, 3/7/00)

We don't have the slightest idea what Gore may have said about Elian. But we were intrigued, as we read this Post story, by the interviews Connolly conducted. Sometimes scribes enjoy finding out what town hall survivors may have thought of the forum. Connolly cited one at the top of her piece:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 1): Maria-Cristina Lopez left work early Friday and drove 60 miles for the chance to speak to the vice president of the United States.

You can tell the results won't be pretty. Yep—Lopez found Gore pretty iffy:

CONNOLLY (3): The petite Spanish teacher came to the Jackson Middle School here "wanting to vote for" Al Gore, but left uncertain. "He's a very nice man, easy to talk to, but I'm not passionate about him."

Why was that the first image Post readers encountered? At THE HOWLER, of course, we can't say. But the time-honored practice of conducting "random" interviews lets scribes tell the stories they like. Of the 250 attendees at the forum (Coleman said "almost 300"), there must have been a wide range of reactions. When reporters start sifting the crowd for their comments, a remarkable vehicle for selectivity comes in.

Much of Connolly's piece was built around five witness interviews. Witness Two took a favorable tack:

CONNOLLY (11): "He answered all the questions to the best of his ability," said Kelly Savickas, a retiree who likes Gore's experience.

She sounded a bit like Gore's lawyer. But the remaining three interviews Connolly reported had a different flavor. Dave Wessel, for example, was unimpressed, but prepared to recite standard soundbites:

CONNOLLY (16): There was some evidence to suggest that Clinton's misdeeds continue to cloud voter opinion of the loyal vice president.

(17): "I came to see if Al Gore was any different," said Dave Wessel, who told Gore he was appalled by the raid on the Miami home of Elian Gonzalez. "Al Gore will say or do anything to get elected. He seemed like he was pandering a lot."

Jim Nicholson couldn't have said it better. And things didn't improve a whole lot:

CONNOLLY (18): Roberta Lester, a health care worker, said the Clinton connection will factor into her choice.

(19) "People are a little reluctant to have more of the Clinton administration," she said. "He's done a great job with the economic situation of the country, but the morals and values, that's upsetting."

Did Lester bring up the Clinton connection? Or was she asked about it by Connolly? The reader has no way of knowing. Connolly just kept on reporting:

CONNOLLY (20): And Gore paused when one woman read a series of his conflicting statements on abortion and asked pointedly: "What made you change your mind so dramatically?"

(21) Summoning a familiar line, he first said: "Didn't she do a good job of presenting her point of view?"

(22) Gore said only his position on federal funding had evolved—from opposition to support—but he also promised to support a ban on the so-called partial-birth abortions if exceptions were added to protect the life and health of the mother.

Connolly closed with more from Lopez. It would be a long sixty miles going home:

CONNOLLY (25): To Lopez, nothing illustrated Gore's rhetorical straddle better than Elian Gonzalez. "I want everyone to get legal resident status," she said, remarking on the vice president's support for a bill to grant the boy and father residency. "How about the Haitians?"

(26) Still, Gore devoted the time and that meant a lot to Lopez. If only he wasn't "trying to please both sides" so often, she said. "It ends up he doesn't please anybody." [End of article]

The article ended with another perfect soundbite. Gore is a straddler—gives good pander.

Connolly had spoken to five attendees, and four seemed to dwell on the negative. Even the one who "wanted to vote for" Gore ended up accusing him of "rhetorical straddles." Or did she? Look back at the last passage cited. The phrase "rhetorical straddle" comes from Connolly, not Lopez; as quoted, Lopez does not accuse Gore of a straddle. And did she say that Gore has been trying to please both sides so often? The words "so often" are also not in quotes. By the way—did Lopez make her remark about Haiti to Gore, or to Connolly? Did Gore "straddle" on that? It's impossible to tell through the murk and the gloaming. For the record, Gore has stated his position on the matter fairly clearly; in January, he said that Cuban refugees should get special treatment because they are fleeing a dictatorship. And that was at the Iowa Black and Brown Forum, in front of an audience that surely was not especially eager to hear that advice.

Yep. When you can pick who you talk to; can bring up select topics; and can chop up quotes within an inch of their life, "random" interviews sometimes become a good way to get across your own viewpoint. Is Connolly's sample of attendees representative? At THE HOWLER, we surely can't say. But neither, of course, can Connolly herself; that's the problem with "anecdotal" information. Coleman and Meckler, at the same meeting, reported crowd buzz that was substantially different. This was Coleman's initial assessment:

COLEMAN (paragraph 10): Plenty of voters who met the vice president on Friday said they walked away inspired to help him in his quest for the presidency.

Really! They didn't seem to have walked past Connolly. Coleman continued his portrait:

COLEMAN (11): Some said the Democratic hopeful's command of the issues and sincerity not only impressed them but won their vote.

(12) But others said they remained undecided, mostly because Gore seemed like an overly rehearsed candidate who gave vague answers to some pointed questions.

(13) Many of those who remained undecided said they need to hear more from Bush before they make up their minds.

Coleman quoted four named individuals. Two said they were favorably impressed with Gore and had decided at the event that they would support him. Two expressed mixed reactions to the event, and said they were still undecided in their vote. Putting it mildly, Coleman's attendees and Connolly's group seemed to have quite different views.

So how did Meckler limn it? In a second story in the Los Angeles Times, covering the Albuquerque event and a second forum in Kansas City, Meckler offered a general view of how the two meetings had gone. "Town hall meetings, long a favorite of President Clinton's have become a staple of politics," she wrote. "And Al Gore seems to have mastered the art." "He didn't always win over his questioners," Meckler said, but her reporting occasionally shed some light on a few of Connolly's anecdotes. For example, the "woman" who questioned Gore about abortion so "pointedly" turned out to be 17 years old. That information might have helped explain the "familiar line" at which Connolly seemed to snort:

MECKLER: Jessica McKenzie, 17, asked him about abortion: "Why is it illegal to kill a baby five seconds after it's born and not illegal five seconds before it's born?"

Gore began on safe ground: "Didn't she do a good job of presenting her point of view?" he asked the crowd, which agreed that she had...

Imagine that! The crowd thought his familiar "line" was appropriate! And Meckler reported an exchange about drugs:

MECKLER: And when a man in black leather began explaining the benefits of drug legalization, Gore shot back, "I'm not for it," a response that was met with applause from the audience and mock relief from press aides.

But twarn't no approval or funnin' when Connolly told it:

CONNOLLY (14): He soft-pedaled several of the hotter issues on the agenda. Gore said he opposed legalizing drugs but neglected to mention his support for the use of medical marijuana.

Yep. Almost everything turns out to be wrong, when you hear Ceci Connolly tell it.

But how about the way the scribe opened—reporting that interview with Lopez? Did her five interviews reflect the crowd's outlook? And is it true, what Connolly said—that "there was some evidence to suggest that Clinton's misdeeds continue to cloud voter opinion" of Gore? Of course it's true, but then anything's true if you're willing to set a standard like that! You could find "some evidence" to "suggest" anything on earth if you sift through 300 sets of comments. A reporter can type whatever she wants if she's prepared to set a standard like that. However well-intentioned this effort may be, the method is hopeless—a disaster.

The way to learn what voters think is by conducting appropriate polls and surveys. Even then, the task is quite hard. Connolly's method, while familiar, is almost guaranteed to mislead; it rejects centuries of effort in which people developed ways of collecting real info. What did Cristina-Maria think? Are New Mexico voters still troubled by Clinton? We didn't know before reading this piece. We still don't know. Neither does Connolly.


Tomorrow: Time for a change! As we retool for a month-long study (starts Monday), we pen an incomparable preview.