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31 May 2001

Our current howler (part III): In real time

Synopsis: Al Gore behaved like a villainous wrestler. And at CNN, Jeff Greenfield didn’t notice!

Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow!
Jeff Greenfield, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001

It was truly amazing. At his first debate with Governor Bush, Vice President Gore behaved extremely badly. Here, we’ll let Greenfield describe it:

GREENFIELD (page 194): Watch a tape of the debate…Gore repeatedly interrupts, demands more time to explain himself, behaves like the smartest kid in class impatiently insisting on correcting everyone else’s mistakes. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and sighs audibly, if not theatrically.

Viewers were simply appalled, Greenfield says. "Yes, the instant polls show a narrow Gore victory," he notes (Gore won the CNN poll, 48-41). But Greenfield explains that away:

GREENFIELD (page 194): Yes, the instant polls showed a narrow Gore victory. But it was the kind of victory the villainous wrestler scores with a questionable chokehold. A lot of voters were saying, "Yeah, he won—but I don’t like that guy."

All over the country, people were saying it. "Gore won—but I don’t like that guy."

Which makes the CNN real-time coverage of the debate so amazing. Because guess what? None of the voters in CNN’s focus group said anything like this at all! Voters voiced opinions of Gore and Bush; some voters said that they couldn’t decide. But CNN interviewed twenty-two voters post-debate, and no one—not one—ever said a word about the conduct which Greenfield complains of. Voters said it all over the land—but no voter said it on CNN, not once, in all the interviews.

But then, it wasn’t just voters who didn’t say it—Jeff Greenfield didn’t mention it either! Directly after the debate, he went on the air with Bill Schneider. Here was his first reaction:

GREENFIELD: The first thing we ought to mention is the most trivial. They obviously got the memo on how to dress. They appeared to be clones of each other in the dark suit and red tie. More seriously, it seemed to me that both candidates knew from the get-go what they were trying to do. As we talked about before the debate at some length, George Bush was determined to show that he was up to the task. He got into a lot of issue debates in a way that I think may have surprised some people: taking people through the details, for instance, of his tax proposals. And he was also, I would, say—the other thing that struck me about Governor Bush was how many times he talked about bipartisanship, how many times he mentioned the fact that he worked with Republicans and Democrats.

I think if there was one overwhelming message he was trying get out, is that he indeed was different from the normal Washington bickering, that he was going to be a president, if he was elected, to bridge party lines. [END OF STATEMENT]

Greenfield was notably kind to Bush; he didn’t mention, for example, that when Bush "took people through the details of his tax proposals," he made several major statements about his tax proposals that happened out to be totally false. But we’ll examine those matters of substance tomorrow. After Greenfield’s statement, Schneider took a turn. He didn’t mention Gore’s Bad Act either:

SCHNEIDER (continuing directly): That’s right. Although Gore did mention at one point that he had worked with President Reagan and Bush's father during the Persian Gulf War. Look, a tie goes to the challenger. In many ways, I think Gore—Governor Bush, who was expected not to be able to hold his own, really, to misspeak—everybody has heard all the jokes about Bush not being able to talk straight—well, he held his own against Al Gore.

I would say that a tight race just got tighter. Gore, I think, did a very effective job of selling the idea that this administration has presided over a regime of prosperity. He said: It’s not enough. We’ve got to do more.

He said he’s going to secure the safety net. He must have used the word "lockbox" about 20 times. But he got that theme out. I think Bush got across his passionate commitment and concern about education and, as Jeff just said, his determination to work in a cooperative spirit. In many cases, they pointed—they were very vigorous in pointing out how much they agreed with each other.

Comedy alert! Schneider said that Gore "must have used the word ‘lockbox’ about 20 times." Good try—Gore actually said the word seven times, discussing the concept on four occasions. But now, as Greenfield spoke again, he did lightly slam some Bad Behavior. But wouldn’t you know it? After watching Gore behave badly all night, it was Bush’s conduct which Greenfield lightly criticized:

GREENFIELD (continuing directly): Well, I think that was—part of it was that we’re—I think, Bill, you know better than I that negativity is not selling well with most voters. The one place where I think Governor Bush might want to have some words back was at the very end when he said the man [Gore] has no credibility on the issue.

Bush may have slightly offended, Greenfield said. For the record, Bush’s late slam at Gore was the one point of conduct he brought up throughout the whole night.

During CNN’s post-debate coverage, Greenfield and Schneider limned the hopefuls at length. And that’s right—neither one of them said a word about Gore’s alleged horrid conduct. It was Bush’s conduct in slamming Gore that both the wisemen noted this night. Speaking near the end of the lengthy broadcast, Greenfield raised it again:

GREENFIELD (closing comments): Yes, yes. I mean, I still think that—that it’s one of those weird—not weird nights, but nights where the Gore people can take heart that their guy was a master of the facts, and the Bush people can take heart that their guy stepped up and seemed to be reasonably comfortable.

The one thing I would think is that the closing comments, where Bush went after Gore on credibility, in an era when voters—particularly independent, undecided voters—really don’t want to hear any of that may have been one thing that the Bush campaign would like to take back.

That was "the one thing [Greenfield] would think." Greenfield spoke many words this night—but he never said so much as a word about the horrible conduct by Gore—the horrible conduct he now slams in his book. Twice, early on and right at the end, he said that Bush may have gone a bit far.

Amazing, isn’t it? On a night when Gore so grossly misbehaved, no one in the focus group noticed, and Greenfield didn’t mention it either. In fact, he said Bush went too far. And why didn’t Greenfield speak up in real time? Because the gruesome conduct which he slams in his book was an after-the-fact, press corps construction. It wasn’t just at CNN that people failed to mention Gore’s conduct. Nope—no one in the ABC, CBS, or NBC focus groups mentioned it that evening, either. All over the country, Greenfield now says, voters were saying they just hated Gore—but no one said it in these groups, and Greenfield didn’t mention it either.

Amazing, isn’t it? But what happened is clear—in the days which followed the Bush-Gore debate, the press corps agreed on an Official Press Story, which Greenfield now recites in his book. In fact, he is now so in love with the Standard Account that he seriously doctors the actual transcript—rearranging plain facts to created an improved story, one which the press corps simply loves (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/30/01).

Tomorrow, we’ll return to Greenfield’s book and note one more problem with his account. Our focus: Why did Gore "correct" Bush on prescription drugs, the conduct which Greenfield finds so upsetting? Why did Gore "interrupt" a few times? Greenfield doesn’t bother to say—and that astounding omission gives us one fatal look at the soul of this dysfunctional press corps.

Tomorrow: Gore corrected Bush because Bush was wrong. It’s stunning that Greenfield doesn’t say so.


The occasional update (5/31/01)

The grating generation: Al Hunt said it on February, 3, 2000. "The press corps’ cynicism toward Gore is at its highest level since Richard Nixon," he wrote, in the Wall Street Journal. (Hunt largely blamed Gore for that state of affairs.) At any rate, contempt for Gore was running high by October, and a number of pundits—like CNN’s Schneider—couldn’t wait to make some dumb-ass statement about Gore’s performance. Schneider, in his very first comment, made a snide remark about the lockbox, in which he was wrong by a factor of three. Schneider said "at least twenty," it really was seven. But that’s close enough for the Washington press corps when they’re off on a two-year jihad.

For the record, Schneider wasn’t the only sage shooting blanks right out of the box. At NBC, Tom Brokaw was even less patient. Brokaw couldn’t get past paragraph one without making snide about Gore:

BROKAW (immediately after debate): The conclusion of the first debate. The election is just five weeks from today. It ran over—about ninety-five minutes altogether. There were some very spirited exchanges. The two candidates stuck to their fundamental positions. You did have a feeling that if you’d asked Vice President Gore what he had for breakfast today he would have said, "Two eggs over easy, coffee and a waiter who was complaining about the tax cut of the Texas governor."

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Amazing, isn’t it? Is there any professionalism or restraint in this pitiful crew? Literally, Brokaw couldn’t utter one single paragraph without directing a snide comment at Gore. But then, do you think that Brokaw will gain or lose from that tax cut which Gore was opposing?