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8 June 2000

Our current howler (part II): Focused group

Synopsis: Someone else was telling the pundits’ One Story—Jim Nicholson, over at the RNC.

Gore to stress the positive with own issues
Susan Page, USA Today, 5/30/00

Gore, on a Personal Note, and Bush, Less So, Pay Homage to the Nation's War Dead
James Dao and Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 5/30/00

Commentary by Carl Cameron
Special Report, FNC, 6/2/00

Commentary by Brian Williams, Nelson Warfield
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 5/31/00

How big a deal was the Gore announcement? Exciting words were flying around as the pundits all told their One Story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/00). Gore was undergoing a "make-over," being "reinvented;" the campaign had devised "yet another roll-out." But it didn't seem like that big a deal when Susan Page (and some others) explained it. Gore would spend the week "promoting his own family-related proposals," Page said, "including a welfare-to-work initiative." His campaign was planning "a week of events designed to portray Gore in more positive and personal terms." It didn't seem like such a Biggie, and it wasn't just Page who found the news underwhelming. At the New York Times, James Dao was filling in for Katharine Seelye, and as a result, the spin-quotient was DOWN. Dao managed to describe the plan for Gore's week without having a wholescale conniption:

DAO AND BRUNI (5/30): For Mr. Gore, the deeply personal speech today fit into a broader effort by his campaign to reintroduce him to voters through television commercials, speeches and other events that highlight his biography. Later this week he is to promote cancer programs by discussing the death of his sister, Nancy, of lung cancer.

It was paragraph 7 of an article describing Gore's speech on Memorial Day. And there was rare good news for New York Times readers: They got to read hunks of what Gore actually said without first having Primal Spinner "Kit" Seelye hammer Gore's words into "perspective."

But there was one other Washingtonian who was in sync with Fineman's story, and that was Jim Nicholson (RNC). The RNC also was pushing "reinvention." Carl Cameron discussed it on Friday:

CAMERON (6/2): A Bush news release chided the vice president for constantly reinventing himself, dubbing the latest makeover "Al Gore Version 6.0." In April, Version 5 was "Negative Al." Version 4.0 in March "Crusading Reformer." "Alpha Male with Earth Tones" was Version 3.0 last November, and before that, according to the Bushies, there was Version 2, "Underdog Al," and "Average Joe Al," Version 1.0.

Something which Cameron didn't mention: Right on the RNC press release, they quoted from Fineman's Newsweek article.

Yep. Great minds were very much thinking alike, inspired by Fineman's excited treatment. On Tuesday morning, Don Imus, citing Fineman's article, brought up Gore's "makeover" with Jeff Greenfield and Jonathan Alter (neither scribe played along with the concept). On Wednesday night, Brian Williams improved Fineman's article a bit, right on his eponymous News:

WILLIAMS (5/31): Last night on this broadcast we reported on how Al Gore is trying to reinvent himself yet again...Leon Panetta, I'd like to start with you. Newsweek magazine [is] reporting that the Gore campaign had a focus group or two and they found people liked the fact that he was a Vietnam veteran, a former journalist, and viewed as the thinking man's candidate...So that's what their commercials are going to stress. Should this be the way government and campaigns are run?

Williams sounded sad as he asked the question. Actually, it was Williams' viewers we ought to pity; the Newsweek article hadn't said a word about any such focus group testing. Panetta didn't have the article to check, so he accepted Williams' account of the piece and lightly scolded Gore for the practice. Then our friend Nelson Warfield gave a stirring speech; Bush "is comfortable with who he is," Nelson said. We'll tell you, there wasn't a dry eye in our house. But Uncle Nelson had also said this:

WARFIELD (5/31): Al Gore has gone through so many revisions I think we're on Al Gore Version 6.0 now, with 6.1 coming down the pike pretty soon.

Whoa! Nelson was on-message, RNC style, two days before the RNC got there! At any rate, Williams had added the concept of "focus groups" to the makeover/reinvention/new-rollout blend. In fact, there weren't any focus groups in the Newsweek piece. But they belonged there. So Williams just "invented" them.

Let's review. On Monday, Fineman's article said Gore was having a "makeover." Imus blabbed the concept on Tuesday. Tuesday night, Fineman—on The News—rattled off Gore's "reinventions." Wednesday night, Williams had focus groups mixed in the stew, and Nelson had "Version 6.0" up and running. Gergen and Roberts were right on message on Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

But was Gore's week fairly described as a "makeover?" Was it fairly described as "reinvention?" It seemed a bit overwrought to us; making a few biographical speeches is hardly a shocking campaign strategy. But we wouldn't mind the overstatement so much if the overstatement were evenly parceled. If the pundits overreacted to Bush the same way, we'd say they were hyperbolic but fair. But uh-oh! Gergen said something while playing on Hardball Friday night that made our analysts utter low mordant jibes.

Tomorrow: Bush wasn't "reinventing himself." Bush was "moving back to the center!"


The Daily update (6/8/00)

Standard for the f-word: We'd heard of the column about Dr. Laura. And sure enough—we found it on the Journal's editorial page, written by author Harry Stein. He'd stirred up our analysts with this:

STEIN: Her position on the "deviancy" comments is that alien as such terminology might ring to contemporary, secular ears, it is literally accurate: Homosexual behavior does deviate from the norm.

We haven't studied the Dr. Laura dispute, but we thought Stein's critique was worth comment. Harry!! Where are the analytical skills? Things that "deviate from the norm" aren't necessarily "deviant." For example: Orthodox Judaism "deviates from the norm." Getting a doctorate "deviates from the norm." But it would be odd to think that you'd call those things "deviant." The majority of things that "deviate from the norm" wouldn't normally be referred to as "deviant."

This simple point would occur to anyone—if our society valued clear, precise thinking. But, next time you enter one of our giant bookstores, look for the section on "Logic/analysis/thought." You'll note that it doesn't exist. Our bookstores feature sections on cooking, exercise, investing—even history. But our culture has long since stopped believing that thought is a skill worth pursuing. (If you doubt it, take a college logic course. Prepare to be driven mad with irrelevance.) It was once assumed that clear thought was a valuable skill. The idea has long since fled the earth.

Stein's piece took us back to a Weekly Standard editorial entitled "Al Gore's New Defender." Robert Parry had penned a Washington Monthly piece critiquing the "Love Canal" flap. The Standard bashed poor Bob pretty good. They ended their rumination like this:

THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Parry wants to prove that the press has "exaggerated Al Gore's exaggerations..."But try as he tortuously does, Parry cannot explain away the unexpurgated text of the vice president's remarks last November to a group of high school students.

Alerted in the late 1970s to a toxic waste dump in Tone, Tennessee, Gore told his adolescent audience, "I called for a congressional investigation and hearing. I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal..."

Gore was not claiming to have discovered and first publicized Love Canal, sayeth Robert Parry. Guess it all depends on what the meaning of the word "found" is.

Actually, it pretty much does. The word "found" is used in many different ways—and it's not interchangeable with "discovered." For example: Reread the first paragraph of this "Update." Look at the word "found" in that passage:

THE DAILY HOWLER: We'd heard of the column on Dr. Laura. And sure enough—we found it on the Journal's editorial page, written by author Harry Stein...

Did anyone think, when they read that passage, that we were claiming to have "discovered" the column on Dr. Laura? Of course not. "Found" and "discovered" are not interchangeable—except when you've got spin to sell.

Logic courses should teach students that. But when is the last time a college prof helped tidy our poor muddled discourse?

You May Hate Dr. Laura, But Don't Try to Censor Her
Harry Stein, The Wall Street Journal, 6/6/00

Al Gore's New Defender
Scrapbook, The Weekly Standard, 4/10/00