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14 June 2000

The Howler epilog: Wily tacticians

Synopsis: The press corps disapproved of Gore’s tactics, O’Donnell said. So they thought up some tactics themselves.

Bush Delays an Execution For the 1st Time in 5 Years
Frank Bruni and Richard Oppel, The New York Times, 6/2/00

Gore Urges Doubling of Funds in War Against Cancer
James Dao, The New York Times, 6/2/00

Invoking the Personal, Gore Sounds Warrior's Cry Against Cancer
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 6/2/00

Commentary by Lawrence O'Donnell, Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 5/5/00

For Bush, it had been an unusual call. And Frank Bruni said so, up front:

BRUNI (paragraph 1): In a step he had never taken over the course of 131 executions in five years, Gov. George W. Bush agreed tonight to a 30-day reprieve for a death-row inmate in Texas, citing concerns that adequate tests on DNA evidence in the case had not been performed.

That paragraph was full of hard facts. Over the next five paragraphs, Bruni continued reporting basic facts about the governor's action. Paragraphs 5 and 6 reported Bush's statement; speculation about motives and tactics came later. More precisely, Bruni's first rumination on motives and tactics came in paragraph 8:

BRUNI (8): Although his probable Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, also supports capital punishment, some of Mr. Gore's allies would like to use the issue to cast doubt on Mr. Bush's efforts to portray himself as a "compassionate conservative."

Oops! Bruni's first discussion of political tactics concerned tactics by allies of Gore! It wasn't until paragraph 15 that the scribe pondered Bush's motives:

BRUNI (15): What Mr. Bush did today, and the way in which he presaged it with a series of remarks on Wednesday, suggested that he was at least somewhat sensitive to his image as a fervent advocate of capital punishment and pleased to happen upon a case that allowed him to temper it.

In gingerly fashion, Bruni offered a tentative picture of possible motives by Bush. Events "suggested" that Bush was "somewhat" concerned about his political image. But even before he offered this note, Bruni quoted Bush aides, in paragraph 11, saying that Bush's action "was not even remotely affected by politics and that he had made many tough and unpopular decisions about the death penalty in the past." Bruni later quoted Republican strategist Mike Murphy saying, "I don't think this is political."

And guess what? We're not saying there's anything wrong with Bruni's report on Bush. But, as we perused the June 2 Times, we thought Bruni's piece contrasted sharply with a neighboring piece about Gore. On June 1, Gore made a proposal about cancer research; James Dao reported the plan for the Times, in an article positioned right next to Bruni's. But after three paragraphs describing Gore's speech, Dao went straight to this:

DAO (4): The speech offered a vivid example of the recent tactical shift by Mr. Gore away from attacking his likely Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, and toward outlining his own vision in upbeat terms.

(5) All this week, Mr. Gore, who has been criticized by some Democrats as appearing overly harsh on the campaign trail, has brought a softer, more personal, even intimate touch to his events.

(6) On Monday, Mr. Gore and an Army friend described their experiences in Vietnam. On Tuesday, he and his wife, Tipper, who has been treated for depression, appeared together at a mental health forum. Today, Mr. Gore referred to the death of his sister, Nancy from lung cancer and brought along her husband, Frank Hunger, to talk to reporters. And he has not criticized Mr. Bush all week.

Dao then went on to provide details of what Gore had actually said.

Was there anything wrong with Dao's approach? Not necessarily, no. But we thought it was striking how quickly and thoroughly he described the VP's "tactics." Indeed, in the first six paragraphs, Dao spent almost as much time explaining what Gore hadn't done as he spent explaining what Gore had said. Before he told you what Gore had said, he made sure that you knew why he said it.

The approach has been common in the past few weeks, as Gore "trotted out" his "latest reinvention." Repetitious accounts of Gore's tactics and strategy have been marbled through piece after piece. When Ceci Connolly reported Gore's cancer proposal, for example, she also explained, early on, that it was part of an overall strategy:

CONNOLLY (4): Today's speech was the high point in a weeklong effort to soften Gore by virtually eliminating the words George W. Bush from his vocabulary and infusing each campaign event with a touch of personal biography.

Paragraphs 7, 8 and 9 were also mainly devoted to explaining the strategy behind recent events. Connolly stated a view:

CONNOLLY (9): Midway through the week, the Gore team even attached a new label—"Family Agenda"—to an effort that is more tactical than substantive. Many of the announcements have been reruns of earlier speeches or, as was the case today, minor additions to longstanding Clinton-Gore policy.

It's perfectly appropriate to let readers know when an announcement is a "minor addition" to policy. We don't think there's anything horribly wrong with any one of these three different pieces. But we couldn't help thinking, as the past two weeks progressed, of something Lawrence O'Donnell had said (see "The Daily update," 5/9/00). As O'Donnell appeared on the May 5 Hardball, Gore was hitting Bush hard on Social Security. And O'Donnell said something to a tabloid talker that brought us right out of our seats:

O'DONNELL: There's a very interesting thing developing this week which is the media, especially the New York Times, seems to be making a decision about how complicit they want to be in the Gore tactic [of criticizing Bush on SS]. You notice they're doing less reporting now on what Gore is actually saying and much more analysis about the tactic of it and why he's saying it. They didn't do this in the fall when it was Gore versus Bradley on health care stuff.

Back in the fall, O'Donnell noted, the corps had reported the things which Gore said. Now they were mulling a different approach. An excitable talker responded:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (continuing directly): So the Times is avoiding being used as a weapon by Gore against the Republicans by simply trumpeting all his charges and scare tactics. They're saying he's using scare tactics.

In our view, the talker was describing an approach by the press corps that would be extremely misguided. O'Donnell fleshed it out a bit more:

O'DONNELL (continuing directly): Well, I think—there's a sense in the press corps that not only did Bill Bradley let Gore get away with taking these shots in the fall, but the press feels a little bit, it seems to me, a little bit complicit in helping deliver them. And so now you're seeing what I think in many cases is almost an over-analysis in terms of the press of the Gore tactic as opposed to the substance of what Gore is actually saying, which does have some real merit.

O'Donnell described remarkable thinking. The press corps felt "complicit" in Bradley's defeat because it had reported the things which Gore said! A press corps should surely inform its readers when hopefuls make statements that are false or misleading. But, for all its griping about Gore's critique of Bradley's health plan, the corps never quite explained what Gore said that was actually wrong; by January, many scribes had begun to admit that the Bradley plan did have real problems (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/26/00 and 1/27/00). Our pundits are not analytical giants. Given that fact, the idea that scribes would decide they didn't like a candidate's "tactics"—and would then refrain from reporting his statements—that was an idea so utterly gruesome that one hopes even the press corps would know it.

But we've often thought back to O'Donnell's remarks as we've watched the press corps' recent reporting. In recent weeks, reporting on Gore has plainly tilted toward comments on tactics and strategy. We'll offer up a basic clue—both campaigns discuss strategy, every day. The Gore campaign is concerned with death penalty politics. The Bush campaign is concerned with it, too.

We think reporters should consider a classic approach—taking it as their principal task to report what the hopefuls have done and said. On June 2, Bush's decision to grant the reprieve could have been treated in the context of tactics. But Bruni basically laid out the facts. On balance, we commend his reporting.


The Daily update (6/14/00)

We wish they would use it less often: Why would we prefer that reporters try to stick to the basic, hard facts? Because they often display such bad judgment. Here, for example, in its entirety, is a recent Katharine Seelye "Campaign Briefing:"

Vice President has clearly given considerable thought to his legacy. Emphasis on considerable. Here was his answer Thursday at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles when a guest asked him how history would view him after two terms as president: "I would hope that at the end of my tenure it would be said that during those years the American people reached their highest potential and had obstacles and impediments removed from their way, that the progress and prosperity of our nation continued and accelerated, that we gave every child health care and moved quickly toward universal health care for all, that we revolutionized the educational system and brought the productivity revolution of the private sector into the schools and respected teachers and made our schools the very best in the world. I would want it said we were a more harmonious nation where race and ethnicity were understood and recognized but didn't make a difference because we respected one another's differences and embraced what we had in common. I would want it said that violence declined sharply. I would want it said that the environment became a central principle of what we did and how we did it and that we led the world toward successful confrontation f the problem of global warming. I would want it said that we reformed our politics and campaign financing and that we made democracy more real in the lives of the people, and finally, I would want it said that at the end of those years we as Americans had a stronger belief in our own ability to govern ourselves and to make our dreams real."

Well, don't worry, Mr. Vice President. Even if all those things came true, "Kit" Seelye would still be complaining. Gore's answer—a stock recitation of Gore priorities—betrays no evidence, none at all, that Gore has "clearly given considerable thought to his legacy." For those who don't understand Seelye-speak, this comment is an effort to tie Gore to President Clinton, whom pundits have often pictured of late obsessing about his legacy. The "Briefing" delivers an obvious message: Gore is wrapped up in himself. Seelye's comment serves one other big purpose—it baldly expresses, for all to see, her sardonic attitude toward the hopeful she covers. Similar weird comments by Seelye litter the Times, increasingly making it a parody of a newspaper.

Scribes like Seelye don't think real good. And, in the age of Maureen Dowd, they simply spill over with attitude. Are you happy to hear what O'Donnell said—that seers like Seelye may now be weighing how much of a hopeful you get to hear without filters? Hopeless judgment produced Seelye's "Campaign Briefing." When we see our reporters display judgment like this, we just wish they would use it less often.

Campaign Briefing
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/10/00