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20 June 2000

Our current howler (part I): Hopeless, all too hopeless

Synopsis: Katharine Seelye offered a hopeless account of "Social Security Plus."

Gore to announce $200 billion plan to aid retirement
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/19/00

Gore to Detail Retirement Savings Plan
Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, 6/19/00

Katharine Seelye was describing an impending Gore plan—one that would "help low- and middle-income taxpayers build retirement accounts." When would Gore announce the plan? Here's how Seelye explained it:

SEELYE (paragraph 10): Mr. Gore intends to lay out the plan in a speech on Tuesday in Lexington, Ky. The speech begins the second week of the three-week "progress and prosperity tour" (sometimes called the "prosperity and progress tour" by Mr. Gore) in which he is traveling to crucial battle ground states to try to get credit for the economy.

That's right, folks. In the midst of a page-one, lead story explaining a major proposal, Seelye managed to find the time to tell you an important fact. That fact? Sometimes Gore says "prosperity and progress" instead of "progress and prosperity." A reader who wasn't familiar with Seelye might set that aside as a curious blip. That reader might also be surprised, however, to read this part of her dissertation:

SEELYE (8): Mr. Gore has been critical of Mr. Bush for devoting $1.3 trillion of the surplus to an across-the-board income tax cut over 10 years. But now, with this new saving plan, Mr. Gore's total of targeted tax cuts comes in at $500 billion over 10 years, twice what he had proposed before and half of Mr. Bush's proposal.

The reader might dismiss Seelye's odd arithmetic as another minor curiosity. For the record, it was the second time in four days that Seelye had described $500 billion as being "half of" $1.3 trillion.

In fact, when Seelye writes about a Gore plan, there is no point too silly, no spin too absurd, to fit into the piece. Why is $500 billion now "half of" $1.3 trillion? Because Seelye wants to offer some spin—Gore has been slamming Bush's tax cut, but the differences aren't all that great. ("Gore will do and say anything to win.") And why did she mention "prosperity and progress" versus "progress and prosperity?" Because Seelye writes for the New York Times—and when the Times gets on a hopeful's case, no minor error, real or imagined, is too trivial to throw in the stew. Back in January, in fealty to McCain, the Times' Frank Bruni got down on Bush, and the Times ran an incredible string of stories about words which Bush had mispronounced. Incredibly, Bruni wrote pieces describing mispronunciations on January 8, 15, 23 and 28 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00).

But Seelye didn't restrict her clowning to bizarre, minor points about word order. She also engaged in major spinning when she described Gore's proposal itself. It's hardly surprising—that someone willing to repeal basic math might cut a few corners on substance as well. At any rate, here was Seelye's highly tendentious assessment of Gore's proposal. It came early on in her piece:

SEELYE (7): Mr. Gore's plan does two things that Mr. Gore had criticized in the plan offered by Governor Bush, his Republican rival. One, it allows people to invest taxpayer money in the stock market. Two, it substantially increases the amount of the surplus that Mr. Gore would devote to tax cuts.

Both the points which Seelye makes are egregious examples of spin:

Point one: Gore's new plan "allows people to invest taxpayer money in the stock market," Seelye says. But Gore has criticized Bush's plan for investing payroll taxes in the stock market. That strategy, whatever its ultimate merits, does put basic Social Security benefits at risk. Everything done in the new Gore plan would be in addition to basic SS. Is Gore's idea a good one? We don't have a clue. But Gore plainly isn't doing the thing he called "risky" about the Bush proposal.

Point two: Gore (like McCain) has criticized Bush's tax cuts for using up the entire surplus (if not more). Gore's new tax cuts plainly don't do that—especially given the expanded surplus projection that helped allow Gore to propose them. Obviously, Gore hasn't criticized Bush just for offering tax cuts per se; Gore has always proposed tax cuts himself. For the record, by the way, that $1.3 trillion is the Bush campaign's estimate. The Gore estimate of Bush's tax cut is higher.

These points are so basic—so utterly simple—that one marvels at Seelye's presentation. And one is struck by how early on in her reporting she engages in open disputation. But Seelye wasn't the only one offering an odd account of the Gore proposal on Monday. Indeed, Glenn Kessler's page-one account in the Washington Post also stood out for its oddness.

Kessler understands what Seelye would gloss—that, whatever the merits of the Bush and Gore plans, they are substantially different proposals. In fact, in paragraph four (inside the paper), Kessler describes the two plans as "radically different approaches to dealing with Social Security." But some strange engine drove the scribe to suggest something different up in his lead. Here's the way Kessler opened:

KESSLER (1): Vice President Gore on Tuesday will detail a new plan that allows American workers to build up retirement savings through new investment accounts—a proposal that on the surface appears strikingly similar to the central concept of the Social Security plan offered by his Republican rival.

As we've seen, by paragraph four (inside the paper) Kessler explains that the plans are actually "radically different." Here's his complete fourth paragraph:

KESSLER (4): The move, coming after Gore has spent weeks bashing Texas Gov. George W. Bush for suggesting workers could invest Social Security money in the stock market, will likely cloud the distinction between what are radically different approaches to dealing with Social Security.

If you can decipher the thought involved there, you're a far better reader than we. According to Kessler, "the move"—Gore's announcement of the proposal—will somehow "cloud the distinction" between what turn out to be "radically different approaches." We won't even attempt to fight through the haze that lingers over this odd presentation. If Gore's approach really is "radically different," for example, why is it surprising that Gore "bashed" the Bush plan? Why would proposing one plan make it seem like the other? Let us know if you think you can limn it.

Is it normal to do what Kessler does here—to say how things "appear on the surface" in one's lead, then to say how things really are inside the paper? That strikes us as an odd approach to the communication of important ideas. But the world of our press corps is an odd one indeed—one in which 0.5 is now half of 1.3, and in which sneering asides on pointless distinctions appear in the middle of major discussions. Kessler's presentation was odd, but Seelye's was hopeless—a grinding dose of misdirection and spin. But it set the stage for a remarkable day filled with strange work by other major pundits.


Tomorrow: Andrea Mitchell to Dana Milbank: "Stop me before I spin more."


The Daily update (6/20/00)

Off the marks: We've mentioned the press corps' love of trivia, and Peter Marks had a perfect example. He described the gloom of a Gore campaign aide after Gore's appearance in Scranton last week:

MARKS (paragraph 2): What brought out Ms. Zarek's gloom was the front-page report in The Tribune, the Scranton daily...In a speech to 400 supporters, Mr. Gore had introduced a Democrat running in a critical special legislative election as John Wansacz.

(3) The problem was, the candidate's name was Jim. And The Tribune devoted the first five paragraphs of its lead story to the goof.

A good example of lousy journalism? Not at the devolving New York Times. Later in his piece, Marks explained how the reporting was really Gore's fault:

MARKS (17-18): Some commentators say Mr. Gore's tight handling of the news media has helped create negative impressions...[R]eporters who travel with Mr. Gore regularly say they get to ask him questions in a news conference setting less than once a week. In such a tightly controlled environment, people in the news business say, it is not surprising that reporters grasp for any development that does not follow the script—and that blunders, no matter how innocent, get magnified, as when a candidate gets a local politician's name wrong.

Marks' account makes no sense on its face. He explains a local paper's magnification of a trivial error on the basis of attitudes among the national press. But that's the kind of rigor one often finds when scribes explain bad reporting. According to Marks, if reporters don't get as much access as they want, they inevitably start "grasping for developments that don't follow the script" and "magnifying blunders, however innocent." There is no hint that something is wrong with that conduct. If you can follow the logic of that, you can tell us about that one, too.

Why has Gore "not established a more winning presence in the news media?" Marks offers a range of creative explanations for uninspired reporting of Gore's "prosperity and progress tour." After Gore aide Chris Lehane gave a few ideas, Marks began to work:

MARKS (15): But some political observers say the problem goes deeper, that Mr. Gore has never managed to shed his wooden image and that he tries too hard to ingratiate himself. During his remarks at the Allied Services medical center [in Scranton]...Mr. Gore told the gathering: "Tipper says hello. She enjoyed very much her trip to Scranton. She came back really glowing."

That was it! To Marks, that anecdote somehow helps explain why Gore hasn't gotten better press. Or sample this further effort:

MARKS (16): Even the words "prosperity and progress" earn talk-show snickers. "Very hip," David Letterman wise-cracked on Wednesday night. "Progress and prosperity: his campaign slogan is from the '39 World's Fair."

We invite you to try to decipher that too. David Letterman makes fun of a Gore slogan; somehow, that explains why Gore has gotten weak press. (Meanwhile, note to Katharine Seelye—Marks got the order of "progress and prosperity" mixed up.)

What will you never find in reporting like this? Consideration of the simplest explanations. In New Hampshire, Mickey Kaus reported something he'd found surprising about the press: "They hate Gore," he wrote (Kaus' emphasis). Al Hunt reported pretty much the same thing: "Cynicism toward Mr. Gore in the national press may be more intense than at any time since Richard Nixon," Hunt said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00). This past fall, three reporters described remarkable conduct by the press at the first Gore-Bradley debate. Eric Pooley, in Time: "Whenever Gore came on too strong," he said, "the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some helpless nerd" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/99). Howard Mortman, executive editor of the Hotline, described the same conduct, even more strongly. "The media groaned, howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something," Mortman said, on the Hotline's cable TV show. A month later, on C-SPAN's Washington Journal, Salon's Jake Tapper became the third scribe to comment:

TAPPER: Well, I can tell you that the only media bias I have detected in terms of a group media bias was, at the first debate between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, there was hissing for Gore in the media room at Dartmouth College. The reporters were hissing Gore, and that's the only time I've ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event.

Is it possible that the press corps just doesn't like Gore? That's the one explanation you'll never see considered. Remember, the press corps tells you the stories it likes. Its own possible culpability rarely intrudes on the search for more pleasing explanations.

Gore's 'Prosperity' Tour Is Off to a Rocky Start
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 6/19/00