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22 June 2000

Our current howler (part III): The god must be crazy

Synopsis: The great god, Spin, is a merciless god. He’s been driving the press corps all week.

Commentary by Susan Dentzer
The NewsHour, PBS, 6/20/00

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell, Susan Page
The Mitchell Report, MSNBC, 6/20/00

In artists' renderings, he has twenty heads—but one mouth. He roars in dismay when scribes stick to the facts. The great god, Spin, is a merciless god, and he's been driving the press corps all week. When Gore came out with "Social Security Plus," the acceptable spins were soon out on the street. Gore was reinventing himself. And he was now proposing the very thing he had bashed.
And Spin's pious adepts have passed the spins on—often bringing low, mordant chuckles from our analysts here at THE HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/00).

It isn't as if it was really that hard to report the basic facts of the case. Susan Dentzer showed how easy it was on The NewsHour this past Tuesday night. Here's how she opened her segment:

DENTZER: Today Vice President Al Gore laid out a plan to buttress Americans' skimpy savings with a new system of private accounts on top of Social Security.

We'd prefer that she lose the word "skimpy." But next, she let Gore speak for himself:

DENTZER: [Tape of Gore speaking] I propose today, here in Lexington, that we create new Retirement Savings Plus Accounts, tax-free, voluntary accounts that let you save, invest and build on top of the guaranteed foundation of Social Security [Gore's emphasis]

Dentzer spelled out basic facts:

DENTZER: Gore's plan would give families earning up to $100,000 a year the ability to squirrel away up to $4000 annually, free from taxes. What's more, much of that money would come directly from the government.

Dentzer provided details of how the plan would work at various income levels. She also explained how Bush's Social Security proposal would work, and gave a streamlined account of how the proposals differed. Having used tape of Gore to explain his proposal, she used tape of Bush to critique it:

DENTZER: Bush criticized Gore's proposal as a flip-flop.

[Tape of Bush speaking] Now all of a sudden he's decided it's okay to be managing money in the stock market. First the stock market was roulette and risky, and now the heat's on, and he changes position.

Dentzer expressed no view on Bush's statement. She closed out her four-minute segment:

DENTZER: Now that the two rivals have carved out such different stances on Social Security, the campaign to win over voters on the issue gets underway in earnest.

Dentzer's piece was perhaps most remarkable for the things she didn't do. She didn't say whether Gore had reinvented himself. She didn't discuss what clothes Gore wore last summer. She didn't speculate about either pol's motives. In fact—no, we swear, it's really true—she didn't take it upon herself to evaluate anyone's character! She engaged in an old-fashioned press corps ritual—she simply explained some basic facts. How the great god, Spin, must have bellowed and roared to see the correspondent misbehaving!

But elsewhere, a somewhat less disciplined pundit offered raw meat to Spin's dripping maws. Once again, it was Andrea Mitchell, this time on Tuesday night's Mitchell Report. She spoke with Susan Page:

MITCHELL: First, Al Gore and Social Security. We're talking about a proposal that is different from George W. Bush's in fundamental ways—it does not change the existing program, which should appeal to elderly people very concerned about their retirement. But it's designed to appeal to the boomers who want to do some investing. Yet at the same time it seems as though he's reinventing his proposal. How does he communicate?

Huh? For the record, this was the second night on which Mitchell discussed Gore's proposal. On Monday, she'd discussed it with Dana Milbank; on this night, she would discuss it with Page and David Bonior. But in every discussion, Mitchell quickly skipped past what the plan proposed, and discussed instead Gore's imagined motives—always in the standard language that had spread all through the press. Gore's proposal was quite plainly new, quite but what did Mitchell mean when she called it "reinvented?" Oops, sorry. Mitchell didn't say Gore was "reinventing his proposal;" she said it seemed that way. So do pundits massage their words to work in the great god's messages. Page showed no sign of understanding Mitchell's question, and said Bush's idea had met with favor. Mitchell quickly responded:

MITCHELL: Doesn't Gore risk looking as though he's, first of all, playing copy-cat, and second of all eating his own words? We kept hearing, over and over, that Bush's proposal was, quote, risky, that it was irresponsible, that it was jeopardizing people's retirements. [End of question]

Here we see explicit RNC spin: Gore is doing what he previously bashed (see Bush's statement above). This question came from a pundit who had just finished saying that Gore's proposal was "different from Bush's in fundamental ways"—that it "didn't change the existing [Social Security] program," which "should appeal to [worried] elderly people." She'd just said it, thirty seconds before! But the great god, Spin, is a jealous god, and adepts must keep repeating his mantras. Note again—Mitchell doesn't say that Gore is "playing copy-cat." She merely asks if he doesn't "risk looking" that way.

The powerful god's two basic images kept appearing in Mitchell's exchanges. Although Mitchell said the two plans were not alike, she suggested that (1) Gore was reinventing himself, and (2) Gore was copying what he had bashed. In the program's next segment, with Rep. Bonior, Mitchell made this amazing presentation:

MITCHELL: Talking about the larger Gore versus Bush debate this week, we've seen Al Gore coming up with a new Social Security proposal which is really a retreat from his earlier proposals and sounds a lot like what George W was proposing. Even though it isn't, to the average voter it sounds as though he's talking about investing in the markets which is what he said is a high-risk deal.

Incredible! Explicitly saying that Gore's plan isn't like Bush's, Mitchell goes ahead and says, two times, that it "sounds like" it is all the same. She also called the new Gore plan "a retreat from earlier proposals," without ever explaining the statement.

One obvious point about this passage: Mitchell has absolutely no way of knowing how Gore's plan "sounds to the average voter." As of Tuesday night, there had been zero polling done on this plan, and Mitchell hadn't spoken to any average voters, of that you can be fairly certain. If Gore's plan "sounds a lot like what George W is proposing," it's because pundits like Mitchell keep repeating the soundbite—even when they've explicitly said that the soundbite is actually false. In this last passage, Mitchell says one time that the plans aren't alike—and she says two times that they sound like they are!

But the great god, Spin, is a mighty god, and acolytes bow to his power. In the past several days, we've seen a number of pundits—Mitchell, Bloom, even Kessler—suggest that the two plans are much alike while explicitly saying that they're really quite different. On Tuesday, even Page finally came around. She brought our analysts out of their chairs when she offered this classic statement:

PAGE: Gore is the experienced candidate in this race. This is really his third national political campaign. It's George W. Bush's first. But we see Bush moving with great skill since the primaries to move to the center, to claim some centrist ground, to set an agenda which Gore has followed.

Bingo! The great god roared with pleasure! Remember the basic talking-point, boys and girls? Al Gore reinvents himself; but George Bush just moves to the center (with skill!). Page had done a Perfect Gergen; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/9/00. And Mitchell, of course, still calls Governor Bush "George W," for those who like complete lack of discipline.

On Monday night, Mitchell had poured out her worries to Milbank. Will Gore be able to "fully explain" his plan, she asked, or will "all of us say he's reinventing himself" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/00). But on Tuesday night, as we see above, "reinventing his proposal" was the very first thing that came from the pundit's own mouth! But then, other followers of the merciless god had said "reinventing" all weekend long, too. The spin-point was shoehorned again and again. We'll examine their offerings tomorrow.

Tomorrow: Gore had "suddenly" increased his tax cuts, Russert said. The ravenous Spin roared his pleasure.


The Daily update (6/22/00)

Nicknames work: The Gary Graham case doesn't raise special questions about whether capital punishment is moral in principle. The case has drawn attention because of the limited evidence on which the case was decided. That's why we're struck by Frank Bruni's piece about the case in this morning's Times. Bruni reports a Bush press conference in which the Graham case was the principal topic. But here's all we find in Bruni's story dealing with the facts of the case:

BRUNI (paragraph 14): Mr. Bush said he was talking daily with the state's lawyers about Mr. Graham's case and was doing what he always did: assessing whether there was convincing evidence of Mr. Graham's guilt and whether Mr. Graham had full access to the courts.

(15) "I'm going to treat this no differently than any other case that has crossed my desk," he said. [End of article]

That was it. Those two paragraphs—the last two in the story—represent Bruni's only discussion of the facts of the case. In the first thirteen paragraphs, Bruni quotes Bush discussing everything except what is principally at issue. Bush discusses the general morality of the death penalty, and his general approach to death penalty cases. But there is no sign that any scribe ever asked him specific questions about the facts of this case. Given the widespread reporting about those facts, we thought the lack of curiosity was striking.

And note the three paragraphs which close today's piece by Paul Duggan in the Post. Duggan reports a remarkable incident involving John Cornyn, the Texas attorney general:

DUGGAN: Proponents of the execution, including Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a Republican and Bush political ally, also have been spinning the facts in their favor.

Taking an unusually public role in the case this week, Cornyn repeatedly asserted in nationally televised interviews that the two witnesses cited by Graham's clemency petition have already told their stories in court.

But neither of the two witnesses have testified in court. By the time Graham's appellate lawyers found them and obtained their affadavits in the mid-1990s, appeals courts were barred by Texas and federal laws from considering their testimony because too much time had passed since Graham's 1991 trial. [End of article]

Duggan, an exceptionally polite fellow this day, describes Cornyn as "spinning the facts." In fact, Cornyn engaged in outright, bald, repeated misstatement on Nightline this Monday night (click here for transcript). Under the circumstances, Cornyn's performance was simply astounding; either he didn't know basic facts of the case, or he was deliberately misstating them. Would you be curious to know what Bush thought about that? If so, you'll have to ask him about it yourself. To judge from today's reporting by Bruni and Duggan, the polite press corps didn't bother to ask.

The press corps' lack of curiosity about Bush's thinking is little short of astounding. That's especially true in light of the Howard Kurtz piece which we discussed just last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/16/00). According to Kurtz, the scribes were getting to know Bush's thinking by riding around on his plane while he pinches their cheeks. Bruni—Sorry, folks. We misspoke; that's "Panchito"—had described the same process in April (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/00). The pundits explain their fraternization as a way to learn how hopefuls think. Yesterday, they had a great chance to learn a lot more, but, politely, they took no advantage.

What does Bush think about his AG? The scribes didn't much seem to care. But just think back over the effort they've invested in figuring out Al Gore's choice of clothes and you'll see again the unmistakable profile of our hopelessly trivialized press corps.

Postscript: Cornyn may not be alone in his limited knowledge. Bruni included this account near the end of his Wednesday piece:

BRUNI (6/21): Asked whether accounts like the one about the sleeping lawyer made him wonder whether people were getting fair trials, [Bush] quickly and succinctly responded, "That's what the appellate process is for."

But several hours later, he returned to the reporter who had posed the question and pointed out that in that case, the defendant had confessed.

Mr. Bush had clearly gone and done some research. He had just as clearly come to the conclusion that it was a god idea to let people know that. [End of article]

Is Bruni's account accurate? We don't have a clue. But if it is, it's another remarkable event. Six years into his term as governor, Bush is unfamiliar with the "sleeping lawyer" cases? They have been widely discussed in the national press corps for months, and have been widely debated in Texas for years. Bruni displayed no sign of surprise at Bush's need to conduct some "research." He didn't bring it up at the press conference, either. And no one else seemed to mention the incident. Our conclusion from that? Nicknames work.

Bush Stands Firm on Upholding Death Penalty
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 6/22/00

In Texas, a Battle Escalates As Execution Draws Near
Paul Duggan, The Washington Post, 6/22/00

2 Men, Fates Linked
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 6/21/00