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22 June 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Pundits, tell us true

Synopsis: We think the press should avoid double standards--and should try to say things that are true.

Commentary by Cokie Roberts
This Week, ABC, 6/13/99

At Two Commencements, Perspective Is the Reality
Pamela Ferdinand and Michael Grunwald, The Washington Post, 6/11/99

Commentary by Cokie Roberts, Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 6/21/99

It wasn’t just on FNS that we thought we might see a double standard. The Fox gang had grinned about Bush-on-warming, then cracked the whip over Love Story tripe. But hours later, Cokie Roberts was back from Iowa, where she’d looked in on the W Launch. In reporting on the governor’s debut, she gave voice to a feel-good tale:

ROBERTS: In terms of [Bush’s] separation from congressional Republicans, he was introduced yesterday by Congressman Nussle, who chose as a form of introduction to sing a selection from The Music Man, a capella, was meant to be charming but it would have helped with accompaniment, and I must say I was standing there thinking, at this moment--and we had had a text of the speech handed to us which said, “Important announcement here,” which was where he was going to say, “I’m running, I’m running”--...and I was thinking, you know, at this point a presidential candidate is thinking, “Do I really want to do this?”

Poor W! Putting up with all that piffle! And the pundits just threw their heads back and roared at Cokie’s wise, warm badinage.

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no complaints with powder puff, good-guy reports from the trail--although pundits shouldn’t claim to be tearing up hopefuls, if that’s not what they’re trying to do. We believe Gov. Bush deserves the press corps’ respect; we think his success in Texas speaks for itself; and we think there is no reason at all, at this absurdly early stage, to be “examining every movement” the poor guy makes, as Cokie said scribes would be doing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/17/99).

But we also believe that sauce for the gov would serve very nicely as sauce for the veep. And we noticed that Cokie, like the gang at Fox, had a different tone for that boring vice president. Some 65 seconds after her anecdote on Bush, she said it was time “to give the Democrats equal time,” but the story-telling she engaged in here had a quite different flavor about it. She responded to suggestions from William Kristol that Bill Bradley may put up a fight:

ROBERTS: The other thing that can happen is [Gore] can lose his cool, which seems to be happening to some degree. There’s this story--


ROBERTS: Yes, in one of the tabloids today that Susan Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis’ campaign, was going to write a column saying there weren’t enough women in high places in his campaign, and he apparently called her up and reamed her out--


ROBERTS: And the president was appealed to by Susan Estrich and the president once again pulls the vice president aside and says, “A little advice from me, Al.”

Did the incident happen? We have no idea. Neither, of course, does Roberts. Simply put, Roberts is gossiping here on the air, saying what “apparently” “seems” to be going on, based on a tabloid story. (From a reported incident she can’t confirmed, she draws a sweeping--and negative--generalization.) The story involves a current, favorite derogatory image--hapless Al Gore being lectured by Clinton--and even gave co-host Sam Donaldson the chance to amuse with a smutty aside. Does America’s public discourse matter? If so, major pundits shouldn’t gossip on network TV. But we again were struck, as we had been on Fox, by the different tones that seemed to inhabit the discussions of Bush and Gore.

There is nothing harder to demonstrate or quantify than the existence of double standards. We aren’t even going to try to argue that a double standard now exists. But, while that snarling press ignored the Bush tax-pledge “blunder,” and grinned at his global warming confusion, it seems impossible to read a profile of Gore without encountering immediate criticism. Item: Two Washington Post “Style” profiles (in one week) about how incredibly boring Gore is. Item: A lengthy New York Times profile on the boredom factor, whose opening paragraph describes Gore dressing down for a campaign event “as per President Clinton’s instructions” (that again). The Post even had Gore in a lengthy article about the Harvard commencement ceremony, which he attended because his daughter was graduating (a point that wasn’t mentioned in the article). He was quickly described as one of the “swank alumni,” and later was invidiously compared with the head of a Boston homeless shelter:

FERDINAND AND GRUNWALD: Still, shelter president Erik Payne Butler--who graduated from Harvard with Gore--believes the Harvard graduates entering “the fellowship of educated men and women” today could learn something from their counterparts from the school of hard knocks.

It made for a wonderful image--the swank, stuffy Gore and his former classmate, who had dedicated his life to serving the poor. In fact, it made for such a fabulous image that somebody apparently made it up--Payne didn’t graduate from Harvard with Gore, and what Gore was even doing in the story (or in a large accompanying picture) is something only the Post could explain.

Is the press corps running a double standard? Here at THE HOWLER, we do suspect that, on the whole, the press corps is playing a favorite. We think that the press corps by and large hates President Clinton, as Sally Quinn made clear in her famous essay last fall. We think the press corps sees Vice President Gore as its last chance to deal with Vile Clinton. We suspect some scribes think Gore himself misbehaved in service to Clinton. Pundits are surely entitled to that view--if they have the courage to stand up and say it. But they serve the public interest poorly if they couch their views in endless misdirection--in silly inventions about Love Story, and in the endless, groaning “farm chores” matter that Diane Sawyer dumbly brought back last week. (Much more on that yet to come.)

We won’t attempt to prove double standards. We do note that the press keeps saying things that aren’t true. We’ll go on, this week, to examine again the way press coverage seems tied to RNC spin. But tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how bad it can get, when the press corps decides to play games with a hopeful. We’ll take a look at the treatment dished out to Lamar Alexander on page one of the Times.

It never ends department: Last night, Roberts appeared on the inventive show Hardball. A tabloid talker introduced one segment with another of those familiar press boasts:

MATTHEWS: Anyway, when we come back with Cokie, I want to talk all George Bush. I want to get into this guy’s innards and find out what he’s worth. (Matthews’ emphasis)

Finally! Someone was going to take off the gloves, and give us the critique we’ve been after! But wouldn’t you know it? In the actual segment, the only discussion of Bush went like this:

ROBERTS: Well I was with him in Cedar Rapids and he was awfully good at it...He wowed ’em!...And any time he’s been asked a question that could turn him testy or get him in trouble he’s done a good job on the answer. I loved that flag-burning question, when the guy says to him, you know, “You for the flag-burning amendment,” he says, “Yes,” the guy says, “What about the First Amendment,” Bush says, “You’re exercising it right now.” Perfect answer!

Perfect answer--which avoided the question! The pundits skipped to (yawn) Hillary Clinton, having found the gov’s innards just right.

But when they turned to Gore, in a following segment, the language got down and dirty. Gore twice was called a “bathtub ring,” and his support of Clinton against impeachment was repeatedly compared (by a talker) to French collaboration with the Nazis. For the record, we plan to examine this pitiful segment in more detail later on. Want to see how bad our discourse can get? Take a look at these two last night, just puzzled by Gore’s views on Clinton. Roughly two-thirds of the country seem to share Gore’s view--that Clinton’s conduct was gruesome, but he should not have been removed. But pundits are currently earning their keep pretending they can’t figure out the “contradiction.” The entertainment value of these conversations is high. But the conversations are simply sad, if the quality of our discourse really matters.