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Caveat lector

26 July 1999

Our current howler (part III): Know all, tell all

Synopsis: Today’s reporter likes nothing better than recording his or her matchless insights.

Gore Enlists the First Lady for Women’s Support
Katherine Q. Seelye, The New York Times, 6/2/99

New York State of Mine
Eric Pooley, Time, 7/19/99

Commentary by Eric Pooley
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 6/14/99

Is there something wrong with attitudes of the sort that Kurtz recorded in his June 25 piece—with the kinds of attitudes he ascribed to Roger Simon and James Warren? Simon had said the press corps would make Gore "jump through hoops" until he said what they wanted. And Warren—describing Clinton as "moral scum"—said that the press corps probably was punishing Gore for his connection to Clinton, though he wasn't sure if it was subconscious or otherwise (and didn't seem to be concerned by the thought).

It seems to us that, when reporters hold attitudes like these, it leads to abuse on the part of reporters. And one thing is quite clear, dear reader: often, today's reporter likes nothing more than displaying his or her brilliant insights. Articles that purport to be straightforward news are simply larded with interpretation and spin. As we'll eventually see, it's a short step from writing like this to acts of outright news management.

For endless interpretation, take a June 2 piece in the New York Times by reporter Katherine Seelye. Seelye was covering a Gore appearance with Hillary Clinton, at which Clinton endorsed Gore's White House run. There was nothing about the presentation of the piece to suggest it was anything but straightforward reporting. But the article became a striking example of an increasingly common kind of "reporting," in which simple, relatively trivial events serve as platforms for the reporter's hype and spin.

Seelye's first paragraph introduced her habit of matching each fact with subjective interpretation:

SEELYE (paragraph 1): With his support among women lagging, Vice President Al Gore today sought the help of Hillary Rodham Clinton to spark excitement for his Presidential candidacy—even at the risk that her star power would upstage him.

Our analysts were struck by Seelye's final clause, which cast a shadow across the event. Did Seelye have some sort of evidence that Gore was concerned about being upstaged? If she did, she didn't share it at any point in her piece. Instead, she quickly moved on to paragraph two, where she let us know what the VP was thinking:

SEELYE (2): At a rally in a downtown hotel, Mrs. Clinton attracted a crowd of about 300 women, and Mr. Gore basked in the reflected glory, trying to show little concern that she too might run for office and divert attention and money from his campaign.

An accompanying photo showed one of Gore's clever tricks; he had craftily embraced the first lady at one point, and smiling onlookers betrayed no awareness of the dark thoughts the VP was concealing. In paragraph three, Seelye was fairly straightforward—though she was soon enough up to old tricks:

SEELYE (3): "No one has fought harder on behalf of America's families and children [than Gore]," Mrs. Clinton declared as she endorsed Mr. Gore for President...

(4) She also said that Mr. Gore "would not let the clock be turned back" on abortion rights, not mentioning that while he was in the House of Representatives he voted against abortion rights many times.

Leaving aside the accuracy of that last characterization, there seemed to be no event this day that Seelye wasn't prepared to interpret. Later, she let her readers know who they'd have been thinking about had they been there:

SEELYE (8): Today's event was notable, too, because it united three figures—Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gore and his wife, Tipper—who by their assemblage brought to mind the absent fourth.

The absent fourth, of course, was that man, Wild Bill Clinton, who "loomed up in contradictory ways" that Seelye would also be happy to explain (see postscript.)

It isn't that Seelye might not be able to justify her various insights and interpretations. What struck us here was the sheer ubiquity of her intrusions on the narrative's flow. Poor Hill and Al couldn't make a move without Seelye explaining what lay behind it—or what they meant, or should have said, or what was going on with someone else not even present.

What struck us as odd was the fact that this all occurred in what purported to be a straight news story—in what was presented as straightforward reporting, in the newspaper's unadorned news pages. The New York Times, after all, has an editorial page, on which it records its editorial judgments. It also has an op-ed page, in which various people present points of view.

It also publishes, on its news pages, articles that are labeled "analysis"—articles in which the paper's reporters are invited to present their views of the unfolding news.

But the invitation to Know All, Tell All now dominates even straight news reporting. For an example of just how bad it can get, here's what Eric Pooley said in a recent Time piece about Mrs. Clinton's New York "listening tour:"

POOLEY: Looking for the sunny, specious hucksterism of the campaign trail? Step right up—Hillary will give it to youThough one can't help feeling she sometimes feels she's slumming, she never lets it show.

How free are reporters to interpret all events? Pooley reports what he "can't help feeling"—even as he cheerfully admits there's no sign that his impression is really true. Gruesome—the highlighted sentence would be comically awful even if offered as part of a Time opinion column But again, Pooley's piece is Time's lead news story—an article that, to all appearances, presents itself as straightforward news.

The comical passage from Pooley's piece shows us where our "reporting" can go, when beat reporters are given free rein to interpret as much as they wish to. It also shows us the danger involved in reinventing reporters as seers. As we read it, we couldn't help recalling the close of Pooley's June 14 interview with Brian Williams, where the scribe rhapsodized over Governor Bush's life story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/17/99). Pooley was asked by Williams to speak to Bush's "blue blood" family history. "He did everything in his power to play down that Connecticut stuff," Pooley said. And then Pooley—on the show to discuss a detailed Time bio—went ahead and did the same thing, gushing on Bush's behalf:

POOLEY: He hates to ride in a limo. One guy told me they were going to give a speech, and their limo picked them up at the airport and he was angry about it. He didn't want to get in that stretch limousine. That's not his image.

Can you see how Pooley just sees right through cant? He closed with more thoughts about image:

POOLEY (continuing): That's not his image. And he's, simultaneously he's living down the family connection, and he's exploiting them. At every juncture in his life...he's using Dad's connections all the while, it's well known, he doesn't make any bones about it, but at the same time he's minimizing the public aspects while maximizing it in private.

See? Bush "doesn't make any bones" about using Dad's connections, he just "minimizes the public aspects." Of course! This comical interview highlights quite well the problem with giving reporters free rein. Simply put, when publications give reporters free rein to interpret, they are often turning over editorial judgment to writers whose personal preferences are comically obvious, and who will prove capable of offering the silliest kinds of judgments, depending on who they're "reporting" that day.

There are powerful reasons why history and tradition taught us the wisdom of self-restraint in reporting. Pooley's comments on Clinton and Bush help us see why it ain't such a great idea to give this press corps free rein to Tell All.


Seelye speaks: And this is Seelye, telling us what was "brought to mind" by Clinton's absence:

SEELYE (9): President Clinton, who was down the street at the White House, was mentioned only in passing. Still, he loomed in a contradictory way.

(10) On the one hand, the Gore campaign wanted to signal that Mr. Gore was the opposite of Mr. Clinton—a devoted husband whose private life would not lead to the kind of political upheaval brought on by Mr. Clinton's extramarital affair...

(11) At the same time, as he boasted of his advocacy of numerous issues important to women, the Vice President was really boasting of the Clinton Presidency—in passing the Family Medical Leave Act, in rebuffing any erosion of abortion rights and in restricting children's access to guns.

In short, Gore supports Clinton's policies, but won't engage in his private conduct. Seelye calls this "contradictory," which makes a provocative paragraph nine. But for those with the slightest reasoning ability, there is nothing "contradictory" expressed here at all. Again, we see one of the obvious pitfalls of letting reporters Interpret All. Many of today's reporters—how else to put it—are plainly not interpretive geniuses. We would be better served if they were forced to rein in the instinct, now plainly encouraged, to help us see what each event really means.

Tomorrow: More reason to rein in the press corps.