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27 July 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Melinda’s posture

Synopsis: Melinda Henneberger seems to believe we’re electing a federal dance instructor.

Gore Campaign, Trailing Among Women, Sharpens its Pitch to Them
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 7/6/99

Gore Takes Aw-Shucks Tour (and Hits a Bump)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 7/24/99

The Unbuttoning of Al Gore: Act 1
Katherine Q. Seelye, The New York Times, 6/15/99

One thing is clear—when you let reporters interpret freely, showing off their brilliance and wit, before too long a whole lot of things start jumbling up your reporting. You get reporters telling jokes about major hopefuls; endlessly reporting how hopefuls "seem" (see below); or reporting what hopefuls will do in the future, as Melinda Henneberger did July 6:

HENNEBERGER (7/6) (paragraph 1): The first thing Al Gore mentioned in every speech last week was that his oldest daughter was past her due date and about to make him and his wife of 29 years grandparents. (Wyatt Gore Schiff, 6 pounds 3 ounces, finally arrived on the Fourth of July, timing that he surely will mention in future speeches.)

It's a way of showing that the brilliant scribe can see right through those transparent, slick hopefuls. And you get scribes explaining politicians' motives. Here's John Broder, in the Times, before the White House conference on violence:

BRODER (paragraph 2): President Clinton, ever seeking a triangular third way, said in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that neither uncontrolled guns nor vulgar culture were singularly at fault.

Of course, almost every sentient being on earth said pretty much the exact same thing, but Broder wanted to show off his wit with his reference to triangulation. (We think this was meant as a joke.) At any rate, Broder did know Slick's motive:

BRODER (4): But Mr. Clinton does not intend to make scapegoats either of Hollywood or the gun lobby, mindful of both groups' political influence and very deep pockets.

Was it possible that Clinton didn't want to make scapegoats because he thought that wouldn't be helpful or fair? Broder didn't say how he knew Clinton's motive. It was another example of the casual spin that simply litters New York Times writing—minor asides we are fed by the scribes, who feel no compunction about telling us things they can't possibly know to be true.

But there's something else that you get in the Times, at least when it comes to the Gore campaign—you get the kind of vacuous coverage that Howard Kurtz recently called "theater criticism" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/99). Vacuous reporters, obsessed with stiffness, tell readers how wooden Gore seems on that day. We're not sure which is more striking about this reporting—its groaning subjectivity, or its comic irrelevance. But it's part of the mess that a newspaper gets, when it lets its gang of self-impressed scribes work up an interpretive head of steam.

Last Saturday's dispatch by Melinda Henneberger was an impressive case in point. Henneberger was covering the Gore canoe flap, in which officials of a Vermont power company released water to facilitate a canoe trip. We'll review Henneberger's treatment of the basic facts in a set of articles starting later this week. But quite early on in her article Saturday, Henneberger began to tell us What It All Really Meant, and we were once again thrown into the world of vacuous Times campaign coverage.

Henneberger began by saying how the incident fit into the Gore camp's master plan:

HENNEBERGER (7/24) (paragraph 6): [T]he incident was another misadventure for the campaign—and did little to make the candidate look smoother, looser, or more relaxed, which had been the plan...

We're not quite sure how she knew the plan, or knew she was describing it accurately. Dan Balz, by contrast, said the outing "was designed to display the vice president's commitment to clean water" (Washington Post, 7/25). But in the New York Times, if you're talking Al Gore, all roads lead back to stiffness concerns. Soon Henneberger was reviewing last week's Gore outings—always, of course, reviewing events in terms of their stiffness quotient:

HENNEBERGER (7): The informality of the settings, however, seemed only to accentuate Mr. Gore's natural reserve. His perfectly erect posture held good on the canoe ride, and even fielding questions from folks sitting cross-legged on the floor of a barn on Thursday night. He seemed shy shaking hands, and noticeably low on patter, quietly saying to most prospective voters simply, "How do you do?"

If this is meant to be taken seriously, this surely is writing from Mars. Soon after, she described how Gore behaved when some hayseed said he didn't seem wooden:

HENNEBERGER (9): Making a little bow—from the waist, like a man wearing an invisible neck brace—Mr. Gore said, "Shucks. I sometimes benefit from low expectations."

It is now quite clear that Henneberger believes we are electing a federal dance instructor. Only someone prepared for la vida loca could pass muster in the writer's strange world. Incredibly, Henneberger went on to interview a former associate of Gore's about—what else—Gore's posture in cars! When they would drive to Tennessee town meetings in the 80's, the man said, "the rest of us were always slouching in the car." But guess what? "[Gore would] maintain perfect posture the whole time," according to the penetrating interlocutor.

Are there words sufficient to convey the dumbness of this style of campaign reporting? At THE HOWLER, we're impressed, not just by the vacuous subject matter, but by the author's tolerance for the subjective. In this report, we are repeatedly told how Gore "seemed" to Henneberger, despite her awareness that he didn't "seem" that way to anyone else. Indeed, like someone describing a prehistoric tribe, Henneberger details local Gore supporters:

HENNEBERGER (8): But if the trip underscored his physical tightnessthere was good news for the Gore campaign here: At least among the Democrats who turned out to hear the Vice President, many said that they did not particularly care if the man looks like he cannot dance...

Imagine! Henneberger, sounding like Margaret Mead in the bush, proceeded to detail the odd concerns this tribe of Granite Staters were prone to:

HENNEBERGER (10): Votersseemed to listen carefully as he gave detailed answers on campaign finance reform, the gap between rich and poor, education, sexual abuse on college campuses, and a number of other matters.

And what were the answers the hopeful gave? Henneberger didn't bother to tell us. She quickly moved on to her important discussion about Gore's posture when he rides in those cars.

Parts of Henneberger's odd dispatch read like outright parody. Read her paragraph seven again, and convince yourself this was not meant in jest. But sadly, Henneberger's obsession with how stiff Gore seems reflects ongoing Times campaign writing. For example, in a lengthy profile when Gore kicked off his campaign, Katherine Seelye told a "stiff joke" in paragraph one, then went into detail about how stiff Gore seemed to her cool, practiced eye:

SEELYE (2) Even in his casual, earth-tone clothes, Al Gore seems pressed and starched...

(3) As he sets the stage for the official announcement of his candidacy on Wednesday in Tennessee, Vice President Gore still seems to be painting by numbers, following the chalk while he is learning to dance...

(4) For all his years of practice for the 2000 electionMr. Gore seems oddly unprepared for it.

The reader benefits from Seelye's brilliant insight, if at the price of repetitive subjectivity. Truly, at the New York Times, seeming is now believing.

The democratization of media culture has done more than bring Howard Stern to the air. It has also produced a media age in which silly impressions about vacuous topics are routinely put in print by the Times. It's hard to believe that a major paper would cover a White House campaign in this way. But, as we've pointed out before, democratization of media has put some remarkably weak players in control of our national discourse.

Madonna said to strike a pose. At the Times, poseurs write about posture.


Sadly enough, poses are read: If nothing turned on work like this, Henneberger's article would merely be funny. She seems, at various times, to be constructing parodies of a wide range of writing styles. Midway through, Margaret Mead set aside, she seems to move on to do Freud:

HENNEBERGER (14): Old friends are more willing to say the condition now known as stiffness does trouble Mr. Gore and is the deeply ingrained result of his upbringing.

"The condition now known as stiffness?" Finally, one cheers when Gore mocks Henneberger, who doesn't seem to know she's been laughed at:

HENNEBERGER (18): Asked whether he tells himself he needs to change, he smirked and said, "I don't talk to myself that much."

We would guess that smirk was more of a grimace, an attempt not to shake one's head openly. For ourselves, we'd be willing to pay a hefty cover charge to hear pols speak freely about writers like Henneberger. Indeed, Gore would have had plenty of reason to shake his head in amazement this day. In her 24-paragraph dispatch on the canoe flap, Henneberger managed to raise stiffness concerns in at least seventeen of her stanzas. Meanwhile, she reports that the voters don't care who seems stiff. But then, that's not what it's all about, is it?