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Caveat lector

28 July 1999

The Howler postscript: Hay-yo!

Synopsis: Hay-yo! Times reporters enjoy making like Jay, cracking wise on the veep’s wooden nature.

Quayle: President in His Own Mirror
David Von Drehle, The Washington Post, 4/14/99

Al Gore Turns the Volume Way, Way Up (“Editorial Observer”)
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 6/21/99

Hay-yo! In April, when Dan Quayle announced his White House campaign, Richard Cohen mocked the hopeful's prospects. His column was frank and direct, but fair—and it appeared on the Post's op-ed pages.

But on the very day that Quayle announced, David Von Drehle wrote a news story on the subject. Here is part of what appeared in that story, right on page one of the Post:

VON DREHLE: Dan Quayle says he likes being the underdog.

Dan Quayle, the human punch line, scorned on scores of Internet sites, shoo-in for the late-night talk show Hall of Fame—enshrined somewhere between Joey Buttafuoco and Kato Kaelin. The man who said:

"I didn't live in this century."

And, at an AIDS clinic during the early days of the drug AZT: "Are they taking DDT?"

And, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." (He was trying for "A mind is a terrible thing to waste.")

That is not the way he sees himself.

But it was clearly the way Von Drehle saw him, as the writer was happy to let us know—in a page one article that, to all appearances, was supposed to be news reporting.

Hay-yo! Today's modern scribes like nothing more than showcasing their jokes and their wit. Indeed, jokes are now a staple of Gore reporting down at the New York Times. Last Thursday, we began our series with an appreciative look at an uproarious jest Melinda Henneberger had penned. Remember the fun? Before actually reporting what Gore had said at a major address laying out his crime policy, Henneberger entertained us with a priceless "stiff" joke, and shared an amusing thing Tom Mennino had said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/99).

At no other paper is the pattern so clear: to today's clever gang of Times reporters, major news is really all about them. It's a backdrop against which the raffish gang can showcase their exceptional skills. Indeed, the gang sometimes seems to be competing to pen the most amusing description of Gore's wooden nature. What kind of writing does this produce in the end? An effort like Henneberger's Saturday piece, in which she bungled major elements of the Gore canoe story, but managed to tell us how the veep looks when he takes a long trip in a car. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/26/99. More on the canoe flap on Friday.)

Do we have to say why papers should not report news in this ridiculous fashion? Look back to Henneberger's crime story. Her opening "analysis" shows the caliber of scribe to whom the Times has given such striking license. If the Times crew were a more insightful bunch, it would surely grasp what this group plainly doesn't. They would know that candidates for president are more important than they are—and that the public's interest is served when the hopefuls' views are described by less self-impressed writers.

At any rate, we're tired of limning this particular crew, and we're sure that you're sick of them also. But just review Henneberger's Saturday effort, and convince yourself that this puzzling piece was actually composed on this planet. Substantially bungling the canoe trip story, Henneberger declaimed on a candidate's posture. Hay-yo! Is it really jokes the readers want? If so, this bewildering piece that the Times put in print was the Big One in the year's campaign coverage.


Hay-yo: One we missed, from Gail Collins (on the editorial page):

COLLINS: The second time I saw Mr. Gore...[he] was utterly at ease with himself and his audience. Even his hair seemed less stiff.

Hay-yo! Can we make one suggestion to the Times? If they're going to make repetitive jokes about major public figures, they can go ahead and stop calling them "Mister."

By the way, in the edited portion of Collins' joke, she said, of the environmental presentation Gore was making: "Reading the text of his remarks would probably have been pretty boring then, too." It's striking how often Times personnel mention how boring public policy is. Can someone explain why they cover the news, if they find the news so hard to sit through?

Earlier, Collins had said that "being forced to watch" Gore's current speeches "is as discomfiting as looking at the underside of a swan swimming on the lake." We just roared here at THE HOWLER! Hay-yo, everybody! Hay-yo!

Next: We begin the story of Gore canoe coverage. Last Sunday, the Washington Post typed up RNC spin—and the little Rutland Herald corrected it.