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30 August 2000

Our current howler (part II): Amateur (half-)hour

Synopsis: Most Washington reporters don’t report on the press. On Reliable Sources, it shows.

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, David Maraniss
Reliable Sources, CNN, 8/26/00


If CNN ran a weekly show about HMOs, how would they structure the program? Here's one way they wouldn't do it: They wouldn't hire two HMO execs to be the co-hosts, then assemble weekly panels made up entirely of HMO honchos. But that's how the network proceeded when it set up Reliable Sources, its show on the media. Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb were signed up as co-hosts. And each week, the show assembles a panel, made up exclusively of—you guessed it—members of the Washington media! Such a format would be laughed out the door if it were applied to any other group. But the press corps is so used to judging itself—and is so accustomed to burying critiques from outside—that, to all appearances, the strangeness of this CNN format has never occurred to anyone in the press corps at all.

None of this is meant as a criticism of any of the individuals involved. In particular, we think that Kurtz, the lead co-host, is one of Washington's most valuable reporters. But here's the great structural problem of the Washington press corps: The Washington press corps controls the press. Unlike every other sector, the press corps controls what is said about itself. HMOs don't control what is said about HMOs. Democrats and Republicans are critiqued from outside. Only the press corps critiques itself—and in the press corps' lazy performance, the predictable results can be seen.

We thought last Saturday's edition of Reliable Sources put the program's contradictions on view. That's not meant that as a knock at the panel. Kurtz and Kalb hosted David Maraniss, the award-winner biographer (and Washington Post associate editor); Susan Feeney, of NPR; and Jay Nordlinger, of the National Review. Each is an excellent and experienced journalist. But each is also a member of the political press corps—a member of the group that this program critiques. So, again, are Kurtz and Kalb. We'll explore the potential problems with appearance of conflict of interest in tomorrow's DAILY HOWLER.

Before we do, let's consider another problem with the structure of Reliable Sources. The guests on last Saturday's program are excellent journalists—but none is a media reporter. It is not their primary, working responsibility to keep track of what is happening throughout the press. Any one of these guests would be an excellent addition to a panel about how the press corps is functioning. But, in bringing on reporters as guests every week, Kurtz and Kalb are essentially talking to amateurs—people who have not been spending their time studying what goes on in the press.

David Maraniss just wrote a bio of Gore, for example. But Reliable Sources claims to look at the press.

On Saturday, this weakness became apparent quite early. As we saw yesterday, Kurtz's first question was this: "What's up with this shift on Bush's coverage?" Kurtz noted critical coverage of Bush's recent performance, including the focus on his verbal slips last Monday night (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/00). Jay Nordlinger implied that "liberal bias" might be leading the press corps to take up for Gore; he said Gore's improved coverage was "a little bit mysterious." Moments later, Maraniss responded:

MARANISS: I also think, though, when Jay talked about a mystery, sometimes there are very prosaic answers to mysteries and it's not all this mysteriousbut something as simple as perhaps a lot of the reporters who normally covered Bush were tired and that new people were assigned to cover them for those few days after the convention. They saw Bush slipping in a way that the people who, you know, for the first time—
KURTZ: With a fresh eye—
MARANISS: With a fresh eye, whereas people who have been covering for two months had seen that every day and gotten used to it. Sometimes those are parts of the answers.

And we agree—the phenomenon which Maraniss described may sometimes be part of an answer. Last February, for example, we noted that a New York Times fill-in reporter, David Barstow, pushed John McCain on certain issues which the normal beat reporters seemed to be ignoring. Barstow's "fresh eye" may have greatly affected the coverage of the Bush-McCain race (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/00, 2/28/00, 3/3/00). But in this instance? At the New York Times, reporter Frank Bruni was the scribe reporting the governor's slips; Bruni has been the paper's reporter on Bush since the summer of 1999. At Maraniss' own paper, Terry Neal and Mike Allen did the reporting on the Bush slips. Each has been a long-term (and highly capable) member of the Post's campaign team. Feeney herself, a beat reporter, said: "Yes, [Bush has] always made stumbles, but that was a waterfall of stumbles the other day. That wasn't his usual daily dose." Maraniss made a good general point, but it didn't seem to have much to do with what had actually happened last week.

In our view, a second statement by Maraniss was even more striking. Kurtz asked why Gore had gone so long at one point without a press conference. Maraniss said Gore may have wanted to avoid questions on Elian Gonzalez. And he added in one other point:

MARANISS: [T]he whole Elian story was breaking during half of that period and he didn't want to be answering those questions every day. But it was really stupid. And it was made so apparent the same way when he would answer questions about abortion and say, you know, he didn't change his mind. Then one day he decided to just say yes, I did change my mind and I've evolved on that subject, that's the end of it. You know, it's a one day story once you do that and you'd think that someone would have learned that lesson, but he clearly hadn't.

We're not sure when Gore is supposed to have said, "Yes, I did change my mind" on abortion. It's our impression that Gore still holds the position he articulated at the January 26 New Hampshire debate—that he has always supported the right to choose, but changed his position on federal funding. But at any rate, the notion that this became a one-day story at some point seems hard to square with the facts. On August 15, for example, the Wall Street Journal ran a major top-of-page-one story on the subject by Jeanne Cummings. "About Face," the tag-headline read. "Gore Finds Himself Vulnerable to Critics For Changing His Mind." The sub-head: "His Shift on Abortion Gives His Opponents Grounds To Question His Motives." And boy, was Cummings ever right about that! Her article was indistinguishable from similar pieces written during the New Hampshire primary, when straight-shooting Bill Bradley, feigning bewilderment, was accusing Gore of dishonesty on the subject. For the record, Cummings' article included some of the same basic logical problems we discussed in the standard press accounts of that time. (Abortion Logic 101: A pol can oppose abortion himself on moral grounds, but still support the right to choose.)

Maraniss and co-author Ellen Nakashima interviewed 500 people for their Gore bio. That makes them experts on aspects of Gore's past, but—through absolutely no fault of their own—it doesn't necessarily make them experts on the ongoing Gore press coverage. One things most scribes are expert on, though, is making other scribes look good. At one point, Maraniss said that Gore "went five weeks without meeting with the traveling press corps." Maraniss had undershot the facts by almost half. Here's how Kurtz corrected him:

KURTZ: David, you mentioned a few minutes ago that Gore had gone 62 campaign days without a news conference during one stretch. Why does Al Gore, who is a former reporter, as his ads keep reminding us, have such difficult relations at times with the press?

That isn't what Maraniss had "mentioned" at all. But when Washington pundits gather to critique themselves, fraternal courtesy generally reigns.

The reporter guests on Reliable Sources generally aren't reporters on the media. What they are is members of same. Tomorrow, we look at that conflict.