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1 September 2000

Our current howler (part I): Brill’s, lacking content

Synopsis: We’re sorry to drop our rollicking style. But Homey don’t play certain ball games.

Spice Girls on the Bus
Seth Mnookin, Brill’s Content, 10/00

I've sent the analysts off for the day, so I can adopt the first person singular. I hate to abandon the rollicking style we've long maintained at our sprawling World Headquarters. But I—Bob Somerby—did want to reply to a disappointing effort on-line at Brill's Content. It's a short article called "Spice Girls on the Bus." You know what to do. Just click here.

Seth Mnookin says this in his opening:

MNOOKIN (paragraph 1): Traveling with the press covering a presidential candidate is a little like being transported back to high school. Alliances are formed, feelings get bruised, and newcomers are looked upon with suspicion. Even the insular sense of all-encompassing import is the same: With teenagers, it's because they don't have any perspective. With political reporters, it's because they rarely venture outside the "bubble," as life inside the hotel-to-chartered-jet-to-stump-speech-to-motorcade-to-hotel grind is called.

That may be true—I don't have a clue. I've never traveled with anyone's press corps. I've never reported on a campaign event. I've never "ventured" inside the "bubble." All I report is what I see in the newspapers. Mnookin develops his thesis:

MNOOKIN (2): In this election cycle, this sense of gossiping is most apparent when it comes to the Spice Girls, as a trio of female reporters covering Al Gore have come to be known. The moniker was coined on a long bus ride through Iowa last winter. Since then, the reporters—The New York Times's Katharine "Kit" Seelye, The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly, and The Associated Press's Sandra Sobieraj—have been derided as (and you can take your pick here) nasty, snide, caustic, bitter, and biased.

I don't know about that either. In THE DAILY HOWLER, I have repeatedly characterized Seelye and Connolly as "spinners"—a characterization which I think is well justified by their remarkable work. I have never written about Sobieraj at all; THE DAILY HOWLER reviews five daily papers, not the Associated Press. I have never said a word about their personalities. I don't know Seelye and Connolly. I assume that, if I did, I would like them. Spinners are people too, boys and girls.

At any rate, Mnookin says that "reporters traveling with Gore...say the three women [have] made life on the trail less pleasant." He doesn't explain how they're supposed to have done that—which would actually have relevance to his article—but he says, near the end of his short piece, that the three reporters are sometimes called "The Bitches on the Bus." He suggests they have been derided because they are women, and he ends up quoting the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, engaged in what he terms "speculation:"

MNOOKIN (7-8): Could it be because the reporters covering the vice-president for three of the most influential news outlets in the country are women? Jane Mayer, who often writes about politics for The New Yorker magazine, speculates that the answer could be yes: "If Bob Woodward and Jeff Gerth wore high heels, they'd be called bitches, too," she says, referring to two of the country's most highly respected investigative reporters.

Actually, Mayer seems to be speculating that the answer is "yes." At any rate, Mnookin closes like this:

MNOOKIN (9): Seelye, Connolly, and Sobieraj all declined to discuss the issue. "I really prefer to cover the news rather than be a part of it," Connolly wrote in an e-mail. And with the conventions over and the campaign shifting into high gear, it's likely all this talk of condescending tone and press-corps cliques will fade into the background. Because, just as in high school, petty sniping and unfounded reputations dissipate when graduation is on the horizon.

What surprises me about Mnookin's piece is this: In the handful of paragraphs which I have not now reprinted, I am quoted, three separate times, about Seelye and Connolly. Only one other person is quoted at all; he is quoted once. Mnookin's "analyses" of what I have written about the pair are so childish that I presume he wrote them in crayon; but what troubles and confounds me is how I got dragged into a story about three women being called sexist names on a bus. I have never been on the bus; have never interacted with the press corps; and I have certainly never used any such terms to refer to these women, or to anyone else. Sorry—I had better home training. Guess what, gang? I don't call people "bitches," and I deeply resent being dragged into an article in which it will inevitably seem that I do. Mnookin writes a story about group dynamics on a bus, which leads to reporters being called sexist names. And the person he quotes about the reporters—me—has never been on the bus; has never been part of the group dynamic; and has never used the names in question! Good writing! And all this chaos takes place in nine paragraphs! Way to go! Let me offer a bit of wisdom to Brill's—people don't like being dragged into ugly situations in which they have played absolutely no part, and of which they completely disapprove. No, Mnookin never says that I used these terms, as a minute reading of his hopeless opus makes clear. But, based on the e-mails I've received since his posting, several of Mnookin's less fastidious readers don't seem to parse quite as skillfully as he does.

I repeat: Mnookin's "analysis" of Seelye and Connolly's work is, in my view, simply laughable. I'll look at that next Tuesday. The first quote which he attributes to me also seems strange. Mnookin has me saying, of Seelye and Connolly, "They dislike the man [Gore]." That could be true, of course, but I have absolutely no idea who these scribes "like" and "dislike." I don't specifically recall my conversation with Mnookin, but I don't know why I would say things I don't believe. In a more recent conversation with the New York Times' Melinda Henneberger, I told her what I always say to questions about reporters' motives: I don't know why reporters report events as they do, and I generally prefer not to speculate. (As readers of THE DAILY HOWLER will know, I routinely criticize journalists for speculating about people's motives.) I will guarantee you I never said, "They dislike the man;" to anyone with tape of me using that general construction, I will grant all my worldly treasure. Mnookin says the quote is in his notes. Good—Homer's third epic is found in mine. I'll suggest that he use a tape recorder the next time Brill's let him drag out quotation marks. Of the terms he does have me using, I will only sign on to "weird." I think Seelye and Connolly's work has been surpassingly strange, as readers of THE HOWLER surely know.

Has Mnookin read THE DAILY HOWLER? Based on his account of my writing, I hope not. But I think Brill's Content ought to know that people don't enjoy being dragged into other people's mud fights. What does Mnookin's article say? It says that a group dynamic on a bus, involving sexism, has led to three women being called a name. And who does he quote (almost exclusively) in his piece? Someone who has never been on the bus; has never written a word about one of the three; and has never used the terms in question. Is this why Steven Brill started this magazine? Somehow, at THE HOWLER, we doubt it.

Again, Mnookin's analysis of Seelye and Connolly's work is just laughable; we'll look at that next week. But in my view, Brill's should be more careful in who they try to drag into fights. As Mnookin says in his article, no one in the press corps—i.e., no one actually involved—would talk to him about this brouhaha on the record. So he dragged in some quotes from THE DAILY HOWLER, to let it look like he had a real piece.

Sorry, folks. I don't use those terms. Brill's should ask itself how such a careless piece ever found its way into print.


Visit our incomparable archives: In over two years, Sobieraj's name has appeared in THE HOWLER one time. No positive or negative judgment was made. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/21/00.

Two out of three ain't half bad: Looking ahead to Tuesday's review, two other limnings of these scribes have recently appeared on our screen.

1) "Gore media coverage—playing hardball." Jane Hall, Columbia Journalism Review, 9-10/00. Just click here.

2) "Tale of two press corps." Unsigned, Financial Times, 8/17/00. Click this.