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Caveat lector

6 September 2000

Our current howler (part III): Spin isn’t error

Synopsis: Has Mnookin even read THE HOWLER? There’s no way to tell from his piece.

Tale of two press corps
Unsigned, Financial Times, 8/17/00

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

Across the pond, some British scribes were looking in on Gore too. Here was the Financial Times, offering its viewpoint:

FINANCIAL TIMES: [T]he Gore media, for all its experience, sometimes appears to step over the line in its pursuit of critical coverage.

At the heart of the press corps are three reporters, known to their politically-incorrect colleagues as the "Spice Girls". The three are perhaps the most influential reporters on the Gore campaign, having covered the vice-president almost without break this year: Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post, Katharine Seelye of The New York Times and Sandra Sobieraj of the Associated Press. They can also be the most hostile to the campaign, doing little to hide their contempt for the candidate and his team.

Maybe they're big sexists too. For the record, THE DAILY HOWLER has never said anything like this about Seelye and Connolly. Nor would I personally sign on to the characterization that closes this passage. And the fact that FT holds this view doesn't mean that Mnookin is wrong in his. But, again for the record, Mnookin's view is quite different. Here's what the Brill-iant scribe says:

MNOOKIN: Some journalists and Gore partisans complain about the tenor of Seelye's and Connolly's work. But there's no "there" there. During their coverage of the Gore campaign, the two reporters have made only one notable mistake, inserting a much-dissected wrong word in a quote of Gore's discussing Love Canal.

Later, Mnookin adds this:

MNOOKIN: It's hard to see what the big deal is. Connolly and Seelye are Washington pros, and their coveragedoes not rise to the level of biased reporting.

Mnookin has a right to his opinion. But if he is going to be a real grown-up scribe, he ought to make an argument for it. And if he is going to call people "sexists" in Brill's, he ought to examine what those people have said. On that count, he fails—and fails miserably. He makes no effort to tell his readers what Scott Shepard said about these three scribes. And his total account of what has been written in THE DAILY HOWLER comprises two utterly trivial examples (which he still manages to bungle). Mnookin's readers can't possibly know what sorts of arguments have appeared in THE HOWLER. So no, though we've never called Connolly and Seelye nasty names—we have called them "spinners," as we'll explain again below—we will examine Mnookin's grisly work and call him a bad word. Mnookin's hopeless.

Have Connolly and Seelye only made one mistake? That is a matter of opinion. But Mnookin's conceptual framework is absurdly limited, to match the detail of his argument. Though I have rarely mentioned these two reporters in recent weeks, I have frequently called them "spinners" in the past. And a reporter, Dear Seth, can be a Big Spinner without ever making "mistakes." Spinners don't necessarily say things that are wrong; sometimes, they just say things that are absurdly irrelevant. Selective presentation of accurate facts is another sin scribes should avoid. Example: When Connolly kept working irrelevant references to the Fairfax Hotel into her reports in April, that was arguably "spin," but not "error." (She has also made errors on that subject.) It's surprising to think that a reporter for Brill's has to have such simple concepts spelled out.

Have the reporters in question only made one "mistake?" I regard the assertion as laughable. Whatever you call it, I think Seelye's reinvention of Gore-on-Elian last April 16 was one of the most remarkable bits of work of the year (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/00). And Connolly has produced endless chaos. We're still amazed by the pair of page-one articles she wrote last July with Susan Glasser (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/99, 7/19/99). The theme of the articles? Free-Spending Gore, whose profligate ways were contrasted with W's. An endless stream of anecdotal evidence "showed" that Gore was blowing his budget, while Bush was running a tight-fisted campaign. And what were the actual facts involved? At the time this pair of articles appeared, Gore had spent $8.2 million, while Bush had spent $7.2 million. This despite the fact that Gore had begun campaigning in March; Bush had stayed in Austin until June. No rational person could have bought the pair's premise—that Gore was wildly blowing his wad while Bush was being endlessly frugal. (By the end of New Hampshire, by the way, Bush had spent record amounts on his campaign, and his contributors were reportedly asking where it had gone.) But what kept the odd pair of stories afloat? The pair of numbers which I have just cited never appeared in either article! That's right, folks. What you got was a raft of anecdotal examples which turned out, of course, to be wildly unrepresentative. Here's an example from July 17:

CONNOLLY AND GLASSER: Bush made his maiden voyage to Iowa and New Hampshire with a single paid advance man leading the way. Gore's traveling entourage included about 32 advance staff, half a dozen White House aides, his pollsters, speech coach and media adviser.

Crazy! That's how Liz Taylor travels! But guess what? Nowhere in two days of page-one reporting did the scribes ever print those two basic numbers. Readers were never told what the two camps had actually spent ($7.2 vs. $8.2 million). Sorry, kids. I don't think there's a reporter alive who is so incompetent as to do that by "mistake." And the articles weren't our first major sign that something was up with Connolly's work. This past April, we offered a brief overview of problems in the previous year with her writing. Those links still exist for your review; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/25/00.

Seelye and Connolly do make mistakes; we'll look at that briefly tomorrow. But what I have principally discussed about their work is something different; I have repeatedly called it "spin." Many of Connolly and Seelye's most spin-driven moments have appeared in THE HOWLER as comic relief. Remember early January, friends? For two days, Seelye said it was a terrible thing for a Democrat to be endorsed by Ted Kennedy in New Hampshire! Hay-yo, everybody! Hay-yo! As comedians sometimes like to say about Clinton, you simply can't make this stuff up.

Have the pair of scribes done a bit of spinning? That is how it's looked to us, but we haven't much tried to explain it. We haven't said the reporters are "biased;" we haven't said they're "political." We've just reported our view of their work. We think Brill's should be embarrassed for letting Mnookin go right to the (imagined) motives—imagined motives of people whose work he examines in such slender fashion. By the way—we're sorry to have to waste our time going through all these matters again. Mnookin called and asked our opinion. We didn't take this to him.

In FT's view, Connolly and Seelye are "hostile to the [Gore] campaign, doing little to hide their contempt for him and his team." To Mnookin, that seems like twaddle. Either view could of course be right—but Mnookin doesn't even argue for his. He takes it straight to Bad Names (and "speculation"). Why did Brill's print such a mess?

Tomorrow: We end this complete waste of energy.

Visit our incomparable archives: In May, we examined Connolly's report on a Gore town hall meeting. We didn't claim anything she said was "mistaken," but we did think it looked like spin. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/00. We think this report is intriguing.


The Daily update (9/6/00)

Major-league hole in their logic: We strongly advise you to avoid Pundit Spin about those key Labor Day polls. All pundits are repeating the Official Story; except for Truman in 1948 (oh yeah—and Kennedy in 1960), the hopeful who is ahead this week always has won the election. To which we say only: So what? There have been only twelve elections since 1948, and a number of them were major league blow-outs. In short, this Approved Theory is built on small "n". Furthermore, the amazing theory only obtains because Nixon (1968) and Carter (1976) managed to hold on to narrow wins. In fact, the polls have frequently changed a good deal between Labor Day and the election. In 1968, Nixon led Humphrey by 12 on Labor Day, and ended up winning by less than one. In 1976, Carter's lead went from 15 to two. In 1980, Reagan was tied on Labor Day, and ended up winning election by ten. In 1996, Clinton's lead went from 21 down to eight. To all appearances, the fact that the lead has never changed hands—well, except for Truman and Kennedy, that is—is based on low "n" and major coincidence. Like so many of the press corps' Official Key Soundbites, this one seems wildly misleading.

Labor Day Number Become Election Day Results
Jackie Calmes, The Wall Street Journal, 9/1/00