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18 September 2000

Our current howler (part I): Shipp gets it right (volume II)

Synopsis: Our analysts came right out of their chairs. Shipp got it right—once again!

In Pursuit of Fairness
E. R. Shipp, The Washington Post, 9/17/00

Gore media coverage—playing hardball
Jane Hall, Columbia Journalism Review, 10/00

Typecasting Candidates
E. R. Shipp, The Washington Post, 3/5/00

We were enjoying our bagel when cheers rang out from the analysts' Spartan living quarters. What had our scholars applauding so loudly? It was E. R. Shipp's latest "Ombudsman" piece, in Sunday's Washington Post. "When all is said and done," Shipp wrote, Post readers seek a sense of fairness. "[T]hat is the subject of an article by American University professor Jane Hall in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism review," she said.

Aw heck. We'll let Shipp tell it.

SHIPP: Going beyond the merely anecdotal, the article takes The Post and other media to task for unduly negative pre-convention coverage of Al Gore's presidential campaign. During the same period, according to Hall's analysis and to a more extensive study conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence, George W. Bush was depicted as "a different kind of Republican—'a compassionate conservative,' a reformer, bipartisan."

Let's state the unavoidable imperfections of the studies Shipp mentions. As we've noted, there is no real way to conduct the kind of "objective," quantitative study the Pew Center tried to carry out. The study reports who got more "negative" and "positive" coverage, but such judgments are inevitably subjective. By the same token, we're not quite sure what Shipp means when she says that Hall's piece "goes beyond the anecdotal." Hall's piece looks at particular articles, culled from the Post's vast body of work. Any judgment of a newspaper's coverage inevitably calls for subjective discriminations. But we think Hall's piece correctly suggested problems with the Post's Gore coverage. And we think that Shipp performs a service when she expresses her own judgment thus:

SHIPP (continuing directly): Post editors will deny that they have a mission to promote or destroy any candidacy in the news pages, but the analyses in CJR—and readers' complaints—should convince them that the question of fairness needs to be taken even more seriously story by story, page by page.

We also think that Shipp is right to raise questions about the recent Bush coverage:

SHIPP (continuing directly): Since the convention and Gore's apparent surge in the polls, Hall—and readers—sense a change in The Post's coverage; in fact, some readers complain that it is Bush who is being mistreated, with too much emphasis on such blunders as mispronouncing words.

Shipp is somewhat less committal on the paper's post-convention Bush coverage. Has Bush been getting a raw deal this past month? We'll be looking at that question all this week in our column for

Readers will know that we have long critiqued Ceci Connolly's Gore coverage in the Post. We thought that Shipp was right on the money in her earlier critique on March 5 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00). In that column, Shipp gave an account of the primary coverage that we thought was right on the mark. Shipp praised the Post for much of its work. But then, she also said this:

SHIPP (3/5): But The Post has gone beyond that kind of reporting in favor of articles that try to offer context—and even conjecture—about the candidates' motives in seeking the office of president. And readers react—sometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often not—to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.

We thought Shipp described the way the press corps in general—not just the Post—serves up novelized versions of news. She went on to offer a specific critique of a pair of erroneous stories by Connolly (no names mentioned, of course).

Are Shipp's comments accurate? That's a matter of judgment. Observers will not all agree. But it's good to see someone inside the press corps who is willing to raise these questions. As we've noted, there's a structural problem in the press corps. It's this—the press corps controls the press. And the press corps buries critique of itself; human nature drives down standards from there.

It's rare to hear a voice speak up from within the fraternity as Shipp has twice done. Our analysts' cheers were ringing loud as E. R. Shipp—once again—got it right.

Tomorrow: The Group tends to smooch up its own.


The Daily update (9/18/00)

Crazy coincidence, of the kind that just happens: We recommend Fred Barnes in the 9/18 Weekly Standard. In fact, we wish we had read the piece sooner. The article is called, "Relinking Gore to Clinton." Reporting from Austin, Barnes described the Bush campaign's strategy about one week into September:

BARNES: So eight weeks out, the presidential race comes down to a single question: Will Gore's separation from Clinton endure? Bush and his advisers recognize how difficult Gore will be to defeat if he's no longer seen as an extension of Clinton...There goal is, in [Karl] Rove's words, to "re-link Gore to Clinton."

Karl Rove is the "chief Bush strategist."

Barnes' article hit the stands right around September 10 or 11. Here's a funny coincidence—on September 10, Ceci Connolly did a piece in the Post which wierdly stressed Gore's connections to Clinton. The article was headlined, "Gore Coming 'Round Again to Clinton," and it was chock-a-block full of oddball instances where Al had reminded the Post scribe of Bill. You may recall it from our 9/11 column for SpeakOut. One of our favorite Proust moments was this:

CONNOLLY: Even Gore's visit to Comerica Park in Detroit, where he pitched to the pros during batting practice, conjured images of the football tossing of the summer of '92.

"Conjured images" to Connolly, that is, and to no one else on the face of the earth! When Al threw BP to the Tigers, that made Ceci's thoughts drift to Bill. (She had seen Bill throw a football, some eight years before.) The article was full of crackpot examples of Ceci with Bill on the Brain.

At SpeakOut, we noted how the Connolly piece perfectly enacted a bit of GOP spin—Dick Cheney's statement in Philly. ("Somehow we will never see one without thinking of the other," Cheney had said, of Bill and Al.) We said there's nothing illegal when the two parties spin, but journalists should try to avoid pushing spin-points. Connolly's piece was a GOP dream, absurdly linking Bill to Al. Now we see that, when Connolly wrote, she was enacting Karl Rove's favorite vision.

We don't have a clue if there's any connection. But the Post should never have run the absurd piece, and Barnes' strong reporting reminds us of something. It reminds us of what E. R. Shipp said—that the Post should rethink its Gore coverage.

Relinking Gore to Clinton
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 9/18/00

Gore Coming 'Round Again to Clinton
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 9/10/00