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11 October 1999

Our current howler (part I): No respect at all

Synopsis: It’s time to ask an awkward question. Is the press corps sand-bagging Gore?

Bradley’s New Gains
E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, 9/24/99

Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/4/99, 10/6/99, 10/8/99

The Unbuttoning of Al Gore: Act 1
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/15/99

Gore Campaign, Trailing Among Women, Sharpens Its Pitch to Them
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 7/6/99

E.J. Dionne recently penned a remark that has begun to pop up in the media:

DIONNE: The Gore camp also has reason to complain that national political commentary treats the vice president with about as much respect as the Russian economy.

Ho! I tell yuh! No respect at all! It almost sounded as if Rodney Dangerfield was ghosting the pundit's column. But Dionne went on to offer detail on the press corps' alleged treatment of Gore:

DIONNE (continuing directly): If he wears a suit, he's a stiff guy in a suit. If he wears an open shirt, he's a stiff guy in a suit faking it. He...finds his political skills compared unfavorably with Clinton's. To paraphrase an old Chicago political joke, if Gore walked on water, the headlines the next day would read: "Gore can't swim."

Dionne was making an extremely serious charge against the Washington media. Gore is a major public official—the sitting vice president of the United States, and the long-presumed Democratic nominee for the presidency in the year 2000. By any rational standard, it's the responsibility of the mainstream press corps to treat his candidacy in a serious way. But Dionne was saying two different things about the corps' current conduct. He was saying that Gore is treated negatively no matter what he does—danged if he do, danged again if he don't. And he was saying something else, if one reads between the lines. He was saying the press corps' current treatment of Gore focuses on the pointless and trivial—turns the pursuit of the most important office in the world into an ongoing fashion discussion.

This past week, it was difficult to dispute that second judgment watching Brian Williams on MSNBC. The anchor conducted a week of commentary that was an embarrassment to the news process. It is exceptionally difficult to demonstrate Dionne's first claim—that one candidate is being treated poorly compared to the rest. But the second claim that Dionne seemed to make—the claim that the press covers Gore in a trivial manner—was abundantly clear throughout the week in the newsman's groaning broadcasts.

We last visited Williams on Monday, October 4, when he gave a remarkable interpretation to a set of poll numbers provided by independent pollster John Zogby (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/5/99). Zogby had polled likely New York voters on hypothetical match-ups, including a hypothetical match-up between Gore and George W. Bush. Back in May, Zogby would explain, Gore had trailed Bush 50-39 in New York; now Gore was leading, 45-43. It was a thirteen-point gain against Bush in five months. But do you recall the way Williams introduced the segment? We invite you to marvel again:

WILLIAMS (10/4): There are dramatic new polling numbers to report to you this evening, important because while they are admittedly just a snapshot of voters' views on a given day or a given evening, and while it's very early yet, the voters for now seem to be content with the notion at least of leaving the vice president of the United States in the proverbial political dust in a hugely important and populous state.

Let's just say it. Anyone who can make an interpretation like that has no business at all as a political analyst; Williams gave an example of number-spinning that simply defies comprehension. (The fact that Gore had made the thirteen-point gain was never spelled out on the show.) It's stunning to think that this is the best that we can do at the top of our precious public discourse.

But on Monday night, Williams didn't just offer numbing takes on Zogby's polling numbers. He also began a week-long commentary on the vice president's unacceptable clothes. In the midst of his interview with the pollster Zogby, Williams—his voice and attitude rising—went off on a bit of a rant:

WILLIAMS (10/4): And John, what happened to the notion of, "Well, he's vice president, let's not forget, he blows into town on Air Force II, he's got a motorcade, all the trappings of office"—here is a guy taking off his suits, going around more and more in the non-motorcade motorcade, this is the casual sweater look [showing tape], what's going on here?

Zogby, who behaves like a grown man on the air, managed to avoid the Elsa Klensch stuff and voiced remarks about "Clinton fatigue." But Williams wasn't nearly done with his comments on the vice president's wardrobe. Wednesday night, he addressed Clare Shipman, who reported on the opening of Gore's new Nashville headquarters. In a taped report, she also discussed the vice president's attempt to speak to concerns of woman voters:

WILLIAMS (10/6): Clare, I don't know if this is answerable or not—when does this start to become very transparent? The fact is, we're looking at him at this [Nashville] event today—he would have been in a suit a month ago. The fact is, American women may very well find campaign efforts aimed at them and they will know it's part of the pre-announced drive to attract more women. When does that start to backfire in its transparency?

The notion that it's odd for a Democratic candidate to attempt to reach woman voters is simply mind-boggling in its strangeness. ("[Gore] is talking to women's groups constantly about themes that matter to them," Shipman said. Good lord—imagine that!) We'll look at this part of the broadcast in more detail tomorrow, but note that Williams was still disturbed about the fact that Gore wasn't wearing a suit! So too, later on, with Howard Fineman:

WILLIAMS (10/6): Howard, same lead-off question to you as we asked Clare Shipman. Al Gore: when does this all start becoming so transparent [that] no one is fooled—the sudden move to Tennessee, ditching the suits, wearing polo shirts twenty-four hours a day, and now the sudden emphasis on women's issues.

To Williams, women (and others) were somehow getting "fooled." Of course, the emphasis on women's issues from the Gore campaign was hardly new or sudden. But then, neither was the polo shirt. Here was our old friend Katharine Seelye, reciting the tired tale back in June:

SEELYE: Al Gore is walking up the path to a home here where 40 people have gathered to listen to his pitch. He has shed his blue suit (as per President Clinton's instructions) for a green polo shirt, khakis and cowboy boots. Spotting his host, who is wearing a tie and sports jacket, Mr. Gore calls out, "I hope I'm not too informal!"

In those days, recall, the standard jibe was to say that Bill-made-him-do-it. Seelye went on to offer hilarious jokes about how stiff Gore seemed, shirt and all (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/27/99). And how about that "sudden" emphasis that Gore was making on women's issues? Read Melinda Henneberger, back in July, in an article headlined "Gore Campaign, Trailing Among Women, Sharpens Its Pitch to Them:"

HENNEBERGER: In his run for the White House, the Vice President is aggressively courting female voters—that increasingly important bloc that so far seems to favor George W. Bush slightly—and the pitch is not terribly subtle.

Henneberger didn't seem to approve too much of Gore addressing voters either. But plainly, nothing was "sudden" about Gore's current interest in trying to attract female voters. The truth is, with Williams, you don't get a good report of the news. But you do get a whole batch of attitude.

Anyway, back to the fashions. By Friday, the pouting Williams had begun to opine on how the Gore polo shirts looked. He complained to befuddled Paul Begala:

WILLIAMS (10/8): No disrespect to the campaign intended, but you know we've talked on this broadcast and so many others about the fact that he's wearing these polo shirts that don't always look natural on him, that he's trying to chuck his notes, that he is moving the campaign to Tennessee, and now we learn that they're going to target woman voters. When does that get reported so much that it becomes absolutely transparent when they go out into the hinterlands ands try to sell it?

You see? The real problem bugging the gorgeous star was that the polo shirts just didn't look natural! It may seem amazing that someone—in an anchor chair!—could make so subjective a comment on anything, but we'll visit Cokie Roberts tomorrow for another example. And when will Gore's interest in woman voters "get reported so much that it becomes absolutely transparent?" We're not quite sure. But evidence suggests that Brian Williams will be willing to do what he can.

Interpretations of polls that make no sense at all; inane discussions of fashion choices; statements about "recent" and "sudden" campaign strategies that had been reported at least four months ago—it's all just part of an average week sifting the news with the hapless Williams. If Dionne meant that the coverage of Gore is focussed on trivia, his judgment was validated on The News this past week. Does it all add up to unfair coverage? That, of course, is a harder question—but one that it's now time to ask.


Tomorrow: Cokie Roberts saw a photo of Gore with some children. She thought that the picture looked "goofy."

Recalling those numbers: Why did Williams say the New York numbers showed Gore being left "in the dust?" Because Bradley led Bush in New York by six points, while Gore was ahead by just two! This trivial difference (margin of error, anybody?) is especially unsurprising, since Bradley played for the Knicks in New York, a point Zogby managed to make. But Zogby never corrected Williams' over-the-top introduction, and neither pundit ever mentioned the most striking fact about the new numbers—Bradley and Gore had gained thirteen and fourteen points on Bush since Zogby's original polling in May. So it increasingly seems to go when one gets one's "news" from this hapless show.