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1 November 1999

Our current howler (part III): Highly subjective

Synopsis: How did the hopefuls "come across" and "connect?" The press corps just loves the subjective.

Commentary by David Brooks, Jim Lehrer
The NewsHour, PBS, 10/29/99

Commentary by Gwen Ifill, Elizabeth Arnold, Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 10/29/99

Controversial Feminist Paid by Gore Camp
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 11/1/99

CelebCorps' tasteful reaction to the Gore-Bradley forum continued Friday night, on the NewsHour. Here's David Brooks, one of Washington's brightest commentators, after acknowledging that his own reaction to the Wednesday forum didn't match polls that were taken the next day:

BROOKS: I thought Bradley wiped the floor with him. I thought Bradley came out, said I'm a grown-up guy, I'm sitting here telling you what I believe. Al Gore struck me, he took the focus group viagra. He just came out oozing empathy—

LEHRER [chuckling]: What did you say, "focus group viagra?"

BROOKS: Somebody compared him to an animal that had been caged up and they let him loose and he came out oozing empathy.

So let's see. Bradley is a guy who "looks like he's been smoking a lot of pot" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/99). Gore is a guy who looks like "he's doing sex after reading a book about how to do it" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/99). And now he's a caged and unloosed animal, who has taken "the focus-group viagra." We think it's striking that someone as smart as David Brooks would want to express himself in this way—or that Jim Lehrer, much like Judy Woodruff on Wednesday, seems to feel that he must play along.

But the press corps' response to the Dem town hall meeting wasn't just oddly smutty. The press corps also boldly showed off its love affair with the subjective. How did the hopefuls "come across?" How did they "seem?" Did they "connect" with the audience? Whose jokes were funny? The press corps repeatedly spoke to such questions—rarely displaying any awareness of the phenomenal subjectivity involved.

Visit the set of Washington Week in Review, CelebCorps' most high-toned forum. Never would panelists sully their work with the cheap joking that filled other halls. Kicking off last Friday's show, Gwen Ifill spoke with Elizabeth Arnold, reporting from New Hampshire:

IFILL: Elizabeth, so which of these candidates, after you talked to voters after the debates...which of the candidates actually did best?

By the time the program aired Friday night, there were polls available which actually said how New Hampshire voters had scored the Dem forum (Brooks had noted this fact; see postscript). An objective answer to Ifill's question was available by Friday afternoon. But Arnold proceeded with a different blend, mixing her subjective impressions with random comments from voters. She began with how Gore came across:

ARNOLD: ...Let's start with the Democrats. I would say that Vice President Al Gore was so determined to appear relaxed and connect with the people that he was practically leaping off the stage for personal details of the questioners' lives.

Bill Bradley provided a contrast:

ARNOLD: ...Bradley, by contrast, came across as calm, subdued, almost like he was the incumbent, and he came off, a few people said to me today, as somebody who really believed in what he says and isn't telling people what he thinks they want to hear.

That's how Bradley "came across." But "came across" to whom? In the case of Bradley, Arnold cites what "a few people" told her, seeming not to understand the total absurdity of reporting such a meaningless sample. Arnold's account of who "did best" blended personal impressions with reports from stray voters. Is there anything obviously wrong with that approach? Perhaps yes. Here's her take on John McCain:

ARNOLD: I would say Arizona Senator John McCain...connected, came across directly answering questions. At one point he was asked a question about legalizing marijuana, and he at first said, "That's an excellent question," and then he ducked it—

IFILL: And then he didn't answer the question.

ARNOLD: He said, "I'd like to duck it." But then he told a great story about being asked a similar question and thinking industrial hemp was a form of navy ship rope. But without being obsequious, McCain was able to come off as affable and connected with the audience.

By the way, one quick note about Arnold's assessments—despite the tone of that last remark, Arnold was not in the hall when this forum took place. Instead, she was watching on television in a separate hall with the rest of the penned-up press corps. She had no more access to how hopefuls "came across" than anyone watching the forums at home—a point rarely made as the press corps explained how the hopefuls "came across" and "connected." And by the way—was McCain's story about the hemp a "great story?" Here at THE HOWLER, we thought McCain was the star of the Republican forum—but we thought his story about industrial hemp was silly, off the point, his one error. Arnold betrays no awareness at all that her reported judgment is completely subjective—as is her judgment, offered without qualification, that McCain "came across" and "connected" a certain way in a room where she herself was not even present.

But most striking in the quoted exchange is what was said about McCain's actual answer. McCain most certainly did answer the question—after telling his "great story" about industrial hemp, he quite plainly said, in some detail, that he would not favor legalizing marijuana. But viewers of the august Week in Review were explicitly told, by two correspondents, that McCain had actually "ducked the question." In short, the one factual matter that was raised in this exchange was completely misstated for the show's viewers. Meanwhile, viewers were treated to a subjective account of the way John McCain "came across."

Oh yeah! So what about our topic from Friday, the repeated dispute between Bradley and Gore about the cost of their health care programs? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/99.) Remember that? The substantive point that Gore made repeatedly—the one that made page one headlines in the Post and the Times, but was ignored on three follow-up TV shows? Surely on this high-minded show, the serious scribes would run straight to that topic. Sorry. On Washington Week in Review—even here!—the pundits chose instead to talk style.

After Arnold's assessment of how the hopefuls "came across," Mara Liasson raised a different sort of question. She noted that Gore, in the past few weeks, has made several different criticisms of Bradley. "Do we have a sense yet of what the debate is?" she asked. "Is there a sense of what the debate is between these two men?" Liasson wanted something other than style. Arnold's answer struck us as surprising:

ARNOLD: I think you're right. At the end of the evening, it was as if there really wasn't that much difference between them in terms of substance. It was more in terms of style.

By Friday afternoon, as you may know, the forum's health cost dispute had spread, with the Bradley camp explicitly challenging Gore on the cost of his own proposed programs. It was the perfect time for some panel member to ask Arnold to profile this subject. It was clearly the central point of dispute from the forum; the issue, quite plainly, was still being argued. But Jeffrey Birnbaum had a better idea. Here was the panel's next question:

BIRNBAUM (continuing directly): Can you talk a little more about the style and how the audience at least as you can judge for them, how they reacted to Gore and the way he was about leaping off the stage at them, and whether they really warmed to Bradley, who isn't known as a warm type of politician, but nevertheless might have been more attractive. Did the audience react that way?

Nothing "leading" about that question! Birnbaum loved the pleasing image of Gore leaping right off the stage. Arnold went on to give more detail about how (she thought) Gore came across. Nope—the Washington Week audience never heard about the growing debate about health costs. But they did get to hear what the press corps likes best—subjective statements about who "came across," and about who told "great stories." Throughout the press corps, for the most part, surprise of surprises: Gore didn't.


Tomorrow: When the press corps gives subjective assessments, they all like to say the same thing.

Facts are boring things: On the NewsHour, Brooks noted that his reaction to Gore and Bradley did not comport with new polls. Indeed, on Friday's Inside Politics, Bill Schneider had reported such a poll; New Hampshire Dems scored the forum a draw. This was the best objective answer to Ifill's first question ("After you talked to voters, which one did best?") But Washington Week viewers were deprived of this information. Instead, they got Arnold's subjective assessments, and her account of what "a few voters" said.

Earth (tones) to Connolly: In this morning's Post, Ceci Connolly continues to stress things that matter. In paragraph 13 of a page one story, she offers this report:

CONNOLLY: [Dick] Morris speculated that [adviser Naomi] Wolf, who has long contended that earth tones are more "reassuring" to audiences, is the person behind Gore's recent wardrobe change. Others confirmed that she has supported the vice president's shift to brown, olive green and tan shades.

Finally, due to careful reporting, we're getting the background on that! In paragraph 19, Connolly got around to discussing the Bradley-Gore budget dispute that was discussed on yesterday's talk shows. It is simply astounding to see the "news judgment" that pervades the celebrity press.