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2 November 1999

Our current howler (part I): Where does spin come from?

Synopsis: Where does spin come from? We’re not sure. But Jeff Greenfield managed to call the shot on press coverage of the Dem town hall forum.

Bradley’s Gestalt Therapy
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 10/29/99

No Cheap Shots
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 10/31/99

Commentary by Jeff Greenfield
Inside Politics, CNN, 10/27/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Howard Fineman
Hardball, CNBC, 10/28/99

Gore’s ‘Alpha’ Adviser
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 11/2/99

It's hard to pick out the most ridiculous element of the press corps' reaction to the Dem town hall forum. Could it be this part of the Gail Collins piece that ran in the Times two days later?

COLLINS: Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat...[H]e tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. ("How old is your child, Corey? Are you unionized, Earl?")

In this passage, Collins works in the mandatory "Clintonesque" reference, and scolds Gore for calling audience members by name, which he did with three of his thirteen questioners. (GOP hopefuls, perfectly appropriately, used first names with four of their first seven questioners. Maybe they're "Clintonesque" too.) She also enjoys a bit of invention; there were no uses of Spanish, none at all, in the course of the televised forum. But what exactly was the exchange in which naughty Gore called "Corey" by name? The question, Gore's third, went like this:

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Corey Martin and I live in Hanover. There's been talk tonight about health care reform and I'm the parent of a child who has diabetes and I spend a lot of time dealing with the insurance companies and what's covered and what's not covered and it eats up a lot of time and effort. So I'm wondering, if you were to implement health care reform, who would be the decision-makers? Who decides what's covered?

Gore inquired about the age of the child (five), and asked if Ms. Martin had good insurance (she did). He told her he hoped we will find a cure for her child's disease, then gave a general answer to her larger question.

The notion that it was inappropriate for Gore to inquire about Ms. Martin's child is a notion so utterly heartless, so obnoxious and dense that it simply demands a bit of attention at the start of today's DAILY HOWLER. Indeed, Collins' obtuseness explains a basic element of our world; it explains why some of us are elected officials, and some, instead, write empty columns for papers much like the New York Times. Can Collins possibly—possibly—think Gore was out of line when he spoke as he did to Ms. Martin? And can anyone explain why it is people like Collins, writing utter drivel like this, who sit at the top of our national discourse, and sometimes influence who will be the next president?

Or maybe the silliest thing written about the forum was Sunday's opening passage from Mary McGrory. Incredibly, here are the first two paragraphs of her Washington Post column. We swear we aren't making this up:

MCGRORY (paragraph 1): Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie—and black boots.

(2) Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement—"I am not a well-dressed man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation's earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station. Maybe it was the first step in shedding his Prince Albert image.

How does Gore offend? Not just by getting off his stool when he speaks (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/99), but also by wearing blue shirts! Incredibly, this is the way the Washington Post is willing to have last week's town hall discussed—an event in which two bright men met with plainly concerned citizens, staging a smart, hour-long forum to decide who should be the next president (the most powerful elected official in the world). Work like this, most plainly put, is an insult to the democratic process—and a revealing look at the exceptionally low caliber of our powerful but empty mainstream press corps.

We think it's important to focus on just how bizarre the corps' coverage got to be—on how far from reality the comments strayed by the time the corps got its spin going. As we mentioned yesterday, at least three major pundits—Collins, McGrory, Margaret Carlson—explicitly criticized Gore for getting off his stool when he spoke, although every candidate, in each of last week's forums, got off his stool to answer every question. In this press corps, once a spin has been agreed on, everyone has to run to support it. And the evidence offered to support the spin can be just as silly as a scribe might like. No one ever will say a word about the oddness of CelebCorps' comments. There is no standard of lucidity—none at all—when the press has agreed on a spin.

But where does the press corps' spin come from? By Friday evening, everyone knew it, and the brave little press corps spoke loud, with one voice. Gore had been programmed, rehearsed, inauthentic. It was quite clear: he had been Clintonesque. All of them know it by Friday night—although on Wednesday, immediately after the forum, a good number of pundits, not yet scripted, had gone on TV and said things quite different. They had said that Gore had not seemed programmed; he'd seemed relaxed, and both hopefuls did well (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/99).

So just where does the press corps' spin come from? We don't know, but we've picked up some signs. Last Wednesday, Jeff Greenfield previewed the forum on Inside Politics less than three hours before it began. What approach might Bradley take that night? Greenfield discussed Bradley's career, as he believes Bradley sees it:

GREENFIELD: From the very beginning—I mean, literally for years—Bill Bradley, who has been wanting to run for president, has tried to figure out if he can run for president "his way," to paraphrase Frank Sinatra. And I think he's been very conscious of running a campaign that says, "I'm not like these other politicians. I don't rehearse. I don't use focus groups. I'm me."

Perhaps you note some of the basic spin points that were stated in the press corps last weekend. Greenfield continued:

GREENFIELD [continuing directly]: And to the extent tonight that Al Gore comes in—he has a very talented group of consultants around him—over-prepared with a sound bite, a phrase, that sounds rehearsed, to the extent that Bradley has one thing going on his mind throughout this contest, it is to draw the distinction between himself as a natural human being, sort of Jimmy Stewart, and Al Gore as a kind of political automaton.

Again—Greenfield here was trying to preview what Bradley's approach would be. In so doing, he virtually pre-wrote the familiar script we would later hear voiced by the press corps:

GREENFIELD [continuing directly]: And I think if there's one strategy, if that's the right word, that I'd expect to see Bradley try to employ tonight, it's to reinforce this notion that the difference is not so much ideological as "I'm more authentic than Al Gore."

You couldn't ask a scribe to be more on the money. Except Greenfield, describing Bradley's view of the race, had perfectly stated the unvarying spin that would later emerge from the press corps. The following night, for example, a tabloid talker had his first shot at describing the forum. He spoke with Newsweek's Howard Fineman. Authenticity quickly came up:

FINEMAN [first Q & A]: I think [Gore's] main problem is showing that he's the kind of authentic character who understands what he's about and knows exactly what he wants to do, which I think is what voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere are looking for this time. This election is going to be all about authenticity, Chris, at least here in New Hampshire. I've been all around the state today and that's what people are talking about.

He knew what the whole state was saying! The next day, of course, we would learn from Gallup—New Hampshire Dems who watched scored the forum a draw. But a talker couldn't wait for a verdict:

MATTHEWS [continuing directly]: Who's the winner, by view of the people talking up there?

FINEMAN: Well, last night—I think it was close...I think Gore got the points across he wanted to, as if he was ticking them off on a debate flow chart. But I think Bill Bradley, in terms of this authenticity thing that I'm talking about, probably carried the day because he looked secure in who he was...

Fineman went on to tell us that Bradley looked "relaxed and comfortable" at a town meeting that morning. Gore, though, when he "got points across," had been "ticking them off on a debate flow chart." Translation: Gore was right—but Gore looked rehearsed. And talk about ticking points off on a chart—Fineman was listing the very same points that Greenfield had presciently sketched out the day before.

By Friday, everyone in the media knew Gore was rehearsed; the image appeared again and again, all throughout the criticism. He had "taken the focus group viagra." The spin was so firm, and the pundits so ardent, that it turned out Gore was "Clintonesque" just because he got up off his seat. And it turned out he had also been Clintonesque when he asked about a child who was sick. But that hadn't been what scribes had said when they gave flash reactions right after the forum. What had happened to drive the corps' outlook? On Saturday, Al Hunt gave a clue.


Tomorrow: At first, Al Hunt thought Gore had won. Then he began talking to others.

Let's play beanball: The Bradley world view which Greenfield described suffused a talker's Thursday night program. When Norah O'Donnell said it was odd to be "criticizing a presidential candidate [Gore] for trying to connect with voters," a talker asked, "But was it an authentic connection or was it something some consultant told him to try?" Earlier, the talker said that Gore's answer to a question about misconduct in the Clinton administration "very clearly was dictated by his polling data." When Moore mentioned that Gore had thanked the people of New Hampshire for their role in the campaign, the talker asked, "What did he mean by that, his polling data is showing him behind?" No one ticks off points on a chart quite like this excited tabloid talker.

Wolf man: Six days after the Dem town hall forum, we haven't seen a major paper evaluate the claim Gore spelled out three times—the claim that Bradley's health care plan is uselessly expensive, using up money that could go somewhere else. But this week's Time gives the scribes a chance to discuss masturbation. This morning, Richard Cohen is in high dudgeon about Naomi Wolf's role in the Gore campaign. In a column which relies heavily on the words "apparently" and "reportedly," the sex-starved pundit writes this:

COHEN (paragraph 1): "The male body is home to me, my rocket, my whirlpool." So writes Naomi Wolf in her book, "Fire With Fire," which will soon be required reading along the campaign trail.

And we're sure it will be. Pundits will use any excuse to avoid reading the Emory health study which Gore cited at the Wednesday night forum.

Would Bradley's proposal crowd out other concerns? Don't ask, folks. These people doesn't care.