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Caveat lector

11 November 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Heathers

Synopsis: Good-bye, Hanover! Whistle-blowin’ Eric Pooley coolly supported what our phone caller said.

Commentary by Henry Aaron
The NewsHour, PBS, 11/11/99

Commentary by Howard Mortman
The Hotline, America’s Voice, 11/1/99

Please Don’t Leave Me, Don’t You Go
Eric Pooley, Time, 11/8/99

Gore again chides Clinton for affair during N.H. debate
Bill Sammon, The Washington Times, 10/28/99

Dismantling Medicaid
Bob Herbert, The New York Times, 11/11/99

Again, it's not as if the point just hasn't been made. Here's economist Henry Aaron, uncontradicted on last night's NewsHour:

AARON: In 1997, both parties agreed to limit some discretionary spending that no rational person in this town really thinks we can live within. It's on this basis of these overly-optimistic or overly-restrictive assumptions...that all the projections about budget surpluses [aside from Social Security] rest. If one uses more real projections—say that spending on defense and domestic spending outside Social Security grows no faster than inflation and price just keeps up with inflation—there is no surplus to be projected over the next ten years. The gap between the reality of the budget situation and the rhetoric of the budget situation has never been greater.

That's right—it's been explained again and again, in almost every major publication. But the press corps happily keeps typing stories about funding health plans from the projected surplus (see postscript). Happy to chat about authenticity and clothes, the press corps can't even get basics right. And, as we've seen in the past two weeks, they really did showcase their group dysfunction in the wake of the Dem town hall forum.

But as we leave our Hanover musings, one point must be revisited. We must return to the mystery phone call we received on the night of the forum. You remember—a mystery caller, in the Hanover press room, offered a striking description of CelebCorps' decorum (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/99). It was not unlike remarks by the Hotline's Howard Mortman which we heard just a few days later:

MORTMAN: I phoned in to Bob, to be fair to Bob, I do stick by the story that the media groaned, howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something—

BOB SOMERBY: I think that's amazing. I think that's amazing.

OTHER VOICE FROM PANEL: What happened with Bradley?

MORTMAN: Stone silence. Really.

A note from a reader has asked us to explain why we have concentrated on Democrats in our media critiques, and we will discuss the question in the next several days. But Mortman's report did seem to confirm a suspicion we've reported here for months. Has the press corps perhaps made some group selections—chosen up sides in the hopefuls' struggles? We don't know. But Mortman's description could hardly raise confidence in the professionalism of this great press.

And then, it happened! Confirmation at last! A whistle-blower coolly stepped forward and confirmed the things Mortman had said! It was Eric Pooley, in the pages of Time, reporting on the Hanover happenings. Pooley started out explaining how "cheesy" the music is at Gore events. Then he compared the "sweating" VP to a man begging with a woman for sex. The VP has had "a near-death experience," Pooley said, which explains his recent "frenzied attempt to connect." But the press corps ain't buyin', Pooley relates. Here's his account of what went on inside the corps' vaulted chambers:

POOLEY: Last week the ache was unmistakable—and even touching—but the 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out by it. Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some helpless nerd.

Poor Gore. For months the press has been hammering him for taking the nomination for granted and not showing emotion. Now it's hammering him for trying too hard and showing too much...

Indeed—it's just as we've told you with this sorry crew. Once they've decided you're not part of the crowd, you're danged if you do—and you're danged if you don't. Pooley himself says the press corps behaved like a bunch of teen-agers running in a pack. But how does it feel, fellow lovers of discourse, to know the press corps behaves this way—to know the scribes have so little respect for their role in our all-important public discourse?

And make no mistake, this press corps knows not to tell us about their strange conduct. Three hundred "media types" in the room, and to our knowledge only Pooley, among correspondents, came out and described these events! Do you really doubt that it's news, dear readers, to know that the press corps behaved this way? But 300 reporters, right there on the scene, knew enough not to say what had happened.

Don't make us name their names, dear friends. But many major scribes were on the scene—and knew enough not to say Word the First.

For the record, at least one next-day story did allude to the press corps' weird conduct. But the story cleaned up that conduct a tad; this appeared in the Washington Times:

BILL SAMMON: Mr. Gore was the first to attempt humor, telling a joke about St. Peter informing the newly deceased operator of an HMO that he could enter heaven, but could stay only three days.

The audience laughed politely while the press corps, crammed in an adjacent room and watching on TV monitors, groaned because Mr. Gore has told the joke so many times on the campaign trail.

Somehow, reporting from a room away, Sammon knew that the crowd laughed "politely!" There's no end to this press corps' strange powers! But this account significantly downplays the reports made by Mortman and Pooley. Mortman (a former Republican campaign worker) said the media groaned "almost every time Al Gore said something." Pooley said the media jeered "whenever Gore came on too strong." But the press corps' conduct has been nicely scrubbed for spoon-fed readers of the Times, who are only told that the press corps groaned when Gore told a joke they'd all heard.

There you see them, boys and girls—your celebrity press corps in action! How does it feel, to know they jeer hopefuls "like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers?"


Tomorrow: Why so much about Dems? Why so much about Gore? Tomorrow we answer your questions.

First sighting: Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a view on Bradley's proposal for Medicaid. But this morning, Bob Herbert becomes the first columnist in our five papers to critique this significant matter. Gore criticized Bradley on this point at the forum; if the press cared a fig about health care for poor people, they'd have made some effort to evaluate Gore's claims. But the pundits were busy critiquing Gore's clothes. As we've told you before—they couldn't care less what happens to Medicaid, and have no current plans to discuss it.

But while we praise Herbert, he also says this, driving home yesterday's HOWLER:

HERBERT: Mr. Bradley proposes to pay for his initiative with money from the federal budget's non-Social Security surplus. Vice President Al Gore, who is touting his own, more modest health care proposal—and who also plans to pay for it with the surplus—has said Mr. Bradley's plan will devour the entire surplus.

Not a word about Aaron's point (see above). Note the last point Aaron makes, about the current gap between reality and rhetoric.