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30 November 1999

Our current howler (part II): Tongue-tied

Synopsis: Some pundits couldn’t think of a thing when asked to explain Gore’s tough coverage.

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Bernard Kalb, Rich Lowry, Melinda Henneberger, Matt Cooper
Reliable Sources, CNN, 11/27/99

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Roger Simon, Marie Cocco
Reliable Sources, CNN, 10/16/99

For Some Ads, Reality Is Just a Stage
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 11/26/99

Our analysts came up with a new favorite this weekend—Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. On Reliable Sources, Lowry caught the analysts' eye by saying that "sympathetic reporters like Elizabeth Drew" have spun the story that John McCain is being smeared (more on that later this week). Later, our young scholars exchanged admiring glances when the scrub-faced young editor said this:

LOWRY: I think the big story here is—with the exception of teen-agers, no one in America is so susceptible to peer pressure and trends as reporters...The press always takes something with a grain of truth to it and blows it up in a frenzy for a month or two and then moves on to something else.

We liked the cheek of the irate scribe; some day we think he'll come to see that the grain of truth isn't required. Howard Kurtz seemed surprised by Lowry's comment:

KURTZ: I've heard the press accused of a lot of things—now add adolescence to the mix.

In fact, we've seen two major scribes in recent weeks offer Lowry's unflattering metaphor. Michael Kelly—in a trademark case of misplaced high dudgeon—said reporters act like they're thirteen years old (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/10/99). Eric Pooley is a bit less cruel; reporting on the October 27 town hall forum, he described how the assembled pundits had jeered at Gore "like a gang of fifteen-year-old Heathers" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/11/99).

Yep. The analysts admiringly nodded their heads when the bold young Review head-man spoke. But even Lowry wasn't prepared for one tough question Kurtz later posed. Kurtz was pressing his council of scribes to explain the rough coverage Gore has gotten:

KURTZ: Rich, why do you think there has been so much focus, for so long now, on Gore's, you know, the internal strife, should he separate from Clinton, what is he wearing, does he like earth tones? I mean it seems to be a steady drumbeat in the press of focus on these kinds of questions.

It's a question the cautious Kurtz has been asking since his article on the subject last June (link below). As we noted yesterday, all the scribes agreed that Gore has gotten much rougher treatment than Bradley (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/99). Why is that? Lowry started off with his grain-of-truth theory. But along the way, even he flailed and floundered:

LOWRY: I think there's a nugget of reality there. His campaign has stumbled around a bit, he moved up his announcement date, he's changed his slogan three or four times, he moved his campaign headquarters. There is a sense of disarray there. But I think the bigger problem—

The analysts leaned forward, expectant:

LOWRY: ...But I think the bigger problem is just that the press is familiar with Gore, he's the front-runner, it wants to see a race, it's puffing up Bill Bradley.

Back to the "press wants a good race" theory, by way of an odd middle passage. The press is "familiar with Gore?" That's the problem? When Kalb asked Henneberger what she thought, the stumbling around really got started:

KALB: So it's a pro-Bradley media?

HENNEBERGER: I don't know if it's a pro-Bradley media but, you know, he, it's a new story. I mean, Al Gore, people here have been covering him, you know—yes, Bradley was in the senate, but this is a whole new, um, thing. I think many, um, reporters are charmed by his history as a basketball hero—

At this point, the scribe was cut off. We're not trying to be unfair by transcribing the stammering, but Henneberger seemed to have remarkably few thoughts on this rather obvious question. (She's been covering Gore most of the year.) She started to say that scribes have been covering Gore a long time—as if that would explain very negative coverage—and then she realized that, hype to the side, they've covered Bradley a good long time too. Matt Cooper offered a coherent point—scribes tend to favor pols who challenge their own parties. Mercifully, the segment was over.

For the record, all the scribes had accused the press of exceptional professional misconduct. Imagine the idea that the press has slammed Gore because Bradley was a basketball star! But the scribes offered their theories with no apparent alarm—generic self-critique is old hat for the corps. Gentleman's C's may be lethal for Bush, but scribes give the press corps failing grades rather casually. No names are ever mentioned, of course. (NOTE: If Bradley is getting favorable coverage, that's a reflection on the press, not on him.)

We were struck by a dog that didn't bark—by a thought no scribe ever voiced. No one suggested the possibility that there may be a political reason for the coverage—that the press corps may have an animus about Gore, derived from his association with Clinton. It was striking that Kurtz didn't raise the idea, because in his June column in the Post, he quoted two major journalists making that precise point. Roger Simon said Gore would have to "jump through hoops" until he said what the press corps wanted to hear. And James Warren said the press considered Clinton "moral scum," and was "tainting" Gore for his association (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/99).

But on Reliable Sources, it occurred to no one that Gore's coverage could reflect a politicized press corps. And it had occurred to no one when Kurtz raised this question on the October 16 program. On that occasion, Kurtz had Simon himself on the panel, perhaps hoping the scribe would restate his point. But Simon took a different view. Here's the exchange that occurred:

KURTZ (10/16): Roger Simon...if you took all of the positive and negative coverage of Bradley and put it on a scale, I don't think there's any doubt that it would be wildly unbalanced on the plus side. Why is that?

SIMON: He's not Al Gore. [Laughter] He's doing well in the polls. He's a fresh face...The Gore campaign feels that it's the victim of a vast press conspiracy that goes something like this—because the media were unable to get Bill Clinton, they're going to try to get Al Gore. I don't believe that for a second.

Politely, Kurtz failed to mention Simon's comment from June, and the conversation moved on to other theories.

Nope. The press corps, such skillful psychiatrists with everyone else, is often tongue-tied when asked to explain its own conduct. Kurtz has had very little luck in examining the coverage of Gore. But no pundit has ever disputed his view—that Gore has received very negative treatment. How strong is the force of conventional wisdom on Gore? We return to Kakutani tomorrow.


Tomorrow: A puzzling review of Earth in the Balance shows the power of conventional wisdom.

Dr. Kurtz, professional therapist: Or maybe he's really a dentist. Because Dr. Kurtz was pulling teeth with his panel on October 16. When he asked Chris Bury why Bradley was getting a free ride, Bury replied that "free rides never last." It fell to Kurtz to ask the scribe why free rides ever happen at all. Marie Cocco said scribes can't "force candidates to make mistakes;" Kurtz had to point out that mistakes can be magnified. Bernard Kalb started one meandering question asking why Gore had received bad coverage; he somehow ended up asking, "How many Gores are there?" Throughout, Kurtz seemed to be struggling with a remedial group he was hoping to pass on to the next grade.

Why does this happen? Because when CNN wants to critique Washington journalists, it assembles a panel of Washington journalists! No other group in our society is ever critiqued this way. Imagine a show about the GOP Congress where every panelist was a GOP congressman. But on Reliable Sources, that goes on every week. The results are completely predictable.

Et tu, Howie? Concerned by Gore process stories on Saturday, Kurtz wrote this on Friday:

KURTZ (11/26, paragraph 1): Political ads are designed to create a feeling of authenticity, the sense that the candidate is a real person who cares about real problems. That's why a radio ad for Vice President Gore features two black women chatting about health care...

(4) Sounds real enough, but the women are actresses reading from a script. The Gore camp decided not to use ordinary folks for the commercial playing on African American stations, though listeners have no way of knowing.