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14 December 1999

Our current howler (part I): And Jake makes three

Synopsis: Salon’s Jake Tapper made it three about what happened at that Dem town hall forum.

The Very Authentic McCain
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 12/14/99

The power and the story
Nancy Gibbs and John Dickerson, Time, 12/13/99

Heroes Aren’t Always Winners
Tucker Carlson, Talk, 11/99

John McCain: happy warrior
William Greider, Rolling Stone, 10/28/99

Commentary by Jake Tapper
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 12/13/99

Commentary by Heather Nauert
The Edge, Fox News Channel, 12/13/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Howard Fineman
Hardball, MSNBC, 12/13/99

Why have we focused on Gore-Bradley coverage? Because coverage of the GOP race has been much more transparent. This morning, for example, Richard Cohen writes about the coverage of Senator McCain:

COHEN: My colleagues in the news biz are forever declaring their admiration for the man—both privately and in print. They find him attractive because he is, among other things, authentic. I would scoff, but I am one of them. I am already on record as liking John McCain.

Indeed, there has been no end of stories about McCain—and about the McCain press coverage. Many of those stories describe press conduct that is simply impossible to defend. Here, for example, are Nancy Gibbs and John Dickerson in Time's recent cover story:

GIBBS AND DICKERSON: There is no entourage, no bubble of staff members around him...And then there are the stories he tells—to which, if there's a pattern, it's to exalt other people and deflate himself. A presidential candidate is not supposed to talk at length and on the record about the rules he broke or the strippers he dated, or the time he arrived so drunk that he fell through the screen door of the young lady he was wooing. The candor tells you more than the content, and reporters sometimes just decide to take him off the record because they don't want to see him flame out and burn up a great story.

Others have described the same syndrome. Tucker Carlson, writing in Talk:

CARLSON: McCain is on a roll, having a great time. "Want to hear some more of 'em?" he asks. It's more of an opening line than a question, and McCain is just launching into a new riff when a reporter sitting nearby cuts him off. "No, thanks," she says. "I'm a compassionate journalist." In other words: Stop, please, before I have to quote you.

William Greider also describes this process:

GREIDER: While McCain continues examining his flaws, the reporters on the bus are getting a bit edgy. Will somebody tell this guy to shut up before he self-destructs? No. "This is his campaign," an aide mumbles as the candidate disembarks at Plymouth [N.H.]. "It's not like we sit here and try to control him. Do you think he would listen if we did?"

That last exchange replays a standard trope—the fully authentic Man of Character whose aides know they can't-shut-him-up. We described a version of this same old chestnut in recent reporting on Bradley (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/26/99, postscript). But the press conduct openly described by Gibbs is hard to reconcile with standard notions. Gibbs describes major reporters choosing not to report because they prefer that the public not know. (More on this syndrome this week.)

But at least the process is relatively open—we have read one account after another of the press corps' love affair with McCain. And some pundits have challenged the conduct described, as we will see later on this week (we congratulate Brit Hume in advance). The situation has been different with the coverage of Gore, where scribes know enough to conceal naughty conduct. Though there are many interesting aspects of the GOP coverage, we have felt the larger story lies with Gore, where press agendas lurk in the weeds—and no one, repeat, no one, discusses it.

Well, we'll have to make that almost no one, because yesterday morning, our incomparable analysts came racing to our chambers quite early. Jake Tapper, Salon's post-modern man-about-town, was lead guest on Washington Journal. Please remind us to tell C-SPAN officials that we now quote Tapper's word, not our own. Responding to a charge of liberal bias in the media, Tapper became the third major scribe to describe what went on in that press room at Hanover:

TAPPER: Well, I can tell you that the only media bias I have detected in terms of a group media bias was, at the first debate between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, there was hissing for Gore in the media room up at Dartmouth College. The reporters were hissing Gore, and that's the only time I've ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event.

Remarkable—and the public has a right to know that the press corps conducts itself so. Earlier, we have described Time's Eric Pooley saying that the press room "erupted in jeering" during Gore's responses that night (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/11/99). We have described the Hotline's Howard Mortman saying that the scribes "groaned, laughed and howled" at almost everything Gore said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/99). But hundreds of journalists were in the room, and no one—repeat, no one; no one at all—has complained about the press corps' odd conduct.

Some readers have chafed for news of Rep coverage, and we think interesting themes are being played out on that side. But we repeat—as we began to tell you back in March when we reported the astonishing farm chores "reporting," the negative coverage of the Gore campaign has been the press corps event of the year. Tapper's account—ol' Jake makes it three—helps us see how right we've been all along. Tapper had never seen the press act like that. We put you on notice in March.


This week: Some weird reporting about poor old Gore. And some who have questioned the McCain coverage.

Our incomparable standard disclaimer: We state again what we've stressed before—if the press corps has given inappropriate coverage to McCain, that reflects on the press, not on McCain.

Heathers: Appearing on The Edge after last night's forum, Heather Nauert explained what pundits look for:

NAUERT: I think what is important to see is how they respond to questions, what their temperament is, and I don't mean anger or not-anger but if he's a funny guy or if he has something important to say or if someone sits or if his body is positioned in a certain way. I think those things are all very telling as to someone's character and really what they're all about. And I think that is what is so important about these debates is that we can tell that.

Some of the analysts began sassing Nauert for examining the way hopefuls sit. And they began to say that she's on the air just because she's so young and good-looking. No real pundit would care about that, the mocking analysts seemed to say. Imagine how quickly their japery stopped when we played this, from the post-forum Hardball:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: George W—maybe this is a Texas thing—but he suggested almost a slouch in his public presentation, the way he sits there. He sits kind of at an angle. He sort of has an attitude of condescension, it's like a club meeting for membership and he's sort of deciding, "I'm already in this club...I'm a legacy." Am I seeing this alone or did you see that as well?

Happy ending—the talker wasn't alone. Howard Fineman "completely agreed" with him.