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 Magazine Watch

Wednesday November 10, 1999 (Vol. 1; No. 24)

Shilling for "Straight Shooters"; Bush's "Pop-Quiz Fiasco"; Lessons of Campaign '99

1. Newsweek and Time haven't tired of touting the media-empowering campaign "reform" die-hards Bradley and McCain against front-runners Bush and Gore. Newsweek found all of McCain's personal and political failings "just seem to deepen the character lines." Time thought "he could wear his flaws like another one of his medals."

2. George W. Bush's "pop-quiz fiasco" was highlighted by Newsweek with transcript helpfully provided for readers. Time called it a "critical moment" that showed Bush is "under water when grappling with foreign- and defense-policy basics." But neither magazine noted Al Gore's fumbling farm quiz in June with ABC's Diane Sawyer.

3. U.S. News & World Report summed up Campaign '99: "There seems to be no penalty for ignoring conservative issues."

4. Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen suggested objectivity is "impossible" in defending her endorsement of Bill Bradley before she signed up.

Covers on the computer industry must sell well, since Time and US News & World Report devoted considerable coverage to the Microsoft anti-trust lawsuit in separate cover stories. Newsweek's cover story featured fawning coverage of two of the media's favorite "straight shooters," John McCain and Bill Bradley.


Newsweek and Time haven't tired of touting the media-empowering campaign "reform" die-hards against front-runners Bush and Gore. In Newsweek, Howard Fineman's piece hailed John McCain and Bill Bradley as leading models of the anti-Clinton: "Skillfully, sometimes too eagerly, Bradley and McCain are hawking this year's hottest commodity: the aura of authenticity -- and plain-spoken candor -- that comes from a life that starts outside politics. Bill Clinton was the ultimate 'other directed' political figure, a changeling searching for identity and affirmation in shaking hands and winning votes. He's left voters exhausted and jaded by the mechanics of politics -- the polling, the fund-raising, the negative ads. But if every presidential election is a course correction, there may now be a growing demand for someone who learned to steer by his own compass."

Matt Bai critiqued the Bradley campaign and likened the former New Jersey Senator to a hot Silicon Valley start-up: "Until recently, the last great high-tech innovation to come out of New Jersey was the transistor -- in 1948. But that was before Bill Bradley arrived in Silicon Valley with a whole new way of plugging in a presidential campaign. Rather than wrestle Al Gore for the party's usual checkbook set, Bradley aimed to reach people who'd never been active in campaigns but had the capital and the connections to make an impact. Using the model of the promising start-ups he saw all around him in the Valley, he marketed himself as a kind of anti-Clinton: a legendary jock who doesn't crave approval, an intellectual who's not afraid to think big, a grown-up with nothing to hide." (The same "grownup" theme is on display in Time, where Eric Pooley claimed "McCain is playing the maverick grownup to Bush's Establishment child.")

Bai gushed: "Having left Washington like the prodigal son, Bradley could again call attention to the compelling narrative of his former life: a story of hoop dreams and hard work that resonates deeply with nostalgic boomers. Even Bradley's soft speaking style, at times a healthy alternative to Halcion, was now a sign of gravitas. The results have been staggering: when stock in goes public on primary day in New Hampshire, the campaign will have easily collected all the money it can use."

Jonathan Alter piled on with the praise for McCain: at his compelling biography, his wife's struggle with drug addiction and his life since the Hanoi Hilton. All of the flaws journalists usually pick like scabs when the subject is Republican (see Newsweek's "Radical Geek" coverage of Newt Gingrich) only humanized McCain: "Like many other POWs, McCain broke under torture and signed a 'confession.' On returning to the United States, he cheated on his first wife, Carol, who had been seriously injured in a car accident when he was in Vietnam. Later, he was too wrapped up in work to notice that his second wife, Cindy, was addicted to prescription drugs (box). He let himself get too close to savings and loan executive Charles Keating, who turned out to be a crook. He can be sarcastic and belittling, when he knows better." Alter immediately added: "But even his failures just seem to deepen the character lines."

He did not explain how McCain's adultery and marital inattention (albeit without sex harassment lawsuits) is going to sell to a Republican electorate who supported the impeachment of Clinton. Can anyone imagine the Democrats not itching to exploit that GOP double standard at crunch time?

Honor, according to Alter, is at the center of McCain's bid for the presidency and his efforts at so-called campaign reform: "McCain's presidential campaign will ultimately rise or fall on whether he can give that ancient idea new life. The strength of our democratic system, our faith in its integrity, is being sapped and dishonored by money. Whatever happens to his own political ambitions, John McCain knows honor, personal and national, and may help the rest of us light our way back to it."

In Time, Senior Editor Nancy Gibbs concluded her article by noting McCain "argued to Time that his imperfections only improved him. 'By realizing that you are a person with some weaknesses, it gives you a better appreciation that others may not be perfect,' he said. It was as if he could wear his flaws like another one of his medals." This sounds more like Clinton than anti-Clinton.

Time's John F. Dickerson also looked at McCain's temper in a piece called "In This Corner.." Dickerson wrote: " For McCain, the challenge is not to prove he has the fire, but the opposite: that if he carries the McCain flame into the White House, it won't set the mansion ablaze." McCain's temper could be seen as an asset, according to Dickerson: "Precisely because he is willing to rip up the rule book and stomp around a little bit, McCain has won the hearts of those who recognize that if Washington is going to be changed, it requires wrinkling a few ties."


Newsweek's Fineman also highlighted Bush's "pop-quiz fiasco"on foreign policy: "Bush was ambushed in Boston when a local TV reporter asked him to name the leaders of four global hot spots: Chechnya, India, Pakistan and Taiwan. The candidate got one out of four and looked like one unhappy cowboy. For the last several months he's been studying foreign policy in Austin, Texas, tutored by heavyweights who served his father. He will have a chance to redeem himself next week in a major foreign-policy address and his first Sunday talk-show gig. Spin-doctoring madly, Bush aides said that they welcomed the pop-quiz fiasco."

Newsweek helpfully provided a transcript for readers of George W. Bush's now famous interview titled "Bush flunks a quiz." Newsweek did not do the same when Al Gore suffered an agricultural pop quiz from ABC's Diane Sawyer on June 16. Here's that transcript:

SAWYER: All right. My cousins are all tobacco farmers and cattle farmers. So I have a test for you. Ready for a pop quiz?

GORE: All right.

SAWYER: How many plants of tobacco can you have per acre?

GORE: Oh, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I'll flunk that test.

SAWYER: What is brucellosis?

GORE: I know that there are five to seven on a stick when you put them in the -- in the barn.

SAWYER: And what are cattle prices roughly now?

GORE: Too low. (Laughter)

SAWYER: What was the other thing? Brucellosis?

GORE: Oh, that's hoof and mouth disease.

TIPPER GORE: Not confined to cattle. (Laughter)

SAWYER: And this is my mother's question. My mother says when a fence separates two farms, how can you tell which farm owns the fence?

GORE: Well, the... (Laughter)

DIANE SAWYER: I can't believe...

GORE: It depends on what kind of fence it is. I mean, which -- if the poles are on the inside, that's the -- the side where the farm is.

DIANE SAWYER: (voice-over) So he got two out of four. Not bad.

In Time, Nancy Gibbs placed great emphasis on the Bush quiz: "For Bush, the critical moment came last week when he flunked a pop quiz from a Boston television reporter by failing to name the leaders of countries like India and Pakistan. Bush argued in defense that the names are less relevant than his policies toward them. But the quiz was as much a test of his political radar as of his foreign-policy smarts: ever since he confused Slovenia and Slovakia and called the Greeks Grecians, he should have known it was only a matter of time before someone administered a midterm exam. And at other moments during the week, when he veered off text, the words just sort of floated out there, untied to any actual ideas. The implicit charge is less that he's stupid than that he's incurious, proudly anti-intellectual. Yet he is applying for a new and very demanding job -- and it was hard for Bush to attack this as a media ambush when his education philosophy hinges on testing what students know before allowing them to advance to the next grade."

In an article on Bush's intellect, James Carney added an anecdote of Bush flubbing a Middle East question, claiming "We're not going to allow Israel to be pushed into the Red Sea," when it primarily borders the Mediterranean, and mentioned an "inter-ballistic missile system." Carney claimed: "There is no such thihng as an 'inter'-ballistic missile. These mistakes may seem minor, but taken together they suggest that Bush is still under water when grappling with foreign- and defense-policy basics."


In a rundown of campaign 1999, U.S. News & World Report writers Franklin Foer and Frank McCoy trumpeted the decline of conservative issues: "Successful candidates steered away from hot buttons and cast themselves as hardheaded pragmatists. A case in point: When Virginia Gov. James Gilmore set out to win the legislature, he told candidates to avoid talk of abortion and gun control. Instead, he aimed the message -- building schools and controlling urban sprawl - squarely at suburban voters. Here, we can see GOP front-runner George W. Bush taking careful notes. The lesson: There seems to be no penalty for ignoring conservative issues. (Except in Washington State, where voters decisively made any future tax increases subject to voter approval.)"

Foer and McCoy did not ask: if abortion and gun control were such harmful issues, why didn't the Democrats win by using them?


Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen suggested objectivity is "impossible" in defending her endorsement of Bill Bradley before she signed up. "That's what the people need to understand about the press: that reporters are human. The thing is, the press needs to admit it, too. The discussions of objectivity have often made news gathering sound like a cross between a standardized test and a fugue state, in which the reporter becomes a tabula rasa, reflecting truth like a mirror. This is impossible even under the best of circumstances. Reporters and editors bring to the table their backgrounds, their friendship circles, their covert prejudices. Along with deadline pressures, these things shape whom they choose to talk to, what they manage to see and how they put all this together in words and pictures. The effect is usually subtle. But the effect is always there." Objectivity may be "impossible" within the human brain, but an objective method of journalism is only impossible to those who refuse to be fair.

In sum, Quindlen averred: "So what can readers conclude from the fact that six months ago, before I had returned to journalism, I gave a speech in support of Bill Bradley? Perhaps that I'll favor one man over another. Maybe just the opposite. In 'Fat Man in a Middle Seat,' his self-deprecating memoir of a reporter's life, Jack Germond writes of one campaign, 'I wondered at times whether I was not bending over backward to be hard on Udall because I liked him so much. That happens sometimes with reporters.' Certainly I'll feel readers looking over my shoulder whenever I write about the presidential race. But in the relationship between the people and the people of the press, that's always part of the deal. Together, somehow, we make sense of the world, in a fashion that, if we are being honest, is eminently satisfactory, and yet often satisfies no one."

It's great that Quindlen feels so sensitive about her love for Bradley. Perhaps she can talk to Howard Fineman, Matt Bai and the other "objective" reporters who've promoted him in her magazine.

-- Tim Graham


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