Wimblehack: Round II
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Editors Note: This article covers the second stage of a the New York Press First Quadrennial Election Hack Invitational – a tournament, to be held between October 5 and the week after the election, which will answer the question: "Who is the worst campaign journalist in America?" Here are the rules: The New York Press has chosen 32 of the country's leading campaign reporters, mostly from the world of print, and bracketed them into pairs. Each week, the pairs will square off against one another. Whoever writes worse, advances.
The tournament progresses until the week after the election, when the writer of the worst and most slavish and dishonest election post-mortem among the two remaining contestants will receive an Illustrious Mystery Prize from the New York Press tournament committee. To determine a winner in each match-up, the contenders' articles will be examined by a three-person panel of drug-addicted judges culled from the editorial ranks of this newspaper. The Press' decisions are completely subjective and cannot be appealed. One of its rules is that any appeal from a contestant, whether in private or in public, results in automatic advance through to the next round. If you want to read the results from the first round, go read it at the NY Press. This is funny territory, but its also some of the best media criticism out there. Enjoy!
Until this year's Wimblehack, few American fans had heard of Gorm Voelver, political correspondent for the Danish news mag Politiken. In fact, we'd never heard of him, either. But when Newsweek's Jonathan Alter had to pull out of competition this week due to his observance of Satanic Thanksgiving, somebody had to jump into the fire.
That somebody was Gorm Voelver.
Chosen on the strength of his name alone from a list of more than 1700 foreign campaign-trail hopefuls, Voelver represents this tournament's best effort to give a non-American wild card a shot at the title. He is a symbol of America's status as the ultimate land of opportunity, and our embrace of him into the tourney graphically demonstrates this country's passion for fairness and entrepreneurial spirit. He is journalism's Rocky Balboa, if you will, its Italian Stallion. Or rather – its Italian Danish.
"You may not know what to expect from Gorm. Get ready to be surprised," said Politiken head coach Toger Seidenfaden. "At Politiken, we expect all of our players to perform, and whenever Gorm steps on the field, I have complete confidence that he'll get the job done."
We'll see. In any case, Wimblehack, the tournament to determine America's – er, the world's – worst campaign journalist, is entering a crucial phase. The presidential-election story is going to become markedly more dramatic in the next few weeks for the simple reason that the news (and entertainment) networks are going to throw more journalists at it. In the American media landscape, drama is a quantitative rather than a qualitative commodity. A story with 10 live trucks parked outside is more dramatic than a story with five live trucks parked outside. When election time draws near, we don't look more closely at what the candidates actually stand for, but we do add a lot more live trucks. So expect it to get noisier from now on, and tougher for our contestants to stand out.
The formula is the same. Journalists in each draw bracketed into pairs. Whoever writes worse advances. This week, we're through to the round of eight.
KAREN TUMULTY (1)
Here's a fun game that all of you out there who have no lives can play at any time. It's a little thing we at New York Press call the AFRICAN CAMPAIGN SAFARI.
Campaign reporters are a lot like high-school kids. Three weeks into the school year, one of the popular girls comes in wearing baby- blue UGG boots and a Juicy Couture sweatshirt. Two weeks later, half the girls in school are wearing baby-blue UGG boots and Juicy Couture sweatshirts.
The exact same dynamic is at work on the campaign trail. One of the big guys will come up with some dumb thing or other, and next thing you know, two weeks later, it's spread to the rest of the plane: "Hey, let's start referring to the debates as smackdowns! Everybody's doing it!"
You'd like to think that's not the way it works, but it is. It's always the same thing. One week, out of the blue, somebody uses a line once. Next week, it gets used three times. By the third week, 50 or 60 times by 50 or 60 different reporters.
Usually you don't spot it until that third week, when you suddenly start seeing it everywhere. By the fifteenth time you see a "smackdown" in a debate lede (incidentally, even CBS MarketWatch had one recently), you start scratching your head, wondering: "Jesus, where the hell did this come from?" That's when you know it's time to play AFRICAN CAMPAIGN SAFARI. You've got to find the source of the Nile.
One of the more loathsome themes of the coverage of the second debate was the "You know, it's funny, but these debates are really like reality tv" angle. By the end of last week, half the reporters in the country were whipping that one out. It came completely out of the blue.
"This is reality television at its best – only this time, the outcome really matters," wrote Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"We may get a little bit of reality TV here, if you will. Reality TV meets politics," said CNN analyst Carlos Watson.
"These debates are the best reality TV around these days," cooed the Duluth News-Tribune.
There was Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic making the unintentionally ironic observation that the debates had the same "drama" as reality shows, writing, "This was real reality TV, with all the drama of a Survivor or Apprentice but with, obviously, much higher stakes."
Or how about this one, a classic two-fer by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Dan DeLuca: "Even if the duo turn in disappointing performances, the smackdowns make for compelling television for the simple reason that presidential debates are like reality TV shows that really matter, and they hold considerably more weight than, say, the baseball playoffs they'll be battling with for viewers tonight."
(Incidentally, the Oregonian hit the same cliche two-bagger just a few days ago in its tv listings for this week, writing: "The third presidential debate is the final smackdown...! This riveting reality TV show will feature all the bells and whistles: A live audience! A moderator!").
This had to be coming from somewhere. And if you go back through the record and search, you'll find that it all started in one prominent outlet: an Oct. 4 Time magazine feature called "Inside the Debate Strategies," by one Karen Tumulty. Characteristically, Tumulty invokes the "reality tv" idea in the form of helpful horse-race advice to candidates, this time imploring them not to be thinkers, but the same kind of desperate, pandering dickheads who make good reality-show contestants. She writes:
The biggest mistake any candidate can make is to think of these as debates at all. Reality TV is more like it. "People watch these things more like they are watching Friends than the way they watch the Harvard and Yale debate societies," says Chris Lehane, who was Gore's press secretary. "They're not watching to see who scores the points. They're watching to see who they connect with and feel comfortable with."
Let's get this straight. The biggest mistake a candidate can make is to not act like a reality-show contestant? And this woman went to Harvard?
Bill Sammon nearly advanced automatically when one of his editors wrote one of those, "Hey, love the tournament, I'm right there with you fellers," letters that also quietly let us know that "Bill is a really nice guy" who won awards when he worked for the Stars and Stripes. We don't go for that sort of thing around here. If you think the guy's nice, tell your wife.
Fortunately for Sammon, however, he hasn't filed since the last issue, so he's out. Tumulty, the African Queen, advances.
ROBERT NOVAK (8)
This is a tough one. Do you go with the mean old bastard who writes, without kidding, "I am a Ken Mehlman fan" – or do you go with the loopy mystic with the gay-porn moustache who blasted Dick Cheney, of all people, for being soft on family values, and spent the weekend buddying up to one of the rising stars of the Christian nut-job set?
We're going with Cal Thomas, solely on the strength this photo of him with Joni Eareckson Tada, his most recent guest on the FOX program, After Hours with Cal Thomas – a show, incidentally, that is showing signs lately of mounting a strong ratings challenge to the automatic rice-cooker infomercials on MNN. Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic, is an honorary co-chair of the Presidential Prayer Team, an organization devoted to praying for the health and success of the Bush administration. This is a group that issues daily instructions to pray for such people as Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and Secretary of Commerce Don Evans. With his invite of Eareckson Tada, Thomas has now been plugged as mainstream-media friendly on the group's website – twice. On the show, incidentally, he and Eareckson Tada engaged in a mutual congratulation session over their identically recalcitrant views on stem-cell research.
Meanwhile, in his literary endeavors, Thomas performed admirably, blasting Cheney after the debate for having the temerity to assert that a job was the best antidote to poverty. According to Thomas, heterosexual marriage is a better weapon against poverty than a job. "[S]table two-parent homes with a mother and father... constitute the best anti-poverty program," he wrote.
That's a nice line of reasoning. Maybe it ought to be developed: "Homosexuality: It takes food off the table."
Novak, meanwhile, fell and broke his hip after the first debate, but was back blasting away at Don Rumsfeld from his hospital bed two days later. The guy is really unstoppable. At the end of his life, he's going to be like the machine in the last frames of The Terminator, legs gone, flesh all burned off, crawling forth in the abandoned factory, spewing venom about government spending. One has to admire that.
He drops out; the pious Cal moves on.
HEATHER GILMORE & BILL HOFFMANN
NEW YORK POST
This is a forfeit, as neither Gilmore nor Hoffmann has filed a campaign piece in the last two weeks. Moreover, one of the things Hoffmann did write was a piece about a freelance graphic designer who got scores of dates after surreptitiously inserting his phone number in a Crate & Barrel catalog photo ("Crate Pickup Line – Bachelor Sneaks # Into Catalog," Oct. 8). Hoffmann grittily describes designer Marc Horowitz's travels to meet his callers:
"Horowitz insists his three-month trip, which he hopes to videotape for a possible documentary, absolutely is not about trying to have a coast-to-coast sex marathon."
Now that's journalism.
Zuckman and her Trib colleagues, meanwhile, filed a piece over the weekend ("Battle gets more personal – and urgent; Candidates offer debate rebuttals on campaign trail," Oct. 10) that twice quotes Bush's new dipshit stump line, "He can run, but he can't hide." Once, thank you, was more than enough.
Incidentally, out of nearly 1,000 campaign reporters, only one – Chris Suellentrop of Slate – bothered to look up the ancestry of "You can run, but you can't hide." The line has obviously been used in the White House before, most recently by Scott McClellan about modern-day terrorists, but more famously by Ronald Reagan about terrorists involved with the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Reagan also described the Tripoli bombing campaign as "you can run but you can't hide" airstrikes. Candidates recycle lines all the time, and journalists, obeying the generally Orwellian relationship of campaigns to both fact and the past, rarely call them on it. This is positive because it allows the campaign sham to be cyclical as well as depressing.
Jill "Two Times" Zuckman & co. advance; Post eliminated.
HOWARD FINEMAN (4)
Adoring subject-sanctioned profiles of the Important Campaign Journalist appear with numbing regularity in student/alumni magazines. For reasons that are probably obvious only to the people who went to those sorts of schools, they appear more often than not in Ivy League circulars – though there are exceptions. The feature will typically include a handsome photo of the hack in a regal, professional pose, over the implied caption: "In his exciting career as a swashbuckling toilet who eagerly receives the piss of powerful political interests, X never forgets his Yale roots."
Such an article appeared recently in Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity's quarterly magazine. Appropriately in its How I Spent My Summer Vacation issue ("What Did You Do This Summer?" Summer 2004), the fraternity profiled its famous journalist brother, Howard Fineman (Colgate '70). The story featured a gigantic, illustrated version of a Newsweek cover in which the irrepressibly serious Aaron-Brown-wannabe face of Howard Fineman appears over the headline: "Howard Fineman."
Most of the article is just the inoffensively overwrought flattery of the amateur feature writer ("As a journalist, NBC News analyst and active family man, Fineman is 'on the go' a lot"; "His personality is disarming and his demeanor is relaxed, evidence by his loosened tie and disheveled hair"). But late in the article, the writer gets Fineman to come out with this:
He once interviewed the President on his cell phone from his son's little league game. "I know Bush is no dummy – he's a shrewd, effective leader," he said, referring to Bush's cool persona that allows for a seemingly effortless style. "I recognized him from my fraternity life," he said. "They're a different breed."
Fineman also reveals that he thought Bush once tried to give him the Delta Kappa Epsilon grip:
"But I sure didn't give him the Beta grip," he adds. "Understanding the role of fraternity in American life is important and relevant. It has helped me to understand George W. Bush. I appreciate him more and understand him better because of my fraternity experience."
Yikes! Apparently Brother Fineman quite appreciates Brother Bush, because his performance on his behalf last week was really a thing of beauty. Not since O.J. Simpson stared into the cameras and invited the whole incredulous world to help him in his search for the "real killers" have we seen anything as brazen as Fineman attempting to blame media bias for Bush's plunge in the polls. In his post-first-debate cover-story wrapup ("Ninety Minutes Later, a New Race," Oct. 11), Fineman all but openly raged at Kerry, using straight-from-Karl-Rove's-mouth language throughout the piece.
In one sequence, he echoed the Bush campaign's windsurfing ads ("Republicans use Kerry's love of windsurfing as a metaphor for weakness of character. But in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, Kerry has tacked to the popular position..."), and later went on to deconstruct Kerry's Iraq position at length, leaving Bush alone. Finally in the piece, he attributed on two occasions Bush's "loss" to the inattention of the media. Here's the first instance; note the inclusion of the peevish "which may be true":
[Bush] harped on the notion that Kerry was a flip-flopper, which may be true but which the press corps – primed for news – had heard before.
Is Fineman suggesting that the media underreports Kerry's "flip-flops"? He goes on:
After being blown about in the spin room, Republicans concluded that they had underestimated the press corps's eagerness to see a close race, and they worried that reporters had awarded points to Kerry because they approve of his now clear antagonism toward the war.
Later, in online commentary, Fineman repeated a watered-down version of the same idea, only this time it was his own opinion. "George Bush's real political enemy now isn't so much John Kerry as it is the flow of the news," he wrote. "Good things are happening in the war on terrorism – the voting in Afghanistan, for example – but they are all but unnoticed in the rising flood of stories from and about Iraq."
It should be noted that a year and a half ago, when responsible observers in every country but America were freaking out en masse about the impending war, Fineman was leading the charge here in America in the area of stupendously irrelevant bullshit puff pieces about our heroic president's intentions. Just before the invasion ("Bush and God," cover, 3/10/03) this is the kind of hard-hitting, critical journalism Brother Fineman was writing:
"George W. Bush rises ahead of the dawn most days, when the loudest sound outside the White House is the dull, distant roar of F-16s patrolling the skies. Even before he brings his wife, Laura, a morning cup of coffee, he goes off to a quiet place to read alone..."
Surprising that Fineman didn't add that Bush's personality was disarming, his demeanor relaxed, as evidenced by his loosened tie... You see how this kind of behavior gets passed on down the ranks.
Anyway, nothing like a professional flatterer, masquerading as a journalist, chiding his press colleagues for being too hard on the boss. As for Nedra Pickler, she didn't have one NFL moment all week. There weren't even any boxing metaphors in her post-second-debate wrap ("Bush defends Iraq invasion, Kerry says decision made world more dangerous," Oct. 8).
Pickler goes down; Fineman, whom Bush has flirtatiously nicknamed "Fine," advances.
ELISABETH BUMILLER (3)
NEW YORK TIMES
When trying to judge campaign coverage, we utilize what we call the Jayson Blair Test. You apply the Jayson Blair Test to determine whether or not a campaign piece ostensibly filed from some remote trail locale could actually have been written from New York, in the tenement apartment of a $15 one-legged hooker, with no props beyond a gram of coke, a television and a Rolodex.
An on-the-road-with-Bush report Bumiller recently filed from Iowa ("Bush Calls Kerry's Policies a Danger for World Peace," Oct. 5) was a classic Blair test piece. The byline is Bumiller's and the dateline is Clive, IA, which means she was physically in Clive at some point, but you'd never know it.
The first stage of the Blair test checks the quotes. Here, every source in the piece was either on the plane or sitting by a desk in Washington somewhere. Bumiller quotes Bush, Kerry spokesman Phil Singer and Scott McClellan. There are no Iowans in sight. Moreover, the piece only refers to a concrete physical setting twice. One of those moments takes place in Air Force One ("Asked by reporters en route to Iowa on Air Force One whether the change in Wilkes-Barre was because of polls that show the race tightening, Mr. McClellan demurred"). The other reference is to a Y.M.C.A. in Des Moines, which Bumiller describes mainly by saying it sure as hell wasn't the White House:
"Mr. Bush's first stop on Monday was in Des Moines, where he signed the tax legislation in a Y.M.C.A. gymnasium. The setting was in striking contrast to the splendors of the White House East Room, where Mr. Bush normally holds his signing ceremonies for significant bills."
The Y.M.C.A., incidentally, was in the photo sent in by Times reporter Doug Mills. Now, obviously, Bumiller really was in Iowa, but there isn't a single element of the article that couldn't have been dug up by any determined junkie sitting in front of an internet connection halfway around the world.
In contrast, Mooney wrote a piece on the Pennsylvania race ("Facing GOP Push, Pennsylvania is a Must-Win for Kerry," Oct. 3) that was filled with local detail and quoted over a dozen people, ordinary citizens and elected officials alike, who actually reside in the state. The article also features a detailed demographic breakdown of the state's voting patterns and attempts at several junctures to explain what is distinctive about the Pennsylvania election.
In fairness, Mooney and Bumiller were writing different sorts of articles. Mooney seems to have been in Pennsylvania working on his piece for more than a week, while Bumiller just did the standard one-day pump-and-dump of the plane-bound trail writer. But it says here that there is something very negative going on when it is possible for a paper like the Times to run the same campaign article hundreds of times, quoting the same 30 or so campaign characters, with only the dateline and the crowd photo changing. You're presenting the illusion that you're covering the whole country, but except for the background, the whole thing, day after day, could be done in a studio in Burbank – which is probably where we're headed.
Bumiller, who doesn't seem to mind this, advances; Mooney drops out.
JODI WILGOREN (6)
NEW YORK TIMES
Pundits and politicians are fond of referring to the campaign as a conversation between the candidates and the public. Kerry even puts that in his stump speech, beginning town halls and rallies by gesturing to the crowd and saying, "You and I are going to have a conversation." But is it really a conversation?
In fact, if you look at it closely, the campaign is mainly a conversation with itself. And if you look at the campaign as it exists in the media, it is entirely a conversation with itself. Virtually everyone who is allowed to tell us what to think of the candidates, their positions and the state of our politics in general is an insider of some kind. In this movie, only the guild members – candidates, spokespeople, talking heads, pundits and pollsters – get the speaking lines. The rest of the country is represented by crowd shots and poll numbers.
In order to understand why this is, you have to grasp an essential truth about our political journalism. What our political reporters do for a living is sell the campaign to the population, not speak for the people to the campaign. This is most vividly demonstrated in who actually gets to talk in campaign coverage.
In the last month, dating back to Sept. 10, Wilgoren has had a byline on some 16 campaign articles. In the course of that month she's quoted some 56 professional campaign creatures, with the vast majority of quotes coming from the candidates themselves and spokesmen like Joe Lockhart, Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett, Mary Beth Cahill and Scott McClellan. Also represented are a trio of pollsters (Andrew Kohut, Frank Luntz, Peter Hart), a half-dozen or so talking heads (e.g. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, Thomas Mann of Brookings) and other assorted humanoid flotsam and jetsam commonly found in campaign circles (a "top Democrat... in a hotel bar," a "debate expert").
During that month, Wilgoren traveled all over the country, from Allentown to Washington to Toledo to New York to Miami to Wausau, WI, and to half a dozen other cities, a journey spanning about 10,000 miles. In that time, amidst all that crosstalk between campaign types, she quotes exactly three real human beings. She gives two lines to a Florida citrus farmer named Karen McKenna, one word to a man named "Steve" who tells Kerry which name to sign on a photo ("Steve," he says) – and lastly, an end-of-the-article shout-out to an unnamed elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease who croaked out at a Kerry rally the words, "It's too late for me."
In total, she clocked more than 23,000 words of coverage.
Wilgoren advances; Milbank, who continues with his impressive run of "I, Dana Milbank, can barely contain my impatience with the Bush administration" pieces ("Urging Fact-Checking, Cheney Got Site Wrong," Oct. 7), drops out.
NEW YORK TIMES
GEORGE WILL (7)
Unless revenues go up at this newspaper, we're going to have to go without Wimblehack for the next election. That, or we're going to have to make sure somehow that George Will is never matched up against James Bennet again. The costs are too prohibitive; in order to even follow the match, every spectator has to be given a Fowler's usage dictionary, a Chicago Manual of Style, the Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words, Gray's Anatomy, Sheldon Novick's Henry James: The Young Master, the Rabbit series, Ball Four and, for the protection of the eyes, a welding mask. That's just too much for any sport-loving family to deal with as it tries to watch the game. Which hand does little Jimmy use to hold the ice cream?
That said, this is an interesting contrast in modes of pretentiousness.
Will uses big words and pompous literary references to dress up what are basically the brutish and vulgar thinking patterns of a non-union meat-packing plant owner. He is a pig in a lace hat.
What Bennet does, on the other hand, is eat up huge chunks of space by continually firing fat starbursts of desperate verbiage at weirdly commonplace scenes and conversations – trying in this way to pummel them into relevance. It is really a remarkable thing to watch.
Take Bennet's wrap of the second debate ("In a Disguised Gym, Softballs and Political Drama," Oct. 9). Bennet's general argument in this piece was that there was a special "dynamic" to the debate that you missed if, unlike Bennet, you weren't there.
"Inside the hall, the scene was of a theater in the round," he wrote, adding that "Viewers at home were denied the peek behind the political and news media curtain that voters here received."
Bennet goes on to describe some of those elements of the "dynamic" that were invisible to tv viewers:
Those viewers did not see how the moderator, Charles Gibson of ABC, hammed it up with a colleague, Chris Wallace of Fox News, who was seated in one of the network boxes overlooking the hall.
"Hi, Chris," Mr. Gibson hallooed, before the debate began, to the delight of the assembled voters. "Hello, Charlie," Mr. Wallace called back with a grin.
In the hands of a mere mortal, this scene is written as follows: "Charlie Gibson said hi to Chris Wallace." But in Bennet's hands, this "hallooing" was a bit of "theater in the round," part of a "drama that mixed calculated stagecraft and moments of genuine improvisation," only discernible to those who were there to hear Charlie Gibson say "hi" to Chris Wallace. However, one paragraph later, Bennet was arguing that "one can learn more about a candidate by watching from a great distance, on television."
Now, a sensible person here will ask: With which particular mental and physical attitude should I learn more about the candidates by watching from a great distance? Bennet has your answer: from "the Olympian detachment of the couch." (Only Bennet can turn a couch potato into Zeus.) And it's just as well that you watch from there, because meeting the candidates in person is overrated:
...face-to-face encounters with candidates are often overrated. Town halls are one thing, but you can keep your catch-and-release handshake, your dandled baby, your pale-brew kaffeeklatsch.
My what? What the hell is he talking about – and why? Bennet has about three of these moments per article. And even though Will's campaign piece last week ("Why Democrats Fear Bush's Domestic Agenda," Oct. 7) was probably more ideologically offensive, Bennet's run is too interesting to let go. We were in mythological Greece and 16th-century Saxony this week – where will we travel to next week? Let's find out: Bennet advances.
Woodward didn't file, so he's disqualified. Which is too bad for Voelver, because he really didn't deserve to advance. His latest campaign piece ("Bush Har Brug for Hjaelp," Oct. 5) was a taut, trenchant piece of writing of the sort we don't often see in America. "Den proever at saette modstanderen John Kerrys helterolle fra soldatertiden i et daarligt lys," he writes, adding: "Filmen starter med at fortaelle, at mens Vietnamkrigen rasede, blev George W. Bush hjemme i Texas for at beskytte staten mod horder af vietcong-terrorister."
Later, he recounts Bush's response:
"Bevaeg laeberne, som om mikrofonen ikke virker. Stil spoergsmaalet: 'Vi har aldrig tidligere haft en praesident med et hesteansigt. Saa hvorfor nu?'"
Note the subtle farm reference. A nice piece of work, but unfortunately he has to advance. King Woodward gone; the Italian Danish advances to the round of eight. See you next week!
Matt Taibbi is a columnist for AlterNet and lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.