Mike the Mad Biologist

It isn’t always the message, sometimes it’s the medium. Or the media actually. Framing only goes so far. Often, getting your message out there comes down to schmoozing, intimidation, and hard work. This applies to politics and science. The Daily Howler rebuts neuroscientist Drew Westen’s take on the Bush-Gore debates of 2000 in Westen’s book,

The Political Brain

(italics mine):

For example, he explains what he thinks Gore should have said at several points in the Bush-Gore debates. We’ve spent a lot of time on the incidents he discusses; we think his examples are highly salient. But we’re surprised by the way he skips past the role the press corps played in shaping these crucial events.

Drew Westen knows brains; we look forward to learning from what he has offered. But Democratic strategists have simply refused to come to terms with the role of the press corps in modern Dem politics; this has been an ongoing problem for Major Dem pols (and for liberal interests). Almost surely, Gore shouldn’t have called Bush a “drunk” that night–although, of course, we can always imagine what would have happened if he’d only said this. But then, there are other things Gore (likely) shouldn’t have said which Westen recommends in this book. And we think he displays a limited grasp of the role the mainstream press has played in recent Dem–and American–disasters.

What keeps us Dems from confronting this problem? We’ve given up trying to puzzle it out, but the insouciance can seem endless. You’d barely know it from reading this book, but people who watched Bush and Gore’s first debate thought Gore had won, by a pretty good margin. (Yes, of course, he could have done better.) The larger problem began the next day, when the press corps began “interpreting” Bush and Gore’s statements. We assume that Westen has a lot to say about the role of the brain in political speech. But the role of the press has been powerful too, and Dems have failed, for the past fifteen years, to come to terms with this ongoing problem.

No, Gore probably shouldn’t have called Bush a drunk. But then, we’ll also guess that he shouldn’t have made the statement suggested on page 15. “[I]f Gore wanted to see the interchange replayed a hundred time on cable,” Westen writes, “he might have added…”–well, go buy the book and see what he suggests. But readers! In our view, if Gore had made the suggested remark, we’d still be seeing it replayed on cable! And what would our big cable pundits be saying? What kooks these Big Democrats be!

Those who watched said Gore had won. Then, the mainstream press got active. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/07, for a taste of how fake this all was.) But Big Dems keep taking a pass on this problem. Next week, we’ll examine Westen’s intriguing book–a book which knows a lot about brains but strikes us as weak on the press corps.

Lest the debate night assessment of Gore’s victory seems unrealistic, let’s review what happened. The Daily Howler again (italics mine):

Go back to that first Bush-Gore debate–the one which Gore had seemed to win until the nation’s pundits got going. Let’s remember what Welch’s pundits said–before their strange reversal.

The debate occurred on Tuesday, October 3, 2000. But uh-oh! As we’ve long described, Welch’s gang behaved badly this evening. Matthews and Williams had savaged Gore throughout the twenty-month White House campaign; Barnicle had been little better, and Noonan–well, you know about that. But uh-oh! Gore beat Bush so blue this night that all the MSNBC pundits declared it! Even [archconservative cheerleader Peggy] Noonan declared how badly Bush did–said how thoroughly he had been waxed. (“Well, Brian, I think Gore dominated from the get-go, to tell you the truth,” Noonan said. “He seemed to be a person of greater sophistication, greater stature, greater subtlety. He was in his zone.”) But then, all the pundits reacted this way. Matthews, on whom we’ll focus today, said that Gore had been “overpowering.” (His nugget: “Al Gore was effective in dominating the format, he dominated the time, and I have to say he dominated the debate.”) Barnicle saw it the same way too. (“One of them was much more dominant than the other–the vice president of the United States.”)

And then the backchannel schmoozing and spinning. Imagine how different the election would have been had the Democrats and the Gore campaign had maintained message discipline and talked about how ‘presidential’ Gore looked. This had nothing to do with framing, and everything to with access and ‘working the refs.’

It’s not only about how you communicate to the public, but how you manipulateinfluence the communicators. In light of the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz’s latest inanity about global warming*, we would do well to keep that in mind.

*Kurtz claimed global warming is a “contentious issue” and that NBC should not be “providing a huge platform for advocates on one side of a contentious issue.” To their credit, NBC argued that factual observations are not contentious. I guess Kurtz is just teaching the controversy….