Jonathan Weisman's failure to understand history

During an online discussion yesterday, Washington Post congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman downplayed the significance of John McCain voting with George Bush 90 percent of the time. As Media Matters explained, Weisman's comments demonstrated an apparent lack of understanding how that statistic was determined.

But that wasn't the only mistake Weisman made during the discussion. Here's how he responded to a comment about the media's role in the 2000 election:

2000 Debates: Are actually one of the most interesting moments for media criticism. Following the debates the media and the public generally believed Gore had trampled Bush. But the next morning GOP operatives started pushing around the “Sighs” and other purported Gore gaffes and that became the new reality. These guys haven't been in power for 26 of the last 28 years because they don't know how to alter reality.

Jonathan Weisman: I disagree. I was at those debates, and when Al Gore started badgering Bush on his position on “Dingell-Ganske,” I knew all hope was lost. That was a reference, by the way, to the Patients Bill of Rights, not that 99 percent of Americans had a clue what he was talking about.

Weisman's response has several flaws:

First, Weisman can disagree all he wants, but the fact is that the commenter was correct: the instant polls taken immediately after the first debate in 2000 found that viewers thought Gore won them, as Bob Somerby explained. It was only after the media worked themselves into a nit-picking frenzy about Gore's supposed sighs - sighs that hadn't bothered real-time viewers -- that opinion shifted. Disagreeing with that is disagreeing with objective reality.

Second, The commenter mentioned the media's fixation on Gore's “sighs”; Weisman responded by pointing to Gore's references to “Dingell-Ganske.” Problem is, the sighs came in the first debate; the references to the Patients Bill of Rights came in the last debate. It should be obvious that something that happened during the last debate can't explain away the press's effect on public opinion immediately following the first debate.

Third, It wasn't “Dingell-Ganske.” It was Dingell-Norwood.

Finally, Weisman's snide comment about Gore “badgering” Bush about Dingell-Norwood (not Ganske) is wrong in a variety of ways.

To start with: If 99 percent of the viewing audience didn't know what Gore was talking about when he mentioned Dingell-Norwood, they must not have been paying much attention. Gore didn't, as Weisman suggests, simply refer to “Dingell-Norwood” and expect the audience to know what he was talking about. He explained what it was. Repeatedly.

The very first time Gore said the words “Dingell-Norwood,” it came at the end of an answer - an answer that began with Gore using the phrase “Patients Bill of Rights.” He then explained the need for it, and then, at the end, he referred to it as “Dingell-Norwood.” And this was in response to the very first question. If the audience - or, to be more precise, Jonathan Weisman - didn't understand what Gore was talking about when he referred to the bill as “Dingell-Norwood,” it simply means they hadn't been paying attention at all.

Why did Gore refer to it as Dingell-Norwood?

This is actually really simple: George W. Bush was running around also claiming to support a “Patients Bill of Rights.” By invoking a specific piece of bipartisan legislation - the bill sponsored by Representatives Dingell and Norwood - that Bush did not support, Gore was trying to prevent Bush from pretending there was no difference between the two candidates.

And that's just what Bush did in his response to Gore. Here's the end of Gore's answer: “I support a strong national patient's bill of rights. It is actually a disagreement between us, a national law that is pending on this, the Dingle-Norwood bill, a bipartisan bill, is one that I support and that the governor does not.”

And here's how Bush responded: “Actually, Mr. Vice President, it's not true. I do support a national patient's bill of rights.”

After Bush was finished, moderator Jim Lehrer said to Gore: “would you agree that you two agree on a national patient's bill of rights?”

That's why Gore made clear that he was talking about Dingell-Norwood: Bush was trying to pretend the two candidates agreed on a patients bill of rights, and the media was going along with that nonsense - in this case, via debate moderator Jim Lehrer who explicitly (and falsely) took Bush's side.

So Gore had to respond to Lehrer: “Absolutely not. I referred to the Dingell-Norwood bill. It is the bipartisan bill that is now pending in the Congress. The HMOs and the insurance companies support the other bill that's pending, the one that the Republican majority has put forward. ... I specifically would like to know whether Governor Bush will support the Dingle-Norwood bill, which is the main one pending.”

Here's what had happened at this point in the exchange: Gore had explained that he supported a specific piece of patients' rights legislation - Dingell-Norwood. Bush had responded broadly, saying he supported a patients rights bill - but not saying which one. Lehrer had then asserted that the candidates agreed on the matter, leading Gore to point out that they did not - that Bush had not yet said whether he supported specific legislation. And Gore then asked Bush directly whether he supported that legislation.

So what did Jim Lehrer do? He told Bush “Governor Bush, you may answer that if you'd like.”

After Bush had falsely suggested that the two candidates agreed on the matter, Gore asked a simple question, the answer to which would make clear whether they really did. And Jim Lehrer told Bush he could answer - if he wanted to. That's nothing short of malpractice by Lehrer. Incidentally, Jim Lehrer will moderate the first of this year's presidential debates in three weeks.

Bush took the out Lehrer gave him, and offered yet another vague response that didn't answer the basic question of whether he supported the specific legislation at hand. So Gore asked him again.

That's the “badgering” Weisman describes: Moderator Jim Lehrer refused to do his job; instead, he falsely helped Bush try to fool viewers into thinking the two candidates agreed. So Gore asked Bush a simple and direct question - a simple and direct question that Bush didn't answer. So Gore asked it again.

And that's why Gore referred to the bill as “Dingell-Norwood” -- because Bush (and Lehrer) were pretending that supporting any bill was the same thing as supporting the bill.

The media's failure in all this should be obvious: Lehrer's job was to clarify, not muddy the waters - a job he simply refused to do, preferring to help Bush avoid getting pinned down on his position on one of the central issues of the campaign. Any reasonably thoughtful person would probably assume that media coverage of that exchange would focus on Bush's refusal to say one way or another whether he supported the bill. Instead, as Weisman's comments demonstrate, they mocked Gore for wanting to know whether Bush supported it.

So, back to Weisman.

In Jonathan Weisman's telling, Gore “badgered” Bush. The transcript makes clear that he did not; that the noteworthy part of the exchange is Bush's refusal to tell the American people where he stood on a key issue - and Jim Lehrer's jaw-droppingly incompetent performance.

In Jonathan Weisman's telling, viewers had no idea what Gore meant when he said “Dingell-Ganske.” In reality, Gore had referred to “Dingell-Norwood,” and had explained quite clearly what that was.

And in Jonathan Weisman's telling, this is why people thought Gore did poorly in the debates - even though this exchange came in the last debate, after the media narrative about Gore's poor performances had already taken hold.

Now, here's why this matters; why this is more than historical trivia. Jonathan Weisman covers politics for one of the nation's most influential newspapers. He covers, among other things, the current presidential campaign. And apparently has no idea - none at all -- how the media affected the 2000 presidential campaign. If he doesn't understand what his profession did wrong then, how is he to avoid making the same mistakes this time? This is a point Bob Somerby makes regularly, and he's right: until people understand what happened in 2000, there's no reason to think it will stop happening.