Woe unto the denizens of the Washington press corps when the rest of the world discovers Bob Somerby’s Web site, The Daily Howler (www.dailyhowler.com). A professional comedian by trade, living in Baltimore and only barely computer-literate, Somerby has set himself up as the Diogenes of the Washington Press Corps: the only media critic who, day in and day out, sets out to expose the “astonishing combination of dishonesty and foolishness” that characterizes the groupthink of the daily coverage of American politics.
Somerby, who apparently has quite a bit of time on his hands, watches pundit TV and reads pundit analyses in his living room for no pay. This masochism, he says, is driven by his infuriation with “the technical incompetence of democracy’s gatekeepers.” But once you realize that “guys like Chris Matthews don’t really change things–they merely dramatize conventional wisdom, no matter how mindless–watching them can be lots of fun.”
Somerby’s great talent as a press critic is his relentlessness. He will tease out the unstated assumptions that underlie dozens of news stories and pundit chats and demonstrate just how sketchy are their alleged foundations in terms of evidence. Somerby is not discouraged by the issue’s inanity or lack of apparent relevance to anything that might sensibly be called politics. He is willing to descend directly into the sandbox with reporters, if that’s what it takes to expose them.
Take, for instance, his deconstruction of the coverage of Al Gore’s childhood. In a lengthy biographical essay published by David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima on the front page of the Washington Post–likely to become the ur-text on Gore, given Maraniss’s deservedly sterling reputation as Clinton’s biographer–the authors write that the future Tin Man was “prone to tattling.” Prone to tattling? asks Somerby. A 7-year-old boy is “prone to tattling,” and this is somehow relevant to his qualifications to be President? Never mind that. What is the evidence? It turns out to be “one silly anecdote” told to the reporters by Barbara Howar, who happened to be friends with Gore’s older sister sometime in the mid-fifties. The authors continue: “His compulsion to adhere to the expected order extended beyond the common practice of snitching on an older sibling.” Somerby asks us to “marvel” at the psychiatric language–[the reporters’] belief that they are equipped to make such a statement, forty years later…. The notion that young Gore has a “compulsion to adhere to the expected order” is a judgment no psychiatrist would make on this evidence. But the judgment does express the press corps’ conventional wisdom, robotically asserted all through the past year, that there is something unnatural about our stiff, cautious veep.
Here are some more examples of the young tyke’s compulsive anal-retentiveness. According to Maraniss/Nakashima, young Al left for school “at precisely the same time each morning.” (Did the school’s starting time change?) He engaged in after-school athletics that “could end as late as 6.” Somerby wonders, “As late as 6! Imagine that! Is there any high school in this country where after-school sports may not last that late? But to the writers, the desire to paint Gore as an under-age robot turns this into a major surprise.”