The Cackle joins The Haircut and The Sigh

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The media's comical obsession earlier this month with the tone and frequency of Sen. Hillary Clinton's laugh didn't just represent another head-smacking moment in the annals of awful campaign journalism. It also served as a preview of what's likely to come in 2008.

The media's comical obsession earlier this month with the tone and frequency of Sen. Hillary Clinton's laugh didn't just represent another head-smacking moment in the annals of awful campaign journalism. It also served as a preview of what's likely to come in 2008.

Anybody who thinks that if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination that the Cackle narrative won't be revived has not been paying attention in recent years. That's why it's so important to take a moment to understand the press dynamics that allow a story like The Cackle to flourish, and why pointless stories like that -- and John Edwards' Haircut or Al Gore's Sighs during a 2000 presidential debate -- only affect Democrats.

You simply cannot find examples in recent years of Republican presidential candidates' physical tics or trivial personal foibles that the press has pounced on and announced to be wildly important and deeply revealing. That's just not a distraction Republican candidates have to deal with. The media phenomenon only applies to Democrats and the phenomenon only exists because journalists manufacture it.

Meaning, there's zero proof that voters actually care about Sighs or Haircuts or Cackles, stories that consume so much of the press corps' time, energy, and interest. For instance, throughout the extensive Cackle coverage, I don't remember reading or hearing a single quote from an actual voter who expressed interest, let alone concern, about Clinton's laugh.

That was confirmed by the polling data released after the cascade of negative Clinton coverage. One prominent poll showed she had opened up a gaping 33-point lead over her closest rival. The press manufactured an accusatory storyline about Clinton's calculated laughs, and voters couldn't have cared less.

The reason the Cackle story had such legs is that the campaign press corps resents Clinton (and the large lead she's opened up in the polls), and that disdain anchored much of the coverage. Just like pundits and reporters do not like Edwards and his populist streak, and just like they didn't like Gore when he ran for the White House in 2000, which led to the Sigh news coverage.

You remember The Sigh don't you? During the crucial final stretch of the 2000 campaign, pundits and reporters announced that Gore's ill-timed sighs during a debate against candidate George Bush were not only rude and condescending, but they might cost him the election. The New York Times' Bob Herbert wrote, "If he can somehow force himself to stop sighing and interrupting and behaving condescendingly in front of the television cameras, Al Gore may yet get elected president."

It's true, as the Daily Howler noted, that every instant poll taken after the debate indicated that Americans thought Gore had won the debate, and won it easily. So where was the proof that viewers detested Gore's allegedly smug style? Journalists didn't need actual proof. They just knew Gore was disliked. By whom? By journalists, of course.

Edwards this year battled the same press bias with the never-ending Haircut coverage, which has also been barren of quotes from voters who claimed to care about the coiffure kerfuffle. But the press was certain that The Haircut told us a lot about Edwards the candidate (that he's a phony and a hypocrite), which justified the swarming media attention.

A quick check of Nexis shows The Haircut was mentioned 120 times in mainstream media news reports about Edwards ... within the last 30 days. For the year, the Haircut tally is north of 700 news mentions.

That brings us to The Cackle, which was covered earnestly by the best and brightest gathered inside elite newsrooms at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cincinnati Post, National Public Radio, Time.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Politico, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, among others.

Why did The Cackle matter? Because, we were instructed, it showed how calculating and inauthentic Clinton really is; how unlikable she has become. Just like The Sigh proved Gore was a jerk and how The Haircut proves Edwards is a fake. And because anecdotes are so much more fun to cover than actual campaign issues.

Our pundits don't do policy. They do personality. And it's not just the much-maligned cable talkers who bypass substance in favor of fluff. Here's the number of New York Times columns, written by staff columnists, that have examined, in detail, Clinton's recently unveiled "American Health Choices Plan": 2. Washington Post: 1. USA Today: 0. Chicago Tribune: 0. Los Angeles Times: 1. Dallas Morning News: 0. San Francisco Chronicle: 0. New York Daily News: 0. Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1. Washington Times: 0. Boston Globe: 0

You get the idea.

In fact, when Clinton did talk about policy during her recent Sunday morning talk show swing in late September, The Washington Post mocked her for talking too much. It was reminiscent of the 2000 campaign when Gore met with columnists and editorial page writers at The New York Times. Afterward, Maureen Dowd complained in print that Gore had been so boring, droning on and on about heath care and the environment. Dowd had no patience for such banalities.

What else did The Cackle, The Haircut, and The Sigh have in common? They were all typed right off Republican talking points, which hammer the notion that Democratic presidential contenders are phonies. Yet during the Cackle coverage Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz kept trying to push the idea that it was liberal Comedy Central host Jon Stewart who hatched the laugh storyline (who "kicked things off") by airing a clip featuring Clinton's chuckles and suggesting they were pre-programmed. During a Washingtonpost.com online chat, Kurtz specifically pointed to Stewart's role to deflect the suggestion that the press had adopted yet another negative, right-wing talking point about a Democratic candidate. Kurtz's claim though, was false.

Yes, Stewart's show poked fun at Clinton, albeit in a very mild way. Even Stewart conceded on-air that the idea of a Fox News host asking Clinton why she's so partisan was funny, which accounted for Clinton's uproarious response on Fox News, one of the most authentic belly laughs I've ever heard a politician uncork on national television. (No matter, the pundits huddled and determined the outburst had been phony.)

But days before The Daily Show chimed in, right-wing talker Sean Hannity had already been making fun of the "frightening" Clinton laugh, and so had Rush Limbaugh. Fox News' O'Reilly Factor had tagged the laugh "evil," right-wing news website the Drudge Report had hyped the laugh (complete with an audio clip), and the Republican National Committee had started the whole news cycle off by admonishing the Clinton laugh via a press release, which was sent out within an hour of her concluding her final Sunday morning interview on September 23.

The truth is that just like the Gore-invented-the-Internet attack from the 2000 campaign -- which began as an RNC press release, was picked up by the right-wing media, and then embraced by the mainstream press -- the Clinton Cackle story was written and produced at Republican headquarters. It's curious that Kurtz tried so hard to pretend otherwise.

The New York Times and its dreadful Cackle reporting

Back to The Cackle. It was the Times that led the charge among the serious press into the utterly trivial pursuits of Clinton's laugh, and specifically the use of the sexist term "cackle." The Times also forcefully assigned motivation to the wayward chortles.

Let's take a look at the lede of the Times' atrocious September 30 article, written by Patrick Healy:

It was January 2005, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had just finished a solemn speech about abortion rights -- urging all sides to find "common ground" on the issue and referring to abortion as "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."

Healy goes on to tell about how Clinton, once off-stage, laughed inappropriately "for a few seconds" to a reporter's question about abortion. (FYI, the story was re-told exclusively through the eyes of Healy; nobody independently confirmed the tale.) But note the date of the anecdote: January 2005.

If I were a news editor at the Times and for some reason OKed an article about candidate Clinton's use of a loud laughter in public forums and what it meant to her presidential chances, and a reporter filed a story that opened with an anecdote that took place 33 months ago, before Clinton was even a candidate for president, I'd send the article back for a re-write.

But that's just me.

Then there was this paragraph, in which Healy was busy reading Clinton's mind:

So, instead of alienating Iowans who might not vote for edginess, Mrs. Clinton goes for the lowest-common-denominator display of her funny bone: She shows that she can laugh, and that her laugh has a fullness and depth.

First off, Healy's reference to "Iowans" made no sense since most of Clinton's identified laughs took place on national television, which meant voters in every early-caucus and primary state were likely exposed to them. (i.e. Why would she be afraid of alienating just Iowa voters?) Also, that Hawkeye state reference came out of the blue; it was the first Iowa reference in the article. I assume its inclusion there was simply due to sloppy editing.

Secondly, notice how Healy, based on nothing more than his own keen powers of observation, concluded that Clinton's laughs represented a "lowest-common-denominator" attempt to win over voters. What was his proof? He had none.

Healy quickly adopted the unproven theory that Clinton unleashes her laugh when faced with difficult, probing questions as a way to divert attention and defuse the situation. It's the same presumption John Dickerson used at Slate, claiming the laughs constituted an obvious ploy, a "strategy" to distract attention away from tough questions that she's going to "dodge." Soon the Politico's Mike Allen chimed in, agreeing the laughs were "a way for the senator to deflect questions that either are tough or ... could be trouble." And days later The Washington Post's Kurtz reported, categorically, that the laugh represented "a calculated tactic to deflect tough questions and perhaps soften her image in the process."

To prove the point about the laugh being a pre-planned tactic, here's what Healy wrote about Clinton's appearance on CBS' Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer:

The Schieffer moment seemed particularly calculated because Mrs. Clinton has most certainly not laughed in other settings when she has been accused of pursuing socialized medicine.

Try to follow the logic at work here: Clinton laughed when she was asked by Schieffer about her health-care plan. To prove that The Cackle was designed to defuse difficult questions, Healy noted that on previous occasions Clinton had been asked the exact same question about her health-care plan and she had not laughed. But doesn't that in fact prove the opposite? Meaning, if the laugh was "calculated" wouldn't it occur every time Clinton was asked about whether her health-care plan was an attempt to socialize medicine?

And do journalists really think that Hillary Clinton, who has been campaigning for universal health care for the last 15 years and has become a leading expert on the issue, is so nervous about the topic and unsure of the facts that when she's asked about it on national television she deliberately hides behind a giggle in order to camouflage her response?

Also, recall that the interest in Clinton's laugh came after she spent the morning of September 23 appearing via satellite on all five Sunday morning talk shows, during which time she spoke for nearly an hour and answered approximately 60 questions. As best I can tell, within that marathon session of interviews Clinton laughed just a handful of times, and the laughs lasted, combined, maybe 30 seconds. But if the Healy/Dickerson/Allen/Kurtz theory were true, and Clinton laughed whenever she faced a probing questions -- and she faced them for nearly an hour that Sunday morning -- then Clinton would have uncorked laugh after laugh after laugh. Instead, just a handful were audible.

In other words, the media's lazy, contemptuous theory about Clinton's chuckle, that it's manipulative and calculated, makes no sense. And am I the only one who chuckled that Clinton, previously depicted by the press as aloof, was suddenly being ridiculed for laughing too much?

Meanwhile, did you notice what was missing from the Times piece and the Slate piece and the Post piece and every other article and television discussion that took place about The Cackle? What was missing was any reporting, or even second-hand speculation, that Clinton's Democratic rivals were using the laugh against her, or that they were even discussing it.

Truth is, nobody from the other campaigns was talking about the laugh -- they couldn't have cared less -- just like none of Edwards' Democratic rivals ever brought up The Haircut. Both stories were driven exclusively by pundits and reporters who stressed that the trivial pursuits were politically important even though they could not produce any evidence to support it. Neither voters nor opponents cared. Only journalists were intrigued.

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