Tactics and Substance in the 2004 Elections GoogleNews: Howard Dean

January 2, 2004

by V

Washington Post v. Dean, round 27

In the Post's Style section today, there was an odd article from Mark Leibovich. By itself, you could view it as a typically skeptical, journalistic account of Dean's trip to South Carolina - but there's a glaring double standard at work here if you give it a moment's thought:

Is this how the Post writes about Republicans?

Not Just Whistling Dixie (washingtonpost.com)
...he does not look well. Bloated and fatigued, his graying hair sticks up in the back. His eyes, sharp blue and typically alert, are puffy and red. His maroon tie is crooked. His solid, former wrestler's posture has gone mopey. His cadences, normally brisk, are sluggish...
And here's the part that really goads my inner media watchdog - Leibovich phoneticizes Dean's words, not once for demonstration but over and over:
By 9:30 a.m., Dean is talking with a trace of a Southern accent...

"Thank yuh, thank yuh very much," Dean says, slightly Elvis-like.

"Here's this Vermont Yankee, coming down here to get votes in South Carol-lah-nah," Dean says. "Ev-ruh-body says it can't be done."

He says he wants America to be once again the most respected "coun-trah" in the world.

"We're gonna be working our you-know-whats off in South Carol-lah-nah"...

"Thank yuh, thank yuh very much," Dean says...
A few observations, then a query for anyone with access to four-year-old campaign articles:
  • If you spend enough time with people speaking with a different accent, it can start to affect your own speech. To report that Dean's speech has changed solely because he's trying to get votes is, well, mighty cynical and spinnerific for a so-called journalist.
  • I'd bet money Dean still said 'idear' a few times (a Vermontism). Why doesn't that deserve a place in the story? (Gee: because it doesn't fit the "Dean is a phony" storyline.)
  • Do any Southerners out there like seeing their accent made out to be so strange and worthy of chin-scratching scrutiny in a national newspaper?
  • Do any of the other candidates ever get their speech so analyzed and phoneticized? I don't recall seeing it, ever.
Which brings me to the biggest problem with this story. All of the above would still be fair journalism if the standard (such as it is) were applied consistently.

But there is another Northeastern politician who affects a Southern accent much more regularly than Howard Dean whose regional speech pattern the press does not examine and deem strategic, let alone repeatedly phoneticize. (Let's not even look into his regularly-unreported-on use of "nuk-yu-lar".)

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, having spent much of his life in the Northeastern U.S., George W. Bush often deliberately uses Southern elements in his speeches, slipping into and out of a drawl depending on the event he's attending, the city he's in and probably the time of day. Listen to his speeches, you'll hear it come and go.

Where is (or was) the Post Style piece on that?

Posted by V at January 2, 2004 02:52 PM
To report that Dean's speech has changed solely because he's trying to get votes is, well, mighty cynical and spinnerific for a so-called journalist.
I read that article, and the reporter never said his accent changed for votes. He didn't offer any reason for his accent change at all, just reported on it.

However, the following paragraph did make me cringe:
But it does matter where you're from if you're running for president. It especially matters if you're an antiwar patrician who has a clumsy recent history of offending Southern voters and promulgating crude stereotypes.
And as far as the press being easy on G.W.B., I remember reading plenty of Post articles about "nukyuler." In fact, we're still more likely to read about his phonetics than his untruths.

Posted by: Squelch at January 2, 2004 05:06 PM

I only remember Leno and Letterman complaining about Bush's "nuclear", but I'll take your word that the Post mentioned it. Still, what about his inconsistent Southern accent? That's the bigger question to me.

As for the reporter not saying Dean's speech shift was for votes, what else could his point have been? Leibovich could have just left it at 'By 9:30 a.m., Dean is talking with a trace of a Southern accent' and moved on, and I'd agree with you; instead he spends paragraphs on transcriptions that make Dean look phony and/or awkward. What's your explanation?

Posted by: V at January 2, 2004 05:17 PM

My explanation, I suppose, is that it's an overwritten Style article. The following story may be apochryphal: A former co-worker of mine, whose father worked for the old Washington Star, recalled that there was a reporter who was sleeping with the Style editor back in the 80s, and was essentially given carte blanche with her articles, and thus was the overwritten Style profile born.

Alas, I can't recall a recent Style page-topper on W., but I'll keep my eye out. Figuratively.

Posted by: Squelch at January 2, 2004 06:28 PM

&*%&*()) HTML tags. Sorry about that.

Posted by: Squelch at January 2, 2004 06:28 PM

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