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Caveat lector

YEAR IN REVIEW! A year—and a puzzling era—are over. We offer some quotes for review:


ERA IN REVIEW: In a Christmas Eve column, E. J. Dionne praised whistle-blowers in the Catholic Church. At one point, he explained how believers can sometimes fail in their larger mission:

DIONNE: In principle, the believer should be an active critic of what is, not a passive follower of whatever might be in vogue. It doesn’t always happen this way, because believers can lose their vocation as critics when power and privilege come their way. They discover that they can dethrone all absolutes except the ones that benefit themselves.
So too within the press corps. Within the press corps, practitioners can also sometimes discover that “they can dethrone all absolutes except the ones that benefit themselves.” At THE HOWLER, we think it is perfectly clear that this occurred widely during Campaign 2000. “Good guy” pundits took a pass on the misconduct happening all around them. They kept quiet about their cohort’s War Against Gore—about a press corps assault on democracy.

As we reach the end of the year, we’ll repeat our great mantra one last time: Democrats need to understand the way their party lost the White House. And Democrats need to understand the way their party’s most recent leader has been hounded from public life. In the past few months, some pundits have finally begun to describe the press corps’ odd conduct toward Candidate Gore. We continue to ask the obvious question. Why are we being told this now, instead of in real time, when it mattered?

We tend to agree with a recent column by Tony Blankley in the Washington Times. “This is a bigger event than it is currently reckoned,” Blankley wrote about Gore’s retirement. “If things don’t go too well for President Bush in the next 18 months, Mr. Gore well might have been the only candidate in the Democratic field with the perceived experience, stature and national familiarity to take advantage of such a contingency.” In The New Republic, Marty Peretz expressed a somewhat similar view. “With Gore out of the running, an ambitious group of Democrats have the field to themselves,” he said. “None of the contenders has as much popular support as Gore—who, after all, won more votes in 2000 than any presidential candidate in U.S. history except Ronald Reagan.” Democrats need to see that Gore’s forced retirement is a startling event—and they need to understand the process by which it occurred.

Make no mistake—the press corps will offer a Standard Account about the demise of Gore. In it, the press corps will have played no role in the events surrounding Gore. In the Standard Press Account, the corps’ War Against Gore will never be mentioned. As Dionne put it, some of these pundits have long since discovered “that they can dethrone all absolutes except the ones that benefit themselves.” Citizens will be encouraged to believe a Standard Account—in which the corps’ own remarkable conduct has been skillfully airbrushed away.

Democrats need to resist the tendency to believe the press corps’ Standard Stories. To help them, we assemble some statements from recent months. There’s a problem with the press corps’ Standard Account; the press corps’ Standard Account isn’t true. Here are some statements that actually are. Democrats need to chew them over as they consider the plight of their party.

The press corps’ current functioning:

BILL CLINTON, 12/3/02: They have an increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press. And we have an increasingly docile establishment press.

AL GORE, 11/27/02: There are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party…. Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks—that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what’s objective as stated by the news media as a whole.

E.J. DIONNE, Washington Post, 12/6/02: It took conservatives a lot of hard and steady work to push the media rightward. It dishonors that work to continue to presume that—except for a few liberal columnists—there is any such thing as the big liberal media. The media world now includes (1) talk radio, (2) cable television and (3) the traditional news sources (newspapers, newsmagazines and the old broadcast networks). Two of these three major institutions tilt well to the right, and the third is under constant pressure to avoid even the pale hint of liberalism…What it adds up to is a media heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians.

E. J. DIONNE, Reliable Sources, 9/28/02: What is going on here? I don’t believe there is a liberal media anymore. That’s—that is, Rush Limbaugh’s now the producer of the news.

The press corps’ coverage of Gore:
JOE SCARBOROUGH, Hardball, 11/18/02: I think, in the 2000 election, I think [the media] were fairly brutal to Al Gore…If they had done that to a Republican candidate, I’d be going on your show saying, you know, that they were being biased.

KAREN TUMULTY, Reliable Sources, 9/28/02: When you compare [Gore’s press coverage] to the kind of press treatment that George W. Bush got, I think that—you cannot argue that that was not uneven.

JOSH MARSHALL, Reliable Sources, 8/10/02: I think deep down most reporters just have contempt for Al Gore. I don’t even think it’s dislike. It’s more like a disdain and contempt…And this was, you know, a year-and-a-half before the election, I think you could say this. This wasn’t something that happened because he ran a bad campaign. If he did, it was something that predated it.

NEAL GABLER, Fox NewsWatch, 12/21/02: I can’t think of a single major presidential candidate who was as savaged by the so-called liberal media as this man was. This guy was savaged…They gave him terrible, terrible press.

JANE HALL, Fox NewsWatch, 12/21/02 (continuing directly): It’s really true. I did an analysis of a hundred stories in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Pew Center later confirmed what I said…Every time he opened his mouth, it was “Al Gore, who said he invented the Internet, said this.” And they loved George Bush. That is the great irony.

PAUL WALDMAN, The American Prospect, 12/18/02: Bush got better press coverage in 2000 not simply because he was treated so kindly but because Al Gore was treated so poorly. While many factors influence the coverage a candidate receives, one is inescapable: You can’t get good press if reporters hate your guts. And in 2000, reporters hated Gore’s guts…Reporters decided before the 2000 campaign began that Gore was dishonest, and while he occasionally gave them support for this impression, he was also skewered for lies he never told.

MARK HALPERIN, 12/23/02: Somewhere along the line, the dominant political reporters for most dominant news organizations decided they didn’t like him, and they thought the story line on any given day was about his being a phony or a liar or a waffler. Within the subculture of political reporting, there was almost peer pressure not to say something neutral, let alone nice, about his ideas, his political skills, his motivations.

Remember: Pundits will tell a different tale, in which their cohort’s conduct played no role. In their renditions, their own treasured cohort will always be blameless; Gore will have lost due to his sins, not theirs. But Democrats need to understand the real situation facing their party. Will future Dems be savaged like Gore, or was his treatment a function of the corps’ “Clinton payback?” That question has yet to be answered. But American citizens need a professional press corps. The deep dysfunction of the past several years simply has to be driven away.