1 June 2000
Alas: The coverage to date
Synopsis: Simply put, the "character problem" of the election to date has been that of the Washington press corps.
WHAT A SHAME. IT COULD HAVE been such an election:
We've seen a wide variety of op-ed columns analyzing Governor
Bush's Social Security proposition.
The stage is set for a major discussion about national defense
in the coming decades.
Earth in the Balance was just re-released. And a number
of publications have published articles concerning possible problems
with Texas test scores. Have some Texas schools improperly inflated
their scores? I don't know, but the problem has plagued American
education for thirty years. A full examination of the issues involved
would greatly serve the public interest.
With an intriguing set of issues at hand, the stage is set
for a vibrant campaign. But that is not the election we'll get
if recent history serves as a guide. Since election coverage began
in March 1999, just after the end of the Clinton impeachment,
the press corps has prepared us for a different election, configured
on quite different lines. We've been fed a steady diet of trivial
character homiliessilly stories, often factually bogus, gimmicked
up to reveal the candidates' characters. We've discussed earth
tones, pop quizzes, mangled syntax, Love Story. Candidates'
bios have been twisted and tortured; we've been lectured on who's
"authentic" and who's not. Ominouslyand with embarrassing
candorthe press has told us, in a slough of profiles, which candidates
are willing to hand out free donuts and pander all day to boys
and girls on the bus (the one form of pandering the press corps
adores). Governor Bush "not only slaps reporters' backs but
also rubs the top of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches
their cheeks," the New York Times' Frank Bruni wrote, in
an April piece lauding the candidate's new "sociable course"
with reporters. Without a hint of embarrassment or self-consciousness,
Bruni asked readers to join in the fun as the presumptive nominee
of one of the two major parties "talked baseball with one
network producer" and "listened sympathetically to another
network producer's romantic travails." Bruni also described
"the nicknames [Bush] doles out to many of" the reporters,
with whom he engages in "a teasing style of interpersonal
relations that undoubtedly harks back to his fraternity days."
It may sound silly, but the approach seems to work; the mocking
coverage Bruni gave Bush during McCain's winter surge has again
given way to the friendlysometimes fawningtreatment Bruni provided
in 1999. "Levity Is at the Soul of Bush, the Puck in the
Political Pack:" So read the headline on a page-one profile
written by Bruni last November. By January, Bruni was writing
entire stories about words which Bush couldn't pronounce.
Sadly, the lack of seriousness of our mainstream press corps
has been the campaign story to date, from open cheering for favored
candidates to romance-novel coverage built around tales of character.
Candidates seem less flesh-and-blood pols than mannequins whom
the pundits dress up to tell fables. E. R. Shipp, the Washington
Post ombudsman, described the process in a March 5 column. Shipp
was addressing a pair of Post stories from December containing
serious errors about Vice President Gore. Writing as the primaries
reached their climax, she noted that Post election reporting often
seems to construct a highly simplified "drama:"
SHIPP: Readers react to roles that The Post seems to have assigned
to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the
guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual
in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who
speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick;" and
Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings
of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest.
As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys;
others seem to get a free pass.
This, remember, is the Post ombudsman, describing her own paper's
coverage. According to Shipp, the Post's bungling about Gore back
in December "fits the role the Post seems to have assigned
him in Campaign 2000."
In truth, Shipp was restrained in her description of the role
assigned Gore in the current campaign. For the past fifteen months,
Gore has been aggressively cast, within the press corps, as the
guy "who will do and say anything to win." The RNC began
the campaign in March 1999 with a set of silly, gimmicked-up stories,
in which trivial statements were tortured and spun to reveal insights
into Gore's alleged character flaws. The press corps has continued
to recite these tales, scripting a "drama" it seems
to find pleasing. Gore's character has been questioned again and
again, often in plainly fact-averse ways. Serious discussion of
serious issues has made way for repetitive talk about earth tones.
Simply put, our election has been hijacked by nonsense and spin.
In fact, the "character problem" of the election to
date has been that of the Washington press corps.
JUST HOW EASY HAS IT BECOME TO SAY Gore is a liar? Amazingly
easy, given the standards the press corps now brings to these
matters. Take, for example, a May 11 piece by the Boston Globe's
nationally syndicated columnist, Jeff Jacoby. Jacoby's opening
sentence was blunt but familiar: "Al Gore lies like a rug,"
he said. Jacoby then listed a string of alleged misstatements.
Creative paraphrase ruled the day, but here was one of Gore's
alleged "lies." Gore has said this, Jacoby complained:
"His father, the late Senator Albert Gore Sr., was a brave
civil rights crusader."
Gore, of course, has often praised his father's civil rights
record. But so have an endless array of commentators from various
points on the spectrum. In 1999, for example, Bob Zelnick published
a critical biography of Gore for the conservative publisher, Regnery.
In substantial detail, Zelnick praised Gore Senior's "courage
and decency" on civil rights, which "would inspire later
generations of southerners who wished to purge the region of its
terrible racial heritage." And that was just the Regnery
version; in a recent Washington Post magazine cover story examining
Gore and race, David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima also discussed
MARANISS AND NAKASHIMA: Many of the deepest tensions of American
race relations were played out during the long career of Sen.
Gore, whose opposition to the segregated ways of his native South
angered many of his constituents and eventually led to his political
demise. With one notable exception, when he capitulated to regional
sentiment and opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the choices
he made over three decades in Washington were courageousand
they provided lasting lessons in the political education of his
After that 1964 votewhich he later renounced as his greatest
mistakeGore Senior "acted like an unflinching Southern progressive
attuned to the needs of his black constituents," the writers
say. Sen. Gore "took a pounding from segregationists and
[racially motivated] real estate interests" who helped defeat
him in 1970.
In short, when he praises his father on civil rights, Gore
expresses a wholly conventional view, one widely stated, by many
observers, over the last several decades. But Globe readers weren't
told that in Jacoby's column; instead, Gore's statement was described
as a "bald-faced lie," without a word of context. But
should it be surprising that today's Boston Globe would subject
its readers to such a presentation? One month before, the paper
had published a lengthy, page-one news report which claimed to
show that Gore has a "long record" of "embellishing
truth." What was the first example alleged, right in sentence
one? Gore's remarks on his father's civil rights record! The writers
reviewed the topic three separate times; no other subject received
so much attention. Gore had "selectively rewritten"
the record, they finally judged. The writers' eventual argument
was hopelessly labored; but then, the article was littered with
acts of bad faith. At one point, for example, the writers pretended
not to know why Gore has sometimes claimed "seven years of
journalistic experience." Why would Gore make such a claim?
Because he served two years as an army journalist, then
worked five more years at the Nashville Tennessean. The
writers knew that, but the Globe's readers don't; these simple
facts were never mentioned. In this, and other ways as deceptive,
major newspapersright on page onenow feel free to paint Gore
as a liar.
IT MAY SEEM STRANGE TO HEAR SOMEONE SAY that Gore is receiving
baldly negative coverage, so deeply engrained is the familiar
notion that the press corps is driven by "liberal bias."
But the mainstream press corps' hostility to Gore has been described
by a range of observers. Two days after the New Hampshire primary,
for example, Al Hunt made a striking statement in his Wall Street
Journal column: "Cynicism toward Mr. Gore in the national
press may be more intense than at any time since Richard Nixon,"
Hunt said. Hunt blamed Gore for that remarkable situation, criticizing
his attacks on the Bradley health plan; but another observer expressed
surprise at the press corps' antipathy towards Gore. Mickey Kaus,
writing for Slate, described his own visits with national
reporters in New Hampshire. According to Kaus, the press corps
was in fact "boosting" Bradley, as Kaus had already
observed, but they weren't "simply boosting Bradley for their
own sake (or Bradley's)." There was something else going
on, Kaus said: "They hate Gore" (Kaus' emphasis).
Among other complaints, according to Kaus: "They dislike
the controlled, canned nature of his campaign events, and hate
covering them." Kaus cited other, more serious perceptions
which he said were driving the press corps' attitude. But only
in our self-indulgent press corps could it even be imaginable
to say what Kaus saidthat reporters "hate" a candidate
(and are "boosting" his opponent) because they're
bored by his campaign events! Imagine! If you want to know
why Bush is now rubbing reporters' heads, pinching their cheeks,
and pretending to care about their romances, the astounding self-indulgence
which Kaus described offers a clear explanation.
AND JUST HOW SELF-INDULGENT AND UNPROFESSIONAL is our press
corps willing to be? Go back to the night of October 27, 1999,
the first debate between Bradley and Gore. Some 300 journalists
were in the press room at Dartmouth College, watching the titans
on big-screen TVs. Shortly after the forum ended, I received a
phone call from the scene; the caller, a former Republican campaign
employee, expressed surprise at the press corps' conduct. What
exactly had the scribes been doing? Days later, Eric Pooley described
it in Time. "Whenever Gore came on too strong,"
he said, "the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang
of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some helpless nerd."
Howard Mortman, executive editor of the Hotline, described
the same conduct even more strongly. "The media groaned,
howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something,"
Mortman said, on the Hotline's cable TV show. A month later,
on C-SPAN's Washington Journal, Salon's Jake Tapper became
the third scribe to comment:
TAPPER: Well, I can tell you that the only media bias I have
detected in terms of a group media bias was, at the first debate
between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, there was hissing for Gore
in the media room at Dartmouth College. The reporters were hissing
Gore, and that's the only time I've ever heard the press room
boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event.
Are you comfortable knowing that the Washington press corps
behaves in such an astonishing way? Does it build your confidence
in their reporting? For the record, this incident occurred before
Gore's extended critique of Bradley's health plan, which Hunt
later blamed for the press corps' "cynicism." Also for
the record: Except for Pooley, who showed no clear sign of thinking
that the jeering was objectionable, no one in the Hanover
press room reported on the press corps' behavior. What's the one
"double standard" you can count on from the press corps?
It's the exceptionally generous double standard they reliably
extend to themselves.
One last point should be made, for fairness: Gore's criticisms
of the Bradley health plan were routinely denounced by the press
corps (echoing Bradley). Reporters said Gore was "distorting"
the plan, but they rarely offered detailed critiques; the press
corps' refusal to wallow in substance was stunning throughout
this year's primaries. For example, when the New York Times finally
offered an overview of the Democrats' health care debate, the
report merely summarized what Gore and Bradley had said; it made
no effort to help readers judge whether Gore's criticisms were
actually accurate. By January, many scribes had begun to say that
Bradley's health plan did have substantial problems. But
by then, the complaint about Gore's alleged fibbing had moved
on; Gore was now routinely accused of distorting his own record
on abortion. The arguments again matched the Bradley positions,
and often were built on conceptual howlers; for several weeks,
the simplest elements of abortion logic suddenly confounded the
press corps. As Shipp would later notethe coverage of the four
major candidates routinely followed pre-established scripts. The
script said that Gore was a Great Big Fibber, and that's where
the coverage routinely went. If it took a bad argument to keep
the tale alive, a bad argument was agreed to by all.
THE MOST REMARKABLE PART OF THE GORE COVERAGE to date is the
way the character attack got started. Campaign coverage began
in March 1999, as the Clinton impeachment saga was ending, andas
the public record makes clearthe press corps was soon receiving
a blizzard of faxes about Gore from the RNC. According to the
RNC releases, a set of minor comments by Gore were revealing a
character problem. An extemporaneous comment about the Internet;
a (wholly accurate) statement about youthful farm choresthese
events were linked to a 1997 press corps debacle involving the
feature film Love Story (Gore's comments in that episode
had also been completely accurate). It was all remarkably silly
stuff, but as readers almost surely know, Love Story and
"inventing the Internet" have now become icons of the
2000 campaign, used again and again to question Gore's character.
(The "farm chores" flap was so total a hoax that it
finally disappeared, after three months of pounding.) A serious
person feels compelled to apologize for wasting readers' time
on such consummate trivia. But every election-watcher knows the
central role these brainless episodes have played.
So can it possibly be true, what we've been told and toldthat
these events are the stuff of a "character problem?"
Take the Internet (please). Last March, Wolf Blitzer asked Gore
in a CNN interview what set him apart from Bradley. Listing his
accomplishments, Gore at one point said this: "During my
service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in
creating the Internet." Blitzer didn't seem to find the remark
surprising; he didn't ask Gore to explain what he meant, and the
Washington Times, in a review two days later, didn't even mention
the comment. Why not? Perhaps because, as everyone knows, Gore
did take the leadership, within the Congress, in developing
(creating) the Internet. (Many Internet pioneers pointed this
out as the silly flap about the comment got started.) In truth,
legitimate argument about Gore's remark devolves to quibbles about
a couple of words. But on the third day after Gore's statement,
the RNC began faxing complaints, and the press corps, utterly
silent until then, suddenly found itself deeply concerned by Gore's
very troubling comment. Creative paraphrase being the press corps'
best friend, pundits quickly improved what Gore said. It became
an established point of style: Gore had said he "invented
the Internet" and was "the Father of the Internet;"
all reference to the congressional context disappeared. The comedic
high point in this hopeless process came in a June 2 USA Today
story. Mimi Hall penned this account in a report on Gore's early
HALL: A couple of Gore gaffes, including his assertion that
he "invented" the Internet, didn't help.
And yes, that's exactly the way Hall wrote it; the one word
Hall put into quotes was the one word which Gore never said!
It routinely happens, again and again: Embellished paraphrase
becomes established fact when the press corps embroiders the news
to build drama. By now, the corps' preferred paraphrase was the
statement of record, passed on, inside quotes, as Gore's text.
The Love Story episode is far more absurda convoluted
study in press corps dysfunction. Both reporters present for Gore's
1997 remark agree on what Gore really said. Gore said he had once
seen a newspaper story, quoting author Erich Segal; Segal was
quoted saying that Love Story's two central characters
were based on Gore and his wife (Segal had known Gore in college).
And here's something you've almost surely never heard: Everyone
agrees that there was such a story, in the Nashville Tennessean.
After the Love Story flap began, Segal told the New York
Times that the Tennessean reporter "exaggerated" what
Segal told himSegal had said that Gore was a model for the male
leading part; the reporter then added in Tipper. At any rate,
everyone agrees that Gore's comment was accurate; there had
been an article like the one he described. And Time's Karen
Tumultyone of the two reporters present for Gore's remarkhas
stressed to me how trivial and fleeting it was: "Two or three
sentences in a two-and-a-half-hour conversation," she has
said on several occasions. And she has stressed that Love Story
wasn't even the principal topicthe remark was a brief aside in
a longer discussion of what actor Tommy Lee Jones, one of Gore's
college roommates, was like as a college student. (Jones began
his film career playing the college roommate in Love Story.)
Incredibly, out of this jumble of utter trivia has come an iconic
statement about Gore's lack of character. For example, here's
how a Washington Times editorial told the story, although you've
seen this standard, inaccurate account typed up in a hundred other
THE WASHINGTON TIMES: [Gore] has claimed that he and his then-girlfriend,
Tipper, who later became his wife, provided the inspiration to
author Erich Segal for the couple in "Love Story,"
an assertion Mr. Segal emphatically denied.
Both parts of this hyped-up account are simply false. Gore
only said he had seen a newspaper story; everyone agrees that
there was such a story. And Segal, in his New York Times interview,
agreed with every word Gore had said (although the article's
misleading headline seemed to say something different). Yet, on
the basis of a pointless, wholly accurate comment, Gore has routinely
been branded a liar. In this, and other ways as remarkable, our
press corps now assails people's characters.
If our descendants are lucky, historians will marvel at the
press corps' current performance; long volumes will be written
about the corps' descent into trivia and outright propaganda.
And just how trivial can the press corps be? Here is Bruni describing
Bush, on January 8, as the McCain surge began:
BRUNI: Away from the printed page, Mr. Bush was having a little
trouble with eloquenceor at least pronunciationthis week.
Television viewers who watched the Republican debate on Thursday
night probably noticed this when Mr. Bush, wearing an expression
of apparent satisfaction with the big word he was about to unleash,
promised that he would never "obsfucate" as president
of the United States.
This is a good thing, because the verb is "obfuscate,"
and this was the third time in two days that Mr. Bush seemed
to mangle it.
Bruni clearly had time on his hands. His mockery could hardly
have been more open. He continued on for four more paragraphs,
detailing Bush's mispronunciation. "He had the consonants
mixed up," the sage finally reported, "the letter 's'
in the wrong place." Incredibly, Bruni filed similar reports
about pronunciation of words on January 15, 23 and 28.
But since McCain's defeatand since Bush's "sociable conduct"
beganBruni's reports have been friendly again. The mocking tone
of Bush's winter coverage has disappeared throughout the press.
But the coverage of Gore has been bitterly critical from March
1999 to the present. It has exhibited the press corps' most horrid
impulsesits instinct for trivia; its love of group thinking;
its growing tolerance of spin and outright deception. Its flight
from substance. Its love of silly drama. And, of course, its reflexive
Is our election going to be about things that matter? Or will
it be driven by ginned-up morality tales? And do citizens have
the right to receive reasonably accurate portraits of candidates?
Hopefully, historians one day will simply marvel at the coverage
which drove the 2000 campaign. But that is a study for another
day. For today's consumer of political news, extreme caution is