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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 homilies—silly 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. Ominously—and with embarrassing candor—the 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 friendly—sometimes fawning—treatment 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 Gore's father:

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 courageous—and they provided lasting lessons in the political education of his son.

After that 1964 vote—which he later renounced as his greatest mistake—Gore 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 newspapers—right on page one—now 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 said—that 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 note—the 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, and—as the public record makes clear—the 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 chores—these 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 told—that 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 campaign problems:

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 absurd—a 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 him—Segal 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 Tumulty—one of the two reporters present for Gore's remark—has 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 topic—the 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 places:

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 eloquence—or at least pronunciation—this 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 defeat—and since Bush's "sociable conduct" began—Bruni'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 impulses—its 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 negativity.

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 strongly recommended.