What will not be changed regardless of the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election-and it should be said that, as this is being written on the afternoon of Nov. 7, the result is unknown-is the awe-inspiring awfulness of campaign coverage by the national political press.
While there have been honorable exceptions to this indictment both within and outside the mainstream media, the overall performance by journalists perched at the uppermost reaches of the profession has been measurably worse than during any election in memory. From the earliest assessments of candidate “character” last year through the banal “analysis” of the three Presidential debates last month, the underlying impulse has remained the same: Get Al Gore.
For more than three years, the hostility of influential figures in the press has shaped a campaign story line. That is how these raconteurs often describe their own work-as a “story line.” They cast the Vice President as an insincere, dissembling character who scarcely ever spoke without lying. He was assigned that part during the primary contest with Bill Bradley, a heroic challenger supposedly burdened with “authenticity.” In the general election, he continued in that role against George W. Bush, the “likable, forthright but dumb” guy. Facts that didn’t support this narrative tended to disappear from the media’s stream of consciousness, just as falsehoods that did were maintained in circulation long after they had been exposed.
A few examples indicate the pattern. When Roger Parloff proved in The American Lawyer that there had been no Democratic “fund-raiser” at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in 1996, his diligent digging made no impression. Pundits and reporters alike continued to refer to the mythical fund-raising event as if it had actually occurred as described in Republican press releases. When Karen Tumulty of Time admitted that Mr. Gore had never tried to claim a greater role as the inspiration for Love Story than author Erich Segal himself had confirmed, that too had no impact on the likes of Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd in The New York Times Op-Ed page, both of whom wrote nasty, personally demeaning columns about that phony story (and never troubled to correct themselves).
When The New York Times and The Washington Post simultaneously had to correct their inaccurate quoting of Mr. Gore about his role in exposing the toxic horrors of Love Canal, those grossly prejudicial errors still didn’t divert the story line. And when Mr. Gore’s prescient legislative work to create the Internet was affirmed by experts from Vinton Cerf to Newt Gingrich, that didn’t matter either. Instead, a phony quote that had the Vice President asserting he had “invented” the Internet persisted in journalistic folklore.
The persistent need to brand Mr. Gore a liar distorted coverage and analysis of the Presidential debates. Minor misstatements about a trip to Texas and a schoolgirl’s desk were blown up into indications of bad character. (That harsh standard isn’t applied to the reporters who misquote candidates and get facts wrong, however; their mistakes are invariably innocent.)
Meanwhile, no such scornful scrutiny was applied to Mr. Bush, probably the least qualified candidate to run for President in this century. The Texas governor’s prevarications about his past, his dubious business dealings and his misrepresentation of his own proposals were glossed over or ignored by media outlets that had excoriated Mr. Gore. He could lie about his record on health-care legislation in Texas, as he did in the debates more than once, in the serene expectation that he would escape accountability as always. He could demonstrate woeful ignorance about the Balkans, Haiti and the International Monetary Fund, and bask in the approval of pundits who awarded him a gentleman’s C.
During the critical weeks between late September and late October, when Mr. Gore’s lead began to slip away, the press boosted Mr. Bush as if their own prospects were identical with the Republican’s. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the nation’s most important media outlets provided voters twice as many positive stories about Mr. Bush than about Mr. Gore during that period.
Whether three years of anti-Gore bias represented willful malice or subconscious spite matters very little. The amateur psychoanalysts of the press corps are best able to answer that question themselves, though it is safe to assume that they will skip any such introspection. Rather, they began to fashion an alibi for themselves by criticizing Mr. Gore’s admittedly clumsy and miscalculated campaign before a single ballot had been cast.
And before anyone accuses me of conspiracy-mongering, let it be clear that no conspiracy has ever been needed to achieve unanimity among the sheeplike sages of print and television, except in the root sense of that word.
They breathe together and seem to get very little fresh air. But it is democracy that is suffocating.