elections, News Media

Although I don’t believe it tells us much we didn’t already know, this Vanity Fair article by Evgenia Peretz (child of Martin, but I’m trying not to hold that against her) is worth a look. Peretz looks back at the way the media covered the 2000 presidential campaigns and recalls how the press corps turned into the high school Kewl Kids Claque who treated Al Gore like the chess club nerd.

In 2000, the media seemed to focus on a personality contest between Bush, the folksy Texas rogue, and, as The New York Times referred to Gore, “Eddie Haskell,” the insincere brownnoser from Leave It to Beaver. ABC anchor Claire Shipman, who covered the 2000 campaign for NBC, says, “It was almost a drama that was cast before anyone even took a good look at who the candidates were.” …

…A study conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 76 percent of stories about Gore in early 2000 focused on either the theme of his alleged lying or that he was marred by scandal, while the most common theme about Bush was that he was “a different kind of Republican.”

Peretz provides plenty of examples and names names. She also gets reaction from Al and Tipper Gore. She repeats the famous quote by Margaret Carlson: “You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get into the weeds and get out your calculator, or look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun to disprove Al Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.” And be sure to read the section on page 5, “Running the Gauntlet.” Here’s just a taste:

The Washington Post‘s David Broder later found Gore too focused in his convention speech on what he’d do as president. “But, my, how he went on about what he wants to do as president,” wrote Broder. “I almost nodded off.” As for the environment, while Gore was persuaded by his consultants not to talk about it as much as he would have liked, whenever he did, many in the media ignored it or treated it as comedy. Dowd wrote in one column that “Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he’s practically lactating.” In another, referring to his consideration of putting a Webcam in the Oval Office, she wrote, “I have zero desire to see President Gore round the clock, putting comely interns to sleep with charts and lectures on gaseous reduction.”

Dowd’s column in the New York Times today, btw, is a catty little screed about Barack Obama called “The 46-Year-Old Virgin.” Let it stay behind the NYT subscription firewall.

Peretz doesn’t mention another New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, who wrote one column after another pointing to the big, glaring absurdities in Bush’s economic promises. Here’s one, from September 24, 2000:

George W. Bush is still using the four-dollar routine in his public appearances — the one where he pulls out four dollar bills to represent the projected budget surplus, then says that he plans to use only one of those bills, one-quarter of the surplus, for tax cuts. Anyone who has looked at his campaign’s own numbers (or who read this column a week and a half ago) knows that this isn’t right — that the tax cut would actually use up more than a third of the surplus. But most commentators seem to think that this is a minor detail — a quarter, a third, what’s the difference? (About $450 billion, but who’s counting?)

Meanwhile, Al Gore got a pummeling from some commentators — and, of course, Mr. Bush’s campaign — over the dog story, in which he told an anecdote about an expensive human drug that costs only one-third as much if prescribed by a vet. It turns out that he was looking at wholesale prices; when you look at retail prices the number is more than one-third, though less than one-half. My God! Does this man have the integrity to be president?

Although both cases involve misstated fractions, they are very different in other ways. Mr. Gore’s numbers were off, but the thrust of his story — that drug companies engage in price discrimination, charging what the traffic will bear — is true. On the other hand, the intended moral of Mr. Bush’s story — that the budget will easily accommodate his tax cut, that it leaves plenty of money with which to secure the future of retirees, rebuild the military, and all that — isn’t at all true.

I heard Paul Krugman speak a couple of years later. He said the New York Times editors wouldn’t let him use the word “lie” to explain Bush’s campaign promises. So instead of saying “Bush is lying” — which is what he wanted to say — he had to write that what Bush said “isn’t at all true.”

Krugman continued,

Just to revisit the arithmetic one more time: Let one dollar bill represent $100 billion of projected surplus. If we put Social Security and Medicare in ”lock boxes,” the remaining surplus amounts to $18 — of which $16 will be used up by Mr. Bush’s tax cut. And Mr. Bush has promised new spending that is more than twice, though less than three times — hey, I don’t want to be inaccurate! — as much as the money he actually has left.

So Mr. Gore got the details wrong but represented the basic situation correctly; Mr. Bush also got the details wrong but fundamentally misrepresented the situation. And that’s not the only difference. Mr. Gore told his story once, and didn’t repeat it after the details were questioned. Mr. Bush continues to tell his story even though it is demonstrably inconsistent with the numbers his own campaign has put out.

Alas, in mainstream media Paul Krugman was just about the lone voice crying in the wilderness in 2000. The Kewl Kids ignored him and made fun of Gore’s earth-tone suits.

Peretz leaves out the role of right-wing media infrastructure in this mess; see, for example, Eric Boehlert on David Brock (Salon, May 11, 2004):

The right-wing media warfare naturally is most visible during presidential election years. “I’ve been saying for six months, no matter who was running for office this year, the right has a system in place to caricature that person,” says Brock. “This is what I realized after 2000 — that what happened to the Clintons during the ’90s really had very little to do with the Clintons because the same thing happened to Gore in 2000. And then it happened to [Sen. Tom] Daschle when the Senate changed hands in 2001, and it happened to the mourners of [the late Sen.] Paul Wellstone in 2002. It goes on and on.” After witnessing how this Republican “noise machine” again worked so well in shaping the caustic and undermining press coverage of Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, Brock is trying to awaken the public from slumber about these techniques. …

… Catching Rush Limbaugh or contributors to Fox News spreading misinformation may sound like “shooting fish in a barrel,” but Brock says the right-wing noise machine’s effect on the mainstream press poses a large danger to rational debate and coverage of issues. Too often, he says, what the right concocts ends up — often within hours — percolating in mainstream press outlets, which, rather than debunk the Republican spin, uncritically adopt it as their own. “If the mainstream media were doing their job, Media Matters would not have to exist,” Brock told Salon.

After this interview, the “system” successfully turned John Kerry into a cartoon. Has anything changed? Does the VRWC still have what it takes to dominate media next year? And have the Kewl Kids learned anything? I fear the answers are no, yes, and no.

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  1. david  •  Sep 5, 2007 @2:17 pm

    I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to blame the media for Al Gore’s loss, but I would offer that the media was able to use this narrative because Mr. Gore himself, just like John Kerry in 2004, failed to create a compelling alternative to the one that Republican offered. For better or worse, politics requires offensive and defensive moves, and to large extent the previous two presidential elections seem to testify that the Democrats forgot that. Hopefully (and signs point to yes) they’ve regained that realization to at least a modest degree.

  2. maha  •  Sep 5, 2007 @2:45 pm

    david — Even if Gore had done a better job at press relations, the Right has a vast media infrastructure to deliver its propaganda and the Left does not. As Robert Parry writes,

    The conservatives’ ability to saturate the airwaves with their version of reality has changed how millions of Americans understand the world.

    So, even when the Democrats can roughly match the Republicans in election fundraising – as occurred in 2004 with each side spending about $1 billion – the Republicans have a huge, built-in advantage because the conservative media reinforces their messages. This infrastructure also works between elections – day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out – to keep the Republican base engaged and the Democrats on the defensive….

    … But these political muggings of Democratic presidential candidates have recurred over and over again – almost a quadrennial event – at least since 1988. In that important campaign for the Bush dynasty, Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times helped out George H.W. Bush’s candidacy by publishing rumors questioning the mental health of Democrat Michael Dukakis….

    … By the mid-1990s, the conservative media infrastructure had evolved into today’s vertically integrated industry, including book publishing, magazines, newspapers, talk radio, cable TV and the Internet.

    Increasingly, the conservative media also came to influence the news judgment of the mainstream press. Often those news judgments were interchangeable, especially in pursuing supposed wrongdoing by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

    In the 1990s, the Clinton-Gore stories were invariably big news, while both the conservative and mainstream press dismissed stories about past wrongdoing by the Reagan-Bush administration as “conspiracy theories.”

    That Bill Clinton was able to win his elections anyway is testimony to his political skills and really weak opponents. But this crap happens every four years, and the Dems are still getting caught by surprise.

  3. Avedon  •  Sep 5, 2007 @4:26 pm

    I’m not sure there’s anything Gore could have done once the media decided to call him a liar. I mean, the response to that is to say, “I’m not a liar!” It doesn’t work.

    The problem wasn’t Gore’s response. It was all the other Democrats who didn’t scream bloody murder that Gore’s long-time record as a straight-arrow was being smeared. And why weren’t they calling Bush a liar? Someone had to.

    I’ll never forget watching the second debate and seeing Jim Lehrer ask Gore about his “misstatements”, as if Bush hadn’t lied several times in the first debate. That was the template, and there was really no way for Gore to step out of it. I mean, what can you say once it is assumed that everything you say is a lie?

  4. wmr  •  Sep 5, 2007 @5:40 pm

    Let’s not forget the Dem enablers back in 2000, especially Bill Bradley who legitimized some of these memes in the primaries.

    Unfortunately, we’re seeing it all happen again.

  5. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Sep 6, 2007 @1:55 pm


    Saying that Gore did not create a compelling alternative message is kind of crazy. What chance did he have when the press was willing to pillory him for anything that could be twisted into an exaggeration, and claimed to be falling asleep when he talked about deep policy issues? Everything he could do to show he was a good candidate was wiped out by poor press coverage.

    I mean, where else would you have gotten information about his compelling message? By knowing him personally? Okay, what about the other millions of people who don’t know him personally?

    I’ve seen a lot of people blame Gore for his defeat, yet it’s clear that his campaign was good enough to win the election in spite of the other problems. In Florida, it’s a statistical certainty that he would have prevailed without the numerous voting problems; also, if you throw away the spoiler value of Nader, the election would have been a cakewalk. (Our “first past the post” method of elections makes spoilers a real problem.)