Is the news media in denial?


The American news media spent eight years ignoring the more substantive issues the nation (and with it the world) faces while they pursued one Republican-generated scandal after another about first Democratic Presidential candidate William Jefferson Clinton and then President Clinton and his wife, Hillary. The New York Times and The Washington Post at times seemed to be leading the pack in chasing stories that belonged in papers that usually had top headlines like "Alien Baby Raised By Amazon Gorillas" or were regularly sued by Hollywood celebrities for libel. This culminated in an absurd impeachment proceeding for nothing that any sane person would regard as an impeachable offence, carried out with such compulsion that even violent attacks on Americans and an attempt to blow up the Twin Towers by extremist Muslim terrorists were not considered appropriate to distract media or government from the more important business of sniffing Bill Clinton's underwear.

Re-inventing the candidates

By the summer of 2000, most of the high-profile members of the media seemed to have learned that their masters could be best pleased by smearing the Democratic presidential nominee and giving a free pass to George Bush, despite the obvious lack of qualification of the latter for the job of President of the United States. The Newspapers of Record - supposed by some to be "liberal" organs - were actually generating most of the lies that would be spread by the likes of the more blatantly conservative Fox News and The Washington Times and eventually find their way into more neutral or even genuinely liberal hands. Al Gore, with a long and well-deserved reputation as an honest and dedicated public servant with numerous accomplishments to his name, was somehow transformed into some sort of hapless loser who embellished his record to make himself seem important.

Let's look at that record for a minute - the real one, I mean. Gore was not popular with liberals (including me) because he is strongly associated with the conservative wing of his party. His wife Tipper had been the celebrity face of a group that wanted to ban controversial music from record stores, eventually facing-off against Frank Zappa himself in Congressional hearings. During the Clinton administration, Gore had also worked hard to advanced the Clipper Chip, which had been attacked by libertarian types for allowing a back-door that could be used by the government.

But Gore was also the man who had introduced legislation to take the arpanet out of its DOD/academic backwater to create the modern, commercial Internet we have today. Gore's vision was a kind of giant, world-wide electronic encyclopedia to which we could all have access, even if we didn't have special ties to a university department or to the Department of Defense. His legislation both funded the engineering of means to make that vision possible and specified that whatever was developed with that funding would be available to the public rather than made government-classified. He first introduced the bill under Reagan but could never get him to support it. His first attempts with President George H.W. Bush failed, too, but Gore then held hearings that appeared to capture the imagination of more Republicans, eventually leading to the President's signature. Though there were no more than a handful of web pages in existence by the time Bill Clinton took office as President, Gore's tireless efforts to promote it turned it into something to which everyone in America had some kind of access within a few short years.

So Gore was a bit of a mixed bag, but he certainly had at least one truly impressive accomplishment to bring to the table. However, the first time he tried to talk about it the Republicans accused him of claiming to have "invented" the Internet, making the ridicule so expansive that it became almost impossible for him to discuss.

Soon, it seemed to be a habit of the Republicans to twist Gore's acts and virtues to make them seem almost the opposite of what they had been. In a speech in which he encouraged high school students to become involved, saying just one person could make a difference, he gave as an example a student who had written to then-Congressman Gore about a local toxic waste dump, as a result of which he held the Congressional hearings that brought Love Canal to the attention of the nation. Love Canal, he said, was the one everyone talks about, but, "Toone, Tennessee - that's the one that started it all." And the credit went to the lone high school student who had written to her Congressman. But when Catherine Seleye reported the story, she quoted Gore as taking credit for the discovery of Love Canal himself, even offering the misquote, "I'm the one that started it all."

By the end of the summer, every positive aspect of Gore's history had been turned inside-out. Though Gore had been the captain of the football team and had impressed author Eric Segal enough in college that he was partial inspiration for the leading character in his novel Love Story, numerous articles began to appear explaining that Gore was an unlikable man with no friends. His single reference to his relationship to the Love Story character, though it had only been made privately, was widely reported as a lie he'd made up about himself for the campaign trail. Even Richard Cohen, nominally a "liberal" at The Washington Post, wrote an astonishing article about how friendless Gore was. Astonishing, because his own introduction to Gore, he explained in the piece, had been from a mutual friend who had raved about how much he loved Al Gore. His evidence for Gore's unpopularity came from a single source - a book about Gore (published by Regnery!) that quoted someone as finding fault with him when he was a child.

The story that Gore "embellished" his record had been spreading in the conservative media throughout the campaign, but it seemed to explode in the wake of the first presidential debate between Bush and Gore. The press went into full obsessive mode over the fact that Gore had made two factual errors during the debate - clearly, honest errors, neither of which were substantive. In the same debate, George W. Bush caused two international incidents, demonstrated that he knew nothing about a major foreign policy matter, and lied when he claimed that Gore had spent twice as much money on the campaign as Bush had (the reverse of the truth). Moreover, when Gore challenged Bush's proposed spending and tax proposals, Bush lied about what they were and suggested that it was Gore who was producing fuzzy math, even after Gore pointed out that he was quoting from Bush's own web site.

The immediate verdict the night of the debate was generally favorable to Gore - news commentators described him as looking fit and confident and obviously having the better command of the facts, and focus groups generally agreed that Gore had won.

Yet, for the next week, it was Gore who was called a liar in the media while Bush was praised for having allegedly exceeded expectations in the debate. Bush's accomplishment? He had managed to speak in more-or-less coherent sentences, according to commentators. Aside from being an awfully low standard for a presidential candidate, this wasn't entirely true - when Gore challenged Bush about affirmative action, Bush seemed unable to articulate his views in paraphrase after his first sound-bite on the subject and just said something to the effect that whatever it was he'd said before was what he believed, almost as if he wasn't sure quite what it was he'd said before. But this shocking performance went uncriticized by the news media. Neither did they wonder how Bush could have been unaware of the fact that he had broken all records in fund-raising for a single campaign, something that had been the main theme of many campaign stories about him. Few remarked on how impoverished Bush's performance had truly been. Now the story was that Gore sighed, had too much make-up on, and made "misstatements". Some articles called him a liar outright, and others portrayed him as a person who pathologically stretched the truth to the breaking point to compensate for some deep-seated insecurities.

Up until that point, Gore had been headed for a landslide, but the media attacks took their toll. Throughout the summer, every time Gore had changed his suit or read a book to familiarize himself with a new issue he'd been accused of "re-inventing" himself, but now the media had totally re-invented him as a highly-disturbed, unreliable psych case. Even while his enormous command of the facts was derided, his failure to dot an i somewhere along the line became proof that he was a pathological liar.

Meanwhile, the sow's ear was being made into a silk purse. George W. Bush, a man so shallow and irresponsible that he had actually refused to support DNA testing for death penalty cases as overwhelming evidence emerged that numerous innocent people were sentenced to die, was never really questioned for his evident unconcern for human life. His criminal past was ignored, even his apparently having been AWOL from his post during his stint in the Air National Guard. And the press never took seriously the possibility that the election to the presidency of someone who was so ignorant of the world around him - and unconcerned with it - might have genuinely tragic consequences.

The closeness of the election has been blamed on many - especially Clinton and Gore himself - but it's really the press that can take credit for it. And it's certainly the news media, particularly in the form of Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, that can take credit for creating the false perception that Bush, rather than Gore, had won in Florida. It was a call that was pressed on them by the head of GE, Jack Welch, who had graced the newsroom with his presence that night and finally told them to call the election for his candidate. And they did.

True, the Supreme Court had no business inserting itself into Florida election law, and many other people did their bit to make sure George Bush had a shot at the White House. But the press again fell down on the job by buying the RNC-generated idea that speed was more important than accuracy in choosing the next president - that hurrying the process was what the people wanted, even when polls showed that 75% of the people they claimed to speak for wanted the ballots to be counted and were happy to wait for that to happen. The press spread the lie that it was Gore rather than Bush who ought to concede, and the press pretended that nothing was wrong with Bush's suit to stop the ballot-count. The outrageous became acceptable because the press pretended it was.

So George Bush ascended the throne, and in the following months he virtually round-filed a report on homeland safety, spit in the eye of the international community, insulted the Chinese at an inopportune moment that delayed the release of our pilots when they brought down one of our spy planes, and let the world know that when the US signed treaties, our word was no longer good. Less visibly, his government appeared to want our intelligence people to let Osama bin Laden and his pals roam around freely and ignore the fact that he was among our most wanted criminals. Even after bin Laden made it publicly known that he had big plans for another attack on the US, no one seemed to have their eye on the ball.

And then the towers fell.

Selling too cheaply

I vaguely recall from my college psych classes that someone once did a study in which subjects were offered money to do something they considered to be wrong. The interesting thing wasn't how many people took the money, but how the amounts involved seemed to change people's attitudes about their having committed such an act. If the sums were high enough, people just said that yes, they did it, and it was wrong, but the money was good. If, on the other hand, the sum was too low, the individuals tended to rationalize what they had done, apparently convincing themselves that it wasn't so bad after all.

This result always sounded perfectly consistent with human behavior, to me. Of course, you see it all the time - the woman who settles for a stable marriage with someone who is not terribly well-to-do but at least has a steady job convinces herself that it was the right decision to marry someone she doesn't love rather than wait for someone more to her liking; the woman who marries for money has no trouble getting a divorce and hustling for heavy-duty alimony. The low-paid employee makes excuses for working for a company that does something repellent; people who make way, way too much money don't pretend that what they do is morally good or even that they did it for reasons that transcend the bottom line.

Eighteen months ago, perhaps many journalists told themselves that being a high-profile reporter who could take credit for making, rather than merely reporting, the news was worth queering the election of a better man for the leadership of the free world. A year and one month ago, Tim Russert may have believed he was being paid enough to let a nincompoop take up unelected residence in the White House. It's even possible that David Broder thought there wasn't really anything important at stake when he pretended that a bit of oral sex and a refusal to alert the media about it was the worst thing a President could do - so much so that Clinton's pursuit of Osama bin Laden could be dismissed as so much "wag the dog". One year ago, journalists who shrugged off the worst Supreme Court decision in history and said there was "nothing we could do about it," declaring Bush president, may have felt there was no percentage in insisting that the competent and honest man the people had chosen was the man we needed to guide us through a potentially difficult future.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, did these people begin to suspect that having a competent leader in the White House might be important after all? And is that why, ever since, they've been trying so hard to convince themselves - and us - that Bush is the right man for the job?

12 December 2001

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