Media madness

Everything the press has said about Gore, down to Christopher Matthews' spittle-flecked call for him to concede, has been wrong.

By Eric Boehlert

Published November 8, 2000 8:10PM (EST)

As the nation watches Florida to find out whether George W. Bush or Al Gore will be elected president, one thing is clear: Every theory floated by the press about the Gore campaign was wrong.

During the final week of the presidential run, the press said that Ralph Nader was going to cost Gore victories in traditionally Democratic states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington. They said that union voters were unenthusiastic about him. They said that blacks didn't support Gore the way they did President Clinton, that Clinton fatigue was an impossible weight around the vice president's neck, that must-win states like California and Illinois were slipping away, that Bush backers were more energized than Gore supporters. They said that this election was essentially a popularity contest and that Bush's winning personality (competing against Gore's supposedly grating style) would be the deciding factor.

Wrong on all counts. But it wasn't surprising that the press had Gore dead and buried. For a variety of reasons -- primary among them the desire to take revenge on Bill Clinton by bringing down his partner -- they've been itching to count him out from the outset. (Be sure to expect a drumbeat in coming days for Gore to bow out of the race, "for the good of the country." MSNBC's Chris Matthews sounded this note today, suggesting that Gore should concede.)

That was obvious from the way they handled the Bush drunk-driving flap. Despite the fact that the Texas governor had to admit that as a 30-year-old he'd been arrested for drunk driving and yet as a presidential candidate had never informed voters, the dominant focus of the homestretch coverage, incredibly, continued to be Gore's flawed character, his shortcomings and how he'd lost this race. People, the pundits smugly concluded, just don't like Al Gore.

Then why did more Americans vote for Gore than Bush? Virtually no press player predicted that popular vote outcome. (Polled last week about who they though would win the election, 55 percent of newspaper editors and publishers gave the nod to Bush; just 14 percent thought Gore would pull it out.)

Of course with the Florida reversals, and re-reversals, the electronic media will be forced to reassess their exit poll "calls." But perhaps when this race is finally over journalists will also do some hard thinking about how they cover presidential campaigns and figure out why their collective contempt for one candidate proved so difficult to mask.

Of course, journalists would deny that they were unfair to Gore. They would claim that they were just taking a tough-but-fair look at his strengths and weaknesses. The problem with this defense is not just that the press consistently played up his weaknesses over his strengths (which is why they got the election so wrong), but that those "weaknesses" themselves were in large part merely received, unexamined, passed along by the worst kind of pack mentality until they became conventional wisdom. It's all too easy for reporters to use the tough-guy facade to put their own prejudices in play -- which then, of course, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The examples are numerous. Just days before a badly outspent Gore strung together hard-fought, and often come-from-behind, wins in tossup states like Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine and perhaps even Florida, Joe Klein of the New Yorker suggested, "The wasting of Gore has been a stunning, and quite unexpected, phenomenon." (Appearing on MSNBC, Klein told host Brian Williams with a straight face that Gore's tendency to get "goofy" in public was a "serious" problem for the candidate.)

Out on the campaign trail last week Newsweek's Howard Fineman was sure he detected "Gore's growing frustration." The proof? The candidate's voice was "hoarse."

New York Post columnist Dick Morris wrote, "Al Gore seems not to have a clue about how" to even up the presidential race.

USA Today's Walter Shapiro, documenting the "limitations of Gore's natural charm and charisma," told readers in the closing days of the campaign that the vice president was "running scared" and "thinking small." Like many, the Chicago Tribune looked ahead to the inevitable finger-pointing that would accompany a Gore loss and reported, "Democrats are grousing over the tactics employed by the Gore campaign."

The Washington Post's David Broder offered this obituary two days before Election Day: "[Gore's campaign] failed to present a consistent and attractive picture of the nominee. It allowed a man with a genuine history as a New Democrat to appear, at times, an old-fashioned liberal. In the end, rather than offering a vision of the future that built on the successes of the current administration, Gore found himself exploiting the hoariest of Democratic arguments: Don't let Republicans take your Social Security away."

In a perfect capsule of the coverage, one week before Election Day, the New York Daily News ran two quick items, one about each candidate, next to each other:

"Gore's losing his soul to eBay; Al Gore's soul is for sale, with a starting bid of just 2 cents. The eBay jokesters are at it again."

"W's golden moment; A decision that one senior GOP political consultant calls 'the political equivalent of the Inchon landing' has rejuvenated a dispirited Californian GOP -- and helped pull George W. within striking distance of Al Gore in the Golden State."

Press hints that Bush was cruising while Gore was flailing were everywhere in the closing days. James Warren of the Chicago Tribune wondered "if Vice President Al Gore secretly fears some Election Day avalanche."

On election eve at MSNBC the premise for the entire night of talk was simple: How did Gore lose this race? That, despite the fact MSNBC's own poll showed Gore leading by 2 points. Hosts Chris Matthews and Brian Williams seemed to go out of their way to assure viewers that MSNBC's tally was the only major poll showing Gore up. Wrong. Over the weekend a Newsweek poll had Gore winning the race, too.

Regardless of the polling data, the assembled guests -- Mike Barnicle, Frank Luntz, Howard Fineman, Pat Caddell and others -- were absolutely certain of one thing: Bush's personality trumps Gore's smarts.

Not according to the exit polls.

The Bush is up/Gore is down narrative was also found in the news pages of the New York Times. (It should be noted that the Times did endorse Gore, and its lead editorial the day before the election, urging voters -- and perhaps journalists -- not to believe the Bush camp's line that the election was all wrapped up, was positively fire-breathing.) Covering the Gore campaign, reporter Katharine Seelye spent last week squeezing in her last mocking jibes. Describing Gore as "grasping," Seelye spun freely when she reported that the candidate "made an appeal based on what he described as his hard work for the state -- as if a debt were owed in return for his years of service." [Emphasis added.]

Incredibly, just days before votes were cast, Seelye, who had written extensively about Gore's earth-tone suits in the spring, was still wasting space trying to interpret the meaning of the vice president's wardrobe: "Lately, he has been wearing a blue suit, white shirt and red tie."

Meanwhile, Alison Mitchell of the New York Times gushed that an Oct. 30 stump speech by Bush built to a "crescendo," thanks no doubt to the candidate's "aura of confidence." That "confidence" was relayed by nearly every political reporter when Bush campaigned, and spent millions of dollars, in California late in the contest; Gore won the state in a walk. Despite the constant orgy of Gore analysis, at the time there was virtually no second-guessing the Bush strategy. Of course, in hindsight it seems clear if Bush had spent that time in Florida instead of California he probably would have been declared president-elect Tuesday night.

(The press seemed utterly bored with the topic of Bush, with fleshing out his policies or filling in a portrait of the man. More than one year after the governor announced his run for president and one week before Election Day, Broder at the Washington Post casually mentioned to readers "there was little public knowledge of Bush's record and little understanding of his major proposals." Broder saw nothing odd about that.)

Meanwhile, the Times' Frank Bruni wrote grandly on the eve of the election, "Mr. Bush's words made equally clear that he saw himself as the country's best hope for bridging ideological divides, healing partisan wounds and making sure Americans could gaze upon the White House with unfettered respect." (That same day Seelye reported on Gore's day: "During a round of radio interviews, he closed his eyes and seemed to drift off between questions.")

What's so interesting about Mitchell and Bruni's coverage of the Bush campaign is that when Bush's drunk-driving story broke last week, the New York Times stood alone among major newspapers in being utterly uninterested in what one local competitor called an election eve "bombshell."

The story broke Thursday night. In Friday's edition the Times, like many news outlets, played the story conservatively, putting a perfunctory piece on page A25. On Saturday though, most major outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Sacramento Bee and Orlando Sentinel, delivered in-depth, Page 1 stories detailing the story's political implications, including Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater's claim that Bush had lied to him in 1998 when he told Slater he had not been arrested in the last 30 years.

The New York Times didn't think any of that was important. On Saturday the paper ran two drunk-driving-related stories: a brief look at Maine Democratic activist Tom Connolly, who tipped a local reporter to the Bush story, and an overview of how the media treated the revelation. To date, the Times has never told readers about Slater's claim that Bush lied about the arrest, or informed readers that Bush failed to answer questions about previous arrests on a 1996 Texas jury questionnaire, or that Bush, in an effort to win back his driving privileges in Maine, told state officials in 1978 he was simply a "casual drinker" who drank "infrequently," a characterization even Bush backers would today question.

Incredibly, in a 1,400-word piece by the Times' Richard Berke last Sunday examining "a string of missed opportunities and blunders by both candidates," the drunk-driving fiasco, and the Bush camp's refusal to get the story out on its own terms, was not considered one of those blunders.

Its coverage of the DUI story was slim and tepid, but the Times somehow found the time to apologize to Bush. In a correction, the paper stressed, "A headline [Sunday] on the continuation of the front-page article about Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign said in some copies that he had stressed integrity 'Even as Drunken-Driving Arrest Raises Questions of Character.' That phrasing exceeded the facts of the article, and its opinionated tone was unintended."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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2000 Elections Al Gore The New York Times