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Media hopscotch: yesterday’s hero, tomorrow’s heel

November 8, 2000

Media-watchers know that there are two main theories about press coverage of presidential campaigns. The cyclical theory holds that reporters tend to blow hot and cold on both candidates, always gang-tackling the one who is ahead and propping up the one behind, thus adding excitement to the race. In contrast, the liberal-bias theory holds that reporters “perhaps without even realizing it, tend to have worldviews that favor Democrats and this shows, sometimes not so subtly, in their coverage.” This mild description of the bias theory comes from Mickey Kaus, the Internet commentator. The line “tend to have worldviews that favor Democrats” is polite understatement. A 1992 Roper poll of Washington reporters and bureau chiefs showed that 89 percent voted for Bill Clinton, 7 percent voted for George Bush. This is the kind of voting pattern we might expect among political reporters in Poland under the communists, or in Iraq today.

Here’s how the cyclical theory would apply. During the primaries, Al Gore and George Bush both got unfavorable treatment from a press corps that much preferred Bill Bradley and John McCain. The monthlong drubbing that Bush took over the Confederate flag and Bob Jones University was naturally followed by a compensatory burst of good coverage. This rose to a glorifying peak in summer when polls had him way ahead. With no place to go but down, Bush had a predictably miserable September, ushered in by his crude remark about a reporter, the “rats” commercial, and several unsuccessful bouts with English syntax. Gore therefore entered his golden era, which lasted about six weeks, from the convention kiss to the first debate. Then the wheel turned again in Bush’s direction.

Dead in the water. Remember, by mid-September the Bush campaign looked dead in the water. Several pundits announced that Bush was toast. But cyclical theorists knew what was coming. In The Washington Post of Sept. 21, staff reporter Dana Milbank wrote: “This just in. The Bush campaign is rebounding. … Remember the stiff and programmed Gore, the earth-toned, faux-farm-working, pot-smoking, Fairfax-Hotel-living, slumlord Gore? Don’t worry; he’ll be back when the cycle turns again. We’re due for a Bush recovery any day now.”

Sure enough, the recovery was only a week or so away. The new cycle may have started with the snorting, smirking, eyeball-rolling Gore performance in the first debate. Or it may have begun because anti-Bush media bias suddenly became an issue in Washington, causing reporters to think twice about the tone of coverage. Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, said pro-Democratic reporters were “larding their stories with their own ideological biases” because it suddenly looked possible for Gore to win. Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post, discussed this possibility seriously under the headline “Are the Media Tilting to Gore?” And columnist Charles Krauthammer attracted a lot of attention with a Sept. 29 column listing the September Page 1 headlines on Gore and Bush in The New York Times. Most of them were so heavily skewed against Bush, he wrote, that “it would take a mollusk to miss the pattern.”

The irony here is that believers in the liberal-bias theory seem to have made the competing cyclical theory look more accurate. In September, Republicans complained loudly, with some justification, that the media had ignored Gore’s tall tales, specifically the one about arthritis medicine for his mother-in-law’s dog, while vastly overplaying the rats issue.

By mid-October, Democrats and liberal commentators were doing the complaining, again with some justification. Margaret Carlson, Jonathan Alter, E.J. Dionne and others were asking why Gore’s embellishments were endlessly kicked around in the media while Bush’s inaccuracies and off-the-cuff fibs were being ignored. Here we have history’s first great wave of liberal whining about conservative bias in Washington political coverage.

Gore had some legitimate beefs. He was, in part, the inspiration for the hero of “Love Story.” He never said he discovered Love Canal. He did in fact play a large role in developing the Internet. But there were so many embellishments that reporters kept running with the story. Bush’s inaccuracies were duller and harder to explain. Gore’s claim that he had accompanied James Lee Witt to Texas was the last straw to many reporters, who began to see the embellishments as a character flaw of some importance. An anti-Gore bias may have come into play. The flood of embellishments crystallized what so many reporters think about Gore — that he is inauthentic and not very principled. So they never let go of the issue.

Many people predicted the media’s pro-Bush turn of early and mid-October, but nobody seems to have predicted that it would be the final cycle. There was plenty of time for the second great Gore comeback, but it never materialized (unless the timely revelation of Bush’s drunk driving in 1976 is setting off a whirlwind four-day Gore cycle). Nobody knows why. But on the basis of the media performance in October, the liberal-bias theory seems to be in some trouble.

From → Media

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