Part 5—Our most dishonest elite: How “professional” is our press corps when reporting a White House campaign?
Historically, the record isn’t real great. In his iconic book, The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White painted an embarrassing portrait of the national press corps in action.
By the end of the 1960 campaign, reporters covering Candidate Kennedy had abandoned all pretense of objectivity, White seems to say in his famous book.
Flying around on the Kennedy plane, scribes sang satirical songs about Nixon, with Kennedy staffers singing along, White reported. Why did they favor Kennedy so? Because he’d been pandering to them, White’s account seems to suggest:
WHITE (page 337): He would ask advice of newspapermen, which, though he rarely followed it, flattered them nonetheless...For a more detailed account, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/03.
There is no doubt that this kindliness, respect and cultivation of the press colored all the reporting that came from the Kennedy campaign.
According to White’s iconic book, “all the reporting that came from the Kennedy campaign” was “colored” by the candidate’s cultivation of the press. White offered a very different portrait of the attitudes on the Nixon plane, and of the reporting which emerged.
White was never willing to state what seems to be blindingly obvious. Judging from his portrait, his colleagues behaved extremely poorly, especially in their sing-alongs.
That said, there never was a White House campaign whose reporting was “colored” to the crazy extent observed in the twenty months of Campaign 2000. From March 1999 on, all the reporting of Candidate Gore was “colored”—more accurately, was determined—by a set of negative storylines.
Facts were invented and discarded in fealty to these narratives. President Clinton described the general process in April of this year:
BILL CLINTON (4/30/14): If a policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a storyline. And then once people settle on the storyline, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, everything that happens into the story line, even if it’s not the story.In his unpleasant remarks, Clinton doesn’t seem to have been describing campaign coverage as such. But that is a perfect account of the way Campaign 2000 was reported, with every fact and development shoehorned into preferred “storylines.”
In a word, the press corps’ behavior was heinous. Thanks to a far-reaching code of silence the press corps maintains about its own conduct, that heinous conduct has virtually never been discussed.
This increases the possibility that such behavior could happen again. Before we return to that possibility, let’s enjoy a bit of comic relief, courtesy of Cokie Roberts.
Uh-oh! In the aftermath of the first two Bush-Gore debates, the Gore campaign complained that the press corps was applying “a double standard” to the candidates.
In a 1400-word piece in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz analyzed this charge. He reinvented the facts of the twenty-month campaign in an assortment of ways. As a general matter, he removed the press corps’ fingerprints from the invention of the “GORE LIAR” storyline which had ruled the coverage from March 1999 forward.
Back in 1999, Kurtz had challenged the “negative coverage and punditry” aimed at Candidate Gore on at least three occasions. Now, he seemed to be in the tank for the guild.
That said, it fell to Roberts to provide the most memorable moment in this analysis piece.
Why was Gore being battered for alleged misstatements and “lies” while Bush’s errors were being given short shrift? In this passage, Jonathan Alter explained the guild’s misconduct away, in comments which were drawn from his Newsweek column.
Roberts, though, provoked the gods’ laughter, with an explanation which was absurd on its face:
KURTZ (10/15/00): Some journalists acknowledge that Gore is "under extra scrutiny" on "the fib factor," as Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter put it, because of his history. The broadcast networks all played up Gore's mistakes after the first debate, as did major stories in the New York Times ("Tendency to Embellish Facts Snags Gore") and The Washington Post ("GOP Homes In on Gore's Credibility").One week later, on This Week, Roberts would join Sam Donaldson in yukking it up about the hilariously funny Dingell/Norwood bill, the centerpiece of a discussion in the third debate. It was one of the most appalling displays in the long, appalling coverage of this presidential campaign.
NBC, ABC and the major papers all reported Bush's misstatements last week, but with far less prominence, perhaps in part because the campaign was overshadowed by the violence in the Middle East.
“The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore isn't straight enough,” said ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts. “In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator.” If another politician had made the Witt mistake, "people wouldn't have paid any attention," Roberts said.
On this Sunday, Roberts was quoted making astonishing claims about the way she and her colleagues had covered the two major candidates. With forked tongue, she discussed the campaign’s alleged “story lines.”
In a slightly more rational world, it would have been seen that Roberts was copping to highly peculiar conduct. In her account, the press corps had apparently worked from two “story lines” as they covered Campaign 2000.
These were the two alleged storylines:
“Bush isn't smart enough and Gore isn't straight enough.”
That almost sounds like it’s fair! That said, are journalists covering a White House campaign supposed to work from “story lines?” We’d say the obvious answer is no. But Kurtz let this statement pass.
In our view, that part of Roberts’ statement was wonderfully comic. She seems to be admitting to highly peculiar conduct 1) because she knows Kurtz won’t regard it as such and 2) because this conduct is less egregious than the conduct with which her cohort stood charged.
They weren’t applying a double standard or being unfair to Candidate Gore! It’s just that they had one “story line” for Gore and another for Bush! It was because of these “story lines” that they had downplayed Bush’s misstatements!
This was the first part of the ludicrous thing Roberts said. We regard that statement as highly comical in the way it seems to cop to obvious journalistic misconduct.
It was also illogical on its face and blatantly untrue. Roberts was telling the truth about the one storyline, misstating the truth on the other.
It was true! Ever since March 1999, the storyline “Al Gore is a liar” had driven the press corps’ coverage. At three crucial points in the long campaign, the corps had invented new “lies” by Gore, thus keeping their story alive.
(For chronology, see below.)
Al Gore is a liar, like President Clinton? That storyline had always driven the coverage.
George Bush isn’t smart enough? The press corps never pushed that storyline, as Roberts’ own statement made clear.
Please! In the first Bush-Gore debate, Bush made several egregious misstatements about his own major proposals. Most dramatically, he made an egregious set of misstatements about his own prescription drug proposal.
Uh-oh! Gore challenged him on it! The candidates went back and forth, then back and forth once again, in the longest exchange of its kind in the history of presidential debates.
At one point, Jim Lehrer begged the hopefuls to stop, so extended was their discussion. When Lehrer extended this plea, Gore stated an accurate point:
LEHRER (10/3/00): One quick thing. Gentlemen, these are your rules. I'm doing my best. We're we're way over the three and a half minutes. I have no problems with it, but we want— Do you want to have a quick response, and we'll move on? We're already—we're almost five minutes on this, all right?“You can go to the web site and look,” Gore said—and the dispute about Bush’s proposal continued from there.
GORE: Yeah. I mean, it's just— It's just clear. You can go to the [Bush campaign] web site and look.
It was a very long, highly dramatic dispute. As it turned out, Bush had been wrong, about his own proposal.
When people went to the web site and looked, there was no doubt about that. A few newspapers even reported this fact as they fact-checked the first debate, though they did so in small tiny voices.
The New York Times never reported who had been right and who had been wrong in this remarkable, lengthy dispute. One week later, Cokie Roberts emitted a howler right in Kurtz’s face, telling him that her guild had been pushing a storyline: “Bush wasn’t smart enough.”
Good God! This lengthy dispute, in that first debate, had been about Bush’s own prescription drug plan! Bush had been aggressively wrong about his own plan, in a long, extended way which included a bunch of name-calling directed at Candidate Gore.
(Bush: “Look, this is a man, he’s got great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math!” Bush said this during this long dispute, in which Gore’s math was correct.)
George Bush isn’t smart enough? If they had been pushing that storyline, we’d still be hearing about that historic exchange, right to this very day! Instead, the press corps buried that dispute—and the NBC team pulled the world’s greatest flip, renouncing their original claim that Gore had “dominated the debate,” that Gore had “cleaned Bush’s clock.”
This is the actual way the press corps covered that campaign. People are dead all over the world because of the way they behaved.
Cokie Roberts’ statement to Kurtz shows us something more. It shows the way our most dishonest elite is allowed to discuss its own conduct.
Plainly, the press corps didn’t cover Campaign 2000 in the way Roberts described. Her statement to Kurtz didn’t even make sense. If they were working from that storyline—“Bush isn’t smart enough”—why didn’t they jump on Bush's errors from the second debate, the errors Kurtz was now asking about?
Presumably, such errors would show that Bush wasn’t smart! But the press corps never pushed that storyline. Presumably, Roberts and Kurtz both understood that plain fact.
Roberts’ statement to Kurtz that day is highly instructive. It helps us see a basic fact about one of our most important elites.
The press corps doesn’t discuss its own conduct! This is a very important fact, a fact which is never discussed.
From that day to this, the press corps’ conduct in Campaign 2000 has never been discussed. That said, it was much as President Clinton described, as he spoke about something slightly different:
They adopted a storyline about Candidate Gore. Then, they shoehorned all facts into that preferred narrative.
People are dead all over the world because these people engaged in that conduct. Amazingly, to this very day, their conduct has gone undiscussed.
Such discussions are not allowed within the mainstream press. This obvious but troubling fact has been proven again and again.
Dionne and Drum refuse to discuss that astonishing conduct. Alter and Weisberg will never discuss it. Chris Matthews played one of the leading roles in the twenty-month scam. It won’t be discussed on Fox.
Because this conduct is never discussed, this type of conduct could more easily happen again. For reasons we discussed yesterday, it could most imaginably happen to a Candidate Hillary Clinton, in part depending on the identity of the Republican candidate in a general election.
In Campaign 2000, their storylines sent a Republican to the White House. In part because of the subsequent silence:
Yes. It could happen again!
The chronology of the invented lies: Al Gore is a liar, like President Clinton!
Starting in March 1999, that storyline drove the coverage of Campaign 2000. At three major junctures, the press corps invented new “lies” by Candidate Gore, keeping the storyline going:
December 1999: The storyline was dying on the vine, due to a lack of examples. Just like that, a new “lie” was invented:
Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal!
It began with a flat-out misquotation of Gore, but nothing could stop it from taking hold. The dying storyline was revived. Within weeks, it had been set in stone.
September 2000: In the aftermath of the conventions, Gore had moved far ahead in the polls. In a gloomy column, Robert Novak discussed the “undeniable panic” which was “gripping partisan Republicans, from rank-and-file voters to seasoned political operatives.”
Presto! Two different mainstream journalists came up with new “lies” by Gore:
Al Gore lied about the union lullaby!
Al Gore lied about the doggy pills!
The “lie” about the lullaby had been an obvious joke, as everyone finally acknowledged. In his statement about the doggy pills, Gore had repeated standard data about drug prices, accurate data many Democrats had stated before.
So what? The new “lies” were trumpeted to the skies. Howard Fineman explained Gore’s horrible week to Brian Williams: “I don’t think the media was going to allow, just by its nature, the next seven weeks, the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign, to be all about Al Gore’s relentless, triumphant march to the presidency.”
Sure enough! The press corps trumpeted two new “lies.” Gore’s large lead disappeared.
October 2000: Gore was back ahead by roughly four points as the first debate occurred. He won all five overnight surveys about the debate—and then, the corps swung into action.
A trivial error about the unknown Jamie Lee Witt was turned into a “lie.” A trivial statement about overcrowding at a Florida school seemed to be basically accurate. Meanwhile, Bush’s gigantic howlers were widely ignored, for reasons Roberts misstated to Kurtz. Two days after the debate, Chris Matthews and the rest of the Jack Welch gang pulled history’s largest flip.
Presto! Bush shot ahead in the polls. Gore spent the last few weeks catching back up.
We think you know the rest of this story. And yes, because of all the silence, this could all happen again.