October 16, 2000
A Strategy of Destruction
The Republican strategy to destroy Al Gore’s reputation actually had been underway for many months.
The New York Times described what it called “a skillful and sustained 18-month campaign by Republicans to portray the vice president as flawed and untrustworthy,” according to an article on Oct. 15.
In one example, the Times noted that the Republicans successfully portrayed Gore as a liar for having talked about his work on the family’s farm as a boy. Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson mocked Gore as a pampered city boy misrepresenting his past.
“Friends later told reporters that Mr. Gore’s father had kept him on a backbreaking work schedule during summers on the family farm,” the Times noted in one neutrally phrased passage. While praising the effectiveness of the Republican strategy, the newspaper did not offer any self-criticisms about its role in spreading many of the Republican calumnies.
As part of the recent imbalanced coverage, journalists averted their eyes when Bush told whoppers in the presidential debates.
--In one case, Bush reprised his contention that he is not a man who needs a focus group or polls to tell him what to think.
Bush said, “I think you've got to look at how one has handled responsibility in office, whether or not … you've got the capacity to convince people to follow; whether or not one makes decisions based upon sound principles; or whether or not you rely upon polls and focus groups on how to decide what the course of action is. We've got too much polling and focus groups going on in Washington today. We need decisions made on sound principles.”
Left out was that Bush’s campaign has spent roughly $1 million on polls and focus groups during this campaign, about equal to the Gore campaign’s spending, according to a report by NBC News. [Oct. 6, 2000]. Indeed, Bush changed his campaign slogan from “Compassionate Conservative” to “Real Plans for Real People” because of poll analysis done by his campaign.
--In the first debate, Bush tried to make an issue out of President Clinton’s practice of allowing his friends and supporters to sleep over at the White House.
“I believe they've moved that sign, ‘The buck stops here,’ from the Oval Office desk to ‘The buck stops here’ on the Lincoln bedroom, and that's not good for the country. It's not right. We need to have a new look about how we conduct ourselves in office,” Bush said.
What Bush left out was that since he took office in 1995, he has had 203 guests stay over at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, Texas. More than half of them have contributed to his campaign, amounting to $2.2 million. [The Public I]
The news media took little or no notice of Bush's hypocrisy.
--In the first presidential debate, Bush also claimed that he, as president, would not have the authority to override the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion drug RU-486. But he did not mention that his campaign supported the initiative in Congress to ban the drug, nor did he indicate that he supports sending the issue back to the FDA for more research.
He also ducked the issue of what personnel changes he would make at the FDA and whether those changes would have an impact on the approval of RU-486. Bush had previously stated that he would order his FDA appointees to review the decision.
--In perhaps Bush’s most obvious whopper in the first presidential debate, the Republican claimed that the Gore campaign had out-spent his. “This man has out-spent me,” Bush said.
In fact, Bush has raised and spent more than twice as much money in this election as Gore has raised and spent.
There has been no explanation from the Bush campaign about this remarkable claim and the national news media have not pressed for one, as the media certainly would have if Gore had made a similarly false statement.
Rather than deal with Bush’s numerous debate distortions, the press flew into a frenzy over Gore’s mistake about the FEMA director.
The press was whipped on by the Bush campaign. Its chief strategist Karl Rove compared Gore to “Zelig,” a Woody Allen character who put himself at the elbow of important people.
The press also zeroed in on Gore’s supposedly false statement about a 15-year-old girl in a Florida high school who had gone without a desk because of overcrowding. The major media accepted the denial of the school’s principal about the overcrowding problem and ignored the reporting from the local newspaper which backed Gore’s account.
The New York Times, for instance, reported that “the fact is, the girl has a desk, and went without one only a day.” The article contained no attribution for this conclusion. [NYT, Oct. 6, 2000]
A day earlier, however, the local newspaper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, had a different version. “Kailey [Ellis, the 15-year-old girl] said she moved from a biology classroom where students had to sit on the floor to another that was short on desks on Aug. 31 – the ninth day of school. She stood for one 50-minute period, and the following day a classmate gave up his desk for her” and the classmate then went without a desk for the next week.
“I’m not still standing,” Ellis told the newspaper, “but there’s still kids that have to sit on the side of desks and there’s still not enough room in the classes.” [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Oct. 5, 2000]
There was no indication that The New York Times, the self-proclaimed “newspaper of record,” had made any attempt to ascertain the truth behind the school-overcrowding story. The Times apparently just accepted the account of the principal whose reputation had been put in question by the national attention on his school.
Cause and Effect
While this botched and biased campaign coverage might seem trivial to some, its cumulative effect has been to transform the presidential election campaign from one that had been dominated by issues to one controlled by the Republican/media’s harsh assessment of Gore’s character and credibility.
What has made this development a direct threat to the democratic process is that the media’s treatment has been extraordinarily one-sided and often erroneous.
The national press corps has acted as a political collaborator with the Republicans in a scheme to defame Al Gore and effectively hand the election to George W. Bush.
If George W. Bush is elected president on Nov. 7, he will owe a huge debt to a national press corps that has become a national disgrace.
Sam Parry, managing editor of Consortiumnews.com, works for Sierra Club's Human Rights & the Environment Campaign.