Why Big Media Slimes Al Gore
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has a point when he describes the rabid reaction of right-wingers to Al Gore, with the latest foaming at the mouth over the former vice president winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming.
But the Right is not alone in its pathological demeaning of Gore. The major news media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have taken their share of unfair shots at Gore, ironically for reasons similar to those that Krugman attributes to the Right.
In his column on Oct. 15, Krugman observed that the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page commented on Gore’s prize simply by running a list of people whom it considered more deserving. A National Review Online article linked Gore to Osama bin Laden because the Saudi terrorist once made a remark about the dangers of global warming.
“What is it about Mr. Gore that drives right-wingers insane?” Krugman asked. “Partly it’s a reaction to what happened in 2000, when the American people chose Mr. Gore but his opponent somehow ended up in the White House.
“Both the personality cult the Right tried to build around President Bush and the often hysterical denigration of Mr. Gore were, I believe, largely motivated by the desire to expunge the stain of illegitimacy from the Bush administration.” [See “Gore Derangement Syndrome,” NYT, Oct. 15, 2007]
But the major U.S. news media, including Krugman’s own newspaper, appears to have acted with much the same goal, protecting Bush’s legitimacy at the start of his presidency and insulating him from doubts about his competence after the 9/11 attacks.
This favoritism toward Bush dates back even further to the earliest days of Campaign 2000 when Gore was depicted as a “delusional” braggart and Bush was the “straight shooter” who would bring the “adults” back to Washington. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media” or “Protecting Bush/Cheney” or our new book, Neck Deep.]
During the Florida recount battle, it was Gore who was viewed as the interloper who should spare the country a bitter election stalemate and simply concede defeat, even though he had won the national popular vote by more than a half million ballots.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many colleagues when he wrote that “given the present bitterness, given the angry irresponsible charges being hurled by both camps, the nation will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better and not worse. That man is not Al Gore. That man is George W. Bush.”
After the unprecedented ruling by five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the Florida recount and hand the presidency to Bush, the big news outlets turned to helping the nation heal its wounds by putting Bush’s illegitimacy off limits.
While Bill Clinton faced what amounted to hazing during his presidential transition, major U.S. news outlets granted Bush an extended honeymoon. Washington welcomed the return of the “adults,” such as Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, who would surround the novice President with sound advice.
On Inauguration Day, network news coverage largely looked the other way when angry demonstrators surged toward Pennsylvania Avenue and Bush chose to forego a stately ride to the White House in favor of Secret Service agents hitting the accelerators.
Meanwhile, Gore was banished from politically respectable society. When he grew a beard or gained some weight, he became the butt of jokes not just from right-wing journalists but from mainstream pundits as well.
After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. news media pulled the wagons even tighter around the shaky, inexperienced Bush. It was in this climate of perceived national crisis that Bush’s “cult of personality” took flight.
However, Bush’s dubious election “victory” remained a shadow over his presidency, made worse when a media examination of legally cast Florida ballots was completed in November 2001 and found that Gore would have won a full recount regardless of which standard was applied to the “chads.”
Under a normal news judgment, the American people would have awakened to the startling headline that “Gore Would Have Won Full Florida Recount; Should Be the President.” But that would have provoked a political firestorm and raised fresh doubts about Bush’s legitimacy just two months after 9/11.
So, senior editors at the major mainstream news outlets chose to bury their own lede, focusing instead on hypothetical partial recounts that Bush still might have won.
“Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush,” according to the Washington Post’s headline on Nov. 12, 2001. Both the Post and the New York Times referred to Americans who questioned this interpretation as “Gore partisans.”
Post media critic Howard Kurtz ridiculed these doubters as “conspiracy theorists” in an article entitled “George W. Bush, Now More Than Ever.”
Kurtz also mocked people who believed that winning an election fairly, based on the will of the voters, was important in a democracy. “Now the question is: How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century – and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?” he wrote.
A reader had to dig into the actual data – and ignore the ridicule – to find the real story. “Full Review Favors Gore,” the Washington Post acknowledged in a box on page 10, showing that under all standards applied to the ballots, Gore came out on top. The New York Times’ graphic revealed the same outcome.
After reading these stories, I wrote an article noting that the obvious lede should have been that Gore won. I suggested that the news judgments of senior editors might have been influenced by a desire to appear patriotic at a time of national crisis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gore’s Victory.”]
The article had been on the Internet for only an hour or two when I received an angry phone call from New York Times media writer Felicity Barringer, who accused me of impugning the journalistic integrity of then Times executive editor Howell Raines.
It was as if Barringer had been on the look-out for some deviant analysis that had to be stamped out.
By the end of 2001 – after the initial U.S. military victory in Afghanistan – the major U.S. media slid into full-scale Bush hagiography.
On Dec. 23, 2001, for instance, NBC's Tim Russert joined New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and First Lady Laura Bush in ruminating about whether divine intervention put Bush in the White House to handle the 9/11 crisis.
Russert asked Mrs. Bush if “in an extraordinary way, this is why he was elected.” Mrs. Bush objected to Russert’s suggestion that “God picks the president, which he doesn’t.”
Giuliani thought otherwise: “I do think, Mrs. Bush, that there was some divine guidance in the president being elected. I do.” McCarrick also saw some larger purpose, saying: “I think I don’t thoroughly agree with the First Lady. I think that the president really, he was where he was when we needed him.”
Bush was soon the subject of flattering books, such as David Frum’s “The Right Man” and Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War.” The public fawning appeared to go to Bush’s head as he told Woodward that his presidential judgments were beyond questioning.
“I am the commander, see,” Bush said. “I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they need to say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
Before long, most major U.S. news outlets were lapping up whatever Bush and his team were pouring out about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
When Al Gore emerged from the political netherworld to question the wisdom of Bush’s plan for a preemptive war against Iraq, the former vice president was alternatively ignored and ridiculed.
Gore’s Sept. 23, 2002, speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco got little coverage – except to the extent that Bush’s supporters trashed it.
“Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered,” wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. “It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible.” [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]
“A pudding with no theme but much poison,” declared another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer. “It was a disgrace – a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002]
While some depicted Gore’s motivation as political “opportunism,” columnist William Bennett mocked Gore for sealing his political doom and banishing himself “from the mainstream of public opinion.”
Even as Gore’s warnings proved prescient, he remained an object of disdain from a mainstream press corps that had no stomach for reexamining how it failed in its duty to ask the White House tough questions.
When the political pundits have deigned to mention the possibility of Gore running for president in 2008, they talk mostly about his waist line. This mainstream tendency to mock Gore has continued in the wake of his Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 12.
Almost every time Gore’s prize was mentioned on CNN, it was accompanied by a reference to a ruling by an obscure British judge named Michael Burton, who claimed to detect “nine errors” in Gore’s slide-show presentation for “An Inconvenient Truth.”
On Oct. 13, the Washington Post noted Gore’s prize in a snarky editorial that elevated Burton’s “nine errors” to “nine significant errors” and faulted Gore for “factual misstatements and exaggerations.”
The reality, however, was that Burton’s ruling was based on misrepresentations of what Gore actually said in the documentary. At best, Burton’s objections could be considered quibbles. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Smearing Al Gore: Here We Go Again.”]
So, Krugman is surely correct to note the extraordinary hostility that Gore engenders from the Right. As Krugman wrote at the end of his Oct. 15 column, “Which brings us to the biggest reason the Right hates Mr. Gore: in his case the smear campaign has failed. He’s taken everything they could throw at him, and emerged more respected, and more credible, than ever. And it drives them crazy.”
Yet it is perhaps even more troubling that much of the mainstream U.S. news media has refused to give up its own animus toward Gore.
From CNN to the Washington Post’s editorial page, senior news executives apparently still feel that it is more important to ingratiate themselves with President Bush and his powerful admirers than it is to show some fairness to the man who was the choice of a plurality of American voters in 2000.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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