October 16, 2000
By Sam Parry
The national news media have altered the course of Campaign 2000 – perhaps decisively – by applying two starkly different standards for judging how Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, handle the truth versus how Vice President Al Gore does.
Bush and Cheney have gotten almost a free pass. They have been allowed to utter misleading statements and even outright falsehoods with little or no notice. By contrast, Gore’s comments have been fly-specked and every inconsistency trumpeted to support the media’s “theme” – reinforced by the Republicans – that Gore is an inveterate liar.
What the press rarely if ever admits is that many of Gore’s “lies” actually were cases of media mis-reporting.
This litany of bungled stories includes many of the media’s favorites: the “I was the one that started” Love Canal case, “inventing” the Internet, inspiring the male lead in Love Story (which author Eric Segal says was true), Gore’s work as a boy on the family farm (Gore's version again was true), the degree of danger he faced in Vietnam, his alleged misrepresentation of his father’s civil rights record, and his alleged exaggeration that his sister worked as a Peace Corps “volunteer.”
The national news media mangled all these stories, a failure compounded by the pundit shows that routinely reference these mythical stories as fact.
On the Love Canal case, for instance, Gore actually referred to a Tennessee toxic waste dump and said “that was the one that started it all.” The Washington Post and The New York Times transformed the quote to “I was the one that started it all.” The Republicans refined it to say, “I was the one who started it all.” [For details, see our examination of the Love Canal case.]
The other stories have been variations on the same sort of bogus reporting, with the Republicans spinning the news media in a calculated attempt to redefine Al Gore – by all accounts, a hard-working, thoughtful public servant – into a caricature and a laughingstock.
Yet rather than proof of an unethical press corps (and another example of Republican dirty politics), these canards have become the historical backdrop – a kind of accepted reference point – that has sustained the depiction of Gore as a dishonest man.
So, when Gore makes an innocuous mistake, such as remembering inaccurately being at a Texas disaster scene in 1998 with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency – when he actually was with the director’s deputy – the news media go into a sort of press riot over its Gore-as-serial-exaggerator theme.
Yet, saying you were on a trip with the FEMA director isn’t exactly like claiming you were hanging out with Nelson Mandela.
Indeed, it made no sense to think that the vice president of the United States would believe he was polishing his record by mentioning the FEMA director. Yet that was exactly the ugly conclusion that the Republicans and the press corps reached.
[For the best overall coverage of the media’s pattern of mis-reporting Gore, see Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler ]
By contrast to the front-page treatment given Gore’s FEMA mistake or the dispute over Gore’s description of an overcrowded Florida high school, the press shrugs its shoulders at false statements by Bush and Cheney.
In the second presidential debate, for instance, Bush argued that a stronger hate-crimes law was not needed in Texas because three men were facing the death penalty for the racially motivated murder of James Byrd, a black man dragged to his death behind a pickup truck.
“It’s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they’re put to death,” Bush said, with an out-of-place smile across his face.
But Bush wasn’t telling the truth. One of the three killers actually had received life imprisonment, not the death penalty. Bush had misstated or exaggerated the facts of a major criminal case that had occurred during his tenure as Texas governor.
One could only imagine how the press would have played up a similar mistake by Gore. It would have been all the voters would have heard about for a week.
With its penchant for cookie-cutter “themes” used to define candidates, the press also might have seized on Bush’s smirking comment about the condemned men and used it to remind the public about Bush’s earlier insensitivity when he mimicked condemned murderess Carla Faye Tucker as she was pleading for her life.
“With pursed lips in mock desperation, [Bush said] ‘Please don’t kill me’,” wrote Talk magazine’s conservative columnist Tucker Carlson.
Given the media’s endless search for a personality flaw behind Gore’s supposed exaggerations, a similar standard applied to Bush might have led to a conclusion that he suffers from a personality defect that leads him to mock people he is about to put to death. But the major news media didn’t see Bush’s misstatement or his smirk as much of a story.
The next day, The Washington Post stuck the governor’s exaggeration about the three condemned killers in a story on A6, where the newspaper also mentioned Bush’s accusation that former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin stole money from the International Monetary Fund.
Bush’s accusation against Chernomyrdin, aimed at undercutting Gore’s work on economic and political reform in Russia, was imprecise and not supported by the known factual record.
There have been suspicions of misconduct against Chernomyrdin, but they have not involved the IMF. After the debate, Chernomyrdin angrily denied Bush’s IMF accusations, which the campaign did not buttress with specific evidence.
The media’s rationale apparently was that Bush’s errors were the kinds of mistakes a candidate can make in the course of a 90-minute debate and the press shouldn’t be too picky. Yet, a very different standard has been applied to Gore.