Will the Media Win it for W?

The Wall Street Journal promptly published a letter from Ellis’ school principal denying that his students had to stand through class. The Bush campaign seized on the letter and used it to bash Gore again as a liar—a charge the press eagerly amplified. But a few days later, Ellis’ father, a Republican, came forward to defend Gore, proving that in fact, his daughter frequently had to stand through class. Ellis, a 10th grader at Sarasota High School, was photographed in a local paper standing in room with 35 other pupils in a classroom designed for 24. In other words, Gore was telling what was essentially the truth about an overcrowded class.

Similarly, his statement that he was with James Lee Witt on a disaster relief mission through Texas, for which he was widely berated, told an essential truth. One of the triumphs of Gore’s Reinventing Government effort has been the dramatic improvement of FEMA, which was a joke under George Bush but which has become an outstanding agency under Witt. And it is also true that Gore accompanied Witt on many relief missions. So Gore was only slightly misrepresenting a true story he had every reason to be proud of.

Why does the media harp on this issue? Because it’s simple and it’s easy to make fun of—a lot easier say, than doing the research and analysis to determine whether Bush or Gore is right about child health care.

I don’t think the press is anti-Gore. If Bush had mangled some words in the first debate, that too, would have been featured on “Saturday Night Live” and the talk shows. The problem is not bias, it’s intellectual shiftlessness—paying too little attention to the major but sometimes complex issues of the campaign and far too much attention to matters that are minor but easily susceptible to ridicule and to clever one liners that get journalists booked on the talk shows.

The media’s approach to George Bush’s misrepresentations, as opposed to those of Al Gore, has been notably sotto voce, even though it seems to me that Bush’s have been a good deal more substantial than Gore’s. After the third debate, however, The New York Times’ Jim Yardley and The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler did nail the highly misleading statements Bush made about his support for a Texas patients’ bill of rights and a bill allowing women direct access to the ob/gyn of their choice. “The reforms happened despite him, not because of him,” the reporters were told. Still, both the Times and the Post buried their stories on inside pages.

The unfortunate result of all this is that Gore’s credibility rating in the polls has plummeted. We still have faith the vice president will win, but if Bush wins this could be the first election decided by the press and the irony is that I’m sure most reporters will finally cast their own votes for Gore.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.