Our nation's most influential journalists claim to hate moralists who snoop in people's private lives with their narrow-minded little prejudices. But rarely will you find a news report on the tobacco industry that isn't filled with evangelical fervor about the objectionable private choices people make, and how they must be stopped in spite of themselves.
In a one-year study of TV news before the 1996 campaign, Timothy Lamer found tobacco and smoking were the subject of 413 news stories. The stories were stacked against tobacco, featuring 270 soundbites favoring more regulation to just 116 opposed. Eighty-five of those stories focused on President Clinton and his party's heroic efforts against the "tobacco lobby."
Yet when top Democrats stand accused of hypocrisy on the evil weed, the sermonizers go silent. In 1996, Al Gore tried to wring televised tears out of delegates at the Democratic convention using his sister's 1984 death from smoking as a prop. He proudly proclaimed he would fight cigarette makers "until my last breath." But reporters whistled by video evidence of Gore pandering to tobacco farmers on the campaign trail in the 1988 presidential race, and tobacco farmer Gore's fortunes in campaign cash from tobacco lobbyists over the years.
In July, Gore signed up consultant Carter Eskew, who made ads defending the tobacco industry from major litigation, ads Bill Clinton had claimed could be "fatal to young children who continue to be seduced and sold illegally cigarettes that will shorten their lives." A story? Not one of the morning or evening newscasts at ABC, CBS, or NBC even breathed Eskew's name.
Don't think that reporters didn't care. They just didn't want to make a stink in public. The Washington Post recently reported Al Gore hanging out with Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw at a November 1 party for Talk magazine. "Brokaw asked Gore why he hired media consultant Carter Eskew after Eskew made all those TV commercials for the tobacco industry." A perfectly good question, so why does Brokaw leave the tough questions for Gore for private parties?
You might have heard about Eskew if you watched Sunday morning chat shows. On ABC's "This Week" in July, Bill Kristol wondered: "Doesn't it open up Bill Bradley to go on a big anti-tobacco, you know, speech and to say this is something he will fight hard for and call Al Gore's credentials into question?" Sam Donaldson agreed: "Absolutely." So why didn't ABC's "World News Tonight" touch it?
Last week, The New York Times explained why Bradley stayed quiet. Reporters Richard Berke and James Dao revealed that Bradley is in the same hypocritical pickle. The head of his advertising team, Alex Kroll, had "extensive contacts with the tobacco industry" as CEO of the Young & Rubicam ad agency. An internal memo from R.J. Reynolds showed that tobacco executives "viewed Kroll as an official to turn to to defend the Joe Camel account."
For his part, Kroll didn't leap to defend his work for Joe Camel against the absurd, but successful campaign by those liberal First Amendment lovers to ban the cartoon symbol. He dismissed RJR as "one of 5,000 clients," and although he might have met with them a few times to solicit their business, it's "eye-opening to me that it's relevant."
The Times reported Gore aides said they might "pounce" on Kroll's tobacco links, calling him "a guy who was responsible for trying see tobacco products right to inner-city kids." They hope to make the buzz over their own "inner-city killer" Eskew go away. But since the big networks never let the Eskew issue surface, the whole brouhaha was left to cable news.
CNN's "Inside Politics" led with the controversy the day of the Times story, but anchorman Bernard Shaw was signaling network group-think when he wrapped up the issue with battling Gore and Bradley spokesmen: "Now I hear the tone of each of you and I am compelled to ask you, Ron Klain, do the people in the Gore campaign wish whoever talked to The New York Times -you're smiling - had just kept quiet?" The unintended implication of that question speaks volumes: Had you guys kept your mouths shut, we would never have touched it.
Throughout the Clinton-Gore years, the Democrats have attacked the Evil Empire of tobacco, taking tough stands against things like smoking in junior-high school (as if Republicans were for it). Network producers are currently portrayed as idealistic heroes in the fanciful movie "The Insider" for exposing the industry's lying ways. But when the crusade threatens to burn their favorite politicians, suddenly all the smoke-free media idealism vanishes.