Despite the polling movement hither and thither on the Bush-Gore race, one thing is clear: in an election this close, the media treatment of the candidates could be the crucial factor in determining which candidate puts his hand on the Bible in January.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz even put the media-bias issue on the front page, describing it as "the elephant in the room" and "the shadow that some believe is hovering over the presidential race." The media's power to sway elections is not absolute, but it is not a UFO-style figment of conservative imaginations either. Why else would former Newsweek scribe Mickey Kaus ask, "was a Democratic operative right when she told me, before the Dem convention, that 'as long as Gore reaches a certain level, the press will help us win it'?"
Media bias is real and it is daily, and both Republicans and Democrats are regularly affected by it. For Bush, avoiding the fury of the liberal press has been nearly the entire rationale for "compassionate conservatism"; for focusing almost all his advertisements on health care and education; for keeping almost every congressional conservative from the speaker's podium in Philadelphia; for offering no bold conservative policy prescriptions. Still, you wonder why he bothers: he and his campaign are continuously disparaged for their "negativity," while his ads are scrutinized to the thirtieth of a second for supposedly subliminal messages.
Meanwhile, the Democrats can safely rely on the Big Three TV networks to downplay - even flat out spike - stories that might hurt their hold on the voters. Let's take just one bad week from the Gore campaign, and see whether the media made a bad week any worse.
1. Pooch Prescriptions. The Boston Globe's dogged reporter Walter V. Robinson reported at a seniors event in August that "Gore, the master of many policy details, mangled the facts" in suggesting that his mother-in law Margaret Ann Aitcheson pays three times as much for arthritis medicine as they do for his elderly dog Shiloh. "The Gore campaign admitted that he lifted those costs not from his family's bills, but from a House Democratic study, and that Gore misused even those numbers," the Globe reported.
Just imagine what would have happened had this come from Bush. But it was Gore, so the dynamics are different. The story broke on a Monday morning, but CBS didn't get to it until Wednesday night, and NBC handed in its overdue homework the next night. ABC gets an F for no effort.
2. Breast Cancer, Brain Seizure. At an event in Las Vegas on Monday, September 18, Al Gore, the sensitive-to-soccer-moms candidate, fumbled over the word which described breast-cancer detection technology. Gore declared potential breast cancer victims faced "a long waiting line before they could get a biopsy or, uh, or a uh, another kind of, what am I looking for, a sonogram or...." People in the crowd shouted "mammogram." The same Big Three networks that screened fractions of Bush ads for subliminal messages and hounded Dan Quayle's spelling bee supervision were nowhere to be found.
3. Labor Lullabies. In what obviously was a disastrous Monday on the campaign trail in Las Vegas, Gore made up yet another story, this time for the Teamsters union's national convention. "You know I still remember the lullabies that I heard as a child, [singing] 'Look for the union label.'" USA Today reported the goof two days later, noting the song was written for union TV commercials in 1975, when Gore was 27. The cable networks covered the gaffe, and Gore aides claiming he meant a 1901 song with the lyrics "remember the union label." No reporters found relatives or childhood friends for corroboration. One night later, NBC paired this fairy tale with the doggie whopper, but ABC and CBS simply hummed and whistled past the story.
4. Nudge or Fudge? Late Monday at a $4.2 million Hollywood fundraiser, the entertainment media critic formerly known as Joe Lieberman turned to mush in front of all those DNC donors: "We will never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will nudge you, but will never become censors." This retreat drew fire from the Republicans, who pointed out the hypocrisy of Gore-Lieberman bashing Hollywood by day and raising millions from them at night. Even longtime ally Bill Bennett broke ranks with Lieberman, publicly scolding him in the Wall Street Journal. But Lieberman's remarks and Bennett's response were a complete non-starter with ABC, CBS, or NBC.
This is not accidental. It is deliberate, and premeditated. These networks are doing, or not doing, whatever it takes to see Al Gore succeed Bill Clinton.