What's Worse? "Putzhead" or "Fascist"?

One of the finest election-year traditions to watch is the hypocrisy of major media outlets which simultaneously smear politicians and disdain negative campaigning. In this case, at the same time they were attributing the deaths of a gay college student and an abortionist to Trent Lott and the Christian Coalition, the networks on Monday night denounced the nastiness of the New York Senate race between Sen. Al D'Amato and Rep. Charles Schumer, all noting that D'Amato had called Schumer a "putzhead" in a private meeting with Jewish supporters.

Peter Jennings on ABC: "This is probably the meanest campaign in the country."

Dan Rather on CBS: "This race is also down and dirty, negative and nasty."

Tom Brokaw on NBC: "One of the closest and nastiest Senate races of all is going on in the state of New York."

CNN aired a story Sunday night. But the biggest gaffe of the 1992 Senate race, when D'Amato's opponent, Attorney General Robert Abrams, called D'Amato a "fascist" at an October 10 rally of college students, never made NBC. ABC, CBS, and CNN touched on it (weeks after the first reports), but CBS and CNN left it out of their evening news shows. The New York Times noted Abrams "has several times complained in off-the-cuff conversations with his staff that Mr. D'Amato's tactics... are reminiscent of those used by the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels." But they all went easier on Abrams than on D'Amato:

On October 22, 1992, CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith interviewed ad experts Bob Garfield and Jerry Della Femina and reviewed D'Amato's ad noting Abrams' comment over footage of Mussolini. Garfield defended Abrams: "He apologized immediately [Actually, he refused for days.] At this stage I think he's probably wishing he apologized to the fascists. Because it has been so twisted by the D'Amato campaign into an ethnic slur." Garfield said the ad "doesn't work" for D'Amato.

On the October 26, 1992 World News Tonight, Jeff Greenfield referred to Abrams as "an unreconstructed liberal with a limited charisma quotient and a squeaky-clean reputation." How "squeaky clean" it was to call D'Amato a fascist wasn't discussed. Greenfield mentioned the gaffe in passing: "When Abrams called D'Amato a fascist, D'Amato said that was an ethnic slur."

On CNN's Inside Politics on the 29th, Jeanne Moos showed a radio debate: "D'Amato came out swinging so hard it seemed to leave Abrams stung. Off the cuff, a frustrated Abrams called D'Amato a fascist. D'Amato seemed ready to cry...D'Amato choked up was too much for some folks to swallow." New Yorker writer Ken Auletta groused: "He's totally shameless. I mean, to succeed in this business, you need to have no shame and no memory. Al D'Amato has no shame or any memories." Moos added: "D'Amato sure was fast to use the fascist remark in their first debate."

The networks' sensitivity to Schumer's message is similarly dull, since their stories quote Schumer's ads consistently tagging D'Amato for "too many lies, for too long," without any mention of Schumer's rallies and fundraisers with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who lied for seven months about Monica Lewinsky. - Tim Graham