Look Who's Flip-Flopping on Character
by L. Brent Bozell III
October 17, 1996
Something very strange, like an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," happened after the first presidential and vice-presidential debates. After two "ultra-civil" discussions of the issues, the media decided that Bob Dole and Jack Kemp ought to bring up Bill Clinton's character.
In the weeks leading up to the debates, media types had warned that Dole would be the hatchet man, that Dole might get "personal." In the first two debates, moderator Jim Lehrer explicitly presented the "character issues" as a "personal" issue. Now, let's try to make sense of this: the White House knowingly acquires 900 raw FBI files on past Republican White House employees, a tremendous violation of personal privacy and civil liberties - but bringing that up is "personal"? The Clintons brought in their Hollywood pal Harry Thomason to take over the White House Travel Office by firing seven workers; they dragged Billy Dale through $500,000 of legal expenses defending himself against cooked felony accusations; and after publicly promising to have the government reimburse Dale's legal fees, Clinton and the Democrats refused for months to pass that promise - and bringing that up is "personal"?
Dole's and Kemp's failure to score any points on Clinton and Gore somehow changed the media's mind. On the Don Imus radio program, Dan Rather insisted that Dole could bring up the FBI files and the Travel Office firings. Washington Post columnists E.J. Dionne and David Broder each suggested that these stories were legitimate issues for a national discussion. But this raises a very obvious question: if these White House ethical failures are legitimate concerns for a presidential campaign, where on God's green earth have the media been?
Broder, and other pundits like ABC's Jeff Greenfield, explained voters might have understood these ethical failures if Dole had been raising them since the spring, if voters could make the connection between a president who claims to represent those who "work hard and play by the rules" but who recognizes no rules in his use of his office. Unbelievable. Now the press, which clearly has been following its 89 percent pro-Clinton convictions and not covering stories that could damage Clinton's poll numbers, tells us these are important issues after all?
How many networks covered the blockbuster story of Billy Dale being acquitted after only two hours of deliberations? None. How many networks explained the six-month gap in the White House logs keeping track of use of the purloined FBI files? Only CNN.
Clinton's secret foreign policy urging Iran to arm the Bosnian muslims? ABC and CNN did a couple of anchor briefs back in April; CBS and NBC have yet to even mention it in their evening news. Indictments and convictions for fraud around Clinton Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy? Count them on one hand over the last two years. Name a scandal - you'll find a mind-boggling dearth of coverage.
And then, on the eve of the last debate, the media's conventional wisdom flip-flopped once again. NBC's "Today" show promised to focus on a "campaign that's now getting meaner." On CBS, Dan Rather, who had just given Dole permission to bring up the character issue, threw this negative spin on the issue to Rita Braver: "True or untrue that they're preparing for a kind of carpet-bombing on character?"
In a Washington Post article, even Democratic pollster Peter Hart exposed the media's malignant flip-flopping, saying the media's "been goading Dole into doing something in the area of character. They goad you into doing something and then say 'Isn't it awful'?"
What's awful is the media's completely partisan coverage of this campaign. A new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs reveals a shocking accumulation of pro-Clinton bias in 1996. From Labor Day through September 30, 54 percent of comments about the President were positive, compared with less than one of every three on Dole. Since January, network evaluations of the President have been 46 percent positive, the highest rating since the last embarrassing round of media campaigning for Clinton in 1992.
Perhaps most amazing is the networks' remarkable turnaround on coverage of the economy. The CMPA found 98 percent of economic evaluations in 1992 were negative, even as the economy began to grow strongly out of recession. In 1996, the network reports on the economy have been 91 percent positive.
This is especially fascinating when you consider Professor Ted Smith's book "The Vanishing Economy." Smith found as the economy reached historic levels of growth and prosperity from 1982 to 1987, the amount of economic reporting on the networks dropped by two-thirds and the tone grew even more negative - seven negative stories for every one positive.
The morning after the last debate, CNN's Judy Woodruff told Don Imus that the charge of liberal bias is a "golden oldie." My god. It's not enough to support Bill Clinton - they're now quoting him word for word.