After months of winking at George W. Bush's supposedly oxymoronic phrase "compassionate conservatism," the media are trying to whistle past an embarrassing example of uncompassionate liberalism.
Al Gore rents out a house on his estate in Carthage,Tenn. The Mayberrys, a poor family that lives off Social Security disability payments (but won't take welfare or food stamps), with a father who can't work and five children (two of them disabled), couldn't get Mr. Gore or his property managers to fix their broken toilets and other household debacles. After months of complaints from the mother, Tracy Mayberry, Gore Realty didn't send a plumber. It sent an eviction notice. So Mrs. Mayberry went to a Nashville TV station and called Mr. Gore a "slumlord." Then, suddenly Mr. Gore apologized and promised to find the family a place to stay while his people made repairs.
You can just imagine the adrenaline rush this would give the national media if the landlord were a Republican politician. Network reporters would stand in front of the broken toilets and deliver sorrowful lectures on hard times in "the other America." But in Mr. Gore's case, the media weren't interested.
Twelve years ago, network newshounds leaped on Dan Quayle's decades-old Vietnam draft record, sniffing for the slightest hint of defense-hawk hypocrisy. But when Al Gore's abstract anti-poverty crusading collided with real-life indifference to poor people, putting off poor tenants who claim he never returns waves at his limousine, the hounds took a nap.
Even some liberal pundits saw a partisan bias. "If this had been a Republican, people would have been crying 'slumlord,'" admitted National Public Radio's Juan Williams. "That would be the headline: 'Slumlord.' And a man who doesn't take care of the little people."
The story broke on a Saturday morning, June 3, with an Associated Press dispatch. The Washington Post and The New York Times buried the AP story deep inside their Sunday papers. NBC's Sunday Today aired a few seconds and CNN's Inside Politics spent 38 seconds on it Monday afternoon. (Unlike Fox News Channel, neither even bothered to offer video of the crumbling Mayberry manse.) With the exception of FNC, there has been no other national coverage. ABC's Good Morning America even interviewed Mr. Gore days later without a single landlord question.
This wasn't a one-day story, either. Several days later, Mrs. Mayberry was unhappy again, threatening to sue, saying that Mr. Gore's property manager Charles Elrod "told me I'm a nasty housekeeper." (In other situations, liberals call this "blaming the victim.") Mr. Gore did not find a house for the Mayberrys during repairs, so Mrs. Mayberry said she's planning to send the kids to her mother's while she and her husband live in their truck. These details would have been too juicy to ignore if Mr. Gore were the GOP nominee. But the lack of coverage suggested the media felt this story was "a tempest in a toilet," as Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass jokingly called it.
The networks' apathy on this story stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of President Bush, including a false New York Times story in 1992 that the elder Bush seemed impressed by a regular supermarket scanner, and network needling over his decision to appear like a man of the people in November 1991 by buying socks and a sweatshirt at J.C. Penney.
On the December 1, 1991, edition of ABC's This Week, Sam Donaldson gibed: "Couldn't he have done a little better? I'd like to see him buy a car, an American car, you know.... I'd like him to go every day or something, but the fact is, George Bush must do something more than just go to the J.C. Penney. He's got to announce some sort of administration plan to-using that old phrase-get this economy moving again."
With the exception of Fox, the national media may produce a year full of convenient media blackouts for Mr. Gore. Not only can he stiff-arm his Tennessee tenants, he can also discover that more than a year of his White House e-mails (sought by investigators) have mysteriously vanished through computer errors. Former White House official Sheryl Hall asserted that the e-mails contained messages about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the purloined Republican FBI files, the campaign-finance scandal, and the political exploitation of Commerce Department trade junkets. But the media aired next to nothing.
Newsweek can report that he came within a sliver of being assigned an independent counsel for his duties as "solicitor-in-chief"-and that one Justice Department attorney found in his actions "a classic white-collar [crime] scenario"-and the media reaction is a few timid sentences, if anything at all.
Walter Cronkite used to boast of straightforwardly reporting the news "and letting the chips fall where they may." In the Clinton-Gore era, reporters try to catch the chips before they fall, and bury them from public view.