Bad news blackout

National | Al Gore has had a difficult month, but viewers wouldn't know it by watching the big-network news programs

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

Are the news media favoring Al Gore over George W. Bush as Election Day draws near? Yes, even according to Democratic political specialist Charles Cook. From his perch at National Journal magazine, the CNN regular and publisher of the Cook Political Report declared: "When Gore took off in the polls, it seemed like a firehouse bell going off, with reporters larding their stories with their own ideological biases. It was not a pretty sight." A poll by Editor & Publisher magazine, which covers the newspaper industry, discovered "almost two-thirds of those who perceive bias feel that the candidate who has been 'favored' is: Al Gore. Surprisingly, many Democrats, along with Republicans, feel this way." Coming out of the Democratic convention, Mr. Gore's coverage grew much more positive, leaving all the usual complaints about his stiffness and awkwardness behind. By contrast, coverage of George W. Bush grew negative, constantly questioning his leadership ability, his negative arguments, and his verbal miscues. The networks even devoted 11 stories to the strange Democratic claim that the Bush campaign emphasized the word rats out of bureaucrats in a health care ad to make a subliminal attack. As reporters took out the microscopes to scrutinize one-thirtieth of a second of a GOP ad while hailing Mr. Gore's fall momentum, reporters kept that momentum alive by leaving the embarrassing Gore-Lieberman news stories behind, according to a review of ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC evening and morning news programs. Example after example piled up.

  • On Aug. 28, The Washington Post reported that Joe Lieberman declared in a black church that Clinton and Gore were comparable to Moses: "You might say the Red Sea finally parted, and more Americans than ever before walked through behind President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore." Did Moses fraternize with interns? Was President Bush Pharaoh? Despite Mr. Lieberman's odd comparison, it drew nothing on TV except a question on CBS's Face the Nation.
  • Two days later, The Washington Times reported: " The woman who sharply questioned Vice President Al Gore at a town-hall meeting about Juanita Broaddrick's rape accusation against President Clinton" has become the subject of a tax inquiry by the IRS. "I find it very suspicious," said Katherine Prudhomme, who asked Mr. Gore the uncomfortable questions. "I feel like I'm being harassed." Network coverage? Zero.
  • On Sept. 6, The Washington Times reported on its front page: "A top Democratic fundraiser targeted by the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force on possible criminal charges in the sale of missile-related expertise to China has donated $734,500 to Democrats for the 2000 campaign." The Times found no Republican donations from Loral chairman Bernard Schwartz. Network coverage? Zero.
  • Also that day, Gore staffers refused to allow wheelchair-bound Flint, Mich., reporter Chris Swiatecki to follow the motor pool in his car, or ride in the press van. Imagine the press coverage if George W. Bush denied access to a disabled reporter. Network coverage? Only Fox News Channel covered it.
  • Mr. Gore irked veterans by skipping the American Legion's national convention, a bipartisan tradition among presidential candidates since the 1920s. In 1996, network reporters pounded Bob Dole for skipping the NAACP convention, despite its obviously Democratic orientation. But only Fox News Channel covered this story. Two nights later, NBC Nightly News did cover the convention, with a liberal spin. Hillary Lane championed "Another sign of progress. Last week at its convention in Milwaukee, the American Legion voted to urge Congress to lift trade sanctions against Cuba as that nation becomes less repressive."
  • On Sept. 14, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department was conducting an investigation into whether Mr. Gore made a quid pro quo fundraising call-assuring a presidential veto of tort reform in exchange for large soft-money donations from Texas trial lawyers. (The Justice Department later denied the Times report.) Just two days after the networks jumped on the Times' rats story, they all fell silent on the fundraising charges. If the prospect of presidential vetoes for sale seems unimportant, consider what ABC's World News Tonight aired instead that night. ABC led with two minutes on a General Accounting Office report on the increase in advertising in schools, gave almost three minutes to discrimination against Aborigines in Australia, and devoted over two minutes to a critical look at Dick Cheney's campaigning skills. (Linda Douglass reported: "Cheney did not accept the premise that he got off to a rocky start with a spate of negative news stories about his multi-million-dollar stock options and his failure to vote in local elections in Texas.") Peter Jennings even added 42 seconds on how NATO bombing "stressed out" bees in Macedonia so they are producing less honey.
  • On Sept. 18, Boston Globe reporter Walter V. Robinson found that at a seniors event in August "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 the Gore family does 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," Mr. Robinson reported. The story broke on a Monday morning, but CBS was the first to discover it, on Wednesday night, with NBC airing it the next day. ABC's Terry Moran prepared a story, but the network only used it on a middle-of-the-night newscast. All the networks gave Gore aides a chance to dig Mr. Gore out of his made-up story. (On Sept. 22, the Globe's Robinson returned to rebut Mr. Gore's claims that the larger point was still valid, that it's unfair that humans pay more for the same drug given to their pets. Mr. Robinson found the comparison wanting since Washington attorney/ pharmacist Kathleen Jaeger found that of the top 100 brand-name drugs in worldwide sales, only five are prescribed for both humans and animals. Mr. Robinson added that even the Democratic report Mr. Gore used to make up his family's drug costs declared that only eight of the 200 bestsellers covered both species. ABC, CBS, and NBC didn't follow up on this.)
  • On the campaign trail in Las Vegas on Sept. 18, Mr. 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 Mr. Gore was 27. The cable networks covered the gaffe, and Gore aides claimed 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 tall tale with the dog-drug story, but ABC and CBS left the gaffes on the cutting-room floor.
  • Later that day at a $4.2 million Hollywood fundraiser, one-time Hollywood critic Joe Lieberman went soft in front of Democratic donors: "We will never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will noodge you, but will never become censors." This retreat drew fire from the Republicans, even longtime Lieberman ally Bill Bennett, who had spent weeks praising the Connecticut senator's integrity. But Mr. Lieberman's remarks and Mr. Bennett's response were a complete non-starter with ABC, CBS, or NBC. (See WORLD's interview, pp. 25-27.)

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