Nothing makes a reporter cringe more than a critic’s blanket statement about “the media” that begins with an assumption that all reporters march in lockstep, taking their directives from some Central Media Brain that dictates how stories are to be covered. Reality, as it almost always is, is a little more complicated than that—but nuance doesn’t play well to partisan audiences, which just so happens to be the kind of audience that eats charges like this up. The fact is, some reporters are liberal, some are conservative, and some are just plain bad. (Most, however, are dedicated, imperfect souls doing a very difficult job.)
That said, there are times when reporters—particularly political reporters—fall into the trap of relying on conventional wisdom, and allow their work to be driven by preconceived notions of who or what a politician is, even if those notions are vastly oversimplified and even inaccurate. And the more these ideas show up in print, the more the world of political reporting coalesces around them. The pack is a powerful thing.
Political reporting too often paints one-dimensional portraits of politicians in order to fit their personalities into tidy little boxes suitable for the daily deadlines. Take Al Gore, for instance. Admittedly, he made himself a pretty easy target in the 2000 presidential race—all stiffness and sighs and ham-handed calculation—but in many cases, reporters failed to push beyond the obvious.
In the September/October 2000 issue of CJR, Jane Hall dissected the coverage of Gore, referring to a study by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism that found that during five different weeks between February and June 2000, “a whopping 76 percent of the coverage included one of two themes: that Gore lies and exaggerates or is marred by scandal. The most common theme about Bush, the study found, is that he is a “different kind of Republican.”” As Bob Somerby has pointed out, in August 2000, The Financial Times wrote that “The Gore media…sometimes appears to step over the line in its pursuit of critical coverage,” and that The Washington Post’s Ceci Connelly, The New York Times’ Katharine Seelye, and the AP’s Sandra Sobieraj were “perhaps the most influential reporters on the Gore campaign…They can also be the most hostile to the campaign, doing little to hide their contempt for the candidate.”
Another example of the political press’s collective personal disdain for Gore came during the Democratic debate at Dartmouth College in 1999, where, as Time magazine pointed out, “The 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out by [him]…Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd.” Did that animus translate into negative coverage? Google some stories from the 2000 campaign and you tell me.
But why all this focus on Gore, when surely other politicians—yes, including president Bush—have been unfairly painted with the same overly broad brush? It’s all due to a little item by Dana Milbank in Wednesday’s Washington Post, where he recycles all that was rotten in the coverage of Gore in 2000. You remember the script: Gore is “cold.” Gore is “stiff.” Gore is “pretentious.” While he at times was all these things, many reporters covering the campaign seemed to delight in these caricatures, and as a result, they got played to the hilt.
Milbank gives us an account of a recent speech by Gore that reads almost like a parody of everything we read about the candidate back in ‘00.
Milbank said that during the speech, Gore “waxed esoteric,” “waxed erudite,” and “waxed informed,” as if these might be bad things to have happen during a speech. Milbank then quotes several audience members who gush over how smart Gore is, concluding that “therein lies a problem for the Gore ‘08 bubble.” Can’t be too smart, now, or else you’ll look like an egghead, right?
Compounding his sins, according to Milbank, Gore mentioned too many historical figures: “Imagine the Iowa hog farmer cracking open “Assault on Reason,” and meeting Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Lippmann, Johannes Gutenberg, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson and Marshall McLuhan — all before finishing the introduction.” Milbank—who has made a career of skewering pomposity—lets his own elitism get the better of him here; he might be surprised to find out that even an “Iowa hog farmer” might have heard of one or two of these guys. And if they haven’t, well, since most people read books to learn stuff, one can assume that they picked up Gore’s book for a reason.
Making this point in his own way, Milbank says that “the crowd loved it. But would the ‘average American?’”
When reporters at places like the Post start acting like they know what’s up with the “average American,” we’re headed for trouble. Milbank is trafficking in a portrayal of Gore that was almost entirely invented by the press, and, given that seven years later the press appears unable to move beyond that caricature, perhaps we’ll all be better off if Gore doesn’t run.