The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 2: The Opponent


That’s probably not a word that Al Gore had heard applied to himself very often prior to 2000, at least no more often than your average politician. But by the time the Karl Rove juggernaut was through, it was his official brand. Rather than trying to engage him on the issues or even on the actual features of his character or his record, Team Rove wisely recast him in the public eye with a single, simple epithet (a service they also would perform four years later for John “Flip-Flopper” Kerry): Liar, liar, liar.

In fairness, Rove and Company didn’t really invent the image of Gore as serial prevaricator; the media had already been kicking its tires for a while before the 2000 open season on Gore officially began. But Rove et al certainly took advantage of it; in one debate Dubya even piously admonished Gore to “tell the truth” – advice that he didn’t exactly practice very diligently himself. To whatever extent the Bush-Rove propaganda machine helped, Gore’s alleged dishonesty was the second most frequent theme the media applied to him during his presidential campaign (the most frequent being that he was “scandal tainted”, whatever that means). He was, in propaganda parlance, completely re-framed.

And here’s the really cool part. This was accomplished without producing even one single bona fide lie Gore had told.

That might surprise you if you paid any attention at all to the media during that election season. You surely heard about, and probably even recall, a great deal of discussion about Gore’s “lies” – one boastful whopper in particular. But on closer inspection, each “lie” turned out to be a distortion crafted by Team Rove and/or their accomplices in the Republican party and the mainstream media. It’s worth revisiting some of these “lies”, because they provide excellent textbook illustrations of how to take a rather harmless fact and, by tweaking it a bit, transform it into a blatant distortion, and a potent bit of propaganda.

Here, then, are a few of the most frequently recounted Gore “lies”:

This has come to be not only one of the most notorious lies but one of the most famous quotes by a politician ever. Trouble is, he never said it. What he said was “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. ” Some of his detractors have hedged their bets by declaring that “create” and “invent” are synonyms. But that’s true only in certain circumstances. A chef might go into the kitchen and create a chocolate cake, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean that he invented it. If I design a spaceship and hire you as the shop foreman when the prototype is built, I wouldn’t get mad if you claimed you took the initiative in creating it. In Gore’s case, he pushed as a legislator to help make the Internet (which wasn’t even called the Internet yet) available to the public. Vinton Cerf, hailed as the “Father of the Internet”, has publicly praised the former V.P. for his efforts in that regard. So, for that matter, has former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, an extreme right-wing Republican. Cerf personally presented Gore with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for three decades of effort in shepherding this technology to life. The event barely made a blip on the media’s radar.

During his Harvard days, Al was acquainted with Erich Segal, future author of “Love Story”, and was a roommate of future Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones (who would make his screen debut in the 1970 film adaptation of the novel). In an article in a Tennessee newspaper, Segal stated that he based the lead character on both young men, and when the paper reported this, it also incorrectly suggested that the female lead was based on Al’s wife, Tipper. When Al relayed this account, he was of course relying on sloppy journalism. (Is there such a thing? Heaven forbid!) But as far as the media were concerned, it was “another bizarre fabrication” by a pathological fibber.

During the first presidential debate, Gore illustrated the problem of underfunded schools by describing how classes were so crowded at Sarasota High School in Florida that a student named Kailey Ellis had to stand to class. He was correct that at one time she’d had to stand in class, but since he received that news, circumstances had changed. “Ah ha!” Screamed the the media in chorus. “Another bald-faced lie!” They had no problem with Bush stating that Social Security is not a federal program, but when Gore used the wrong verb tense, they went into a frenzy. And in all the brouhaha, the real issue got completely swept aside.

While addressing a group of high school students in Concord, NH, Gore was speaking about the importance of environmental activism and activism in general, when he related how as a congressman he had received a letter from a student in Tennessee about toxic waste that piqued his interest in the subject, and it inspired him to find more problem sites to investigate, including Love Canal in New York. “That was the one that started it all”, he said of the obscure site in Tennessee. The very next day, the media reported that he had said “I was the one that started it all”, as if he had invented not only the Internet, but toxic cleanup as well. The Republican National Committee gleefully circulated the quote, after altering it to “I was the one who started it all”. (Perhaps they wanted to make certain his grammar was correct so he wouldn’t be confused with their boy.) The media not only bandied this one about endlessly, but also interpreted his statement about learning about Love Canal (for himself) as discovering Love Canal (for everyone).

In a speech, Al expressed his pro-union sympathies by joking that when he was a child, he was sung “Look for the Union Label” as a lullaby. “Ah ha!” screamed the gotcha crowd. “That song wasn’t written until he was a grown man.” The obvious fact that it was an obvious joke totally eluded them, even though he had made the same joke many times before.

Also during the first debate, Gore mentioned that he had traveled to Texas on a certain date to view wildfire damage, accompanied by James Witt, head of FEMA. He hadn’t. But he had traveled with Witt on 17 other occasions, so it’s easy to see how they might all blur together. And he promptly corrected his own mistake, but by then the wildfire of his latest alleged whopper was already raging out of control.

And so it went. According to a review by two non-partisan groups (Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Research Center), a whopping 76% of the media’s coverage of Gore in early 2000 was based on his “lies” or “scandals”. Meanwhile, Dubya uttered a number of factual inaccuracies (deliberate and otherwise) that went all but unnoticed. They did not concern his inspiration for fictitious characters or what lullabies he was exposed to or even anything so monumental as his sex life. But they did deal with boring matters like military operations and his own tax plan. In one debate, he even claimed responsibility as governor of Texas for passage of a patients’ rights bill; in truth, the measure passed despite his veto. And what was the most frequent media theme about him? That he was “a different kind of Republican”.

Why the disparity? Especially given that we all know there is an overwhelming “liberal bias” (wink wink) in the mainstream media. Did the media just have it in for Gore for some reason? Well, that certainly appears to have been the case, even though a majority of major American newspapers did endorse him – the first time that had happened to a Democrat in 40 years (i.e., since JFK). As Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson commented, “But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.” So entertaining, evidently, that they were willing to do the work of coming up with the whoppers for him.

But there is perhaps another explanation. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman made this mind-blowing admission: “I don’t think the media was going to allow, just by its nature, the next seven weeks, the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign, to be all about Al Gore’s relentless, triumphant march to the presidency. We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it’s that we like to see a contest and we like to see it down to the end if we can.”

If that was the strategy, it certainly appears to have worked. Whenever Gore would surge ahead in the polls, a new revelation about his latest “lie” would pull him back down again. There is little doubt that by relentlessly painting him as dishonest – even if they themselves had to be dishonest to do it – the media made the election much closer than it otherwise would have been. And set the stage for the Bizarro planet post-election showdown that was to come.

(Next: What the media ignored)


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