The Earthling

Newspaper Positions Itself as Cynical 

There was a time—it seems like only yesterday—when a presidential candidate could lambaste the drug industry and expect the New York Times to run a headline like, “Presidential Candidate Lambastes Drug Industry.” But that was before an arms race in cynicism swept the world of elite newspapers. These days, a presidential candidate can expect to get the headline that appeared on the front page of Saturday’s New York Times: “Gore Tries Pitching Himself As Drug Industry Opponent.”

Now, when it comes to cynicism, I take a back seat to no one. If I had a dollar for every snide thing I’ve written about a politician, I could afford to live on what Slate pays me. But those snide things have appeared as commentary in various avowedly opinionated rags, not as reportage in august newspapers. It seems to me that if you’re going to put out a newspaperespecially the newspaper of record—you should have rules governing the cynicism in your headlines. For example: The accompanying story should support the cynicism.

God knows the article in Saturday’s Times, written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, does its best. It says up high that Gore has “cast himself [emphasis added] as a longtime critic” of excessive drug prices. But the article then has to confront an inconvenient fact: Gore is a longtime critic of excessive drug prices. Stolberg herself concedes that Gore’s position dates back “to his days as a young Tennessee congressman.” So, how does a reporter bent on maintaining the obligatory air of cynicism proceed in the face of this bothersome ideological consistency?

First, make the ideological consistency itself sound vaguely opportunistic. Stolberg’s third paragraph begins, “So Mr. Gore is dusting off his Congressional record and past speeches to stake out policies at odds with the manufacturers.” Ah, he’s a wily one, that Gore—recycling old convictions! And “staking out” policy positions that were already grounded in those convictions!

Second, hint at contradictions without documenting any. “A review of his record, though, and a detailed talk with the vice president make clear that his views are more nuanced than his languages suggests.” Imagine—nuance. And in a presidential candidate, no less! But what exactly does “nuance” mean? Does Gore have views or past utterances that contradict anything he has said lately? The article gives no example of any. Instead, we get sentences like this: “And while he argued for greater disclosure of the industry’s pricing practices, the vice president allowed that some information probably should remain proprietary.” Yep, that’s nuance. Book him, Dano.

The indictment also includes this point: “And some of the same drug makers that Mr. Gore now criticizes have hired his friends and advisers to represent them as lobbyists.” So what was Gore supposed to do? Have these friends killed? Couldn’t a reporter just as logically look at these facts and laud Gore for resisting the pressure of his lobbyist friends?

And, finally: “Mr. Gore has also been a strong supporter of the biotechnology industry, which through collaborations and mergers is becoming part of the prescription-drug business.” Yes, a man truly qualified to be president would have anticipated these collaborations and mergers and withheld support for biotech research in light of its impending association with evil corporations. (To do anything less is evidence of nuance!) Or, he could have just waited for the biotech companies to be acquired by the big pharmaceuticals and then have them killed along with those friends of his that the pharmaceutical industry also acquired.

Y ou may think I’ve carefully culled a few weak sentences from a long, generally strong piece. But these sentences appear almost consecutively at the piece’s outset. (Read them in context.) And the rest of the piece never gives us reason to doubt the conviction behind Gore’s opening allegation that drug companies are “gouging” consumers. In fact, Gore provides specific examples in which he thinks drug prices are unwarranted (e.g., when the drugs are developed with the help of government subsidy, but the companies get normal patent protection and the taxpayers who supported the research get no piece of the action). All the Times article winds up establishing is that Gore doesn’t think all drug pricing is “gouging.” Then again, he never said he did.

Do I doubt that political calculation shaped Gore’s recent remarks on “gouging”? No. In fact, I don’t doubt that political calculation—whether conscious or unconscious—shapes a good part of everyday life on this planet. So much so, in fact, that a newspaper just can’t afford to go around speculating about it all the time. (“With Amistad, Spielberg Aims To Burnish Liberal Credentials.”) The responsible thing to do, it seems to me, is for newspapers to save their cynicism for cases in which people are manifestly hypocritical, doing or saying things that are clearly at odds with what they’ve done or said in the past. If Gore’s record on drug prices contains such examples, the Times didn’t find them.

By the way, if you turn to the jump page, you’ll find—right there under the jump head “Gore Promotes Himself as Industry Opponent”—that Gore champions a far-reaching Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens. Oops—I mean “Gore is positioning himself as a champion of a far-reaching Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens.” Pardon my uncool naiveté.