The previous kausfiles item suggested that the past few days would be something of a test of press behavior. If reporters failed to hammer Gore over his fibbing in the first debate, then they were showing all the symptoms of “liberal bias,” or at least pro-Democrat bias. If they hammered Gore, that would be some proof of their neutrality–a herdlike, cyclical, irrational neutrality, perhaps, but one that could be explained by nonideological principles (like the principle that reporters pick on one stereotypical flaw in each candidate).
So how did the experiment turn out? You can judge as well as I can, but I would say that–with one glaring exception–the Liberal Bias theory was not borne out. Gore got hammered pretty hard on his embellishments. The Washington Post ran a thorough story on Page One on Sunday. Time and Newsweek devoted their political columns (by Margaret Carlson and Jonathan Alter) to the subject. In a Saturday conference call with reporters that was supposed to discuss education, Gore instead got an interrogation on exaggeration. For about three or four days, Gore’s fibbing was Topic A.
I say that’s enough. It’s especially enough, as one kausfiles reader noted, because reporters are probably more reluctant to go on howling wolf-pack jags against one candidate in the final weeks of a campaign for fear of throwing the election (or being accused of throwing the election). You might call this the Endgame Proviso to all theories of pack press behavior.
You could preserve Liberal Bias theory by arguing that the press only went after Gore because it was bending over backwards to compensate for its innate favoritism, or because it wanted to quiet critics of that favoritism. That’s possible. But the possibility probably won’t do much to console Gore, whose poll ratings fell measurably while all those backs were bending back. At best, this gambit saves Lib Bias theory from having been disproved; it will take another experiment to provide affirmative evidence.
Now, about that exception: The exception is the New York Times. The Times initially blew off the “embellishment issue,” then ran two pieces on the subject, on Friday and Sunday. One of them– Friday’s–was pretty hard on Gore. But they both ran at the bottom of page A-26, in the armpit of the paper.
Some veteran Times readers tell me, in effect, “Of course they ran on page A-26. That’s where the Times runs all its interesting stories!” Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps hardened Times readers, like consumers of Pravda in Communist Russia, know instinctively to flip right past the first 25 pages of each issue and focus with laserlike intensity on the bottom of page A-26, where the real front-page news is. Perhaps the Times’ bizarre editorial priorities–which give Page-One play to a weak piece by Todd Purdum on the “gender gap” but relegate Berke’s anti-Gore piece to A-26–reflect not Lib Bias but some peculiar, bureaucratic cultural quirk or simply erratic editing. Whatever the reason, stories at the bottom of page A-26 don’t drive the TV network’s news coverage the way stories approved by Times editors and showcased on the front page do.
The A-26 rule works! Armed with my new knowledge of the Secret A-26 Rule, I open this morning’s Times in the middle. Hmmm, the A-section is short today, so A-26 is the editorial page. Let’s look a few pages earlier, in the armpit. Sure enough, on the bottom of page A-24 there’s a report on the juicy “campaign mole” inquiry. On page A-23, at the bottom, there is a genuinely significant story about conservatives who are blasting GOP vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney for all the tolerant things he said about gay marriages in his debate.
Why wasn’t that story on the front page? If the Times really were biased to the left, you might think they’d want to play this controversy up big–after all, the story would not only hurt Bush, putting him on the spot and reminding New York voters of the more moralistic elements of his coalition, but it would play to New Yorkers’ effete stereotypes about those moralistic elements. It’s almost as if this buried story removes the Times, too, from the lineup of Lib Bias suspects.
But it doesn’t. There’s an internal bureaucratic explanation, which is that in its original Oct. 6 piece on the debates, the Times never reported Cheney’s tolerant comments. That’s right–the part of the debate that most convincingly got across the idea that Cheney wasn’t so bad, and that was guaranteed to set off a storm of criticism, wasn’t mentioned in about 60 inches of coverage. Readers of the Times news pages never learned of it. Naturally the editors might not have wanted to advertise their mistake by giving Page-One play to a report on the huge controversy caused by remarks they hadn’t deemed important enough to report in the first place.
So is the Times just incompetent? It might be one thing for reporter Kevin Sack to miss the significance of Cheney’s remarks. But presumably dozens of his Times editors were also watching the debate and could have stepped in to correct the glaring omission.
Or was the Times reluctant to publicize things about Cheney that might make him more appealing to its readers? Subconsciously reluctant, of course! It wasn’t the Cheney the Times was expecting, so it somehow wasn’t detected as “news.”
Amazingly, neither Sack nor the Times reported the other obvious high point of Cheney’s performance, namely his quick, genial, ad-lib comeback when Lieberman joked about getting a job in the private sector. (Cheney said he was “going to try to help” Lieberman do just that.)
Liberal Bias theory is alive, alive!
Today’s hot tip: When betting on Wednesday night’s second presidential debate, in which each candidate will try to counteract the bad impression he made in the previous encounter, consider this: Won’t it be easier for Gore to show he can be nice than for Bush to show he can be smart?