In the filing center and food tent at last night’s debate, reporters argued with each other over whether their coverage, overall, had been “biased” in favor of Gore. There are, roughly, two competing theories on this issue, familiar by now even to non-reporters:
- The Cyclical Theory holds that reporters do periodically gang up on one candidate or the other. They build a nominee up, then they tear him down. In a more sophisticated variation, they initially follow the polls–so that when Candidate A is up, the journalistic herd looks for an explanation of why he’s up, and he gets good press for a while, until reporters need a new story to tell and look for an opportunity to chop him up and boost his opponent, starting the cycle again. This cycle of coverage may be stupid and predictable, the theory goes, but it’s stupid and predictable in an ideologically neutral way. (For a sample of a Cyclical Theorist at work, see this Dana Milbank piece.)
- The more traditional Liberal Bias Theory holds that reporters, perhaps without even realizing it, tend to have worldviews that favor Democrats–and this shows, sometimes not-so-subtly, in their coverage. (Here’s a Charles Krauthammer column propounding the Liberal Bias view.)
I don’t want to weigh in again on this hoary issue. I want to resolve it. By scientific means! At least I want to suggest that it may be resolved in the next few days, because the circumstances are in place for an almost clinical trial of the two competing theories.
Up to this point in the campaign, after all, both theories have plausibly explained the press herd’s actual behavior. That behavior can be characterized roughly as one big cycle. The press hounded Gore and built up Bush in the early months of 2000; then it built up Gore (and hounded Bush) after the rise in Gore’s poll standing that followed his convention speech. Cyclical Theorists could argue that the wheel will probably turn again–but if it doesn’t, well, the coverage roughly balanced out, since Gore had his bad weeks and Bush had his bad weeks. Lib Bias theorists could argue, with equal power, that a cycle in which Gore gets his good weeks at the end, when it counts, isn’t exactly incompatible with the idea that reporters are following subconscious orders to elect Gore.
Now, though, we’re at a fairly key moment in the campaign where the two theories would predict sharply divergent press behavior. I’m referring to the controversy–or, rather, potential controversy–over Gore’s debate statement regarding his response to the fires in Parker County, Texas, and his experiences with James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whom Bush had praised. What Gore said last night was:
First I want to compliment the governor on his response to those fires and floods in Texas. I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out.
If there was one bit of ironclad press wisdom before the debates, it was that Gore couldn’t afford another fiblet, another self-serving exaggeration. After all, the stumble most likely to be reported and magnified in the press, we’re told, is the stumble that reflects a candidate’s stereotyped fatal flaw–and the cliché flaw for Gore is that he exaggerates. (Bush’s cliché flaw is dimness.) A fib would be just the sort of thing to jump-start an anti-Gore press cycle–indeed, when Gore told a fib about his dog’s arthritis medicine two weeks ago, it almost did jump-start an anti-Gore cycle. But not quite. One more exaggeration and it would be Katie-bar-the-door! If you were Gore’s adviser, one of the three or four things you’d have told him before the debate was “Don’t fib.”
So what did Gore do? He fibbed. It turns out he didn’t “accompany James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out,” an anecdote that left viewers with a mental image of Gore surveying the fire zone from a helicopter. At best, he traveled to Houston, made some remarks at the airport, and (along with attending local political events) met with “the head of the Texas emergency management folks and with all the federal emergency management folks,” as Gore now puts it. But not with Witt, apparently. “If James Lee was there before or after, then, you know, I got that wrong then,” Gore now admits. (See this AP story.)
OK, media, over to you! If there is an ideologically neutral press cycle, the Witt Fib should certainly set it off. The Cyclical Theory would predict a mini-orgy of Gore-trashing stories, emphasizing the serial, obsessive nature of the fibs, pointing out that by now the issue isn’t whether the fibbing is important, but why Gore persists in fibbing when he knows that whether it’s important or not he has to stop or else the press will treat it as important! It’s as if Gore were told that whatever he did at the debate he shouldn’t hop up and down on one foot and he’d gone and hopped up and down on one foot. It’s as if Gary Hart had gone home with yet another babe after the Donna Rice incident! Put another way, the question isn’t whether Gore’s a liar and whether that’s worse than Bush being dim; it’s whether Gore’s lying shows that, in some respects, he’s a bit dim too.
If the Liberal Bias Theory is correct, however, the predicted mini-orgy, the anti-Gore cycle, won’t happen. Reporters will for one reason or another pass off the Witt Fib as a non-story. It will play deep inside the New York Times and Washington Post. It won’t be featured on the nightly news or in the newsweeklies. The last-straw lie will mysteriously become a next-to-last straw lie. If he lies again, then we’ll nail him! That’s the ticket! Anyway, we don’t harp on stereotyped flaws anymore! That’s old news–the voters have processed it!
Which will it be? As this item is written, it’s shortly before midnight on Wednesday, Oct. 4. The dailies come online in a few minutes. The newsweeklies get written a day from now. Only time will tell! But not much time. Does the press herd target Democrats and Republicans randomly? Or is even the dynamiting of a large boulder unable to start an avalanche against a Democrat in the waning weeks of a close campaign?
Note: The other promising potential Gore exaggeration, which Republicans and Gore skeptics hoped might flower into a full-fledged fib, was the vice president’s debate assertion that, during World War I in Europe, “My uncle was a victim of poison gas.” A few reporters chuckled and made notes to themselves to check out this story–mighty convenient having an illustrative uncle, don’t you think? But it is apparently true.