Perhaps more than ever before, this year's mainstream media coverage of the presidential race is all about image: how it is created by candidates, manipulated by spin doctors and perceived by the public. Lost in all of this is nearly any substantial examination of each candidate's policies or how they would affect the public.
Of course, when all that matters is image, journalists have a whole lot of power. This power has been clearly demonstrated in the national news media's curious predilection to falsely attribute damning statements to Vice President Al Gore--and then use those very same inventions to question his integrity.
The most recent example of this was all the attention devoted in December to Gore's alleged claim to have first exposed Love Canal, the infamous toxic subdivision in upstate New York. It all started with a speech the vice president gave to a group of Concord, New Hampshire high school students on November 30. Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post reported on it this way: "Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste. 'I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,' he said. ... 'I was the one who started it all.' " The New York Times printed the same quote.
The Republican National Committee quickly jumped on the story and issued a press release. "It's a pattern of phoniness," RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson said. "It would be funny if it weren't also a little scary." The pundits then chimed in. On CNBC's Hardball, Chris Matthews sneered: "He's now the guy who created the Love Canal. ... I mean, isn't this getting ridiculous? ... Isn't it getting to be delusionary?" ABC's Cokie Roberts, George Stephanopoulos and Bill Kristol followed suit, as did the editorial writers at the New York Post, the Buffalo News and the Washington Times.
There's just one problem: Gore never said it. Instead, he told the story of a girl from Toone, Tennessee, who alerted him in the late '70s to the problems of a local toxic waste dump. "I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tennessee--that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
Robert Parry reports in his magazine American Dispatches that Concord High School students themselves lobbied the Post and the Times to admit their mistakes. After balking, both papers eventually published decontextualized retractions. "They fixed how they misquoted him, but they didn't tell the whole story," Lindsey Roy, a Concord High junior, told Parry.
Yet even after this correction, the Love Canal "gaffe" continued to echo. It was mentioned in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and The National Journal (and even In These Times). The misquote was added to the list of Gore's earlier "gaffes"--his claims to be the inspiration for a main character in Love Story and inventor of the Internet, for instance--that were exaggerated to ridicule him. Few bothered to compare these statements with the truth: Love Story author Erich Segal did partly model the main male character on Gore, and the vice president did play a leading role as a congressman in supporting the development of the Internet. But that didn't stop the Providence Journal from proclaiming: "Perhaps it is time to wonder what it is that impels Vice President Gore to make such preposterous claims, time and again."
Perhaps it is. This entire episode raises troubling questions about this year's election and the health of our democracy. The point isn't that Gore would necessarily make a good president, or even that he's the only one getting a raw deal. (Consider this recent New York Times headline: "Bush loses luster in a poll as Gore sheds poor image.") Rather, how can voters have any hope of expressing an informed judgment when the media, instead of challenging the candidates on where they would lead this country, just obsess over their flubs and blunders?