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Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2000/ 3 Tishrei, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

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Slanted to the Left -- WHEN THE SUBJECT of liberal bias in the media is brought up, particularly during an election campaign, journalists tend to roll their eyes and groan "there you go again" at this recrudescence of an old right-wing shibboleth. This pose, while convenient, was shaken by a famous Roper poll of 139 Washington bureau chiefs and correspondents. It found that in 1992 they had voted 89 percent for Clinton, 7 percent for Bush. Regular Americans had voted Clinton over Bush, 43 percent to 38 percent. The country went marginally for Clinton; the journalists went for him 13 to 1.

In other words, for every seven Bush voters among the American people, there were eight Clinton voters. But for every seven Bush voters in the Washington media, there were 89 for Clinton. Margins of victory that lopsided are rarely seen this side of Syria. Party registration numbers were just as impressively lopsided: 50 percent Democratic, 4 percent Republican.

The standard response is that these affiliations or predilections do not influence coverage. For some journalists with superhuman self-control, I'm sure this is true. Most journalists, alas, are not superhuman. Which is why the bias issue keeps recurring.

It was most recently raised by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. His report was admirably evenhanded, but one has to be impressed when so fair-minded and well-regarded an analyst as Charles Cook observes that the past month's press coverage has been larded with pro-Gore ideological bias: "It was not a pretty sight."

Indeed. The most notorious example occurred in the New York Times. It has been widely cited (by the Weekly Standard and Kurtz, among others) for its astonishing editorial decision to put on the front page a two-week-old story about the RATS commercial. On the other hand, the Times relegated Gore's concoction about his mother-in-law, arthritis medicine and his dog--part of his anti-Big Pharm demagoguery--to Page A18. And that story opens: "The Republicans continued a sharp assault yesterday on Vice President Al Gore . . ."

This is no isolated case. Here are the Times' Gore-Bush front-page headlines of the first two weeks of September:

Sept. 1: "Bush Approves New Attack Ad Mocking Gore; Democrats Say G.O.P. Has Turned Negative."

Sept. 2: "Bush Defends Ad That Assails Gore; Governor Maintains He's Only Engaging in Self-Defense."

Sept. 4: "Bush Adapts and Goes On the Attack." "A Confident Gore Sets Off on a Grand Tour." "Bush Puts Forth Alternative Plan for 3 TV Debates."

Sept. 5: "TV Networks Jilted By Bush; Won't Take Part in 2 Debates."

Sept. 6: "Bush Spells Out Major Overhaul in Medicare Plan."

Sept. 7: "Gore Offers Vision of Better Times For Middle Class." "G.O.P. Leaders Fret at Lapses in Bush's Race."

Sept. 8: "Bush Planning to See Voters, And to Be Seen."

Sept. 9: "A Populist Pitch Helps Gore Woo Back His Party's Base."

Sept. 11: "Gore Takes Tough Stand on Violent Entertainment."

Sept. 12: "Democrats See, and Smell, Rats in G.O.P. Ad."

Sept. 13: "Poll Shows Gore Overcoming Voter Concerns on Likability."

Sept. 14: "Bush Tax Cut Loses Appeal for Republicans in Congress."

It would take a mollusk to miss the pattern. Particularly striking is the front-page echo of the substance of a Gore charge (the RATS ad) vs. the front page portrayal of the "negativity" of Bush's charges.

The attack ad (Sept. 1) was in part about Gore's prevarications over his Buddhist Temple fundraising. The Times' disapproval of it--the ad, not the fundraising--was not subtle. It ran an accompanying captioned front-page picture. "The ad combines television images of Mr. Gore with scornful dialogue and a not yet operational Web address," read the Times' scornful caption.

The Labor Day headline (Sept. 4) provided a near-clinical example of a controlled experiment in subtle slanting: Below pictures of each candidate, we find that Bush adapts and attacks, while Gore sets off on grand tour. But my favorite is the headline of Sept. 7: "Gore Offers Vision of Better Times For Middle Class." It's the kind of headline Pravda used to run for Brezhnev's presidential campaigns.

Why is this important? Because the Times front page is the epicenter of the media echo chamber. It is the primary text for those who compose the evening news on the three networks. The night that the Times put the RATS commercial on page one, the story--dormant for 15 days since first revealed on Fox News Network--ran on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news. What are the odds?

The Times does not determine election results. If it did, we'd be looking back fondly on the Mondale and Dukakis administrations. But because it both reflects and affects general media coverage of campaigns, it matters. It tilts the playing field. This year, the angle is particularly steep.

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