that this endless Tallahassle is behind us, perhaps we can observe some
more traditional rituals of the post-election season before it abruptly
ends. One of those rituals is the quadrennial navel-gaze of the media. Looking
back, many conservative Americans watched the networks on election night
in horror, as network anchors and analysts rushed to award Gore Michigan,
Pennsylvania, and in the Dewey Defeats Truman moment of the 21st Century,
"Gore Wins Florida." Some believed as NBC declared Florida, veteran anchorman
Tom Brokaw proclaimed "we" still had states to win.
When Dennis Prager made this charge in the Wall Street Journal, Brokaw wrote an amazingly arrogant letter to the editor. He had checked the videotape, Brokaw announced. (I'm so sure I'm not a Democratic mouthpiece, I watched ten hours to make sure.) Yes, he'd mentioned "the critical states we still have to win," but this is live television, and he was being blared at in his earpiece that Gore won Michigan.
"For Mr. Prager to convert me into a spokesman for liberal causes because on such an obviously dishonest interpretation on his part qualifies him for the Oliver Stone Hall of Fame," Brokaw declared, to glasses breaking in Hollywood. "I have gone to some lengths to refute these careless, indeed reckless charges because I know your pages are read carefully and I do not intend to become part of some self-perpetuating myth."
Brokaw is picking on a straw man here, picking out what can be portrayed as an innocent mistake (not a revealing slip?) and using it to smear allegers of liberal bias with a broad brush. But Brokaw's offenses against objectivity go much longer and deeper than live, blundered pronouns.
Suffice it to say that using the royal "we" to describe the media-Democratic complex would be a major faux pas, even if it would be entirely unsurprising as a factual matter. NBC has had this happen before: in May of 1995, Weekend Today co-host Giselle Fernandez (later appropriately exiled to Access Hollywood) asked Labor Secretary Robert Reich: "This time around, why are we leaving such critical decisions, then, up to the Republicans? Why didn't we come up with another more perhaps realistic deficit reduction plan?" The poor info-babe didn't have the savvy to realize bias should sound a little less brazen.
For his part, Brokaw attempted to correct the "myth" of liberal bias with the fallacy of adviser absolution. He declared of Prager's column, "To some degree I am amused because I have close professional relationships with most of the major candidates, strategists, and operatives across the political spectrum based on what I am confident is mutual respect . I talk daily to representatives of both candidates to gather information and hear their points of view. Not once has any low-, middle-, or high-level representative of either campaign even suggested I was tilting coverage or personal remarks one way or the other."
This is wrong on at least two levels. First, high-level Bush operatives (including RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson) publicly complained that the networks, including NBC, gave the Democrats more podium time at their convention in Los Angeles than they gave the Republicans in Philadelphia. Second, if you're running for president, trying to get positive coverage out of Tom Brokaw, do you achieve that by calling daily and accusing him of being a symp for the other guy?
It's not difficult to find Brokaw spinning for Al Gore in this election cycle. Here's just a quick sample of highlights:
1. Eskewed. In July 1999, Gore signed up consultant Carter Eskew, who made ads defending the tobacco industry from major litigation, ads Bill Clinton had claimed could be "fatal to young children who continue to be seduced and sold illegally cigarettes that will shorten their lives." A story? Not to Brokaw. But later, the Washington Post recently reported on Gore hanging out with Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, and Brokaw at a November 1 party for Talk magazine. "Brokaw asked Gore why he hired media consultant Carter Eskew after Eskew made all those TV commercials for the tobacco industry." A perfectly good question, so why did Brokaw save this tough Gore question for private parties?
2. The Far Right. Brokaw is a fundamentalist in the doctrine that the "far right" ruins the Republicans' chances of electoral success. This summer he suggested that all Republican vice-presidential nominees must be approved by a two-man committee of the Pope and Jesse Helms: "Well, you put Tom Ridge out there for example, the Governor of Pennsylvania, big and important state, a guy with a great record, pro-choice, immediately the Catholic Church and Jesse Helms said no way." At the Republican convention, as Tom and his friends were denying the GOP podium time, he went about debunking Bush rhetoric: "This is the convention of inclusion, so-called. The platform, however, represents the ideology of these convention delegates. It is very conservative. Especially on issues like abortion."
3. The Far Left. But no one is "very liberal" on the Democratic side, according to Brokaw. In fact, the problem with the Democratic convention was that Joe Lieberman was too moderate. He asked Jesse Jackson Jr. if he had reservations about Lieberman's "social conservatism," and added: "But in fact, Congressman, you don't hear Al Gore talking very much about the hot button issues for the liberal wing of the party anymore. There's not very much talk about poverty in America. Not very much talk about affirmative action, not very much talk about the homeless problem." Of course, Tom hasn't been talking very much about homelessness either. In the booming Clinton recovery? Nah.
4. Boies Booster. Even after the election, Brokaw carried Al Gore's water with this spit-shine introduction of Gore's lead lawyer: "As the battle in the Florida arena shifted to the legal arena, the Gore campaign brought in a heavyweight, a New York lawyer with an enviable record and a quirky personal style. The Gore team hopes he'll do for them what he did to Bill Gates. His name is David Boies, and he's a legend in his own time." Actually, that's right. The Legend in Tennis Shoes left Gore in a puddle of defeat, just like Bill Gates.
5. Maria vs. Virginia. I'll conclude with a personal favorite. In March, Maria Hsia, a fundraiser close to Gore for more than 10 years, was convicted of five felonies surrounding the Buddhist temple fundraiser of 1996. Somehow, to Brokaw, this wasn't worthy of mention on the NBC Nightly News. In an appearance with Don Imus on his MSNBC-simulcast radio show, Imus joked about Gore's lame answer to a Brokaw interview question on Hsia during live primary coverage: ""He acted like he barely knew this Maria Hsia, didn't he?" Brokaw replied:
"Oh, I know, yeah, it was: 'Did I miss that?' It was as if he were saying, 'Did she get convicted?' He said, 'It's still in the courts.' It's no longer in the courts! The jury has ruled! Guilty! Five counts!" Then Imus acidly noted: "Well, if he's watching NBC News he missed it." Brokaw admitted: "Yeah, well that's true."
I thought of this the other night when NBC's nightly newscast broadcast this ethical outrage over the Supreme Court's final decision: "Clarence Thomas's wife, Virginia, a former top Republican aide to Majority Leader Dick Armey, now doing a talent search at a Washington think tank for a possible Bush administration."
So by Brokaw's news judgment, soliciting resumes for the Heritage Foundation is more outrageously newsworthy that being convicted of five felonies at a Gore fundraiser. Could Brokaw's boasts of balance be any emptier?