The end of the presidential race has produced one thing media can virtually all agree on: The time for fighting is over. Reporters like Tim Russert had predicted a potential “political civil war;” when it didn’t happen, that seemed reason enough for celebration. Unfortunately, for many reporters the “ceasefire” in the ballot battle signaled an end to tough reporting as well.
The media’s bipartisan joy was overwhelming– so much so that conservative CNN pundit Tucker Carlson (12/14/00) mocked: “The morning after has come, and it’s all puppies and lollipops.” The day after Gore’s concession, Chris Matthews (CNBC, 12/14/00) was more patriotic: “What was good about last night, if you like this country, is that both parties– the vice president and the new president both agreed on basically ending the war, at least signing an armistice for a while.” After Gore’s concession, NBC‘s Tom Brokaw found Bush’s acceptance “another graceful speech from the new President-elect talking about the issues, specifically, around which Democrats would have a hard time not uniting.”
The central issue facing the country after one of the most hotly contested U.S. elections in history, according to the near-endless media repetition, was whether or not any “work” could get done in Washington: “Given that division and the protracted presidential race, can anything be accomplished?” (NBC Nightly News, 12/13/00)
Of course, the election raises serious questions about the electoral process, and real differences do exist among elected officials– that’s politics, and political reporters shouldn’t be hoping for an end to it, as Time‘s Eric Pooley (12/25/00) appeared to do when he wrote that “this time there’s so much at stake that only [Bush’s] most churlish enemies could root against him.”
In that spirit, much of the media saw the close of the presidential campaign as a time to heal wounds and move on; anyone raising critical questions about legitimacy or policy was marginalized. One CNN report (12/14/00) explained that “as the players prepare to write election 2000’s final chapter, not everyone wants to close the books”– illustrated, naturally, with a clip of Jesse Jackson. When Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman (CNBC, 12/13/00) explained that “Jesse doesn’t mean that much in himself,” Chris Matthews interrupted: “Would you like to address that letter to him, please, at some point?”
If Jackson was criticized for insisting that the problems with the Florida vote were meaningful, Al Gore won instant media approval for his concession. In descriptions that bordered on the absurd, pundits and reporters showered Gore with adoration for “this quiet, beautifully delivered speech in which you were reminded, this is a human struggle” (ABC‘s Jackie Judd, 12/13/00). NBC‘s Tim Russert thought Gore struck “the perfect tone…. It was personal and poignant, incredible.” CNN‘s John King marveled at this “great moment in history,” while historian Douglas Brinkley reminded viewers that Gore “always has been a great healer.”
Even conservative pundits could hardly contain themselves: Laura Ingraham, appearing on Fox News Channel (12/13/00), praised Gore: “This was the best speech that I’ve ever heard Al Gore give. Didn’t seem snooty. He seemed like a natural, normal person, and you know, how odd it is that this is the time that we see Al Gore the man.”
A gracious, defeated Gore was the candidate the media finally praised, but it didn’t take long to be reminded why they had less interest in the “other” Gore. As Cokie Roberts explained, “So often during the campaign, when he came on TV, he was annoying. There was nothing annoying about this.” Moments later, Roberts gave some indication of what might have annoyed her about Gore– she seemed to think Gore’s campaign strayed too far to the left. Gore “was very instrumental in trying to bring the Democratic Party back to the middle,” said Roberts, but “then in this campaign, he seemed to move back.” Roberts offered similar advice to Clinton after the 1994 election (11/8/94), urging him to “move to the right, which is the advice that somebody should have given him a long time ago.”
A similar post-game analysis came from MSNBC‘s Chris Matthews (12/13/00): “One of the reasons many people– well, I’m one of them– who believe that Al Gore didn’t roll up the score against Bush and win his own state and everything else was that he ran a negative populist campaign based on resentment, especially class and economic, even ethnic resentment, and that the American people just wanted to tune that out.” Matthews seems to have forgotten that Gore won over 300,000 more voters than his closest competitor.
The media’s post-campaign advice for Gore was similar to some of their advice for president-elect Bush– namely, that Bush needed to chart a centrist course to be effective. CBS‘ Bob Schieffer (12/17/00) recommended that Bush resist the more conservative members of the Republican Party and “find a middle ground occupied by friends, allies and– if I may say so– most of the American people. It won’t be easy, but only from there and with them can he hope to get anything done.”
Ignoring the “distracting details”
In their quest to heal, the media was often eager to forgo tough questions in favor of showing sympathy for the president-elect. After Bush’s victory speech, CBS‘s Bob Schieffer was optimistic: “Let’s hope he succeeds. It will be the best thing for the country.” (12/13/00)
CNN‘s Candy Crowley declared: “But this is not about politics or even philosophy. This is now about practicality. George Bush will need to move this nation forward. But first, he must pull it together.” (12/14/00)
Bush’s campaign seemed to rely on creating low expectations for the candidate, and the media have done their part to put a positive spin on that strategy. Bush is a “a man of great self-confidence,” according to CNN‘s Crowley, someone who is “not one of those that is threatened by power around him.” Time‘s Walter Isaacson (12/25/00) noted that Bush is “impatient with distracting details,” whatever that might mean.
Newsweek observed that Bush’s hands-off approach dates all the way back to college, where Bush was known to sit in the back of many of his classes. Newsweek explains that such students “sat back and listened, taking in the scene, contributing consensus-building observations from on high.” Newsweek adds: “There is a doggedness to him, the willingness of a man only too glad to recognize his limitations and operate accordingly.”
Given Bush’s hostility to “distracting details,” his Cabinet choices are crucial, but his early picks have received little critical scrutiny. Naming Colin Powell as secretary of state was widely praised throughout the media. Though many outlets did criticize points in Powell’s foreign policy doctrine, certain facts about his record have generally been omitted.
For example, Powell played a role in whitewashing atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam, including the My Lai massacre. In response to a soldier’s letter describing attacks on civilians by the Americal’s 11th Brigade, which included the unit that carried out the My Lai massacre, then-Major Powell replied dismissively in a 12/13/68 memo: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” (For more background, see: www.fair.org/extra/9601/powell.html.)
According to Newsweek (12/25/00), “Powell’s sensitivity to the world’s disadvantaged is a theme running throughout his career.” That was certainly not true in the case in Vietnam, and it’s doubtful it will apply to the U.S. position on sanctions in Iraq, which Powell vowed to “re-energize.”
Newsweek also offers the president-elect some advice on handling the media: “Start meeting with small groups of reporters. Mix big shots and little, but surprise media with accessibility. Promise that everyone will get his turn. Avoid giant pressure-packed East Room press-conference deals until you’re ready.”
Bush may take Newsweek‘s advice on handling reporters to heart, but with kid glove media coverage like this, one wonders what he’d need to worry about.