They're 'Remaking' Gore Again:
A Primer on Media Spin
Karen Tumulty's recent Time article about Al Gore is a wolf in sheep's clothing. While it reveals Gore as candid, engaging, and adjusting to the new political realities of a post-9-11 world, Tumulty cannot help herself but to spin Gore and mislead her readers.
The article shows just how subtle spin can sometimes be. There are more than a dozen examples, some more egregious than others. Here's a primer, outlining a few.
To begin her article, The Making of a Comeback, Tumulty describes Gore's surprise and disappointment with how poorly Democrats did in the 2002 election. Then, in the second paragraph, Tumulty says, "Only now -- after an election that seemed to give George W. Bush a strong mandate to lead the American people -- is Gore beginning to talk frankly about the man who narrowly defeated him in that painful election two years ago. Despite the triumph that Bush enjoyed this Election Day, Gore is on the offensive. Bush's economic agenda, he says, is "catastrophic," his foreign policy "horrible," his environment stance "immoral."
Let's look at this again. Tumulty says, "Only now, -- after the election, -- is Gore beginning to talk frankly about Bush." Then she gives three examples of Gore criticizing Bush to back up her assessment, apparently comments gleaned from her interview with him. This is spin at its worst, and here's how.
The reality is that Gore has been making these same criticisms about Bush's international, economic, and environmental policies, using the same fiery language, since well before the election. Let's not forget that Gore was the first national Democrat to publicly criticize Bush on his rush to war with Iraq. Gore courageously faced what he must have known would be an onslaught of venom from Republican right wingers, some in his own party, and, of course, the media, for criticizing Bush; but he did it anyway in a speech before the Commonwealth Club, opening a floodgate of criticism against the Administration. One could argue that Gore made it okay for others to publicly criticize Bush. As reported on September 24 in the New York Times, Gore challenged Congress to oppose Bush's Iraq resolution and labeled Bush's international policies, including his war on terrorism, a failure.
"From the outset," Gore charged, "the administration has operated in a manner calculated to please that portion of its base that occupies the far right, at the expense of solidarity among all Americans and solidarity between our country and our allies."
In other words, Gore accused Bush of using the threat of war for crass political gain. This is a pretty powerful and frank allegation to make against a so-called popular president.
After his speech, Gore was asked by reporters whether he was out of step with his own party on the matter, and he said, "I don't know and I don't really care, in the sense that I'm going to do and say what I think is right." This sounds like someone speaking his mind. This sounds like someone speaking from the heart and letting the chips fall where they may.
As to the economy, Gore told the Brookings Institution in a public address-also before the election -- that unless Bush's economic policies were scrapped "our national losses will take us into truly uncharted realms." This too is a startling and frank criticism. Adam Nagourney reported on Gore's economic speech on October 3 in the New York Times, in a story that was itself an incredible example of spin.
As to Bush's environmental policies, Gore addressed them in an Earth Day speech in April 2002. Because of the Bush administration, Gore said, "...our environment is under siege. There is a movement afoot by polluters to dismantle America's capacity to limit their releases of dangerous waste products and poisonous emissions, threatening to take us back to the days when America's rivers and lakes were dying, when skylines were disappearing behind a shroud of smog, and when toxic waste threatened countless communities." This too is a rather frank criticism of Bush.
All of this is important to those trying to understand what the media is doing, because it reveals much about the nature of spin and how reporters use it. Did Tumulty misrepresent these facts because she didn't know better and hadn't seen or heard the pre-election reports of Gore's statements? That's unlikely. They were widely reported and are recent. In truth, Tumulty misrepresented these facts for a specific and calculated reason: to strengthen the spin of the story she decided to write about Gore. Accuracy was a secondary concern. She spun reality to build and shape her piece and, who can say, maybe to please her compatriots in the national news media, who mirror the same spin about Gore. After all, she appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources on Saturday, November 23, to talk about Gore just a few days after publication of her story. If she were perceived as an outsider, one wonders if she would have been invited.
So, what then is the spin (or the hook) of the article Tumulty decided to write? It becomes clear two paragraphs later, when she says, "This is the New Gore," a man who no longer speaks as if every sentence has been preapproved by his pollsters and handlers. "This is the 'New Gore,'" Tumulty says, who has shed his handlers and now, after the 2000 election, speaks freely. This is the spin upon which she builds her story, and Gore's bold and candid statements before the election stand in the way and need, therefore, to be expunged or spun aside. Incidentally, this is not new spin on Gore. Anyone who's paid attention to news coverage about him these last few years, stretching back to before the 2000 election, knows that Gore has been accused of remaking himself dozens of times. Eleanor Cliff in her recent Newsweek article put it this way: "Gore's latest makeover was accomplished without consultants and, therefore, friends say, should come across as authentic." There you go. The news media obviously spins in packs. Too bad Cliff neglects to tell us anything about these so-called "friends." Some might wonder why. The Tumulty and Cliff articles, as well as broadcast interviews and reports in the New York Times and Washington Post, this past week, raise similar innuendos about Gore's authenticity. The conservative pundits took their cues and rolled out their usual shrill and ugly spin about the new, new, new Gore, while tossing in a litany of treadworn "facts" that have already been documented and proven to be wrong. It's a familiar script.
The only people trying to "re-invent" Gore are mainstream journalists. They're trying to manufacture a public perception of Gore that they like, no matter the realities, and, in the process, to diminish him by showing him as not authentic. They want to marginalize him, which is precisely the spin put forth by the right wing's information apparatus. (Take some time to search through Bob Somerby's archives at, The Daily Howler, for a long trail of evidence proving what Somerby calls the media "Borking" of Gore).
A bit later in her article, Tumulty, speaking of Gore's 2000 campaign, says "Each week seemed to bring a new policy pronouncement, another gimmick to jumpstart the campaign, which is why even his evolving wardrobe became a metaphor for a man who had no idea what he stood for." This is pack spin, again. Here, Tumulty actually has the audacity to blame Gore for the media's unsorted and slipshod coverage of him and its ridiculous focus on his three-button suits, his beard, his weight, anything but his issues. "To jumpstart the campaign?" This is a campaign that got half a million more votes than Bush, who skated through it, unchallenged, unstudied, and treated with kid gloves, while the news media focused its savagery on Gore's clothing and a chain of documented lies and distortions that nonetheless remain to this day the news media's conventional wisdom.
Tumulty continues: "The image Gore wants the world to see is of a man who in defeat has a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for." This, too, is spin. It creates the impression, if only subtly, that Gore is manufacturing an image, thus, Tumulty feeds the reinventing himself spin and plants seeds of doubt as to his authenticity. If Gore had actually told Tumulty that this was the image he "wanted the world to see," that would be one thing, but, if he had, you could bet she would have quoted Gore directly, but she did not, and he did not. If she had been playing straight, she might have written, Gore sees himself as a man who in defeat has a clearer idea of what he stands for.
Sometimes reporters get their spin from tea leaves. For example, Tumulty presents rank prognostication as indisputable fact. Referring to a recent Time's poll, she says, "But if Gore ran today against Bush, the poll shows, Bush would win handily 57% to 40%. That suggests that no matter how much Al Gore has changed as a candidate since 2000, the mood of the country would have to undergo a much more dramatic shift over the next 24 months for Gore to topple Bush. Give Gore credit for speaking so bluntly to Time about the issues, but as of today, candor is not the problem: unless Bush stumbles badly on the economy and the war on terrorism next year, Gore will not get the traction he hopes for by speaking out on the issues that matter most to him." This is fiction, and Tumulty should be ashamed for passing it along to her readers as fact. How in the world could she know these things, and how can such a poll, conducted long before a head-to-head campaign, suggest a winner two years from now? The poll may be incorrect two weeks from now. The issues Gore talks about may matter most to him, but what Tumulty neglects to say, is that the same issues may matter most to the American people, which may give Gore traction. But Tumulty's comments are revealing in another way. They show at least one journalist's belief that "issues" are not very important in presidential campaigns, at least in those involving Bush. She is not alone. This is crass and tortured spin.
There are other examples in this piece. Here's one that may at first glance seem of little importance. Tumulty says, referring to Gore, "This is the man, remember, who in 2000 got more votes than any other Democratic candidate in history." While this is true, it seems much more germane to this story to say that this is a man who got half a million more votes than his opponent, George W. Bush. She is apparently reluctant to use this most relevant comparison. One should wonder why.
Here's another bit of Tumulty spin, or maybe it echoes something even more sinister than spin. "But how much about himself," Tumulty asks, "can he (Gore) really change at the age of 54, and how much is embedded in his DNA?" Funny, we never hear talk about Bush's DNA from the mainstream media. (He is an alcoholic, after all, and drug abuse seems to run in his family. It might be useful to talk about his DNA in this context). With this comment about Gore, Tumulty is dabbling in character assassination. Just remember back to the 2000 campaign when Gore was accused, falsely and maliciously, of being a compulsive liar, who couldn't control himself; a man -- as Howard Kurtz put it in on CNN's Reliable Sources this Saturday -- with a "fatal flaw." This particular character assassination is constantly heard on right-wing talk radio when the subject is Gore, and it is echoed through the mainstream media.
Tumulty ends her article by describing the White House as playing "an ongoing parlor game to rate Bush's possible Democratic Challengers in 2004." She then says, "Political guru Rove figures union support will give Gephardt the nomination. Another Bush advisor says Edwards' charisma and experience as a trial lawyer enable him to confront Bush's coziness with business. Yet another views Kerry as the toughest potential rival: 'The people who assume we can kill Kerry are the same people who thought Bill Clinton was a hick who couldn't win.' They all but dismiss Gore."
There's so much spin in this paragraph that it's dizzying. Not only is it spin, it's Republican spin, straight from the horses' mouths to us. But Tumulty presents it as something akin to White House wisdom. Where to start? Well, if you were the Bush team, would you really want to identify your most formidable candidate? Their easy dismissal of Gore is contrived and should make most of us sit up and take notice. It would be a good bet that these attempts to marginalize Gore mean that they're actually nervous about him and would rather he did not run again. After all, he beat Bush once, despite a deck stacked against him, and perhaps the next time, he'll do it more convincingly. Tumulty doesn't alert her readers to the possibility of this being White House spin, and this is no accident. She must know.
Gephardt wins, guru Rove says, because of union support. Edwards wins, another spin operative says, because he's a trial lawyer and can somehow make hay out of Bush's business connections where others can't. Kerry, well, Kerry wins because the same people who thought Bill Clinton couldn't win think he can't win. None of this makes sense. But there are some clear Republican buzzwords in this paragraph: union support, trial lawyers, and Bill Clinton. They're sure to arouse right-wingers.
Jon Prestage was a newspaper and television reporter in the Northeast for approximately 18 years. After four years as a broadcast journalist, he left the profession. He is a lifelong student and critic of the news media. Contact him at email@example.com.