Little words, big impact

Posted: Jul 05, 2002 12:00 AM
It looks like Campaign 2004 is starting to heat up with Al Gore acting rested, ready and ridiculous again. In Tennessee, Senor Stiff had a new pitch, telling old supporters he had erred in allowing himself to be too programmed by pollsters and consultants in the campaign. He promises a much different race if he runs in 2004 because this time he'd "just let it rip." How quintessentially Clintonian. After working in an administration that paid untold millions of dollars to pollsters and consultants to package itself, Gore now blames the pollsters and consultants for their undue influence. Gore's anti-Bush screed may sound good to his leftist base -- in and out of the press -- who think their man was somehow timid and not liberal enough on the trail. There are those -- particularly in the press -- who think that Gore lost on style points and not on the substance of his proposals. In fact, it would have been hard for Gore to be more liberal during the campaign. For example, Gore outdid Ralph Nader on the social issues (which Nader didn't care much about). Gore was second-in-command for the most pro-abortion administration in American history, trying everything, including subsidizing the security needs of multi-millionaire abortionists. Gore declared on MTV that his idea of ideal gay "rights" jurisprudence was the Vermont Supreme Court decision dictating to the state legislature that they must pass gay-marriage contracts they called "civil unions." But in 2004, Gore will "just let it rip"? The point of all this is to highlight the odd nature of news coverage. A new study by the Media Research Center's weary word counters showed that on all of the half-hour nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC, no network reporter labeled Al Gore as "liberal" during the entire 1999-2000 election cycle. Not once. MRC's researchers looked at all uses of "conservative" and "liberal" on the Big Three evening telecasts from Jan. 1, 1997 to Dec. 31, 2001, and then tossed out all the occasions where the words were used in non-ideological ways (such as "liberal arts colleges"). Labels were also thrown out if used by on-air guests rather than network staffers. Flat Earth critics of labeling studies suggest that measuring these little words, page by yellowing page, tells the public little about the media's behavior or impact. But in their subtle accumulation (or barely noticeable absence), these words send important messages: Al Gore was not a liberal, for one. In truth, the lobbying firm of Rather, Jennings and Brokaw only could manage three "liberal" tags for candidates for national office from 1997 to 2001. Yet, during this period, they did find "conservative" labels for national candidates -- on 71 occasions. Fully 96 percent of these ideological adjectives were applied to Republicans. One particular episode of "Look Out! He's Conservative!" came when Al Gore's counterpart was selected for the GOP ticket. Dan Rather warned of Dick Cheney's "hard-line conservative" voting record in the House of Representatives. While Cheney's American Conservative Union rating in the House averaged 90.8, Al Gore's ACU rating in the Senate had averaged 10.4. They're almost exact numerical opposites. But Gore wasn't a "liberal." You can't say these little warning labels, with a little repetition, don't have the potential to move voters. In total, over five years, the disparity between conservative labels and liberal ones was a verbal Grand Canyon: 992 to 247. While U.S. senators and Supreme Court justices were identified as conservatives or liberals by "only" a two-to-one ratio, the House ratio was 72 to 11, or almo st nine to one. The labels aren't usually compliments. CBS's Phil Jones suggested House Minority Whip Tom DeLay was "a political and religious conservative, and proud of it" -- as if he shouldn't be. Networks even found "conservatives" among House Democrats, starting with the odious Gary Condit (lifetime ACU rating: 46), and growing more ridiculous with Rep. Allen Boyd (lifetime ACU: 34) and Rep. Bart Stupak (lifetime ACU: 23). So why do journalists like to call liberal Republicans like Rep. Connie Morella (lifetime ACU: 21) "centrists"? Reporters should describe our political leaders by their political philosophies, as long as the descriptions are accurate and applied evenly. In fact, voters need to understand the policy changes they could be approving or disapproving. But the sheer disparity of the labeling -- not to mention the "hazardous to your health" packaging conservatives get -- suggests not voter education but voter indoctrination.