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Gore and pundits race to the bottom

The debate over Al Gore's comments on the conservative press demonstrates some of the worst pathologies of American political debate
By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
December 4, 2002

Al Gore's comments about the conservative media to the New York Observer last week and the fierce and rapid reaction to it make for an excellent case study in how substantive debates can be undermined by outrageous rhetoric. The former Vice President did correctly diagnose the process by which many falsehoods have spread through the conservative media, but he also engaged in inexcusably inflammatory jargon when he used the term "fifth column." Some pundits, meanwhile, responded with ridiculous attacks of their own, accusing Gore of being a conspiracy theorist and mentally ill.

The heart of Gore's controversial statement was this:

The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party. Fox News Network, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh-there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media ... Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks-that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a whole...
Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, The Washington Times and the others. And then they'll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they'll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they've pushed into the zeitgeist. And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold, these RNC talking points are woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist.

There is undeniably some truth to Gore's comments about the success of the conservative media in disseminating spin points. While there's no way to know whether they begin at the RNC, several outrageous lies that Spinsanity has tracked working their way through the media in the past year were created and fueled by conservative outlets like the Washington Times. The myths that Bill Clinton blamed the Sept. 11 attacks on slavery and historical treatment of Native Americans and that the National Education Association called on educators not to blame the attacks on al Qaida both began with articles in the Washington Times. They were then linked on the highly popular Drudge Report, mentioned in outlets such as Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh show, discussed by conservative pundits on CNN and other networks, and eventually made their way into mainstream papers and syndicated columns.

Also, in the Daily Howler, Bob Somerby identified three separate lies that the RNC pushed successfully in the media: that Al Gore grew up in a fancy hotel; that he was the first candidate to mention Willie Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign; and that Gore lied when he said he did difficult chores on his family farm while growing up.

Instead of engaging Gore on substance, though, many pundits instead launched irresponsible attacks. Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer half-jokingly accused Gore of mental illness, saying, "I'm a psychiatrist. I don't usually practice on camera. But this is the edge of looniness, this idea that there's a vast conspiracy, it sits in a building, it emanates, it has these tentacles, is really at the edge. He could use a little help.

On the Fox News Channel's "Special Report," Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes made a similar charge, trying to link Gore's statement with actual conspiracy theories: "This is nutty. This is along the lines with you know, President Bush killed Paul Wellstone, and the White House knew before 9/11 that the attacks were going to happen. This is -- I mean, this is conspiratorial stuff."

In the Lewiston [Idaho] Morning Tribune, Michael Costello took this point to an outrageous extreme, stating, "About the only thing that distinguishes Al Gore's rant from those once heard from the skinheads who formerly haunted Richard Butler's Aryan Nations compound is that he did not claim that the conspirators were Jews. Does Al believe that the marching orders that this new right-wing media follows arrive on black helicopters?"

Speaking about Gore on his show last week, meanwhile, radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested that the former Vice President's accusations may prove that he suffers from mental illness. "It could just be he's nuts," Limbaugh stated. "Tipper Gore's issue is what? Mental health. Right? It could be a closer to home issue than we know." (Windows Media Player audio)

The critics who focused only on Gore's supposed conspiracy mongering or mental health not only ignored the validity of his point, but also missed what was truly over the line in Gore's interview: his comparison of the conservative media with a "fifth column."

Merriam-Webster Online defines fifth column as "a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders." In Slate, Timothy Noah defended Gore's charge by stating, "Gore was suggesting that these men [Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, Washington Times Editor-in-Chief Wes Pruden , and Rush Limbaugh] and the institutions they work for, were traitors to the journalist's creed that news organizations should not serve any one political party." Engaging in partisan journalism is most certainly not the same as working to sabotage one's nation, however, regardless of the context.

In the end, Gore's use of the term "fifth column" is inflammatory and indefensible, and the pundits who dismissed the substance of his comments in favor of accusations of alleged conspiracies and mental illness have made matters worse. Once again, a real issue has been sidetracked and the discourse lowered by rhetorical cheap shots.

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