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 Magazine Watch

Tuesday June 22, 1999 (Vol. One; No. 4)

Gun Bill Bodes Well for Gore?; Bush Needs "Candor" on Abortion; The Far-Right Pope

1. The June 28 editions of all three news magazines touched on the defeat of gun control legislation in the last week. U.S. News & World Report found it meant little, Newsweek mourned NRA power, and Time found good news for Al Gore.

2. All three magazines covered the already brewing horse race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and this week’s news isn’t as favorable to W. On the agenda: Republican positions on gun control and abortion. Time’s Margaret Carlson urged Bush to detail his abortion position, since "the public is starved for candor."

3. Only U.S. News covered the latest development in the Chinese espionage story, the Rudman report.

4. Time’s Internet site found Pope John Paul is both "hot-wired" into the global church, and out of touch, "far to the right of what many of even its devotees would like it to be."

For their June 28 editions, Time put Kosovo on the cover, U.S. News featured the "401(k) Nation," and Newsweek promoted how "America Goes Hollywood."


All three news magazines emphasized the defeat of gun control legislation in the last week. While most reporters touted a dramatic post-Columbine opinion shift, Major Garrett at U.S. News & World Report broke from the media pack in an article headlined: "The House Fires Blanks, the vote on gun reform was less important than it sounded." Garrett coupled the gun control defeat with the passage of the Ten Commandments measure: "It seems incomprehensible. In the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, the House killed all new gun-control proposals last week while giving states the right to post the Ten Commandments on public property. But while the response appears to contradict the public mood on gun control and meddle with long-standing church-state orthodoxy, the House action accurately reflected the deep regional and ideological differences over the regulation of guns and culture — a divide that, for all the rhetoric, remains largely unchanged in the wake of Columbine."

Newsweek's Matt Bai and Debra Rosenberg mourned the power of the NRA, focusing on the role of Democrat John Dingell, stung by losing the House after the Brady Bill in 1994: "This time, instead of backing the President, he deserted the party and joined with Republicans and NRA lobbyists to author a compromise. After a week of emotional debate, Dingell's bill went down to defeat on both sides of the aisle, all but killing any chance for stricter gun laws this year. The final result stunned gun-control advocates and provided a painful political lesson: even the biggest bull in the House won't lock horns with the gun lobby again."

Newsweek portrayed the NRA as holding the House captive in defiance of the the American public's desire for more gun control. "It may seem a liberal shibboleth, but last week’s clash proved once again that the NRA is a powerful force on Capitol Hill. In an all-out assault, the NRA unleashed thousands of callers to clog congressional switchboards while a dozen lobbyists worked the halls. The group’s Web site featured a dubious article implying that Bill Clinton, like the Nazis, was trying to disarm the populace. In the end, the House passed a law allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools, but backed away from gun control. It was just the latest example of a strange political disconnect that has characterized the gun debate for most of this century. Virtually every gun-control initiative since 1934 has enjoyed strong public support — only to be weakened or killed by the Congress."

Newsweek’s Conventional Wisdom Watch section featured three items relating to the bill’s defeat, two of which derided the advocacy of gun rights. Bush drew an up arrow: "Still flying high from meeting expectations. But watch those pro-gun panders." The House was handed a down arrow: "Old: Littleton will shame them into joining Senate anti-gun bill. New: Shameless." Charlton Heston cheekily caught an up arrow: "NRA chief gets gun vote, and Ten Commandments in school. Holy Moses!"

Time writers Karen Tumulty and John Dickerson thought the defeat was great news for Gore. The headline read: "Al Gore's Lucky Break. Gore's first weapon against George W. Bush is a freebie from the G.O.P. Can gun control jump-start his campaign?"


All three magazines covered the already brewing horse race between Al Gore and George W. Bush and this week’s news isn’t as favorable to W.

Time’s Tumulty and Dickerson began: "Al Gore needed two things last week: a 10-ft. pole to distance himself from Bill Clinton and an issue to distance himself from George W. Bush. He got both. Showing that he could be his own man was the carefully planned theme of the Vice President’s ‘Love Me for Me’ tour, but at an event capping the exercise, the Vice President got a little something his campaign has recently lacked: a lucky break. It came in the form of gun control, the first real fight he can take to Governor Bush of Texas, and a fight that Americans might even watch closely in this prenatal presidential campaign." They concluded: "But all the frolicking with Tipper and the five-point plans could not match the week's unscripted windfall from the House floor. This week Republicans handed Gore a break, but for his campaign to succeed, he may have to figure out how to make the next ones on his own."

While Tumulty and Dickerson found fault in W’s gun control stance, Margaret Carlson tried to smoke out his position on abortion. "Bush will always call himself pro-life, but it looks as if he is going to fake right and move left (or is it the other way around?) in hopes that pro-choicers will think he’s secretly their friend and would never ban abortion. If I had to guess, I would say he is either like his father, seemingly indifferent, or like his mother, seemingly pro-choice. But why should voters have to guess? If he really believes that every abortion is the taking of a human life, would he throw in the towel because not enough hearts agreed with him? Like most of us, Bush may well have a more nuanced position. But why risk revealing it when you can instead send a fuzzy message sufficient to keep voters confounded until the polls close? Actually, it’s always tempting to fly below the radar, but this year the public is starved for candor, tired of the pointless manipulation former President Gerald Ford warned against two weeks ago: ‘Candidates without ideas hiring consultants without convictions to run campaigns without content.’"

Carlson claimed to be searching for common ground with pro-lifers, and concluded: "While Bush has so much of the country’s attention, will he prove Ford wrong and lead us someplace instead of blowing $60 million on slick ads and a fog machine of road-tested, split-the-difference platitudes? He could lead, not follow, and woo the Christian right by bringing them along, not just kneeling down with them."

Perhaps next week she can write about Al Gore’s abortion position, which will probably get a lot less media attention.

Newsweek led with how the Gore camp believes gun control will shape the debate in 2000. "Gun control is now being defined as a ‘family’ issue — and will soon be aimed by the Democrats directly at Texas Gov. George W. Bush. That was one of the clues to Campaign 2000 that emerged last week as Vice President Al Gore formally kicked off his presidential bid. Polling for the Democrats has found more than 80 percent siding with Clinton and Gore over Bush on issues like mandatory gun locks, background checks at gun shows and opposition to concealed weapons. It was no coincidence that Gore criticized efforts to shield the gun industry from lawsuits just as Bush was signing a bill doing just that. ‘Guns have definitely become an issue that is connected to your children, especially for suburban women,’ says Mark Penn, a pollster for Clinton and Gore. ‘The school shootings have turned this into a first-tier issue.’"

At U.S. News, Roger Simon stressed the importance of the two candidate's ability to "connect" with the voters. "Al Gore may have the heart and soul of a moderate Democrat, but his sweat glands are positively Nixonian." Simon graded Gore's affability: "Although he is known today for self-deprecating jokes about his woodenness...when he ran for President in 1988 there was barely a mention of this drawback in any of the thousands of news accounts about his campaign. In 1988, during the New York primary, Gore instead became known for his slashing attacks, for raising the Willie Horton issue against Michael Dukakis way before the Republicans did and pandering to the Jewish vote by attacking Jesse Jackson." The new Gore is more "palatable."

Simon found W. bested Gore in being "comfortable in his own skin." "Ronald Reagan was no great intellect, yet he connected with people." Presidential scholar Gil Troy declared, "The role of the candidate is to fulfill the role not of commander in chief but celebrity in chief. Clinton was excellent at it, but he learned it from studying Ronald Reagan."


Only U.S. News covered the latest in the Chinese espionage story. Warren Strobel and Daniel Pasternak filed a report: "The rule of thumb for Washington turf battles is that the more trivial the issue, the more sound and heat it generates. Last week, that dictum was broken in a big way. Two top aides to President Clinton faced off loudly over something that is actually important: control of U.S. nuclear weapons. And the president was uncomfortably in the middle. The question: After two decades of shoddy security that let China pilfer nuclear secrets, can the Department of Energy clean up its own act? Emphatically no, says former Sen. Warren Rudman. In a caustically worded indictment of the department, a panel chaired by Rudman found that dozens of security reform initiatives have met determined resistance. Among them is a February 1998 presidential directive issued after Beijing's nuclear spying became clear. The bottom line: Energy ‘is a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself .’ The lapses are hair-raising, from broken security doors and wide-open computer files to listening devices found in one weapons lab."


In a feature titled "A Closer Look," Time’s Web site revisited a favorite pejorative ‘R’ word as related to the Pope. The subheadline read, "As the millenium ends, the era of John Paul II draws to a close. And soon the Vatican must decide how much of the Polish Pope's revolution — and his rigidity — it wants to keep." Reporter Frank Pellegrini initially praised the Pope as a "tireless traveler" and "relentless evangelizer taking his ready wit and common touch — and a telegenic quality unlike any other pope’s — to nearly every corner of the far-flung but fractured Catholic world." Time religion writer David Van Biema raved: ‘He’s totally hot-wired the global aspect of the church...No Pope before him has had this kind of wattage.’

But Pellegrini grew disappointed: "The enormous charisma of the man has made zealots of the converted and converts of the heathen, but John Paul II has brooked no heretics. There is some debate over the Pope's adherence to or deconstruction of Vatican II, a reform council convened in the early ‘60s...But it is impossible to call John Paul II anything other than a conservative. He does not take to new currents in Catholicism, and has displayed a ready pen for excommunication. He is stoutly against birth control, abortions and female priests, and has similarly held the line on remarriage after divorce, annulments and celibacy in the priesthood. Infallibility is the rock of John Paul’s church. To borrow from Winston Churchill — up with dissent he does not put."

Like many other reporters, Pellegrini could not understand why the Pope wouldn’t run his church like a programmer selling a TV show, interested not in heaven, but in growing an audience. "If John Paul brought the Vatican to parts of the world that were beginning to doubt its interest in them, he nevertheless brought a Vatican whose terms remain strict and its own. It is a Catholicism that stands, on the ideological spectrum, far to the right of what many of even its devotees would like it to be, and thanks to John Paul's appointees it is not likely to budge. In answer to the forces of liberalism, John Paul II has stacked the deck."

At Time, they’re more likely to find infallibility in Clinton and Gore.

— Geoffrey Dickens


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