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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Monday, July 17, 2000

Volume 8, Number 14

Gore Darts Further to the Left but Networks Tag Him as "Populist," not "Liberal"

A few months ago, network news correspondents announced they had caught George W. Bush "veering to the right" in his presidential campaign rhetoric and loudly predicted that such a strategy would alienate moderate voters in November. Over the past few weeks, Al Gore has obviously and clumsily lurched toward the left, but he has heretofore eluded the liberal label. Rather, the networks have awarded Gore the more favorable "populist" label for his Naderesque attacks on the oil and pharmaceutical industry profits.

Gore found his voice as a corporate-basher in mid-June, just as new EPA clean air rules helped push gasoline prices past $2.00 a gallon in Chicago and Milwaukee.  The Vice President was one of several Clinton administration officials who demanded an official investigation into the oil industry in an attempt to focus the public’s anger on corporate profits rather than government regulations or OPEC’s production cutbacks. Gore was quoted on the June 19 edition of the CBS Evening News declaring "we need to widen the investigation to see why, just at the time when they gouge the consumers, the profits go up 500 percent."

There’s no evidence of price gouging, of course; an Energy Department memo written in early June alerted officials to the fact that the environmental regulations were behind the local price increases. Nationally, the main reason company profits rose so dramatically was because oil and gas prices were at historic lows 12 months ago, making the year-over-year increases seem unusually large. Recall that it was in the spring of 1999 that OPEC voted to cut crude oil production, a decision which tripled prices and which the Clinton administration chose not to oppose until the public began complaining about higher costs this winter. (See MediaNomics, February 18, 2000.)

Yet when OPEC’s largest member, Saudi Arabia, announced earlier this month that it would increase its production, Gore continued to insinuate that U.S. oil company profiteering was still consumers’ biggest threat. "I want to call on [the oil companies] to let the price reduction flow through to consumers instead of backing it up in the profit pipeline," he was shown saying on ABC’s July 3 World News Tonight. No source was quoted nor any other information cited by reporter Barry Serafin in response to Gore’s charge.

Three days later, Gore was back at it, condemning drug companies with almost the exact same language he’d used against oil companies. "They’ve already got the highest profits of any industry in America," Gore exclaimed on the July 6 World News Tonight. "There is price gouging going on." As with the oil companies, there’s absolutely no evidence that U.S. drug makers are engaged in any illegal pricing, but Gore hasn’t been pushed to offer any proof — nor has any reporter asked him to reconcile the themes of his recent "progress and prosperity" tour, which touted America’s economic successfulness, with his disdain of profits.

Attacking corporate America isn’t a new idea; Green Party nominee Ralph Nader has been doing it for years. In this campaign, Nader is slowly but steadily muscling in on Gore’s left-wing support. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, released June 30, showed Nader with 7% nationally, compared with 42% for Bush, 37% for Gore and 2% for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. The Vice President’s anti-drug company salvo coincided with a report from a liberal activist group founded by Nader, Public Citizen, which also accused drug companies of making profits and lobbying Congress to stop an effort to include prescription drug benefits in Medicare.

But since Gore began his campaign against corporate profits in mid-June, not a single network reporter has labeled him or his business-bashing as leftist or liberal. When they’ve reached for a label, reporters have chosen to portray the Vice President’s aping of Ralph Nader as feisty "populism." On the July 6 Inside Politics, CNN’s Patti Davis related Gore’s claim that drug companies were "price gouging," adding that "later at a speech... Gore continued a populist theme."

Four days later, on World News Tonight, ABC’s Terry Moran showed Gore accusing Republicans of being the servants of "special interests," adding that "Gore’s attack on Congress comes after he has spent two weeks bashing big business, a harshly populist line of attack." He did note that "the risk for Gore, however, is that he will turn off the independents and Republicans he so desperately needs," though Moran never labeled the Vice President’s anti-business rhetoric as liberal.

While Gore’s profit-bashing was portrayed as non-ideological populism, ABC’s Dean Reynolds took pains to remark last December that Bush’s "sweeping [tax cut] plan is seen as an attempt to shore up his conservative credentials." The Texas Governor’s conservative statements on non-economic issues were also quickly labeled by the networks; on January 21, for example, Bush re-iterated his pro-life stance on abortion, and said he would prefer if it were decided by state legislatures rather than federal courts. On the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather plugged a story about "Bush’s sudden rush to the right," while correspondent Bill Whitaker said Bush had "ratcheted up the rhetoric on a tried and true right-wing issue: abortion."

Despite the networks’ efforts to broadly define Gore’s message as "populist," attacking corporate profits qualifies as a "sudden rush to the left." It’s also strange politics at a time when more than half of those who will vote in November are stock owners, who make money when corporate profits go up. In "The Rise of Worker Capitalism," a policy paper prepared for the Cato Institute, the American Shareholder’s Association’s Richard Nadler shows that widespread stock ownership is increasingly aligning workers’ interests with those of capital.

That means that the American electorate is probably even more reluctant now to accept the divisive, us-versus-them rhetoric that was fashionable among Democrats at the time when Republicans were beating their brains out in presidential elections. If the networks won’t affix the word "liberal" to such an obviously anti-business strategy, will they ever use the "L" word again?

Rich Noyes


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