Last Friday night, Barbara Walters of ABC’s 20/20 snared the first interview with the post-hermitic Al Gore. In one exchange, Walters asked Gore if he’d had fun campaigning for candidates in the 2002 elections.
“I was having fun,” responded Gore. “You know, there was an old song that Janis Joplin sang: ‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.’”
The next morning, subscribers of the Washington Post opened the plastic inserts of their papers to find a Gore profile by staff writer Liza Mundy. Here again, Gore was holding forth on his laid-back lifestyle: “The old Kris Kristofferson lyric kind of sums it up for me: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’”
Tuesday afternoon, Fresh Air host Terry Gross was quizzing Gore on similar topics, with similar results: “My philosophy is summed up by the Kris Kristofferson lyric, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,’” noted the interviewee.
Will someone please edit Al Gore?
Over the past week, in a string of “exclusives,” Gore has relaunched the tired persona of his failed 2000 presidential bid alongside a new book, Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family, co-written with his wife, Tipper Gore. The masterfully executed PR offensive began with the ABC interview and Mundy’s Post Magazine piece, the new Gore’s print debut.
The former veep’s press explosion started with a deal: I’ll give you access to me, and you agree not to run the story until my book comes out. Embargoes of this sort are commonly employed by everyone from movie stars to think-tankers to the editors of medical journals. But they operate on one key premise: that the material subject to the embargo is worth the wait.
Gore’s quid doesn’t come close to justifying the media’s quo. After stiff-arming the media for two years, Gore had news-watchers hoping he would come out with penetrating views on his failure as well as fresh takes on President Clinton and others. Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie says that Gore’s personal revelations met the paper’s newsworthiness standards, even if the magazine piece ended up plugging the book on families. “It’s not like individual nuggets of breaking news as much as his and [Tipper Gore’s] feelings and analysis of the impact of the 2000 election on them,” says Downie, who reports that the paper handles embargo situations on a case-by-case basis.
The Post’s bar for “feelings and analysis” stories apparently hovers at ankle height. Take a look:
How did Gore react to the crushing disappointment of losing the most harrowing election in U.S. history? “It was a crushing disappointment,” Gore told Mundy.
How is Gore now? “I’m fine,” he said.
Was the period of public silence hard to sustain? “It was very hard,” he said.
Don’t blame Mundy. She was on Gore’s trail before most others and wrote a perfectly readable piece. It’s just that she was interviewing the most overprofiled and image-sensitive guy this side of Michael Jordan. When other journalists have already spilled hundreds of millions of words on a guy, it’s hard to advance the story with another 10,000. Especially when your subject, who still has to guard against political damage from any missteps, rehearses his lines like a Broadway wannabe.
The torture continued late into the week with pieces in other prominent papers as well as additional radio and TV interviews. In each instance, Gore appeared committed to confining himself to the level of candor that he first gave to Walters. So the media tour has started to sound a bit like, well, a presidential campaign, with the same lines foisted on different, but equally bored, audiences.
But no one will risk taking a pass. “If you’re one of the outlets selected, you’ve got to play by the rules,” says New York Post reporter Vince Morris. “There’s not much you can do.”
On Nov. 10, the Post presented a big story teeing up the upcoming term of Maryland Governor-Elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. When Ehrlich takes office, according to the Post, “Republicans will gain control of the most powerful governorship in the nation.”
Come again? We know that homers dominate the Post sports page, but this is going a bit too far.
“That stopped me cold,” wrote Post ombudsman Michael Getler in a memo to the paper’s staffers. “Maybe I missed something.”
Not if you go by the usual measures. As a state, Maryland is 19th in population and third in median household income. It leads the nation in no major industrial categories. Even in crab production, where you might expect the state to kick national ass, Maryland lags behind Louisiana and North Carolina. Maryland’s most storied political son is Spiro Agnew.
However, the state’s power rating gets a boost from its distinction as No. 1 in…preservation of farmland. Yes, as of fiscal year 2001, Maryland’s 480,000 acres of protected tillable land outstripped those of even bigger, more farm-carpeted competitors such as Pennsylvania and the Midwestern states, according to Don Vandrey, spokesperson for the state Department of Agriculture.
So is that what the Post was referring to?
Well, no. What the paper was trying to say is that the Maryland governor has greater authority vis-a-vis the state legislature than counterparts in most other states. “There have been studies done saying that it is [the most powerful],” says Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao. “We probably should have explained it better.” —Erik Wemple
Tell Dept. of Media About It
Advice for the Advice-Giving Crowd
[BOX IN CENTER:]
Dear Dept. of Media:
I am an advice columnist for the Washington Post. My audience is a mixture of hipsters, losers, and young professionals who either screw or screw over the wrong people. A while back, I went through a divorce that could have cast some doubt on my ability to guide the youth to happiness ever after. I survived, and my column went to three times a week. Now another round of changes is on the way. I am getting remarried and will give birth—God willing—to twins next March. Suddenly, I feel closer to the baby-boomer audience than to the “under-30 crowd” to which we market my column. Am I making too much of my perceived generation gap?
—Challenged yet Hopeful
Maybe you need to heed the gap between your ears.
I will add you to a list that includes all my friends, my wife, and, basically, anyone who qualifies for low car-insurance rates—that is, people who worry about getting old. First step to recovery: Get over it.
Second step: Get real. Do you think 17-year-olds read Seventeen? The “under-30” tag on your column is a gimmick. Newspapers and their advertisers dream about the 20-something demographic—people with a lifetime of shopping for houses, cars, and dog food ahead of them—the way the guys from the chess club dream about the homecoming queen.
The key word here is “dream.” The whole pulse-of-today’s-youth thing is make-believe, like that recent letter in which one of your readers claimed that she and a friend had been purposely dating “losers” for the sport of it.
So you used to be the voice of youth. Yes, and Dear Abby used to be her own mother. Your audience will grow old with you, and it’s already on its way. Start taking notes on your top three tips for remarriage and your anecdotes about birthing. They’ll be asking for them soon enough. Until then, keep everyone feeling young at heart by salting your columns with an occasional “dude” or reference to Jackass: The Movie.