When Competition Goes Bad

Competition is generally a great thing. It explains why cell phone and long distance prices plummetted over the last 20 years (competition and technology), while local prices remained fairly flat (lack of competition). But for some reason, competition makes the mass media worse. Consider the antics on CNN in the post-Fox era (competition); contrast that to the BBC and NPR (little direct competition).

For those who aren’t already reading him, Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler is a must read. This week he’s (incomparably) been reviewing the coverage of Gore during the 2000 campaign, with a particular focus on the Naomi Wolf “scandal”. As Somerby recounts, a slew of articles came out on Gore and “earth-tones”, all sourcing Time magazine (a Washington Post story with a quote from Dick Morris speculating is the actual source):

…Time had said nothing about earth tones. The next day, Maureen Dowd also misstated the point, writing that “Time magazine revealed that Al Gore hired Ms. Wolf…to help him with everything from his shift to earth tones to his efforts to break with Bill Clinton.” Clarence Page asserted the bogus fact too, in his syndicated Chicago Tribune column. “It was Wolf, Time reported, who persuaded the president to wear more ‘earth tones,’” Page erroneously said. Indeed, Morris went down the memory hole as journalists ran with the “earth tones” report. According to a NEXIS search, no one ever cited Morris as the source of the pleasing claim, while a wide range of writers falsely attributed the story to Time. Meanwhile, many scribes found an all-purpose way to avoid citing Morris’ “speculation.” They said that Wolf “reportedly” told Gore to wear earth tones, using an all-purpose word that lets a writer repeat any tale that has ever been said.

Amazing, they all referenced a fact that didn’t exist! It could be accidental, but it sure seems opportunistic. Dick Morris was and is an aspiring pundit and is not a big fan of Clinton/Gore and so is not a credible source; Time, on the other hand, is credible. Sure it was a trivial issue, but do you think the pundits are less sloppy on other issues? I guess you can’t believe something is true just because all the pundits are saying it. While it might in fact be true, it could just as easily be that pundits are lazy and find it easier to simply parrot each other. But where are the editors and fact-checkers?


P.S. Try it yourself:

(1) Search Time (1/1/99-12/31/00) archives for “Naomi+Wolf”

(2) Search Time (1/1/99-12/31/00) archives for “Naomi+Wolf+Earth”

Note that the one hit from the second result is in the “Letters” section–I don’t have archive access, but this almost surely means that one letter referred to the Naomi Wolf story (that never mentioned earth tones) and some other letter mentioned the earth. Importantly, you can clearly tell that the word “earth” is not in the “Gore’s Secret Guru” story.