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Typecasting Candidates

By E. R. Shipp

Sunday, March 5, 2000; Page B06

There is something not quite satisfying about The Post's coverage of the quests of Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, Al Gore and John McCain to become our next president. And this is the thing: Readers take their politics seriously. They are not among those people who don't know enough about the candidates or the issues and haven't made up their minds. On any given day, they can cite--chapter and verse--evidence that this newspaper is unfair to their man while overly solicitous of his opponent(s).

This appears to derive from The Post's determination to give readers in-depth, closely observed insights into the hearts, minds and souls of the candidates--whether in biographical series, such as the latest one, on Sen. McCain, which ran last week, or in daily news and feature stories from the campaign trail. For sure, The Post provides its share of "who's winning the horse race" stories and those that dissect a candidate's strategy--the "insider" stuff that many readers tell pollsters they could do without, thank you.

But The Post has gone beyond that kind of reporting in favor of articles that try to offer context--and even conjecture--about the candidates' motives in seeking the office of president. And readers react--sometimes in a nonpartisan way, more often not--to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.

Readers have questioned a Post article that portrayed Gore as delusional, thinking that he was not only the man who discovered Love Canal, a New York community contaminated by illegally dumped toxic waste decades ago, but also the basis for the character of Oliver Barrett IV in Eric Segal's "Love Story." Gore (Albert II) was, according to Segal, one of the preppies he had in mind in creating the character; the other was Gore's roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones. As for Love Canal, Gore said that after a high school student contacted him about a toxic waste site in Toone, Tenn., he sought information about other such sites, learned about Love Canal, and used the two as case studies in a hearing that led to legislation aimed at cleaning up such sites. As he put it: "I . . . had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tenn.--that was the one you didn't hear of--but that was the one that started it all." That is a whole lot different from The Post's version, "I'm the one that started it all," which fits the role The Post seems to have assigned him in Campaign 2000.

What didn't fit the role assigned to McCain, apparently, was his frequent use of a word deemed derogatory by Asian Americans: "gook." To his credit, Howard Kurtz mentioned this usage in a December article about "the sweetly seductive relationship between the senator and the press"--one in which McCain "smothers journalists with access and they produce colorful copy." Not until last month did McCain's use of the G-word become an issue for those apparently "seduced" campaign reporters and other journalists.

This is what readers are saying to reporters: We are intelligent. Take care with the facts. Rein in the analysis. Tell us what happened (including, by the way, the actual vote tallies, as opposed to percentages of votes collected). And, by all means, keep your personal feelings out of the paper.

But, readers, keep contacting the ombudsman at ombudsman@washpost.com or (202) 334-7582.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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