The title of the new book from Yahoo News national political columnist Matt Bai is straightforward enough: “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” The issue at hand is the media’s treatment of Gary Hart, the Colorado senator who was poised in 1987 for an anticipated presidential run until his relationship with Donna Rice was exposed by the Miami Herald and other outlets. In the view of Bai, the Herald’s pursuit of the story — which included a Capitol Hill stakeout — constituted a watershed: “[T]he story of Hart and the blonde didn’t just prove to be Hart’s undoing; it was the story that changed all the rules, a sudden detonation whose smoke and soot would shadow American politics for decades to come.”
The pivot, writes Bai, marks “the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever.”
In a very good piece in Politico Magazine, Tom Fiedler, one of the reporters who worked on the Miami Herald’s investigation and now dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, all but scoffs at the turning-point argument. “What Bai calls the week that changed politics forever, I guess I’d call just another week, albeit a dramatic one, in Washington,” writes Fiedler, who maintains that the Herald’s journalism was driven by Hart’s dishonesty about his activities.
Bai’s interpretation rests on the opposite pole: “Hart’s humiliation had been the first in a seemingly endless parade of exaggerated scandals and public floggings, the harbinger of an age when the threat of instant destruction would mute any thoughtful debate, and when even the perception of some personal imperfection could obliterate, or at least eclipse, whatever else had accumulated in the public record.”
And yet, what about Bob Dole?
As the Kansas senator mounted his 1996 presidential campaign against incumbent Bill Clinton, news organizations faced an ethical question over whether to dig into allegations of an affair in the late 1960s, when Dole was married to his first wife. The Washington Post, for instance, confirmed the affair but chose not to publish a story on it. Only when the New York Daily News broke the story and forced the matter onto the campaign trail did the Post acknowledge its reporting.
An AJR story titled “An Affair to Ignore: Why did a story about Bob Dole’s dalliance get so little play” goes deep on the blackout from mainstream media outlets. “The three major networks, along with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, ignored it,” writes Susan Paterno in the January/February 1997 edition of AJR. “We spent all of five minutes discussing it,” then-Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger told Paterno.
Such restraint poses a direct challenge to Bai’s thesis. After all, Dole’s long-ago indiscretions would appear to have been a perfect example of the “personal imperfection” that could “obliterate, or at least eclipse, whatever else had accumulated in the public record.” Yet the media didn’t go all tabloid over the story.
In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Bai acknowledged skipping over the Dole example. “This is not the unified string theory of political journalism in our time,” he said, noting that his book doesn’t provide a “comprehensive” examination of the post-Hart campaign landscape. “I don’t think almost anything in American society changes in its totality. I think there are moments when shifts occur and should be examined,” he said.
Another exception Bai does acknowledge within “All the Truth is Out”: John Edwards. The 2008 presidential candidate was outed by the National Enquirer as the father of a “love child” whose existence Edwards denied on repeated occasions. The news, says Bai, was “highly relevant to his fitness for office,” in large part because Edwards’s platform included a call for “responsible fatherhood.” In this case, the Enquirer was way ahead of the mainstream media, which famously had to be dragged into reporting about the story — a failure that some have attributed to bias in favor of left-leaning candidates. But maybe it just didn’t want to “go tabloid.”
Whatever the warts on Bai’s thesis, the book works as an examination of Hart himself, especially the material portraying his often-frustrated attempts to ease into the role of elder statesman. Excruciating stuff.