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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2001/ 4 Adar, 5761


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AlGore's last chance -- IT must be true: Despite his father's wishes, Al Gore simply wasn't cut out to be a politician. He did, for the family's sake, a bodacious (air-kiss, Karenna!) job faking it, but getting elected to the House and U.S. Senate from Tennessee, given that he was blessed with a fail-safe pedigree, probably wasn't the bright young man's most difficult challenge. That came-after an embarrassing run at the presidency in 1988-in '98 after Bill Clinton fessed up to his romps with Monica. Gore can moan from now till eternity about the pair of deuces his boss dealt him, but when Clinton admitted perjury to the nation, the Vice President was handed the top job, as if it were a martini on a silver tray toted by a butler at a Hollywood fundraiser.

But Gore wasn't drinking. He turned down the opportunity to resign his post and become the titular head of the Democratic Party, the cleanest politician-chastened by the financial swindles of the '96 reelection campaign-in the United States. Mister Integrity, Brother Integrity, Sister Integrity, Se=F1or Integrity: in every region of the country, he woulda been da man! Adding to the Democrats' hear-no-evil base of blacks, trial lawyers, union members, gays, showbiz nitwits and billionaires who've long ago provided for their heirs, Gore would've won over the swing voters and goo-goos who were disgusted by Clinton's serial lying in the White House.

It's likely George W. Bush, the GOP's best hope for 2000, would've studied the odds and taken an El Paso, deferring a run until 2004 or 2008. Some Republican retread would've been nominated-Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole, Strom Thurmond-and trounced.

Gore not only played it safe, but vouched for Clinton the day he was impeached. Then he conducted a disorganized populist campaign, bombed in the debates and was defeated, even though the country was at peace and citizens didn't yet know that the economic boom was over.

After the Clintons' shameless departure from the White House, and the ensuing furor over the ex-president's pardons, not to mention Terry McAuliffe's hijacking of the Democratic National Committee chair, what does Gore do? He goes underground. Then, at his first major media appearance after Bush's inauguration, a lecture at Columbia University's Journalism School, Gore, with the associate dean's approval, silenced the attendees, insisting that his words of wisdom were off the record and closed to the working press. At a journalism school!

JWR's Nat Hentoff wrote an insightful piece for the Village Voice last week (Feb. 21) excoriating both Columbia and Gore for this egregious hypocrisy. He said: "Dick Wald [a professor there whom Hentoff admires] thinks the Gore story will blow over in a month or so. I doubt it. It will be remembered that this famed journalism school did not have the integrity-or the respect for its students-to tell Gore that if he insisted on gagging the students, he should go lecture somewhere else. Why didn't any of the professors, themselves journalists, publicly object to the gag rule?"

Here's my take: Journalism schools are staffed mainly by hacks who have either retired from the news business or are too lazy to actually work for a living. I can't understand why any young person interested in the profession would flush some $20,000 down the toilet for a meaningless degree, taking classes instead of gaining actual experience by writing every day, whether for a chain daily, a weekly newspaper or a mom 'n' pop publication in, say, Macon, GA.

It's true that papers like The New York Times and Washington Post unofficially require some stamp of elitist approval-whether it's a sheepskin from an Ivy League college or journalism school, or a family connection-but most of the best journalists in the country start from scratch. Which means covering mindless zoning meetings or high school basketball games, working rewrite desk assignments, making trips to the morgue or eating hotdogs with candidates for town supervisor. Another route is working at a paper like the Phoenix New Times, New York Press or San Diego Reader and taking advantage of the column inches offered for exhaustive investigative or personal journalism-and who cares what the wages are. If a kid is truly consumed by journalism, he won't worry about how little he earns, if it means an opportunity to develop a craft, a unique style of writing. Professors at journalism schools can't teach that; they're running one of the most blatant educational con jobs in the United States.

And you can blame that on the success of Woodward and Bernstein (who began his career as a lowly scrub) in the early 1970s, with their dogged pursuit of Richard Nixon and his coterie of coconspirators. Suddenly, the dynamics of journalism changed, and not for the better. Newsrooms began to resemble the antiseptic offices of accountants; reporters became more sanctimonious in their quest for The Truth (as well as Pulitzers and famous actors to portray them onscreen); and every major newspaper dispatched squads of writers to concoct some mind-numbing series of articles on issues of supposed national significance.

Fast-forward to 2001 and you have an industry that's largely intertwined (at least in Washington, New York and Los Angeles) with the government, where reporters and their natural antagonists-elected officials and the shills who carry briefcases and write their speeches-socialize after hours and yuk it up before and after cable talk shows. It's a miserable and deplorable evolution for a once-honorable, if not glitzy, calling, and journalism schools are part of the problem. A legend like H.L. Mencken, who lacked the funds or aristocratic bloodline to worm his way onto a daily, most likely would be shown the door at places like The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, or, G-d help us, The New York Times. He might not have made the cut at The Baltimore Sun! And that's one reason why the media in the United States is so bloodless and homogenized.

Craig Wolff, a professor at Columbia, wrote an op-ed for the Daily News on Feb. 23, castigating the media for its lack of interest in the former veep's second appearance at his school. He lectured all of the reporters who, not surprisingly, wanted to attend Gore's first major public outing after his hibernation. Wolff: "News stories and editorials chastised the school. Many of you, in your heat, misquoted, caricatured and otherwise sound-bited (or should I say sound-nibbled). My name-not really a toughie-was misspelled."

(Welcome to modern journalism, Craig. My name, Smith, a layup, has been misspelled as well in daily papers. Not to make excuses for lazy reporters, but Wolff has many variations: Wolf, Woolf, Wolfe, etc.)

Later in the article, the professor rides high on the Columbia Lion, coming up with this preposterous notion: "It was legitimate to question the school's policies regarding such a high-profile professor [Gore]. But what about this idea: A professor has the right to consider a classroom as a doctor and patient would an examination room. When I close that door, it's me and the students. It's private, exclusive. That's our pact."

As my mother used to say, Give me strength!

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2000, Russ Smith