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Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2000 / 14 Elul, 5760

Tony Snow

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How a scandal spins -- RICHARD BERKE of The New York Times is one of the gentlest, most unassuming souls in the world of journalism. He speaks quietly, moves without fanfare and does his best to blend into the scenery when covering a story.

During a sabbatical at Harvard a few years back, his classmates lovingly called him "the Beave." He would smile shyly at the jape and then go about his business -- attending classes, taking notes, inviting colleagues to deliver lectures and doing chores the other kids avoided. Such utter earnestness has made him one of the nation's best-liked and most influential political scribes.

But last week, the Gore campaign suckered journalism's Mr. Nice Guy --- big time. An unnamed political functionary alerted Berke about a Republican ad blasting Al Gore's health-care plan in which one frame -- one-twelfth of one second -- featured the last four letters of the word "bureaucrats."

I know a fair amount about the story because I was the first to report it.

Two of my colleagues at Fox News, Andy Schwartz and Jim Eldridge, spied the "rats" while screening the ad on Aug. 28. That evening, we put the whole thing on Fox News Channel -- stopping the tape for the seemingly inadvertent reference to vermin. Everyone who saw it had a good laugh.

Our publicity department dutifully contacted a number of papers, including The New York Times, and even placed a follow-up call to the Times. But nobody bit on the story, presumably because they understood that in moving the word "bureaucrats" from left to right across a television screen, the final four letters naturally would appear together.

So the whole thing vanished -- until, on a slow news day in a laggardly news week, the Gore campaign called Berke with its "scoop." It said a clever viewer in Seattle had noticed the "r" word in a Republican ad, insinuating that the rodentine reference constituted dirty, lowdown, filthy politics at its worst.

Berke snapped at the bait. He wrote a piece, which the Times splashed across its front page. It alleged deep and troubling ugliness in the heart of the Republican camp -- all because of four letters only a highly vigilant viewer would notice. The story fingered Alex Castellanos, a GOP ad man, and fulsomely quoted some of Castellanos' most ardent enemies. It gave him a sentence or two for rebuttal.

The original item carried no mention of Fox News, meaning Berke had no idea he had been fooled into touting a stale story about an ad scheduled to go off the air the day his piece appeared. Gore operatives thus transformed the Times into a purveyor of all the news that's fit to reprint.

Let's put the matter in perspective. The spot criticized Gore's plan to replace garden-variety HMOs with the Godzilla of HMOs, a giant federal health-care plan -- and to force all senior citizens to get their medicine from Uncle Sam. The spot warned that under such a scheme, we would have to entrust our very lives to that most hated of species: bureaucrats.

This allegation is true. Gore is fighting to make working families fill out forms and stand in long lines so they can battle over scraps of "targeted" help he proposes to give. Ironically, the "rats" characterization comports with Gore's stated position, which is that people shouldn't have to submit to the steely discipline of paper-pushing, pencil-licking, benefit-denying accountants.

But the press didn't do its homework in this case. Instead, it invited a feeding frenzy. Castellanos' detractors branded him the Darth Vader of political advertising. Commentators grimly debated subliminal advertising. And William Kennard, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, promised a full probe -- if someone would request one (hint, hint).

Reporters overlooked: 1) the actual argument presented by the ad, 2) the fact that the Times got the story from Fox two weeks earlier but printed it only after prompting from the Gore campaign, 3) Gore's stated hatred of bean-counting lowlifes and 4) the fact that the word in question was not referring to Gore or anybody in his campaign.

Yet, let us assume the very "worst." Suppose Castellanos deliberately plotted to truncate "bureaucrats" to "rats" for one-twelfth of a second.

What's wrong with that? Does anyone feel a surge of dignity and liberty when being forced to submit to distant, disembodied clerks? And does anybody think for a moment the Gore campaign wouldn't be hooting with derision if the Republican Party had said something nice about bureaucrats -- for instance, that they didn't deserve all these malevolent press hits? (Note to reporters: please read nothing into the last five letters of the previous sentence.)

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