Professor Gore, Please Teach the Truth About Pols and Journalists

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Former vice president Al Gore addresses a luncheon

Dear Professor Gore,

First, congratulations on your new teaching gig at the Columbia Journalism School. Your years as a reporter in Tennessee and as a politician in Washington give you a unique perspective to impart to your students. Let me add — and I say this without meaning to offend — that your sometimes didactic campaign style and your affinity for lecturing during debates suggests that you're well-suited to your new profession.

But here's what I'd like to suggest. And that is, be genuinely candid about the true nexus that exists between journalism and politics. What I'm saying is that in your classes you should explode the implicit compact that exists between the press and politicians — a compact that does not serve the American people but the press and the politicians they cover.

Here's how it works — and you know this all too well. There are a lot of dumb politicians out there, and there are a lot of dumb journalists. The secret agreement is that the smart politicians don't ever reveal how dumb the dumb journalists are and the smart journalists never tell how dumb the dumb politicians are. Senators and congressmen never haul off and rail about how little reporters actually understand about the legislative process; and reporters never tell their readers or viewers, "Gee, Senator Dunwoodie doesn't have a clue as to what global warming is, and the only ozone he knows about is between his ears."

I've seen this from both sides myself. As a journalist, I've often been in the position of writing about things I didn't actually know a whole lot about. But like most in my profession I'm a reasonably quick study, and the trick is to seem like an authority even when you're not one. "Sure, I can write a story about the Federal Reserve by noon tomorrow," and you learn just enough to stay one step ahead of your editor and your audience.

Plus, I know from my experience working as a senior adviser for your old opponent Bill Bradley — I believe your spokesman sometimes referred to him as "Professor" Bradley during the primaries — how little reporters actually know about what's going on either inside a campaign or in government. I would read stories speculating about what someone was thinking or doing that were wildly off the mark, but you could never actually tell the reporter what a knucklehead she was because you didn't want to alienate her for the next story.

The reason that no one ever talks about this is that in places like Washington, D.C., reporters and politicians have a lot more that unites them than divides them — as Dubya might put it. Outside of the Beltway, there is a perception that the press and politicians have an adversarial relationship. This is a fiction. In Washington, one hand washes the other. There is a perennial favor bank and it works like this: The politician leaks something to the reporter that is in both of their interests, so that the reporter gets the scoop and the politician gets favorable press. And in return, the reporter tips off the pol to something that's coming down the pike. Everybody benefits.

I think it would also be instructive to tell your students what it really feels like to be at the center of a press scrum, to be hounded by hundreds of journalists trying to find out what you had for breakfast, to be written about and speculated about and mocked and venerated by folks you don't even know and never will. And how, through it all, you have to keep your own counsel, and can't get angry, at least in public. I'd like to hear about that myself.

But I guess if you're planning to run for president in 2004 — or to run for "reelection," as your supporters might put it — you won't be able to do any of this. You'll have to act like the system is working pretty well so that you have a chance to benefit from it four years from now. And Columbia, as you know, is not a bad place to plot from: that's where Dwight Eisenhower landed after the war in 1948, and he won the presidency four years later.