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Run as fast as you can from conventional wisdom

DISCUSSIONS | May 22, 2006

Saul Friedman

1963 Nieman fellow; Columnist, Newsday

I've covered many campaigns for Knight, Knight-Ridder and Newsday. And for the past ten years, I've been writing "Gray Matters," a weekly column for Newsday, dealing with issues affecting older people. My comments grow out of both experiences.

1.     Run as fast as you can from what the great John Galbraith called the "conventional wisdom." For example, the Washington Post started things off in 2000 with the headline on a piece about Al Gore: "He's B-o-o-o-ring," and Gore was finished. From then on virtually every TV commentator, followed by so many writers, disparaged Gore as a Bore.  Nothing he did could shake it. Clearly he had a better grasp of the issues than Bush. But it was a kind of repeat of Reagan's jibe at Carter – “There you go again," which meant what? The point is that Gore was not a bore, or a policy wonk, or a nerd. But we rarely got past those television labels, and smart-ass commentatots who didn't understand the issues decided to make fun of Gore. Who’s laughing now?

2.     Another problem for the press in 2000, 2004, and even now, is the lack of knowledge on issues affecting seniors, particularly Medicare and Social Security. Perhaps that's because too many reporters are too young to know or understand the reasons these pillars of social insurance were passed. During the campaigns, Bush signaled his desire to privatize both programs. But the press didn't seem to understand the differences between Gore and Bush in 2000, and Kerry and Bush, when they debated Social Security. Having covered these issues for my column, I was appalled that most reporters assigned to the candidates had no idea how either program worked. They didn't know how Medicare was financed, or that Social Security was a pay-as-you go program and a "defined benefit" program. They didn't know the differences between defined benefit plans and their own 401(k)s. No wonder they took the conventional wisdom and perpetuated it.

Finally, I wonder if the youth movement has robbed political reporting of background, depth, experience and some knowledge of what came before their generation.

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