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Grading Silber and the Media

By Adam L. Berger

THE people voted, but the press pulled the strings. If not for the fiendish manipulation of the partisans at the Boston Globe and WCVB-TV (and The Crimson, perhaps), the wise people of Massachusetts would have chosen correctly.

Or so John Silber has contended. For Silber, who has been labeled in these pages the "Mount Vesuvius of Massachusetts politics," the press's venomous influence has been his dogma since the day he announced his candidacy. It remained so until--and even past--the bitter end: Last Wednesday, the disillusioned Silber told the Boston Globe that the press deserved an "F" for their coverage of his campaign.

Surely John Silber wishes that his tumultuous campaign will leave a legacy--some sort of political message to the state and to his followers. His views on education and health care reform are especially innovative and progressive. But if the recent behavior of Silber supporters is any indication, they took away from the campaign nothing more than a visceral hatred of the press. It's a shame.

Never was the collective and irrational vilification of the press any clearer than at the Silber election night reception. Even before the candidate's lead in the early returns had faded, a fraction of his diehard followers, gathered at the main ballroom of the Prudential Sheraton, were itching for a fight with the assembled media.

About an hour after the polls had closed, one angry supporter marched up to the press risers, where the television networks and newspapers had set up their equipment. He wore a hat and a denim jacket covered with pins and buttons.

"You don't tell us anything!" he bellowed at the correspondents and technical workers assembled on the platform. "Tonight, we'll tell you!" He huffed an exclamation mark and then stormed out to a weak applause. Several news correspondents flashed worried smiles.

Later in the evening, when Silber's defeat was apparent to all, I faced an especially hostile partisan. Standing with a reporter's notebook in hand, I was speaking quietly with a Harvard Silber supporter, waiting for the defeated candidate to appear onstage and deliver his concession speech.

"Hey," called a voice from behind me. "You don't care what happens. You journalists just want a fucking story." The story he referred to, I responded, was actally taking place in the weld camp across the street.

"This is my life here," he howled, pointing to the still-vacant stage. "And you don't give a damn."

Finally, several security guards overheard his shouting, and, signalling to one another, closed in on us. Our "conversation" ended abruptly.

SUCH incidents leave one with the troubling doubt: Was the anti-media fervor of silber followers based on a rational and well-considered critique of campaign coverage? Or was it, instead, an unthinking monkey-see-monkey-do mimicking of Silber's anti-press tirades?

The answer is a combination of both. Some clear-thinking Silberites were genuinely disappointed by what they perceived to be the media's lack of emphasis on the substantive issues; others like those at the election-night "party" (not drunk, by all indications) objected to the media with no rational grounds for doing so.

One zealot told me, with no supporting evidence whatsoever, that William F. Weld '66 would "ruin" the state. If so, then Silber would surely have done the same, since his positions were not fundamentally opposed to Weld's in any substantial manner. Both want to cut spending in the legislature (one by fiat, one by delicate trimming), both want to decrease regulation and increase incentives in education, both have proposed increasing the emphasis on hospice and home health care as opposed to nursing care. And so on.

With the latter group of supporters, Silber could be replaced by anyone and they would still be classic followers. If Silber were Bush, they would be liberal-bashers. If Silber were Kennedy, they would be the voice of a new generation. If Silber were Mao Ze-Dong, they would be the Red Guards.

The first group raises the more interesting questions. Surely they are correct in contending that the press focused on personalities rather than issues during the campaign. Headlines during the weeks leading to the election usually read something like: "Silber Offends Elderly in Televised Remark" or "Weld Ties Silber to Sen. Bulger" rather than "Experts Study Silber's Education Plan."

But that's nothing new--or nothing unique to Silber. Weld, as well as Sen. John F. Kerry and his Republican challenger James W. Rappaport, suffered the same fate at the hands of the media. Of course, Kerry and Rappaport brought it on themselves--lobbing political grenades at one another throughout their campaign--as when Rappaport accused Kerry of associating with "known" terrorist Guillermo Ungo, and when Kerry poked fun at Rappaport's deep campaign coffers.

But Silber, given mutiple opportunities to raise the level of reasoned discourse, set aside the chance for the sake of political expediency. In the second televised debate, for instance, Silber devoted three of his five turns to drill Weld on his support of the increasingly-unpopular Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT) petition, instead of using the time to challenge his rival on his education plans, his environmental initiatives or his civil rights record. By harping on one issue in order to squeeze all the political juice out of it, Silber insulted voters who were waiting (as he himself claimed to be) for a comprehensive look at the issues.

Any Silber partisan who claims the press ignored the Democratic candidate's position on civil rights, health care and education forgets that the candidate did so himself.

And as for Silber's environmental policy, well, there just wasn't one. You read that here--in one of the many papers despised by Silber staffers and supporters--several weeks ago.

SOME in the media would even contend, justifiably, that the Silber people have it all backwards. The candidate prided himself on the bluntness of his message, the disingenuity with which he attacked such problems as crime (refusing to give a speech in Dorcester to "a bunch of crack addicts") and health care (disputing the need for lengthy and fruitless hospital stays for the elderly) and the feminist movement (blaming working women for leading to the disruption of family unity).

But without the media, his frankness would never have reached the voters. He wanted to reap the benefits of his "straight shooting" style--but only if that reward was positive. If it impaired him, then the media was distorting his message.

Most Silber partisans also forget that without the media, their candidate would never have made it as far as he did. Silber was in danger of not receiving the requisite 15 percent of the votes at last June's Democratic state convention, but his high media image undoubtedly put him over the edge. Without that 15 percent, he would have gone the way of Alwin E. Hopfmann, an obscure bookstore owner who challenged U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1982, but could not come up with the necessary votes at the convention.

But there's no mistaking--John Silber has made more of an impression on state politics than Hopfmann ever did, and probably ever will.

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