Grading Silber and the Media

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."