I am brokenhearted over the news of Eric Boehlert’s death in a bicycle accident this week, at 56. I need to say that first. My thoughts are with his wife, Tracy Breslin, and his children, Jane and Ben, whom he absolutely treasured.
Many fine journalists have written tributes to Eric’s insight and bravery in covering the media, and also his generosity and warmth as a colleague and friend. What more can I add? Well, we worked together at Salon for five years in the early 2000s, and I was frequently his editor. I went looking for some of his early pieces for us, and I found treasure. Whether even his admirers know it or not—and many do, but not all—Eric has been on the same story for the last 23 years: the callow, irresponsible way that our Beltway media has covered Democrats in these decades.
And he has fucking crushed it.
His first case study (to my knowledge) was on the lameness of most national political reporters as they covered Vice President Al Gore’s run for president. First, they puffed up his lackluster Democratic primary opponent, former senator Bill Bradley, and then fell in love with George W. Bush. That double-barreled campaign presaged the way the Beltway media would cover imperfect establishment Democratic leaders, from Gore (won the popular vote but lost the presidency) to Hillary Clinton (oh, same thing) to Joe Biden today (whew, won that popular vote—though unlike them, he faced a coup attempt). All with heinous consequences for our country and our democracy. Eric covered Gore and Clinton and Biden, too; it became his beat until his untimely death.
If we want to honor his memory, more of us should commit to his unflinching attention to the role of the media in creating the mess we’re in today.
Eric saw it all coming. First in the media’s bromance with Bill Bradley, a New York Knicks star (they were my team back then!), an admirable senator, but in no way the political titan Gore’s media detractors tried to create. On that story, he was tenacious in a way that caught our attention at Salon—though we had no favorite in the race—just because of the clear way he detailed media bias against Gore and for Bradley. We hired him, and when I edited him, I would marvel at—and to be honest, sometimes be overwhelmed by—the unrelenting way he marshaled so many quotes, so much polling data, and so many other details on behalf of his argument.
While I was of course on the left, I was actually new to mainstream, national Democratic politics when I got to Salon the year before. I was especially new to the way the titans of the media, some of whom I admired (a very few I still do), were so shallow, vain, mean, and given to following the pack.
Eric helped me see, belatedly, that the media always needs a horse race. The existing vice president coasting to the nomination was bad for everyone’s business. But more important, if you’re a campaign reporter trying to move up, Gore as juggernaut (and Gore as a person) was pegged as a “boring” story. It was the same mentality that gave Donald Trump universal, free, and malpractice-level media coverage in 2015 and ’16. (Let me say quickly: Bill Bradley was nowhere near as interesting as Trump, but also not at all monstrous, unlike TFG.)
Of course, Eric covered the whole Trump shit show too, going back to the carnival barker’s racist birther stunts, as did I.
Salon’s archives from those early years—our first few years of being a true news organization—have crumbled, like so many others’. But I was able to find a few pieces of Eric’s that I remember for their clear-eyed ferocity. Take “Gore’s premature obituary,” in which he showed how “the media hyped the vice president’s dip in the polls over the summer, but ignored his resurgence in the past month.” And brought receipts.
While the media panned Gore’s October 1999 performances, most prominent reporters ignored that it was his best month on the campaign trail—he’d opened up a 25-point lead over Bradley nationally, gaining 13 points on him in less than 30 days. Why were our trained political media professionals missing the story? Because they were sticking to their own storyline, that Gore was a bad candidate, running a worse campaign. Eric quotes the coverage of the Dartmouth town hall that month:
Gore was “clumsy,” “awkward,” “artificial,” “glib and occasionally smug” (USA Today’s Walter Shapiro); “the Eddie Haskell-Energizer Bunny” (Time’s Margaret Carlson) who “hit the Dartmouth stage yakking” (syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington). He appeared as “some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage [and] came across as a kind of manic political vaudevillian” (Slate’s Jacob Weisberg). He was dressed “like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station” (Washington Post’s Mary McGrory). And, “If you think that Al Gore won that debate, I think you’re tripping” (Washington Post’s Juan Williams).
He goes on to quote the take of Time’s Eric Pooley: “The 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out. Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd.”
Pooley Heathered it up himself in his Gore coverage, but he managed to nail our proud Beltway media’s biases there nonetheless.
By the time Gore crushed Bradley in the January 2000 Iowa caucuses, the solons of the press had a new line on him. No longer “clumsy” or a “political vaudevillian,” Gore was a “thug.”The legendary (not in a good way) Maureen Dowd compared him to Mafia don Tony Soprano in The New York Times. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan said there was only one reason Gore won Iowa: “He is aggressive and tough, and he is also mean.” Again, Eric showed that the two women weren’t alone, quoting writers we met in his earlier piece—and others—with their relentless attacks on Gore.
Gore has done little over the last three months but dish out an “onslaught” of “cheap shots” (Time’s Eric Pooley), and hatch a “diabolical” strategy in which he “passed up no opportunity to whack Bradley” (Slate’s Jacob Weisberg), and he’s been busy “demagoguing” (Washington Post’s Juan Williams). Gore is “a savage campaigner” (Fox News’ Brit Hume) who’s been “mangling the truth for political gain” (National Journal’s Stuart Taylor Jr.) and “relentless in attacking Bradley, hammering, needling, hectoring” (Washington Post’s Mary McGrory). Worse, the VP has been “trafficking in fear-mongering” (USA Today’s Walter Shapiro) and seems content to fight a “scorched-earth war” (San Francisco Examiner’s Chris Matthews).
From New Hampshire, the next month, heterodox (I don’t know what else to call him) then-journalist Mickey Kaus, also not a Gore fan, echoed Pooley earlier: “They hate Gore. They really do think he’s a liar. And a phony.”
It got worse when Gore secured the nomination and faced off against George W. Bush. Eric wrapped his just-before-election coverage with the somber, acidic piece titled “Gore’s too-willing executioners,” showing how “the political press has been armed with plenty of attitude in taking on the vice president—but not a lot of facts.”
Reporters, he argued, “have crudely inserted themselves into the presidential campaign with careless and misleading reports about Gore’s so-called exaggerations (journalists literally created Gore’s ‘Love Story,’ Love Canal and ‘inventing the Internet’ episodes out of whole cloth). In the process, they have become Gov. George Bush’s most potent allies.” In this piece, there’s no snappy paragraph of reporters’ bad takes I can share; instead, he takes apart faux-scandals with facts, over many paragraphs. You have to read it, if you care.
Meanwhile, I found plenty of fault with the Gore campaign that year. I’m not saying it was perfect. Or even good. I’m just saying Gore’s media executioners were indeed awful, self-serving, often deluded. And some are still with us.
You know who you are. And I’m sure you don’t give a shit right now.
I’m sharing these early Salon pieces at length, because it would become what Eric was known and loved for, from his years at Salon through a long tenure at Media Matters and lately, at his own PressRun site. He covered the despicable “but her e-mails” coverage of Hillary Clinton, painstakingly, over months (I wasn’t surprised that Clinton shared her condolences on Twitter). And lately he’d been on fire, at PressRun and on Twitter, where we regularly retweeted one another and commiserated about how much worse so many reporters and media organizations have gotten even since their non-glory days covering Al Gore, in direct messages and e-mail. As I often say: The sad mainstream media is trashing Biden as though his opponent were (semi-OK though he did race-bait in 2012) Mitt Romney. That is not what we’re dealing with.
I haven’t seen Eric since before the pandemic. We used to be regulars with MSNBC’s Joy Reid and sometimes All In with Chris Hayes. We often talked about getting drinks, and we did once, but usually he was anxious to get back to Montclair, N.J., and his family.
I want to quote a lot of his final PressRun column here—“Why is the press rooting against Biden?”and “burying great news,” as he put it—because it shares so much with his early Gore media criticism. I read his post on Monday as I thought about my own writing for the week, and I decided I couldn’t make his point any better. If I could have written it first, I would have. So here a lot of it is, below. May his memory be a blessing, for his family and for all of us who knew and loved his integrity and his fervor.
This is how it’s done, people.
Like clockwork, the first Friday of the month brought another blockbuster jobs report. The U.S. economy under President Joe Biden added another 400,000-plus new jobs in March, it was announced last week.
Biden is currently on pace, during his first two full years in office, to oversee the creation of 10 million new jobs and an unemployment rate tumbling all the way down to 3 percent. That would be an unprecedented accomplishment in U.S. history. Context: In four years in office, Trump lost three million jobs, the worst record since Herbert Hoover.
Yet the press shrugs off the good news, determined to keep Biden pinned down. “The reality is that one strong jobs report does not snap the administration out of its current circumstances,” Politico stressed Friday afternoon. How about 11 straight strong job reports, would that do the trick? Because the U.S. economy under Biden has been adding more than 400,000 jobs per month for 11 straight months.
The glaring disconnect between reality and how the press depicts White House accomplishments means a key question lingers: Why is the press rooting against Biden? Is the press either hoping for a Trump return to the White House, or at least committed to keeping Biden down so the 2024 rematch will be close and ‘entertaining’ for the press to cover?…
Axios contorted itself by claiming Biden’s promise to add “millions” of new jobs (which he’s already accomplished), was being threatened because there aren’t enough workers, because so few people are out of work—or something.
Totally normal journalism, right? The president announces another blockbuster jobs report and the press presents it as borderline bad news….
That’s why, according to a recent poll, 37 percent of Americans think the economy lost jobs over the last year, when it’s gained 7 million. (Just 28 percent of people know jobs were up.)
Virtually all the Beltway coverage today agrees on this central point: When it comes to the economy, Biden’s approval rating is taking a hit because Americans are freaked out by inflation. But maybe it’s taking a hit because Americans are under the false impression that jobs are disappearing. Voters don’t know what they don’t know because the press isn’t interested in telling them about record job success and an economy that’s years ahead of where experts thought it would be coming out of a global pandemic.
Biden is facing not just one organized opposition in the form of the GOP but another in the form of the Beltway press corps. The Beltway press needs to take its thumb off the Biden scale.
Eric began all of his posts:
And I can’t end mine any better. We’ve all got to improve our work to make up for this loss, at a time when we need clear-eyed media critics more than ever. Be healthy, be kind, be vigilant—and have fun. I know he would add that.