MediaWatch: October 1990

Vol. Four No. 10

Reporters Despise Anti-Dukakis Candidate



John Silber, on leave as President of Boston University, took on cherished liberal nostrums during his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. In questioning liberal welfare policies, criticizing radical feminists and equating abortion with homicide, he became the object of liberal disgust, and naturally the candidate most despised by the media. Despite trailing badly in polls from June to days before the September 18 primary, Silber won.

Back on May 24 a poll showed Silber slightly ahead of his two liberal opponents. The Boston Globe jumped to action, running a front-page story the next morning, "Silber's Style, Effectiveness as BU Chief Challenged." Two days later the Globe attacked again. Under the headline "A Stark Campaign, A Grim Vision," reporter Curtis Wilkie began: "John Silber's insurgent campaign is essentially a joyless exercise, evoking grim visions of gangland violence, welfare mothers 'spaced out on crack' with neglected infants in soiled diapers, 'simple-minded' politicians and economic disaster." Turning personal, Wilkie asserted "the stark message is usually delivered in a monotone, virtually stripped of emotion," before concluding Silber "seemed the sternest public figure in Massachusetts since Cotton Mather" of Salem Witch Trials fame.

"Archie Bunker with a PhD" read the June 18 Newsweek headline. Reporter Mark Starr focused on how "Silber has offended most of the key constituencies in the Democratic Party." All summer long the media highlighted these "Silber shockers," culminating in a mid-September reference by Silber to residents of a poor area as "drug addicts" which Washington Post reporter David Broder claimed created "a firestorm of controversy" that "has seemingly doomed his challenge." Silber reacted angrily when dogged by the remark during TV interviews, prompting Globe television critic Ed Siegel to write on September 13: "Silber once had a golden opportunity to be Governor of Massachusetts and today [he] might have a difficult time beating Dukakis if he were running."

Wilkie agreed, calling it "the self-immolation of his campaign ...almost as sensational and ruinous as the acts of Buddhist monks in Saigon who once set themselves on fire in front of cameras in an ultimate statement of protest. By reaching a white- hot intensity, Silber probably frightened away voters who represented his last possibility to win new support." USA Today insisted he "has been his own worst enemy" by "wounding himself." In the September 19 Post, reporter Christopher Daly wrote: "Silber gave a voice to the more conservative and disaffected Democrats but wounded himself repeatedly through a series of intemperate remarks." That was in a story reporting his victory.