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Indicting the Media

Is it time yet to start blaming the media?

Actually, this is an opportune moment for anyone with a left-of-center sensibility to whack mainstream news outlets for once again blowing the coverage of a presidential campaign. John Kerry has had a good stretch. He was deemed the winner of the first debate by most political reporters and reaped the benefit: upbeat coverage. The media also duly reported he had scored better than Bush in the polls on the second debate. So if I toss brickbats at the media at this point in time, I certainly cannot be accused of merely seeking a scapegoat for Kerry’s recent but pre-debate slide in the polls. No, this is a pre-emptive strike.

Here are the two main gripes. First, the mainstream media cover the presidential contest as a sporting event (a.k.a. the horserace complaint), and the major news outfits do a piss-poor job of evaluating the rhetoric and claims of candidates. There is, of course, nothing new about such bitching. Reporters have been treating the 2004 race much as they did the previous ones. In 2000, the stories about the first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush focused more on Gore’s sighs of exasperation than on the words of either contender. After that debate, CNN’s Larry King asked Nightline anchor Ted Koppel what he had made of all the point-counterpoint concerning the “top 1 percent, 1.3 trillion, 1.9 trillion bit.” King was referring to exchanges on Bush’s proposed tax cuts. Koppel answered, “Honestly, it turns my brains to mush. I can’t pretend for a minute that I’m really able to follow the argument of the debates. Parts of it, yes. Parts of it, I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.”

Come on. Koppel was certainly bright enough to report on the details (and false math) of Bush’s tax cuts and budget proposals, which were the most important aspects of his campaign platform. Yet Koppel threw up his hands, as the rest of the media zeroed in on Gore’s expressions and Bush’s ability to speak in whole sentences. Which is not unlike the media reaction to the first Bush-Kerry debate. Bush’s smirk drew as much attention as, if not more than, the ideas expressed by the candidates. I suppose this is understandable, since Bush’s facial moves were obvious water-cooler material.

Still, the political press devotes far more ink and airtime to the who’s up/who’s down question than to the policy differences between the men who would be president. A lot of those differences are obvious and don’t require tremendous explication in the media. But have you seen front-page stories on how Bush and Kerry approach the dilemma of global warming? (Bush has proposed a voluntary program to slow down the growth rate of industrial emissions that cause global warming; Kerry has joined the rest of the industrialized world in calling for reducing global-warming gases.) When the Washington Post did a story comparing Bush’s and Kerry’s health-care proposals, it buried the article and did not give it much space. The Swift vets’ (unsubstantiated) attacks on Kerry received more attention and prominence in the paper.

There are the occasional stories on the budget numbers of each candidate and other policy issues. But these are crowded out by reports on campaign tactics, staff changes and what the polls say. For months, the Republicans claimed that Kerry had no plan for Iraq, even though the Democrat had laid out specific proposals in speeches. The Bushies could get away with this phony line of attack because Kerry’s plan had received little media scrutiny.

 

Which brings me to the second gripe: the media’s general reluctance to vigorously truth-test the assertions made by candidates (or presidents). Bush has slammed Kerry for proposing a health-care plan that amounted to a “government takeover” of the health-care business. This is a completely false charge. Kerry had proposed tax breaks to businesses that voluntarily offer catastrophic health insurance to their workers. That is, he advocated a government handout, not a government takeover. How have the main news organs reacted to Bush’s bogus claim? They reported Bush’s attack on Kerry and then noted that the Kerry campaign disagreed. This is typical of the way the media usually handle such episodes. They convey what each side declares in a he-said/he-said fashion, and do not make a story of who is right or wrong.

A similar pattern occurred after the first debate. Bush walloped his rival for having taken the position that an American president should not use military force to defend U.S. national-security interests unless the action first passes a “global test.” But that is not what Kerry said. Asked by moderator Jim Lehrer to state his position on “the whole concept of pre-emptive war,” Kerry replied:

“The president always has the right . . . for [a] pre-emptive strike . . . No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But . . . you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”

But Bush was unencumbered by reality. Even though Kerry clearly said he would not seek other nations’ permission if a pre-emptive strike was “necessary,” Bush accused him of saying that he would. So how did the big-boy newspapers cover this to-do? The New York Times ran a piece headlined, “Bush Says Kerry’s Remarks Show Weakness on Security.” The Washington Post reported, “Bush Says Kerry Will Allow Foreign Vetoes.” Both articles did quote Kerry aides insisting that Bush was wrong — but only after focusing on Bush’s accusation. Each afforded better treatment to the charge (which was untrue) than to the reply (which was true) by defining Bush’s criticism of Kerry as the news of the day. Television news took the same tack. CNN reported that “Bush is going on the offensive,” “blasting Kerry” and “honing in on a suggestion that Kerry would launch a pre-emptive military strike as part of a ‘global test.’” It showed Bush saying that Kerry “would give foreign governments veto power over [U.S.] national-security decisions.” CNN noted that Kerry’s camp “says that Mr. Bush is taking what Senator Kerry says out of context.” But, as with the newspaper reports, CNN was letting Bush’s untrue statement determine the agenda. Why was it not news — even front-page news — that the president of the United States (a) did not understand a not-too-complex notion presented by his opponent or (b) purposefully mischaracterized a statement regarding a key issue of national security for his own political gain?

Following the debates this year, the major newspapers have run stories on the veracity of the candidates’ assertions. But in most cases, the articles are not given much play and, perhaps worse, they reinforce a misleading meta-story: Both candidates last night said things that were not accurate. After the vice-presidential debate, the Washington Post reported that John Edwards and Dick Cheney had each omitted “key facts.” But most of the significant examples came from Cheney. Despite such attempts at unduly evenhanded examinations, the overall dynamic of the political coverage is tit-for-tat, attack and counterattack, with reporters acting as stenographers rather than watchdogs. This works to the advantage of a candidate who has no compunction about lying. And the Bush campaign’s point is not to prove its charge but to foster the impression that Kerry is weak on national security. Headlines and news stories that report Bush’s (baseless) allegations in a straightforward manner aid and abet that effort.

This is important for Bush, for his strategy for the rest of the campaign clearly is to throw whatever he can at Kerry, true or not. His aides know that voters who are undecided at this stage in the race are generally not the type of people who will be predicating their final decision on a close and careful reading of the record. Instead, they will be voting on their impressions of the candidates — and these impressions can be shaped dramatically by untrue attacks carried by media more willing to be messenger than judge.