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THE SHAPE OF CAMPAIGN 04 (PART 1)! Even on Fox, five pundits agreed—the press has been hammering Kerry:

TUESDAY, MAY 4, 2004

THE O’HOWLER FACTOR: This Thursday, our entire staff will join Al Franken on his semi-eponymous radio show. Air time for our segment: 12:30 Eastern. For the record, worried producers have voiced concern that we may be even funnier than Al! Incomparably, we said we were willing to tone it down for the overall good of the program.

By the way, did you think Jon Stewart was the first comedian to outdo the entire Washington press? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/04.) To see Franken explain the Gingrich Medicare plan—a task which confounded the press for two years—see “The Speaker’s new language, 7/20/96.” Warning—this is a long report. But Franken’s comical story about Margaret Warner appears about one-third of the way through. (It’s taken from his Rush Limbaugh book.) No, Warner isn’t a press corps bad guy. But we still think this is the best press anecdote we have ever heard.

For a shorter report on the same topic, see “A tale of three numbers, 11/8/96.” In fact, we recommend this short column. These facts were explained in Franken’s book—and almost nowhere in the national press.

The shape of Campaign 04 (part 1)

FOX KNOWS: Is the press corps driven by liberal bias? Not when it comes to our White House campaigns. Four years ago, the press corps largely pandered to Bush while directing two years worth of slanders at Gore. (Summaries all week; see example below.) And how are matters going now, as Kerry prepares to square off with Bush? Consider last Saturday’s Fox News Watch, on America’s fair-and-balanced channel. Host Eric Burns introduced the first segment with an essay on Kerry’s “bad press:”

BURNS: We begin today by talking about the bad press John Kerry is getting…The Washington Post says that “a fierce new attack has been launched against John Kerry in the media. The charge is that Kerry leaves people cold.” The Boston Globe points out Kerry’s “proclivity for doubletalk.” The network evening newscasts are doing stories about Kerry’s Vietnam war ribbons. And this week’s Newsweek wonders whether Kerry’s wife is a loose cannon. If I were younger, the way I would phrase this question is: What’s up with that?
This question, remember, was being posed on America’s most conservative news channel. And when Burns deferred to his four-member panel, one of America’s best-known conservatives quickly agreed with what he had said. Candidate Kerry is getting slammed, pundit Cal Thomas said:
THOMAS: There’s an amazing media piling-on here that I’m quite surprised at, frankly…But it really is amazing. In newspapers like the Village Voice, a traditionally left-wing paper, there was a column this week saying that Kerry is history, he’s not going to make it, he ought to step aside. The New York Observer, many other publications are saying the same thing and I wonder what in the world is going on here in the media?
Burns asked liberal panelist Jane Hall if she could answer Thomas’ question. “Well, so much for liberal bias in the media,” she said. “But the fact is, I think the media has never particularly cared for [Kerry]. And they are doing to him what they did to Al Gore.” We think that last remark overstates the case, a point we’ll explore throughout the week. But another conservative, pundit Jim Pinkerton, continued to detail the slams against Kerry. “Big Pink” recalled the way a well-known paper mocked Kerry for his “butler:”
PINKERTON: Well, Kerry has three problems. One is he’s not that likable. And he is sort of a snotty plutocrat type. The New York Times had an article about his butler and how he—whenever the senator needs peanut butter on there, for him to give him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I mean, it is not a very flattering article.
And no, it wasn’t a flattering article (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/04). Of course, the Times report never literally said that Kerry’s butler was out on the trail (or that he even had a butler). But no one corrected Pinkerton’s statement, and the pundits all enjoyed a good laugh at a quick riposte by Burns. “But it did indicate he treated his butler pretty nice,” the witty Fox host deftly said. As everyone knows, this is the way these idiot tales begin to infect a campaign. (By the way, Burns’ show really is fair and balanced. It’s clearly the best show on Fox.)

At any rate, Burns, Thomas, Pinkerton, Hall—all agreed that Candidate Kerry was getting slammed by the press. And pundit Neal Gabler made it unanimous. “The attacks against Kerry—as Jane said, they are exactly the same attacks that were leveled against Al Gore, one smear fits all, four years ago,” he said. Even on Fox, five pundits agreed—the press has been hammering Kerry.

Eventually, one last key point was made. Gabler blamed the usual suspects for the recurrent attacks on Kerry. In response, Pinkerton made an important point about where these attacks have been found:

GABLER: Well, the Republican National Committee gets out its spin-point. It’s amplified every day by Hannity, by Limbaugh, and all the other conservative radio news programs of which there are no liberal equivalents except on the five channels on Air America. It gets amplified on Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC, and then it becomes by default the story of the day. And the story of the day is always something negative about John Kerry.

PINKERTON: Hold on. Lest what Neal said be taken to be the truth, let’s go back to people pounding on Kerry. It’s the Boston Globe. It’s the New York Times. These are—this isn’t Rush Limbaugh doing it.

Is the RNC setting the news agenda? Such claims can be quite hard to trace. But all five pundits seemed to agree. Kerry was getting beaten up good—and the Dem was getting beaten up by “liberal” papers like the Times and the Globe.

So there you see the chat which occurred on our most conservative channel. All five pundits agreed—Candidate Kerry was getting slammed, by liberal rags like the Times and the Globe. No, we don’t believe that Kerry’s treatment matches the startling coverage of Gore. But it’s time to ask two important questions. First: What’s the current state of play as the Times and the Globe cover Kerry? And second: If Kerry is actually being mistreated, will “good guy” pundits dare to complain? Or will they hide beneath their desks, as they did in the case of Al Gore?

TOMORROW: Covering Kerry

THE WAY THEY WERE: How bad was the coverage of Candidate Gore? Few Americans know the extent of the press corps’ two-year War Against Gore. Let’s recall a startling survey, released almost four years ago.

In July 2000, the non-partisan Pew Center released a study of the Bush/Gore coverage from February through June 2000. Pew’s researchers studied the way our major press organs were treating the two presumptive nominees; in particular, they wanted to know how the “character” issue was being covered. According to its authors, the study “identified what we considered the six most common character themes in the race thus far, three for Bush and three for Gore.” Pew reviewed a range of TV broadcasts and newspaper/magazine stories for five separate weeks from February through June, trying to see how often the press had focussed on each of the six basic themes. All told, Pew examined 2004 newspaper stories and 400 TV/cable broadcasts.

Result? “If presidential elections are a battle for control of message through the media, George W. Bush has had the better of it on the question of character than Albert Gore Jr.,” Pew said. This summary was a vast understatement.

Which “character themes” did the study select? Again, Pew identified three common themes about each candidate. In each case, two themes were negative, one theme was positive. Here were the three common themes for Bush:

  1. Bush is a different kind of Republican (positive).
  2. Bush lacks the intelligence or knowledge for the job (negative).
  3. Bush has relied heavily on family connections to get where he is (negative).
Here were the three common themes for Gore:
  1. Gore is experienced and knowledgeable (positive).
  2. Gore is scandal-tainted (negative).
  3. Gore exaggerates or lies (negative).
In each case, the positive theme was a talking-point widely used by the campaign itself. Having identified these basic themes, Pew studied the print reports and TV broadcasts to see how often each theme had been mentioned.

The results of the study were startling. In Bush’s case, the positive theme—“Bush is a different kind of Republican”—was the dominant theme by far, found in 320 stories or broadcasts. By contrast, the most common Gore theme was negative—“Gore is scandal-tainted”—which was found in 344 reports. On balance, Gore’s negative themes appeared far more often. Indeed, the contrast between the two hopefuls was stunning. Here was the actual breakdown:

Gore: 613 negative stories, 132 positive stories (almost 5-1 negative)
Bush: 265 negative stories, 320 positive stories (roughly 4-3 positive)
Those numbers paint a startling portrait of the coverage in the spring of 2000, when it was clear that Bush and Gore would be the two nominees.

This study can only give a hint of the way Campaign 2000 was covered. And no, the press has not been waging a “war against Kerry” in the way it did with Gore. But these numbers help us recall the way the press can pound a disfavored hopeful. And they recall a sad part of Campaign 2000—the way “good guy” pundits hid beneath desks while the pounding of Gore was carried on.

Why did “liberal” pundits say so little about the two-year War Against Gore? individual cases, we simply can’t say. But “liberal” pundits hid beneath desks while a long string of slanders put Bush in the White House. All week, we’ll recall the inexcusable conduct of your timid “good guy” pundits. And we’ll ask a simple question: Do you plan to let these “good guys” hide beneath desks if the slanders roll out against John?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For a fuller discussion of the Pew study, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/02.

From the annals of total trivia

DUMB LIKE ON FOX: Chris Wallace continues to embarrass himself in his new role on Fox News Sunday. This Sunday, the growing problem at Abu Ghraib prison had plainly become the nation’s top news story. But when Wallace sat down with his “all-star” panel, he never raised the discouraging topic. What did Wallace find more important? Incredibly, here was the pandering pundit’s tease of a crucial concern:

WALLACE: We have to take a break here, but when we return, what could possibly have been more important to two members of the 9/11 commission than questioning the president and vice president? Stay tuned for the answer.
That’s right! Wallace didn’t ask his panel’s views on the unfolding disaster at Ghraib. Instead, he wasted time with a stupid discussion of why Lee Hamilton left the Bush session early.

But increasingly, that’s the shape of our political discourse. Silly scribes take total trivia and turn it into mind-numbing spin-points—trivia shaped for partisan ends. Readers, did you know that Candidate Kerry doesn’t make his own sandwiches? That he has a “glorified valet” to do that for him? To the mindless drones at the New York Times, this spin-heavy narrative was front-page news when they assembled last Wednesday’s edition. Three days later, Fox viewers heard bogus claims about Kerry’s “butler,” corrected by none of five panelists.

Campaign 2000 was driven by such total trivia, as we’ll recall later on this week. And the same will be true of Campaign 04, if pundits like Wallace are given their way. On Sunday, Wallace didn’t care about real news; instead, he cared about partisan trivia. It’s time we told such scribes to stop. Last week, E. J. Dionne stood up and complained. You’ll have to make other scribes do this.

By the way, how deep is the pundit addiction to trivia? As noted yesterday, here is Howard Kurtz’s idea of a “provocative analysis:”

KURTZ: Marlantes rendered Kerry as “a product of exclusive schools and a relatively blue-blooded lineage,” with a “somewhat mannered style” and “anchorman’s head of hair.”
Did you know that Kerry has a full head of hair? Trust us: They’ll never stop this on their own. Trust us: You will have to force them.