Press Corps Keeps Anti-Kerry Distortions Alive
August 30, 2004
A group of Vietnam veterans called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have managed to dominate campaign coverage recently with a series of inaccurate and unfounded allegations about John Kerry's Vietnam War service. But instead of debunking the group's TV ads and numerous media appearances, the press corps has devoted hours of broadcast time and considerable print attention to the group's message.
At times, some reporters seem to suggest that the Swift Boat coverage is being driven by some external force that they cannot control. "The ad war, at least over John Kerry's service in Vietnam, has for the moment effectively blocked out everything else," explained MSNBC's David Shuster (8/23/04)-- as if the media are not the ones responsible for deciding which issues were being "blocked out."
The New York Times similarly noted (8/20/04) that the group "catapulted itself to the forefront of the presidential campaign," while Fox News reporter Carl Cameron (8/23/04) suggested that "the controversy has completely knocked Kerry off message, and the political impasse suggests the story is not going away any time soon."
That "impasse" is largely the result of the media's failure to sufficiently compare the Swift Boat charges to the available military records and eyewitness accounts. Even a cursory examination of the available evidence reveals fatal flaws in the group's charges, which fly in the face of all documentary evidence, and the testimony of almost every person present when Kerry earned his medals.
Larry Thurlow, the Swift Boat Vet who claims that Kerry was not under enemy fire when he earned his Bronze Star, himself earned a Bronze Star for actions under enemy fire in the same incident. Louis Letson, who claims to have treated the wound that earned Kerry his first Purple Heart, is not the medic listed in medical records as having treated Kerry. John O'Neill, the leader of the group, has said that Kerry would have been "court-martialed" had he crossed the border into Cambodia-- but O'Neill is on tape telling President Richard Nixon that he himself had been in Cambodia. Several members of the group are on the record praising Kerry's leadership. And so on.
Imagine that the situation were reversed: What if all available documentary records showed that George W. Bush had completed his stint in the Air National Guard with flying colors? What if virtually every member of his unit said he had been there the whole time, and had done a great job? Suppose a group of fiercely partisan Democrats who had served in the Guard at the same time came forward to say that the documents and the first-hand testimony were wrong, and that Bush really hadn't been present for his Guard service. Would members of the press really have a hard time figuring out who was telling the truth in this situation? And how much coverage would they give to the Democrats' easily discredited charges?
But when Kerry is the target of the attacks, many journalists seem content to monitor the flow of charges and counter-charges, passing no judgment on the merits of the accusations but merely reporting how they seem to affect the tone of the campaign. As the Associated Press put it (8/24/04), Kerry "has been struggling in recent days against charges-- denounced by Democrats as smear tactics -- that he lied about his actions in Vietnam that won five military medals." Credible charges or smears? AP's readers could only use their own personal opinions of Democrats to judge.
To CNN, even the awarding of the medals became a matter of debate: "They're not just attacking the medals that John Kerry might have won," reporter Daryn Kagan said of the Swift Boat Vets (8/24/04).
The notion that reporters cannot pass some reasonable judgment about the ads was common. "There is no way that journalism can satisfy those who think that Kerry is a liar or that Swift Boat Veterans For Truth are liars," asserted NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving (NPR.org, 8/25/04).
When asked if the Swift Boat ads, along with other ads critical of Bush, were accurate, CNN's Bill Schneider (8/24/04) demurred: "I don't have an answer because I haven't systematically looked at all those ads. Certainly, the Swift Boat Veterans' ads-- that first ad has been looked at with great care. And what the Washington Post concluded on Sunday was those allegations have remained unproved." At this point, the 60-second ad had been a major political controversy for weeks-- and CNN's senior political analyst couldn't find the time to figure out whether it was accurate or not?
An editorial in the L.A. Times (8/24/04) noted that the problem is not that reporters can't say whether the charges are true-- it's that they don't want to say: "The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over...Kerry's service in Vietnam."
One suspects that the "canons of the profession" would be interpreted differently if, for example, Republican Sen. John McCain was the target of similarly unsubstantiated charges about his military service from a partisan Democratic group.
And the editorial went on to fall prey to another journalistic convention-- finding blame on both sides, even when only one side is at fault-- when it equated the Swift Boat Vets with "MoveOn.org, which is running nasty ads about Bush's avoidance of service in Vietnam."
Just as the Swift Boat Vets are "funded by conservative groups that interlock with Bush's world in various ways," the L.A. Times said MoveOn is "part of Kerry's general milieu," and "either man could shut down the groups working on his behalf if he wanted to." The only difference that the editorial acknowledged is that while the MoveOn campaign is ''nasty and personal,'' the Swift Boat Vets ads are ''nasty, personal and false.''
Never mind that MoveOn is a grassroots organization with 2 million members, founded in 1998 when Kerry was merely the junior senator from Massachusetts, while the Swift Boat Vets have no more independent existence than the ''Republicans for Clean Air,'' which attacked McCain in the 2000 primaries and then disappeared.
But to many journalists, finding some way to criticize both sides is much easier-- and politically safer-- than examining evidence to try to determine the truth. CNN's Candy Crowley (8/6/04), for example, said to Kerry political director Steve Elmendorf: "There have been ads out there that have compared the president to Hitler, that have been really, really tough ads." That comparison makes little sense, though; the Hitler "ads" were submissions by individuals to MoveOn's ad contest, and were removed from the group's website when they were discovered.
Another way of drawing a false equivalence is by talking about the "negativity" of both sides. CNN's John Mercurio (CNN.com, 8/20/04) wrote that Kerry's comments responding to the Swift Boat charges "were notable--if only because they revealed how negative, and how responsive, both campaigns have become this year." One would think, rather, that they showed how negative one campaign was and how responsive the other was.
Jim Rutenberg and Kate Zernike of the New York Times wrote a similar article (8/22/04), lamenting that while "this was supposed to be the positive campaign," both sides have discovered that "negative ads work." As evidence, the reporters noted that "Bush has spent the majority of the more than $100 million he has spent on television advertisements attacking his Democratic opponent."
This is presumably a reference to a Washington Post survey (5/31/04) that found that 75 percent of Bush's ads were negative. Not mentioned, however, was the Post's finding in the same story that Kerry's ads were only 27 percent negative.
Including that fact would have spoiled the premise of the article, that the sin of negativity is committed equally by both sides. But sometimes the truth is not somewhere in the middle.
Covering the Convention:
Media Pack Stick to the Script at DNC
August 4, 2004
Every four years, journalists complain about the same thing: Political conventions are dull, scripted and almost entirely devoid of any "real news." Though the argument is illogical at best-- most events in a political campaign are "scripted," but journalists still find a way to cover them-- it probably explains why the networks decided to provide just three hours of prime-time coverage of the Democratic convention in Boston last week.
Reporters and pundits tend to look for appealing storylines that they can promote throughout their coverage, and the Democratic convention was no different. Much of the broadcast coverage was framed by the idea that the Democrats were primarily concerned with setting a "positive" tone-- that the party elite and John Kerry wanted to blunt any serious criticisms of George W. Bush and accentuate the positive aspects of the Kerry-Edwards ticket. The New York Times (7/26/04) claimed that "the word has gone out from Sen. John Kerry himself that speakers must accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." The piece did not actually quote Kerry or anyone from his campaign saying this; in fact, the paper noted that one spokesperson explained that speakers' remarks "would be going through the same vetting process that conventions have used for decades."
Nonetheless, the idea was echoed throughout the media: Reporter John Roberts told CBS Evening News viewers on the same day as the Times piece that "the edict has gone down from Democratic leaders, for all of the speakers here, all of the celebrities and everyone else who will be attending, to keep the message positive. Don't get lost in the negative campaign. Don't get lost in the message about the Republicans as opposed to the message about the Democrats."
Despite the perennial complaints from media that conventions are too scripted, many in the press corps seemed most interested in policing the convention for anyone who might stray from this script. Their golden opportunity came when former presidential contender Al Sharpton spoke (7/28/04). The MSNBC pundits were none too thrilled about Sharpton before he took to the podium, deriding his effect on the entire primary process: Chris Matthews asserted that Sharpton "probably hurt this campaign. He was a humorist. Everything was a joke." Newsweek's Howard Fineman agreed that Sharpton's campaign "was not to be taken seriously, frankly." Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin asked the panelists to "think of the contrast between Jesse Jackson in '88…. or you think of Obama the other night, last night, where he's a future candidate." Goodwin didn't make clear why Sharpton could only be compared to other African Americans. Nor did Fineman, noting derisively that Sharpton "stayed first class wherever he went," explain where he thought Sharpton ought to have been staying on the campaign trail.
The response from the convention delegates to Sharpton's address was very enthusiastic, but MSNBC actually cut away from the speech in order to resume its panel discussion, where the pundits were having a markedly different reaction. Matthews pondered: "I have got to wonder tonight, Howard and Doris, if this is doing any good for the Democratic Party. They're trying to reach those middle 20 percent." Fineman echoed his consternation, saying he was "very surprised, given the way the Kerry campaign has tried to control and modulate this message here. They didn't need to do this tonight. African-American voters are going turn out in droves for John Kerry and John Edwards regardless. They will walk through walls for them…. He is the only guy-- he could actually turn off the black vote, yes." Goodwin concurred: "In fact, the yelling in the rally right now is like chalk on a board, a blackboard. It's grating. You can't bear to listen to it." Instead, MSNBC viewers were treated to more analysis on the order of this from Fineman: "I think, frankly, it's an insult. It's an insult, I think, as an outsider, to African-American voters that they're giving this guy as much time as they are."
Matthews finally summed up MSNBC's vision of public service: "We're doing a favor to the Democratic party right now. This is a partisan act. We've taken him off the air." The pundits shared a laugh, before Fineman added: "It's completely counterproductive to what the aim of tonight was, to introduce John Edwards as the spokesman of and tribune of rural people, moderate voters, you know, not necessarily African-Americans, who are already in the camp, already in the camp of the Democratic Party."
Interviewing Sharpton after he spoke, even NBC anchor Brian Williams appeared clueless about Sharpton's speech, referring to the "teleprompter that just sat there for what seemed like a half-hour while you did a riff on whatever you did a riff on." Has it really come down to reporters taking politicians to task for *not* just reading off a teleprompter?
Amplifying GOP Spin
Media obsession over the Democratic party's imagined drift to the left is another hardy perennial. Before the convention got underway, CNN's Jeff Greenfield had a novel suggestion for how the Democrats could inoculate themselves: They could pay tribute to Ronald Reagan. Citing "a real appetite for a less polarized slash-and-burn kind of politics," Greenfield said the party (6/30/04) could "cheerfully acknowledge that they had real disagreements with Reagan while saluting his eloquence and some of his more liberal ideas" -- including his "pushing for democracy in Latin America," a region where the actual Reagan endorsed and supported dictatorships that killed tens of thousands of their citizens.
New York Times reporter R.W. Apple made the typical case against the party, its nominee and its host city (7/26/04): "By coming to Boston to anoint their presidential candidate, the Democrats are italicizing an uncomfortable reality: He comes from a city much of the country regards as the headquarters of the pointy-headed left." Apple added that Kerry "will have to fight this week against the impression that he is the liberal nominee of a liberal party meeting in the mecca of liberalism." Of course, those "impressions" of Kerry are often supplied by the media, which during the convention were giving ample space to Republicans to respond to the convention.
CNN seemed especially eager to feature immediate responses to Democratic speeches from not only Republican analysts, but from Bush-Cheney spokespeople. Following John Edwards' speech, CNN's Wolf Blitzer turned to Bush strategist Ralph Reed (7/28/04), who in rapid succession laid out a wholly deceptive case against Kerry: "He didn't talk about the fact that John Kerry has consistently over 19 years voted for higher taxes, deep cuts in intelligence and voted to cut or kill every major weapons system that's winning the war against terrorism." All of Reed's contentions are familiar, and have been thoroughly debunked (Extra!, 8/04; FAIR Media Advisory, 5/20/04). But Blitzer saw no need to challenge Reed's misrepresentations. While it's true that convention coverage should be more than just a succession of partisan speeches, real journalism requires that reporters evaluate the claims that are being heard by viewers-- not just follow partisan spin with partisan spin in the opposite direction.
But it wasn't just the guests who were putting such talking points front and center. As Blitzer himself put it (7/28/04), "One of the biggest problems that John Kerry has had is this Republican criticism that he flip-flops, that he votes one way, the next day, he votes another way. That is a serious criticism." Blitzer did not elaborate on what made that particular talking point "serious." Similarly, CNN's Judy Woodruff claimed (7/28/04) that the Bush-Cheney campaign "have produced reams of documents to back up votes that [Kerry] made in the United States Senate that they say show... he has not voted to support the kind of military spending that would create a strong America."
Actually, as a guest explained to Woodruff back in February (CNN, 2/25/04; see Extra!, 7-8/04), the documents the Republicans have produced focus on a single vote that Kerry cast back in 1991, presenting this vote against a Defense appropriations bill as a vote against ''every major weapons system." Nevertheless, Woodruff continued to echo the Republican line five months later (7/26/04): "You've got the Republicans practically camped outside the FleetCenter saying that what's going on here is an extreme makeover, that John Kerry has the most liberal voting record in the Senate, that he's voted against defense votes one after another, even though this convention is talking about a strong America. Are the Democrats going to be able to get away with it?" Whether the GOP would "get away" with distorting Kerry's record was apparently not a concern. The public, meanwhile, might be most concerned with whether media feel they can "get away" with reciting partisan talking points instead of reporting.
Many pundits depicted the Democrats as weak on national security and fighting terrorism-- based more on imagery than on any specific policies they advocate. When John Edwards pledged to hunt down terrorists ("You cannot run. You cannot hide. We will destroy you"), NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell ridiculed his appearance (MSNBC, 7/28/04): "That's the one line in the speech that didn't sound authentic…. He didn't seem to have the stature. He didn't look the part. He's going to destroy Al Qaeda? I mean, John Edwards against Osama bin Laden?" Host Chris Matthews chimed in, "You thought maybe he was going to sue Al Qaeda." Mitchell summed up: "He's too pretty to say that."
It might be helpful to keep such "analysis" in mind the next time the media complain about political candidates who avoid discussing the serious issues facing the country.
Extra!! August 2004
Covering the "Caged Hamster"
Media's picture of Kerry based on RNC distortions
By Peter Hart
"Like a caged hamster, Senator John Kerry is restless on the road," wrote the New York Times' Jodi Wilgoren (6/13/04), beginning a piece that promised "authentic insights" into the Democratic presidential candidate. Aside from the banalities (Kerry dislikes wearing suits on hot, humid days, and uses a cellphone more than John Glenn did when he ran for president in 1984), what's most striking about the piece is how closely it mirrors the Republican caricature of Kerry, portraying him as an elitist with "a prep-school cultivated competitive sensibility," whose speeches "are filled with multisyllabic upper-crust phrasing," and as a "contradictory" character who "is anything but simple and straightforward." Even his playing a musical instrument is portrayed as somehow weird and un-American: "And where former President Bill Clinton plays cards and President Bush turns to the treadmill, Senator Kerry strums his Spanish classical guitar in a kind of musical meditation."
Wilgoren's piece, with its effect of amplifying Bush campaign allegations about Kerry, is typical of 2004 presidential campaign coverage. This phenomenon is seen not only in the media's frequent forays into trivia, but also in their attempts to cover substantive issues—as in February, when the Republican National Committee (2/22/04) released a list of weapons systems that Kerry allegedly "voted against."
Partisan TV pundits like Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity (3/1/04) quickly echoed these charges, claiming, "He's voting against every major weapons system we now use in our military." The partisan Hannity's participation in the RNC's attack was perhaps to be expected, but he was not the only media figure to pass along the Republican allegations without examination. CNN anchor Judy Woodruff (2/25/04) framed the issue this way in an interview with Rep. Norm Dicks (D.-Wash.): "The Republicans list something like 13 different weapons systems that they say the record shows Senator Kerry voted against. The Patriot missile, the B-1 bomber, the Trident missile and on and on and on."
Embarrassingly, Dicks had to explain to Woodruff that most of the weapons "votes" weren't individual votes at all, but a single vote on the Pentagon's 1991 appropriations bill. Woodruff responded to this information with surprise: "Are you saying that all these weapons systems were part of one defense appropriations bill in 1991?"
But Woodruff wasn't alone. When Bush/Cheney campaign strategist Ralph Reed explained to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (2/3/04) that Kerry's record was one of "voting to dismantle 27 weapons systems," Blitzer responded to Reed's deceptive spin by turning to guest Ann Lewis of the Democratic National Committee and saying, "I think it's fair to say, Ann, that there's been some opposition research done."
One of the few reporters to take a serious look at the RNC's list—on which 10 of the 13 items refer to the single 1991 vote on an appropriations bill—was Slate's Fred Kaplan (2/25/04). Kaplan noted that 16 senators, including five Republicans, voted against the bill, and concluded that the claim against Kerry "reeks of rank dishonesty." Kaplan also pointed out that at the time of the 1991 vote, deeper cuts in military spending were being advocated by some prominent Republicans—including then-President George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who was secretary of defense at the time.
As Kaplan noted, Cheney appealed for more cuts from Congress: "You've squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don't fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements." Cheney went on to name the M-1 tank and the F-14 and F-16 fighters—all of which would later appear on the RNC's list—as systems that "we have enough of."
For many reporters, though, such facts weren't allowed to get in the way of what they seemed to consider the standard back-and-forth of a political campaign. Fox News Channel's Carl Cameron (2/27/04) was typical: "With the GOP attacking John Kerry's votes to cut defense over the years, the Democratic frontrunner, once again, counter-attacked what he calls the president's 'mishandling' of the war on terror." Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler (2/27/04) likewise noted that "the Bush campaign has criticized Kerry in recent days for voting against some increases in defense spending and military weapons programs during his 19-year congressional career." NBC anchor Tom Brokaw (3/2/04, MSNBC) also seemed to accept the charges at face value, noting that "the vice president just today was talking about [Kerry's] votes against the CIA budget, for example, intelligence budgets and also weapons systems. Isn't [Kerry] going to be very vulnerable come the fall when national security is such a big issue in this country?"
Brokaw alluded to a new allegation against Kerry that emerged in March: According to the Bush campaign, Sen. Kerry had tried to cut $1.5 billion from the intelligence budget, a move Bush called a "gutting." Though you wouldn't have known it from most of the coverage, the Washington Post noted on March 12 that Kerry's proposed cut was actually smaller than the eventual $3.8 billion cut passed by the Republican-led Congress, which focused on a mismanaged intelligence program that had accumulated excess funds. But some outlets aren't interested in such nuance. Later that day, on Fox News Channel's Special Report, panelist Juan Williams seemed to have read the Post article, arguing that Republicans had pushed the same kinds of cuts. Fellow Fox panelist Mort Kondracke cut him off: "That's Kerry propaganda."
It's good to see that pundits recognize the concept of propaganda; that might have helped them to interpret the Bush campaign's claim that Kerry has voted "for higher taxes" more than 350 times. This number, as commentators like Michael Kinsley pointed out (Washington Post, 3/24/04), is deeply misleading, counting votes to keep tax rates the same, or even to lower them by less than Republicans wanted, as votes for "higher taxes." Even with this dubious definition, the Republican list counts the same votes multiple times.
Nonetheless, some journalists allowed the charge to be repeated without correction. CBS reporter Byron Pitts (3/5/04), for example, announced a Republican claim that the Bush tax cuts would be in jeopardy under a Kerry administration, then turned to Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who stated, "Senator Kerry has voted for tax increases over 350 times." While Evans exaggerated an already misleading claim, CBS viewers were not told that there was anything questionable about the 350 figure.
On rare occasions, some outlets do step back and take a look at the big picture on truth in campaign advertising. A Washington Post report (5/31/04) on Bush and Kerry ads used rather blunt language in concluding that many of the claims made about Kerry by the Bush campaign—on issues like the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind and gasoline taxes—are simply false. According to the Post, the ads "distort Kerry's record and words to undermine the candidate or reinforce negative perceptions of him," with some ads amounting to a "torrent of misstatements."
When NBC Nightly News (4/6/04) invited Brooks Jackson of Factcheck.org to debunk misleading campaign ads, Jackson called the taxes allegation "so bogus," and dismissed another anti-Kerry ad about his alleged support for a gas tax increase. But anchor Brian Williams neutralized this attempt to set the record straight: "It is hard to tell fact from fiction," he concluded.
CNN's Inside Edition took this practice of amplifying GOP talking points to a new low with a segment (5/25/04) devoted to the notion that John Kerry seems, well, French. "He caught flak early in the campaign for his French connections," explained anchor Judy Woodruff. The "flak" seemed to consist of Republicans making fun of Kerry for either "looking French" or speaking the French language fluently. Anchor Wolf Blitzer got the ball rolling by announcing that "the French, of course, among other things helped to strain the alliance between the United States and its European allies over the war in Iraq." CNN then explained that Kerry has French family, and has summered in that country.
Then CNN turned the microphones on the American public. Random people interviewed on the street offered negative impressions of the French; they're uppity, arrogant, and even "international." That last word is trouble, at least to Woodruff: "A tricky word to be saddled with if you're running to lead a war-time White House and your relatives across the pond have not embraced the war."
Viewers may have been left wondering what to make of such a story: Various Republicans and right-wing pundits have done their best to turn a bigoted view of French people into a campaign issue. CNN took that bigotry and, rather than denouncing or criticizing it, decided to expand on it, connecting Kerry to various negative stereotypes about French people. Ironically, near the end of the piece Woodruff remarks that connecting Kerry to these negative feelings about the French might be dirty politics: "Some accused the GOP of speaking in code." The same charge could be made against CNN.
When not amplifying Bush talking points, media were focusing on Kerry's alleged gaffes or misstatements, ranging from convoluted explanations of his Senate voting record to whether or not he owns a sports utility vehicle. But while these relatively trivial aspects of John Kerry's record have come under intense and prolonged media scrutiny, journalists have shown a reluctance to highlight much more significant falsehoods by Kerry's main rival, George W. Bush (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/20/04).
Time magazine's May 10 story, "What Kerry Means to Say," is a typical example of recent Kerry coverage. After noting Kerry's opportunities to score points against a White House besieged by questions about Iraq, the September 11 commission and the Supreme Court, reporter Karen Tumulty asks, "But what did the challenger find himself talking about for three days? The answer is whether or not Kerry threw away his medals or his ribbons in the early 1970s."
Tumulty attributes this story line to a personal flaw in Kerry: The campaign has often been about the "traps that the Bush campaign is adept at setting for Kerry, and the personality trait that makes Kerry walk right into them." Of course, Kerry "found himself" talking about the distinctions between ribbons and medals because these were the topics that journalists were asking him about. And on occasions like the "medals" flap, the press corps seemed to smell blood, latching on to stories of dubious importance that seem to portray Kerry as faltering or changing course.
Thus, before the medals "controversy," media interest was centered on claims about Kerry's medical records from Vietnam. After Kerry pledged on NBC's Meet the Press to release medical records from his service in Vietnam, ABC World News Tonight (4/21/04) reported that Kerry's service "has become the subject of controversy" because some of his critics were raising doubts about his first Purple Heart. When the medical records did little to bolster their case, the press corps switched to another GOP spin point: Kerry didn't get the records out fast enough. ABC's report included a soundbite from RNC chair Ed Gillespie: "When President Bush committed to release all his military records on the same program, he kept his word. John Kerry should do the same." The fact that Bush took five days after his Meet the Press appearance to get his records out while Kerry took three did not deter media outlets from doing stories on this nonexistent issue. (Bush has yet to release his pay records or his final personnel evaluation, claiming that they are no longer available—Salon, 2/18/04—surely an issue of greater weight than how many days a document release took.)
Throughout the various reports of Kerry "missteps" is the sense that the Kerry campaign is in a state of disarray, and unable to deal with such problems: "Bad Timing as Kerry Slips Out of Picture," claimed one New York Times headline (4/1/04); "Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme, Democrats Fear," claimed another piece a month later (5/2/04).
The microscopic scrutiny the press corps pays to Kerry's statements is jarring, considering the obviously lenient attitude journalists takes when it comes to Bush's much more important "flip-flops." A Time magazine piece (4/12/04) wondered why Kerry's alleged inconsistencies were more important than Bush's. The magazine offered one explanation: "How tight the label sticks depends a lot on the impression voters have already formed, which means that a less well-known candidate can be vulnerable in ways a familiar one may not be." Not mentioned was the rather significant role played by the press corps in determining whether such a label "sticks."
Campaign Double Standards:
Kerry ''Missteps'' Get Lavish Media Attention, While Bush Falsehoods Ignored
May 20, 2004
Recent media coverage of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry has often focused on alleged gaffes or misstatements, ranging from convoluted explanations of his Senate voting record to whether or not he owns a sports utility vehicle. But while these relatively trivial aspects of John Kerry's record have come under intense and prolonged media scrutiny, journalists have shown a reluctance to highlight much more significant falsehoods or "gaffes" by Kerry's main rival, George W. Bush.
Time magazine's May 10 story, "What Kerry Meant to Say," is a typical example of recent Kerry coverage. After noting Kerry's opportunities to score points against a White House besieged by questions about Iraq, the September 11 commission and the Supreme Court, reporter Karen Tumulty asks, "'But what did the challenger find himself talking about for three days?' The answer is whether or not Kerry threw away his medals or his ribbons in the early 1970s."
Tumulty attributes this story line to a personal flaw in Kerry: The campaign has been largely about the "traps that the Bush campaign is adept at setting for Kerry, and the personality trait that makes Kerry walk right into them." In fact, of course, it's up to the media to decide what questions to ask candidates and which issues to run stories about. And again and again, the press corps has latched onto stories of dubious importance in order to portray Kerry as faltering or changing course.
After Kerry pledged on NBC's Meet the Press to release medical records from his service in Vietnam, ABC World News Tonight (4/21/04) reported that Kerry's service "has become the subject of controversy" because some of his critics were raising doubts about his first Purple Heart. When the medical records did little to bolster their case, the press corps switched to another GOP spin point: Kerry didn't get the records out fast enough. ABC's report included a soundbite from Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie: "When President Bush committed to release all his military records on the same program, he kept his word. John Kerry should do the same." The fact that Bush took five days after his Meet the Press appearance to get his full records out while Kerry took three did not deter media outlets from doing stories on this nonexistent issue.
While the press corps applies microscopic scrutiny to Kerry's statements, looking for evidence of misstatements or "flip-flops," Bush gets little criticism for making blatantly false assertions. Last July (7/14/03), Bush revised the history of the run-up to the Iraq war, claiming that Saddam Hussein refused to allow weapons inspectors into Iraq in late 2002: "Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." Of course, Iraq did allow U.N. weapons inspectors into the country in November 2002; they were withdrawn when war was imminent in March 2003.
Few reporters ever mentioned this substantive falsehood. NPR reporter Mara Liasson (7/17/03) called it "revisionist history," while the Washington Post (7/15/03) timidly noted: "The president's assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring." But most major news sources chose not to bring up Bush's false statement-- the New York Times was silent on the issue, as were the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS.
Bush's record is full of similar untrue statements: His claim that Enron's Ken Lay supported Bush's opponent in his 1994 gubernatorial race, when Lay actually contributed three times as much to Bush (ABC World News Tonight, 1/10/02); his insistence that the White House was not responsible for the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the U.S.S. Lincoln (New York Times, 10/29/03); his statement that in 2002 the economy "was pulling out of a recession that began before I took office" (when it actually started in March 2001-- Slate, 12/30/02); his assertion in a 2000 debate that in his tax cut plan, "by far the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder," when the bottom 50 percent really got roughly 10 percent of the benefits (Extra!, 1-2/01); his boast that "I've been to war" (Associated Press, 1/27/02)-- to list just a few.
In 2000, journalists seemed to be tailoring their coverage to a well-defined theme: "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore isn't straight enough," explained pundit Cokie Roberts (Washington Post, 10/15/00). The coverage so far in 2004 suggests that Kerry is now getting the Gore treatment (Daily Howler, 5/4/04).
But for Bush, the story line has changed; now reporters consider resolution to be Bush's defining trait. A day after a Bush press conference, New York Times reporter David Sanger (4/14/04) wrote that Bush's "singlemindedness" is the "hallmark of his presidency," seen by admirers as "his greatest strength" and by his critics as "a dangerous, never-change-course stubbornness." Washington Post columnist David Broder agreed, writing (4/15/04) that while Bush "will not be deflected from his chosen course by criticism or evidence of public doubts about the wisdom of his policies," that could be a good thing, since "this idealism forms an image of resolute leadership."
The idea of a leader who friends and foes alike say never changes his mind bears little resemblance to the actual George W. Bush, who has taken diametrically opposed stands on the need for a Homeland Security Department (Time, 4/26/04), an independent September 11 commission (Baltimore Sun, 3/31/04) and a patients' bill of rights (Political Animal, 3/21/04; Washington Post, 4/5/04). His flip-flop on "nation-building" was so pronounced that Comedy Central's Daily Show ( 4/30/03) once staged a debate on the subject with taped statements from Bush taking both sides. But if it doesn't match reality, the media image of a resolute Bush does conform remarkably well to Karl Rove's 2004 campaign slogan: "Steady Leadership in a Time of Change."
GOP Rhetoric on Kerry's Voting Record Goes Unchallenged
March 8, 2004
After John Kerry emerged as the likely Democratic nominee for president, the Republican National Committee (RNC) began criticizing his record on military spending. The campaign against Kerry's record escalated on February 22 when the RNC released a list of weapons systems that Kerry allegedly "voted against."
Republican spokespeople used this list to make sweeping claims about Kerry in the media: "I think the more that the president and the Republicans describe accurately-- they don't have to exaggerate at all; they just have to describe accurately and calmly-- what it means...to have voted against every major weapon system," Newt Gingrich declared on Fox's Hannity and Colmes (2/26/04), "I think if they stick to that and stick to the facts, Senator Kerry will react by saying that he's being smeared by his own record."
Partisan TV pundits like Sean Hannity quickly echoed these charges: "He's voting against every major weapons system we now use in our military," Hannity told his Fox News audience (3/1/04). Hannity's participation in the RNC's attack was perhaps to be expected, but he was not the only media figure to simply pass on the Republican allegations without examination. CNN anchor Judy Woodruff (2/25/04) framed the issue this way in an interview with Rep. Norm Dicks (D.-Wash.): "The Republicans list something like 13 different weapons systems that they say the record shows Senator Kerry voted against. The Patriot missile, the B-1 bomber, the Trident missile and on and on and on."
Embarrassingly, Dicks had to explain to Woodruff that most of the weapons "votes" weren't individual votes at all, but a single vote on the Pentagon's 1991 appropriations bill. Woodruff responded with surprise to this information: "Are you saying that all these weapons systems were part of one defense appropriations bill in 1991?"
But Woodruff wasn't alone. Appearing on CNN (2/3/04), Bush-Cheney campaign strategist Ralph Reed explained to anchor Wolf Blitzer that Kerry's record was one of "voting to dismantle 27 weapons systems, including the MX missile, the Pershing missile, the B-1, the B-2 stealth bomber, the F-16 fighter jet, the F-15 fighter jet, cutting another 18 programs, slashing intelligence spend by $2.85 billion, and voting to freeze defense spending for seven years." Blitzer responded by pointing out to guest Ann Lewis of the Democratic National Committee, "I think it's fair to say, Ann, that there's been some opposition research done."
For many reporters, the charges against Kerry's record were recorded as just part of the back-and-forth of a campaign: Fox News Channel's Carl Cameron (2/27/04) explained: "With the GOP attacking John Kerry's votes to cut defense over the years, the Democratic front-runner, once again, counter-attacked what he calls the president's 'mishandling' of the war on terror."
Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler (2/27/04) noted that "the Bush campaign has criticized Kerry in recent days for voting against some increases in defense spending and military weapons programs during his 19-year congressional career. Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said Kerry's policies would weaken the country's ability to win the war on terror."
NBC anchor Tom Brokaw (3/2/04, MSNBC) also seemed to accept the charges at face value, noticing that "the vice president just today was talking about his votes against the CIA budget, for example, intelligence budgets and also weapons systems. Isn't he [Kerry] going to be very vulnerable come the fall when national security is such a big issue in this country?
One of the few reporters to take a serious look at the RNC's list-- on which 10 of the 13 items refer to the single 1991 vote-- was Slate's Fred Kaplan (2/25/04). Kaplan noted that 16 senators, including five Republicans, voted against the bill. Kaplan concluded that the claim against Kerry "reeks of rank dishonesty."
Kaplan also pointed out that at the time of the 1991 vote, deeper cuts in military spending were being advocated by some prominent Republicans-- including then-President George H.W Bush and Dick Cheney, who was secretary of defense at the time. As Kaplan noted, Cheney appealed for more cuts from Congress: "You've squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don't fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements."
Cheney went to name the M-1 tank and the F-14 and F-16 fighters-- all of which appear on the RNC's list-- as "great systems" that "we have enough of."
Ironically, Cheney made the rounds on the cable channels on March 2, criticizing Kerry's record in terms parallel to the RNC's release. During an interview with Fox News Channel's Brit Hume, Cheney said: "What we're concerned about, what I'm concerned about, is his record in the United States Senate, where he clearly has over the years adopted a series of positions that indicate a desire to cut the defense budget, to cut the intelligence budget, to eliminate many major weapons programs."
Unfortunately, Hume failed to raise an important follow-up: Why was Cheney now criticizing Kerry for having essentially the same position Cheney advocated back in 1991?
The Bush/Cheney campaign plans to spend $133 million over the next several months in an effort to "redefine" Kerry (Sydney Morning Herald, 3/4/04). If this charge is an indication of the Republicans' approach, then the media would perform a valuable service if they took a keen interest in evaluating the accuracy of such campaign rhetoric.
Pundits to Kerry: Move Right
Same advice every four years
1. April 9, 2004
Every four years, loud voices in the media advise the Democratic presidential candidate to abandon progressive stances and occupy the political center. With Sen. John Kerry having emerged as the presumable nominee, the pundits are once again issuing the same prescription.
Time magazine's Joe Klein wrote (4/12/04) that Kerry needs to be bold: "The ideal step would be to make [Republican Senator] John McCain his choice for vice president and announce a government of national reconciliation composed of moderate Democrats and Republicans." Klein recommended making a "radical move to the middle, a campaign that looks and sounds different from the usual partisan claptrap."
Over at Newsweek (4/12/04), political reporter Howard Fineman had the same advice. In a column based on what anonymous "wise guys" are saying, Fineman says Kerry needs to craft "a coherent, centrist vision." As Fineman puts it, "There's room in the middle, wise guys insist." To Fineman and his unnamed experts, "Kerry can't occupy the center if he's defined as a mere liberal. He has the most liberal voting record in the Senate. What to do?" Fineman has the cure: Kerry should "run ads in battleground states reminding voters that he was a prosecutor and that he voted for welfare reform in 1996, a brave (for Massachusetts) stand that drew picketers to his home."
(Incidentally, the claim that Kerry has "the most liberal voting record in the Senate" is dubious. National Journal-- 2/27/04-- ranked him as having the most liberal record in 2003-- a finding based on candidate Kerry's votes on only 25 out of the 62 votes that the publication ranked as either liberal or conservative. In a more comprehensive, less subjective ordering of senators by voting-- voteview.uh.edu-- Kerry was the 25th most liberal voter, right in the center of the Democratic Party.)
And New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote on March 27 about his political dreams: "I want to wake up and read that John Kerry just asked John McCain to be his vice president." Friedman explained that's the only way to tackle the country's problems, "with a bipartisan spirit and bipartisan team."
The notion that the Democrats' problem is that they are too far left has been conventional wisdom for so long (Extra!, 9/92) that it's worth noting that this is not the only possible diagnosis. Many elections are won by the party most able to energize its base, which is why the Republicans have several times won the presidency with candidates who quite consciously moved away from the center, toward their party's ideological pole. Candidates who alienate their base-- for example, a Democrat who picked an anti-abortion running mate, or ran by touting support for limits on welfare-- are not guaranteed to pick up enough support from the center to make up for diminished support from their own side.
Both Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 took the pundits' move-to-the-right advice-- with little notable success. "Democrats' Platform Shows a Shift From Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980" was a New York Times headline in 1984 (7/22/84). The selection of conservative Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as Dukakis' running mate, wrote David Broder at the time (Washington Post, 7/14/88), "sent an unmistakable message to the activist constituencies of the Democratic Party that the days of litmus-test liberalism are over." Of course, after both Mondale and Dukakis were defeated in landslides, the conventional wisdom was that they hadn't moved to the right far enough.