TUESDAY, MAY 4, 2004
THE OHOWLER 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 plana task which confounded the press for two yearssee The Speakers new language, 7/20/96. Warningthis is a long report. But Frankens comical story about Margaret Warner appears about one-third of the way through. (Its taken from his Rush Limbaugh book.) No, Warner isnt 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 Frankens bookand almost nowhere in the national press.
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 Saturdays Fox News Watch, on Americas fair-and-balanced channel. Host Eric Burns introduced the first segment with an essay on Kerrys 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 Kerrys proclivity for doubletalk. The network evening newscasts are doing stories about Kerrys Vietnam war ribbons. And this weeks Newsweek wonders whether Kerrys wife is a loose cannon. If I were younger, the way I would phrase this question is: Whats up with that?This question, remember, was being posed on Americas most conservative news channel. And when Burns deferred to his four-member panel, one of Americas best-known conservatives quickly agreed with what he had said. Candidate Kerry is getting slammed, pundit Cal Thomas said:
THOMAS: Theres an amazing media piling-on here that Im 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, hes 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 well 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 hes not that likable. And he is sort of a snotty plutocrat type. The New York Times had an article about his butler and how hewhenever 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 wasnt a flattering article (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/04). Of course, the Times report never literally said that Kerrys butler was out on the trail (or that he even had a butler). But no one corrected Pinkertons 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. Its clearly the best show on Fox.)
At any rate, Burns, Thomas, Pinkerton, Hallall agreed that Candidate Kerry was getting slammed by the press. And pundit Neal Gabler made it unanimous. The attacks against Kerryas 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 agreedthe 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. Its 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.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 goodand 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 agreedCandidate Kerry was getting slammed, by liberal rags like the Times and the Globe. No, we dont believe that Kerrys treatment matches the startling coverage of Gore. But its time to ask two important questions. First: Whats 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. Lets 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. Pews 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:
The results of the study were startling. In Bushs case, the positive themeBush is a different kind of Republicanwas the dominant theme by far, found in 320 stories or broadcasts. By contrast, the most common Gore theme was negativeGore is scandal-taintedwhich was found in 344 reports. On balance, Gores 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)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 2000the 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 cant say. But liberal pundits hid beneath desks while a long string of slanders put Bush in the White House. All week, well recall the inexcusable conduct of your timid good guy pundits. And well 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.
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 nations 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 pundits 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.Thats right! Wallace didnt ask his panels 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, thats the shape of our political discourse. Silly scribes take total trivia and turn it into mind-numbing spin-pointstrivia shaped for partisan ends. Readers, did you know that Candidate Kerry doesnt 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 Wednesdays edition. Three days later, Fox viewers heard bogus claims about Kerrys butler, corrected by none of five panelists.
Campaign 2000 was driven by such total trivia, as well 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 didnt care about real news; instead, he cared about partisan trivia. Its time we told such scribes to stop. Last week, E. J. Dionne stood up and complained. Youll have to make other scribes do this.
By the way, how deep is the pundit addiction to trivia? As noted yesterday, here is Howard Kurtzs 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 anchormans head of hair.Did you know that Kerry has a full head of hair? Trust us: Theyll never stop this on their own. Trust us: You will have to force them.