As we head into the latest set of party conventions, with another step taken in the eventual obliteration of major network coverage–three one-hour slots instead of four this time around–one question bubbles up. If the major media are so hopelessly biased, isn’t this a salutary development for conservatives? Shouldn’t we clap for more Amazing Race 5 and Big Brother 5, and less liberal distortion?
It would be sad to sign on to a platform favoring less and less political news on the nation’s most widely watched channels. That sounds awfully sour on civic participation, and could be quickly mistaken for wanting to hide your political message under a bushel basket. The better approach is to understand that the more each person’s political exposure is incomplete, filtered, and edited, the more the media is in the driver’s seat with swing voters, guiding them along with only the press’s favored clips. Fuller views of both sides can only help conservatives. Otherwise, why would John Kerry have been so absent from the airwaves for three months while the media elite have pounded Bush week after week?
Now Kerry is in the spotlight, and finally the people can debate his ideas, and his plans, and his manner, and his supporters. Isn’t he a liberal? Isn’t he painfully stiff? Over the weekend, we heard a lot of talk about how he’s really human behind closed doors or off camera, the same “In Search Of” language we constantly heard about Al Gore. Reporters and pundits did not make a passionately lame case for Kerry the Centrist, which would be the usual pattern. (Yes, even in 1988, they claimed Michael Dukakis was a centrist.) Yesterday they seemed to suggest they knew that Kerry was a Ted Kennedy liberal, but that it was slightly unfair or uncivil–using language like “beating up” Kerry–to describe his voting record for what it is.
One test of major-media fairness in the coming days is how to fill in the picture as the Democrats spend four days offering further encomiums to John Kerry’s brief service in Vietnam. The test for the liberal media is whether they will offer the entire 1971 picture of Kerry, the antiwar antihero, smearing his fellow soldiers as war criminals before the Senate, as they laud his Vietnam service.
So far, even print media have been extremely reluctant to publicize the record from that time. Last Thursday, Dan Rather, in his pre-convention interview of John Kerry, gave a preview of how the Democratic standard-bearer’s anti-war history will be painted over. Instead of showing the clips that many Vietnam veterans find offensive, he merely allowed Kerry to bring up what he wanted to bring up, and left the rest off the table:
Rather: People say, look, John Kerry’s a war hero, and the record shows that you are, but can you be a war hero and be a leader of an anti-war movement?
Kerry: I was.
Rather: And you’re proud of that?
Kerry: You bet I am.
Rather: Make any mistakes in that regard?
Kerry: Yes, some language that I used, I’ve said before, I think was a little, you know, was reflective of a young man who was angry, a young man who felt disappointed by our own government leaders who had lied to us. I regret that I wasn’t perhaps more tuned into how something I said might affect somebody. But you learn. That’s the beauty of life.
Rather added to the slanted interview by turning Vietnam around on Bush: “Speaking of angry, have you ever had any anger about President Bush, who spent his time during the Vietnam War in the National Guard, running, in effect, a campaign that does its best to diminish your service in Vietnam? You have to be at least irritated by that, or have you been?”
Can Rather substantiate the charge that the Republican National Committee seeks to “diminish” Kerry’s service, or can he, at the very least, try to add a minimum of balance to the picture?
Last night, CNN and MSNBC finally arrived for a longer look at Kerry’s radical anti-war activism in 1971. Both shows aired Kerry’s infamous paragraph about how, with the full knowledge of commanders in the field, American soldiers killed, raped, maimed, tortured, poisoned, and electrified civilians, and shot cows and dogs for fun. MSNBC’s hour focused only on 1971, with long soundbites of Kerry speeches and TV appearances, and a few sharp retorts from his fellow veteran and debating opponent John O’Neill. But NBC’s Brian Williams also spent a lot of time playing Nixon White House tapes to underline (and at times exaggerate) Kerry’s role in ending the Vietnam War and the Nixon team’s efforts to practice the politics of personal destruction on him.
In a few spots, MSNBC played delaying games with the facts. Early on, we hear Nixon and his cronies dismissing Vietnam Veterans Against the War as filled with phony veterans, and we see Kerry on Meet the Press with his VVAW colleague Al Hubbard. The average viewer might conclude Nixon is creepily assassinating characters. But after several commercial breaks, MSNBC almost randomly points out–about 20 minutes too late–that Hubbard indeed did not serve in Vietnam.
For their part, CNN tried a broader biography, but it also was curiously spotty in places. Neither network noted when Kerry left VVAW and why (one reason: the group debated assassinating U.S. senators at a convention in Kansas City, an unpleasant memory in the present era of terrorism). CNN’s hour was also strange in that it focused so little on Kerry’s family life. Early on, there was quite a bit of time devoted to his overseas schooling, but almost zero mention of first wife Julia Thorne, only a late mention of his daughters, and while Teresa Heinz Kerry appears several times to praise him, there’s no mention of how and when that marriage occurred.
I’m sure the ratings for these Sunday-night cable offerings were quite low, so watch the coverage this week to see if the deluge of Lt. Kerry-Vietnam encomiums is matched by how he came home and derided American dreams of South Vietnamese democracy as “the biggest nothing in history.”
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.