Politics & Policy

Damned If You Do

The media's tactical flexibility.

For Republicans, this is going to be a tough and nasty week to put up with TV news coverage. Just for starters, Tom Brokaw signed off the NBC Nightly News on Sunday by comparing the convention’s slate of moderate speakers to a “con game.” I’m sure we’ll see a massive rise in Fox viewership this week as conservatives look to steer around all the media’s double standards, while the lapdogs in Boston are transformed into attack dogs in New York. It won’t take too long to remember that the networks have a history of egregious bias at convention time. (For more on that, see here.)

Voters might expect their politicians to be consistent, but America’s major media are never expected to hold a consistent position on anything. They are tactically flexible, double- and triple-jointed, ready to morph into any position. They might try to spin that as the proper position for objective journalists, asking tough questions of all sides–except they know that’s not really the way they operate. Their only consistency in 2004 has been to find each and every way to make re-election impossible for George W. Bush.

Consider the Republican convention. Since they chose to convene in New York City, the media played up yesterday how much Bush is currently losing in state polls, how Hillary Clinton feels she hasn’t been handed enough homeland-security pork, how many protesters are at their most American by trashing Bush, and of course, how we can expect the Republicans to exploit September 11 for political gain. But if the Republicans had sensibly opted instead for Phoenix or San Antonio or Charlotte, the media would have spent the week declaring how sad it was that the president couldn’t have come to New York to shore up the city so mercilessly attacked by terrorists, and so much for compassionate conservatism. (It must be their pathological hatred for Hillary, some would proclaim.)

The same would have happened with the choice of speakers. In an attempt to placate the media, which somehow transformed the 1992 Houston convention of Papa Bush into a “festival of hate,” the Bushies highlighted the “moderate” faces of the party in the speaker menu: New Yorkers Bloomberg, Giuliani, and Pataki and–for geographical if not ideological balance–Schwarzenegger and McCain. The media honored that air-kiss by making cracks about “sprinkling compassion back onto the conservatism.” Note the media arrogance that moving toward liberalism equals moving toward compassion.

But if the GOP festivities had starred solid Santorum, Brownback, and DeLay at 10 P.M., they would have howled at how the lineup was a hard-right hootenanny, alienating those precious “moderate and independent voters the president desperately needs.” It didn’t matter that the Democrats in Boston led with socialized-medicine salesmen Hillary and Bill, exotic Teresa, antiwar Obama, sharp-edged screeds from Sharpton and Junior Reagan, not to mention the two-liberal ticket. Tactical flexibility means asserting the power to define the conventions any way you want. If you want to paint John Kerry’s convention–with 95 percent of the delegates opposing the liberation of Iraq–as a tough-on-terror confab, you can do that, and leave the snickering to someone else.

In going back to review the last convention to create a “Fair and Balanced Challenge” for the networks in New York, we giggled over this exchange on MSNBC Tuesday night of the convention, just before Howard Dean spoke.

Chris Matthews: “Is it possible, Tim, that the Democrats will make a statement this week that remains, in the weeks ahead, undeniable? Can you take back the Purple Hearts that John Kerry won? Can you take back the salutes of his fellow crewmen who show up this week? Is it possible that they might make an Inchon landing on this administration on the toughness-against-terrorism front that cannot be taken away in New York?”

Tim Russert: “I think they’re gonna make a lot of headway. I think they have already. I think Bill Clinton’s speech last night was extremely effective and I think on Thursday night, Chris, you’re gonna hear John Kerry as a commander-in-chief, a potential commander-in-chief. That is his goal. That is his next mission, if you will.”

So Chris Matthews thinks the Republicans can be compared to North Korean Communists. He could at least find a better historical comparison. Looking at the last two or three weeks, it looks more like Kerry launched a Desert One helicopter-crash fiasco on the Bush team’s record in the war on terror. We’ve now all been reminded that John Kerry hasn’t found a war yet he can’t both favor and oppose.

Tim Russert, whom everyone reveres for (mostly) hardball interviews on Meet the Press, ought to win an award of some insulting kind for shamelessly selling the Democrats as chest-pounding hawks throughout the week in Boston. He prides himself on research for the Sunday show. Don’t you think, before the convention started, he could have reviewed how the Clintons drained the defense budget the last time the Democrats were in charge?

Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.

Tim GrahamTim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center, where he began in 1989, and has served there with the exception of 2001 and 2002, when served ...


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