Politics & Policy

The Herd Species

The media and 2004.

The problem with writing about media bias is that it always sounds like sour grapes to people who don’t agree with you, and like old news to people who do. So I’m just going to assert that, from my perspective, the press has been very pro-Kerry for a long time now. And just to prove I’m not alone, even Evan Thomas of Newsweek has ascribed a built-in advantage of up to 15 points to Kerry and Edwards, based solely on the fact that the “establishment media wants Kerry to win.” But if you want to be like the storeowner who refuses to believe the parrot’s dead (“No, no, he’s uh, he’s resting) and insist I’m wrong, fine. I’m going to move on.

What I find interesting is that the media seemingly have started to realize that they’ve been shamelessly backing one horse in this race–and the wrong one. I think it started when reporters realized they had to cover the Swift Boat Vets story, albeit dismissively at first. But since then they have written stories about how Kerry is “off-message” and how his staff needs to be shaken up, although these stories are written with a slightly funereal tone. Albert Hunt of the Wall Street Journal refers to the “faltering Kerry campaign.” Dan Rather reports that campaign leaders say there’s “no need to panic”–always a sign of panic.

Why the change of heart? The obvious answer is that five major polls show Kerry slipping. But a larger dynamic is that journalists are a herd species. The media move in large packs, capable of suddenly switching directions due to the spooking of just a few critters up at the front. Individuals of the species may be susceptible to traits such as courage and integrity, but as a group they are power-worshippers. Nothing to them is more powerful than popularity–and nothing more popular than power. When you gain it, the press tends to go soft on you, regardless of the merits. When you lose it, they tend to pounce.

Now, of course, the press still by and large hates George Bush. But, as blogger Ann Althouse notes, “The media are looking ahead and imagining how the history of the 2004 presidential campaign will read, and how their performance will measure up.” The answer: not well. They puffed up Howard Dean right up to the moment he popped. They allowed John Kerry to discard his 20-year voting record as a mere triviality and to make his Vietnam record his central qualification for the presidency. John Edwards–he’s so pretty–was immediately accepted as a brilliant, bold, and qualified choice by the same media that ridiculed Dan Quayle from the start for being too inexperienced, despite the fact that Quayle’s political resume at the time makes Edwards’s look like it was written in crayon.

Ironically, Kerry’s role model for this campaign–intentionally or otherwise–is President Bush’s father. If you recall, the Bush campaign of 1988 was not exactly freighted with policy substance. There was the Pledge of Allegiance, a lot of flags, and some third-party ads about Willie Horton. It was only Michael Dukakis’s profound ineptitude that won the Republicans a third straight term in the White House. Bush could claim a lot of experience, as Kerry does, but he needed to stay fairly vague on the issues. After all, he didn’t want to disagree with Reagan, even though he was promising to be “kinder and gentler.”

In broad strokes, the Kerry campaign’s strategy is strikingly similar. He wrapped himself in his medals and his band of brothers the way Papa Bush wrapped himself in the American flag. The differences are telling, however. For one thing, Bush’s strategy relied on friendlier local media instead of the national news outlets. Another difference: The national press complained bitterly about Bush’s strategy, both during the campaign and after he won.

With Kerry, however, the national press was perfectly willing to let him sail into the Oval Office on his metaphorical Swift boat, never explaining the grotesque inconsistencies, flip-flops, waffles, and panders that have punctuated his otherwise perfectly liberal record. In August, during the whole Swift Boat Vet brouhaha, the only “journalist” who managed to fire off a substantive factual question about Vietnam at Kerry was Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Were it not for the real alternative media, Kerry’s game plan probably would have worked. Were it not for the tenacious attention of blogs like Instapundit and the Belmont Club, and for the mavericks of the conservative media, this story might never have made it onto the radar. For example, Alison Mitchell, the New York Times’s deputy national editor, admitted in Editor and Publisher, “I’m not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into [the Swift-boat story].” I’m sure that’s true.

What remains to be seen is whether they’ve learned their lesson, or whether I’ll be writing media-bias columns for years to come.

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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