Rush Limbaugh and many others predicted that the media elite would find “surprising” strength for John Kerry in the debates. Kerry would have had to start babbling gibberish (think Steve Carell’s Jim Carrey-cursed anchorman in Bruce Almighty) to not receive liberal raves Thursday night and Friday morning.
For example, Tom Shales began his Washington Post analysis saying, “John Kerry came off as more presidential than the president” Thursday night. Shales predicted, “It could be that flip-flopping has played itself out, thanks in part to relentless lampooning of the phrase by topical TV comics.”
Inside the liberal-media cocoon, as Mickey Kaus puts it, they’d like to believe that looking presidential and winning the election are the same thing. In other words, if Coke makes a better commercial than Pepsi, then Coke should sell more bottles. But liberals are missing the point that voters may have heard the candidates’ messages loud and clear and thought: I’ll stick with the guy who wants to play offense in the war on terrorism, not the guy aiming for World Approval. I’ll take the man who won’t bend to international peer pressure over the man who sounds like he’s running for king of the U.N. prom.
Perhaps the most comical moment in the liberal-media after-party Thursday night came on PBS’s Charlie Rose, when Newsweek’s chief Democratic spinner, Jonathan Alter, mourned that Republicans have a “huge advantage” after the debates because conservatives “control all of talk radio” (sorry, Al Franken) and because there won’t be many on Fox News Channel speaking well of Kerry. By contrast, CNN and MSNBC and PBS all have the disadvantage of attempting to be balanced.
But it seemed from flipping past Fox after the debate that they had several Kerry fans on–from aspiring secretary of state Richard Holbrooke to Sen. Bob Graham. And what made Alter’s statement so comical was that he was sitting on a PBS roundtable with Charlie Rose, Walter Isaacson, Karen Tumulty, Mark Halperin, and Michael Kinsley–all credentialed members of the liberal media elite who liked Kerry’s performance. (ABC’s Halperin proclaimed that it was “new” that both candidates looked “strong and principled.”) Rose began with Bush friend and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, but followed with the liberal media panel, Holbrooke, and then two French guests who can’t wait for President Kerry to come, beret in hand, to court Old Europe. Fox was more balanced than Charlie Rose on Thursday night. But then, liberal unanimity–or at least a 5-to-1 or 10-to-1 liberal-to-conservative ratio–isn’t considered bias inside the liberal-media cocoon. It’s considered tilting the scales a bit in favor of Justice and Reason.
Another contender in the comical category was Dan Rather, who needed a ladder to get off his high horse as he insisted on calling the debates “joint appearances.” Perhaps Rather can save his superiority dance for someone who thinks he hasn’t just been exposed as an unprofessional, forgery-pushing Bush-hater.
Liberal-media types were also likely to praise debate moderator Jim Lehrer’s performance. Lehrer’s style–deferential, brief, earnestly attempting not to be the center of attention–is a winning style in debates. Lehrer works hard to help voters discern the differences between the candidates on the issues under discussion, but he suffered from the usual liberal-media syndrome, seeing nothing in Senator Kerry’s 20 years in the Senate worth bringing up. It’s bad enough that Kerry never talks about his Senate record. It’s worse that the media seem never to ask him.
For starters, it would have been nice for Lehrer to ask, as the subject of missile defense came up, why Sen. Kerry routinely voted against it. Of course, it would have helped for Bush to be more critical and specific on Kerry’s Senate record. But when people, both Bush fans and Kerry fans, note that Bush “seemed on the defensive,” they ought to acknowledge that it was, at least in part, prompted by Lehrer’s failure to ask Kerry questions that would put him on the defensive.
Shortly before the debate began, Newsweek national editor Jon Meacham suggested on MSNBC that journalists are tired of Bush being in the lead, and so will try to narrow the race. Meacham foresaw “the possibility that President Bush has peaked about a month too early. Because we all need a narrative to change.” Chris Matthews asked: “Is that your prediction?” Meacham replied: “I think it’s possible that we’re gonna be sitting around saying, ‘Well you know Kerry really surprised us.’ Because in a way the imperative is to change the story.”
But remember, journalists aren’t in favor of changing the story because it makes good copy. They’re in favor of changing it because it gives their candidate a better chance of winning.
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.