If we projected the winner of a presidential race based on the assumption that voters reflexively followed every didactic anchorman lecture, every trumped-up anti-Bush investigative hit piece, and every gooey Kerry valentine, we would have expected George W. Bush to lose in a resounding defeat. The media’s coverage–in terms of its intended political effect–was a landslide for John Kerry: a landslide that began in the summer of 2003 and continued for more than a year.
Consider the second half of 2003, as the Democratic field circled around the artificial Howard Dean bubble. The morning shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC offered up four hours of face time to the Democratic contenders from July to December, almost twice as much time as the Republican contenders received in 1999.
The morning hosts posed 319 questions to the Democratic candidates, nearly one-fifth of which (58) were designed to get them to reiterate or amplify their condemnations of President Bush. The morning hosts often asked the candidates to repeat charges they had leveled elsewhere. Four years before, only four out of 179 questions similarly invited the GOP candidates to differ with Bill Clinton or Al Gore. CBS’s Rene Syler served up this softball to John Kerry last December 4: “You called President Bush’s foreign policy arrogant, inept, and reckless. Give us some specifics.”
As John Kerry emerged as the likely Democratic nominee, the media all followed Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe like Pavlov’s dogs. McAuliffe rang the “AWOL” bell on President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, and the networks followed, with 63 morning- and evening-news segments on the Big Three networks pounding Bush to prove he wasn’t “AWOL.” (In 1992, they aired only ten evening-news segments on Bill Clinton’s draft evasion in the first two weeks of that story.)
Kerry’s emergence was helped along further as reporters insisted that his liberal record wasn’t a fact, but just a Republican insult. From mid-January to early March, reporters for the Big Three presented the “Kerry is a liberal” concept as a GOP charge 27 times, compared with just three occasions when reporters stated Kerry’s ideology as a matter of fact. Republicans were always “painting” Kerry as a liberal, in a tone that suggested reporters wanted to say “finger-painting.”
That pattern continued all year.
Every anti-Bush angle, however, was explored with great ferocity. Almost every week of 2004 was a bad media week for Bush. There was Paul O’Neill Book Week. There was 9/11 Ads in Bad Taste Week. There was Richard Clarke Book Week. There was Bob Woodward Book Week. There were two weeks of Alabama National Guard Whereabouts Hunt. There were four weeks of Abu Ghraib hype (NBC dedicated ten times as many stories to prison abuse as they did to Saddam’s mass graves). Every goofy liberal rumor–from kicking Dick Cheney off the ticket to replacing him with John McCain–was repeated with mischievous grins. Every liberal propagandist, from Michael Moore to Kitty Kelley to Al Franken’s Air America, drew respectful promotion. The first good media week for Bush all year centered around an event the press could neither control nor ignore: the death of Ronald Reagan.
From May to August, the networks studiously ignored Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. ABC’s World News Tonight would not mention the group at all on the air until Kerry denounced them on August 19. The group’s members were never granted a live interview on NBC, although the network gave Kitty Kelley three days in a row on Today. John O’Neill drew one debate on CBS’s Early Show, and one appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. O’Neill fought with Ted Koppel on the October 14 Nightline, after Koppel sent a crew to Vietnam to interview the Viet Cong for their account of how Kerry earned his medals. The Swift Vets received airplay on cable, and big play on talk radio, but the networks themselves were very stingy. When pundits say the Swift Vets “dominated” August coverage, they overlook what really dominated network coverage that month: the Olympics.
Once again this year, the conventions were a matched set: a pajama party for Democrats in Boston, a four-day exposé of Republicans in New York. Reporters virtually ignored any discussion over the fringe composition of the liberal delegates, the liberal platform (abortions should be subsidized by the federal government), or the liberal menu of speakers.
The same network journalists felt in New York the pressing need to underline, in metaphorical red pen, the ridiculous sham before their eyes: “Hard right” social conservatives were being hidden behind Giuliani, Schwarzenegger, and John McCain. When Tom Brokaw began the week by calling it a “con game” at the end of his Sunday-night newscast, he was stating publicly what his colleagues insinuated all week long.
The debates were obviously not as much of a sweep for John Kerry as the networks asserted. Once again, the Republicans mysteriously agreed to four debates with four liberal-media moderators, and whatever Charles Gibson provided in the second, surprisingly balanced, townhall-style debate, Bob Schieffer took back in a shockingly slanted performance in the final match-up. The late media hits–from al-Qaqaa to Halliburton whistleblowers–didn’t work.
But the biggest measure of bias in 2004 may be all the stories, large and small, that the media omitted in John Kerry’s defense. What a list we could make of largely avoided topics: the 1971 Senate testimony, the 20-year U.S. Senate record, Teresa’s tax returns, Teresa’s foundation politics, Teresa’s near-daily gaffes, internal Democratic infighting, U.N. corruption in the Oil-for-Food scandal, etc.
Yet despite these efforts in behalf of Kerry, George W. Bush has amassed the highest vote total in American history. The media took their defeat graciously, if a little slowly; on these occasions, they put on statesman masks and pretended they didn’t have a horse in the race. But they have been left only with the feeling that their power is sapped, their influence is waning, and their credibility is collapsing.
There are two brakes on the arrogance of liberal media bias: One is declining ratings; the other is liberal politicians’ losing and conservative politicians’ winning. The message of popular resistance to the liberal media has been sent once again. We may be optimistic about the new makeup of Washington, but it makes no sense to be optimistic about the liberal media’s recognizing their arrogance. We can only be optimistic that their meltdown continues.
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.