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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Grading on a Curve?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2004; 9:10 AM

Well, one thing is clear after the debate: If Kerry wins, he's going to raise Charlie Gibson's taxes.

Beyond that, Bush got the best of the commentary by being not as awful in St. Louis as he was in Coral Gables. He was energetic and engaged and did his share of counterpunching. But few seemed to point out (the New York Times was an exception) that the president spent most of the debate squarely on the defensive, in part because of the audience questions.

_____More Media Notes_____
The Iraq Factor (washingtonpost.com, Oct 8, 2004)
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The Press Sees a Slugfest (washingtonpost.com, Oct 6, 2004)
The Veep Showdown (washingtonpost.com, Oct 5, 2004)
A Changing Political Landscape (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
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Kerry seemed more relaxed Friday night and all his debating skills were on display, though he muffed a few questions. But there was no way Kerry could be declared the winner because expectations were already high for him. Unless Bush had declared that he'd never met Kerry until they walked onto the Washington University stage, Kerry was unlikely to get a win from the punditocracy. He didn't scowl--what an improvement! Of course, even a draw might help a challenger taking on the incumbent, but there's still a sense among journalists that Kerry hasn't closed the sale.

(As for the St. Louis undecideds who say they're still undecided, what do they want? For each man to move in for a few days, talk issues and help with the housecleaning?)

Let's get right to the media assessments, starting with the Los Angeles Times:

"It was a tale of two debates as President Bush and John F. Kerry met in their second high-stakes encounter Friday night. For the evening's first half, a combination of tough questions from the St. Louis audience and a fluent, detailed critique from Kerry kept Bush on the defensive.

"Early on, the president at times seemed to be straining to keep his emotions in check as Kerry denounced his record on issues from jobs, healthcare and education to Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

"But Bush regained his footing as the questions shifted from foreign to domestic policy -- the arena that most experts expected to favor Kerry. Bush forcefully defended his approach to problems like healthcare and sent clear messages to his base, particularly by emphasizing conservative views on social issues such as abortion and judicial appointments.

"By contrast, Kerry repeatedly sought to portray himself as an almost non-ideological centrist, scorning 'labels' and citing Republicans to support his points on such issues as Iraq and stem cell research. That sharp stylistic contrast was a window into a key difference in the strategy of the two campaigns: While Kerry believes the race will be decided mostly by swing voters, Bush aides are betting on an increased turnout among core Republicans, especially social conservatives."

The New York Times: "Halfway through Friday night's debate, President Bush declared: 'The best way to defend America in this world we live in is to stay on the offense,' but he spent much of the evening on the defensive against John Kerry's unyielding accusations that he had mishandled the war in Iraq and the American economy.

"At the outset, Mr. Bush seemed a bit strident and on edge, as if over-eager to avoid a repetition of his pained performance eight days ago. But he appeared to gain comfort as the encounter wore on, sounding considerably more confident and collected than he did last week. He strolled the stage, microphone in hand and characterized Mr. Kerry as 'just not credible.'

"But as often as not, it was Mr. Kerry who was on the offensive on topics like tax cuts in wartime, prescription drug imports, the ballooning deficit, homeland security, the rationale for the war in Iraq and the daunting conditions on the ground there that he said had led to a 'back-door draft' of National Guard and Reserve troops.

"Mr. Kerry generally seemed to be more in command of his brief, more confident in demeanor and more intent than Mr. Bush to reach across partisan boundaries as he invoked the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower and talked of the importance of balancing budgets. Mr. Bush seemed more content to play to his conservative base."

The Chicago Tribune, like the NYT, tilts slightly toward Kerry:

"Sen. John Kerry could come away from the second presidential debate with a feeling of having held, and perhaps slightly gained, ground on President Bush. The president could come away knowing that he regained footing after a spotty performance in Florida a week ago, and that he was at his best when forcefully stating his views instead of viscerally reacting to his opponent.

"The candidates came to Middle America to take questions about the most serious matters of the day, war and peace, health care and abortion. There was something positive for both men to take away from the debate, but in that sense, the political advantage probably goes to Kerry. As the challenger, any time he spends on the same stage with the president and proves himself credible, if not more, to voters, then he becomes a viable alternative to the incumbent."

The Boston Globe gives Dubya his due:

"Simple, direct, a little insistent at points, President Bush Friday night was far more recognizable than in the first presidential debate.

"Love him or hate him -- and polls indicate that he provokes powerful feelings -- the Bush who took the stage at a town hall-style encounter in St. Louis was the same politician the country got to know over the past four years, laying out his stands and refusing to backtrack.

"The difference from his faltering performance in the first debate was evident from the start. . . .

"Kerry, who is not as well known as Bush, came in with a different mission, trying to show that he is personable enough to appear in people's living rooms for four years. Addressing the citizen-questioners by their first names, staring directly into the camera, flashing a warm smile at moderator Charles Gibson even under tough questioning, Kerry acted like a gracious host overseeing a dinner-table discussion.

"But he may have been a bit too genial: He allowed Bush to define the big news of the day -- a report on monthly job gains that most economists agreed was disappointing -- as good news. And he allowed Bush to present the Iraq Survey Group's conclusion that Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor active weapons programs as a confirmation of Hussein's dangerousness, because the dictator wanted to restart his programs if and when sanctions were lifted."

Salon's Tim Grieve is in the Bush-cleared-the-low-bar camp:

"He was in denial on Iraq. His sharpest line of the night might have been false. He winked and he shouted and he stormed around the stage like a house afire, but when a woman asked him to name three mistakes he'd made, he spoke so softly he was almost inaudible, said he'd take responsibility if historians ever find that he made some tactical errors, and then blamed -- without naming names -- some of the people he had appointed.

"It wasn't a great night for George W. Bush, but it might have been good enough.

"After his stammering and scowling performance in his first debate with John Kerry, Bush might have won the second debate just by getting through it without cussing out an undecided voter. But he did better than that Friday night. He spoke in complete sentences, he offered coherent thoughts, and he survived a week of bad news that might have sunk a man more firmly lashed to reality. Two nights into this thing, Bush is still standing."

Slate's Will Saletan sees problems with both debaters:

"Bush did well. He botched a few answers -- at one point, he said our military should be 'more facile' -- but he was well-prepared, energetic, and frequently incisive. Democrats thought he'd have trouble fielding hostile questions. They were wrong. Five minutes in, a questioner asked him why Saddam Hussein's theoretical ability to produce weapons of mass destruction was grounds for invasion, given that many other countries meet this standard. Bush tacked the question without hesitation. He said that 9/11 had changed the rules and that a new report from U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer showed Saddam 'was gaming the oil-for-food program to get rid of sanctions' and 'restart his weapons programs.' Later, a questioner told Bush that the Patriot Act 'weakens American citizens' rights.' Bush respectfully disagreed and explained why.

"Kerry, too, was well-prepared, energetic, and incisive. But he failed to do two things that Edwards did against Vice President Cheney. . . . Edwards adapted to the flow of the debate, using Cheney's answers to reinforce the theme. Each time Cheney said something far-fetched, Edwards took that statement and beat it against the cement of reality.

"Kerry did neither of those things tonight. The first questioner of the evening raised the charge that he was 'wishy-washy.' Kerry responded with a canned line about Bush turning his campaign into a 'weapon of mass deception.' The next questioner asked about Bush's response to the Duelfer report. Bush said the report showed Saddam had connived to restart his WMD programs. This was the first hanging slider of the night: It begged for Kerry to ask, 'Is that what the president thinks this report showed? Did he not read it? Did he not see its overriding conclusion that Iraq didn't have the weapons he said it had when he misled this nation into war? His own chief weapons inspector says the rationale for the war was false -- and the president still won't admit it?'

"Kerry said none of this. He didn't even mention the report. In fact, he changed the subject to jobs, health care, and education."

I confess I like Saletan's answer better.

NYT ombudsman Daniel Okrent declares that he's voting for Kerry--and that he doesn't consider the paper's campaign coverage biased. It's the bias of readers, he says, citing one appalling example:

"I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, 'I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war,' a limit has been passed.

"That's what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush. Some women reporters regularly receive sexual insults and threats. As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year."

The NYT also has a story about how Kerry is really, really rich.

And now, for absolutely no additional charge, today's print column:

Should Fox News keep relying on a political reporter who privately mocked Sen. John Kerry as a well-manicured "metrosexual"?

Should MSNBC continue to use a pollster who has worked for prominent Republicans?

Should the Wall Street Journal deploy an Iraq correspondent who privately described the situation there as "a foreign policy failure"?

Should the Nashville Tennessean keep publishing a columnist who accused journalists of distorting news in Iraq without any proof?

Political passions are running high these days, and plenty of media people are feeling under siege. In an era of partisan Web sites and attack e-mails, what might once have been dismissed as a minor misjudgment or harmless joke becomes, in the eyes of some critics, a capital offense.

Although the temperature is hottest for CBS over its botched story about President Bush's National Guard service, other journalistic brush fires have broken out across the country.

Officials at other networks say their reporters would be barbecued if they pulled the kind of stunt that Fox's Carl Cameron did in making fun of Kerry -- and would certainly be yanked off the campaign. Angry Fox executives made no attempt to defend their chief political correspondent, with a spokesman saying he has been reprimanded for his "stupid mistake." The New York Daily News says Cameron should be put in the "hoaxer hall of shame."

No one is defending Cameron's poor judgment, but his satire wasn't intended for public consumption. He had sent it to a producer, and someone at FoxNews.com mistakenly posted it as a story. If every journalist who privately ridiculed a candidate had those remarks broadcast, there would be plenty of red faces in America's newsrooms.

Frank Luntz's situation is far different. No one at MSNBC has questioned the pollster's work. But the network refused to carry his planned focus groups two days before the presidential debates began amid complaints that he is viewed as a GOP partisan.

Luntz, who once helped Newt Gingrich sell the "Contract With America," initially told The Washington Post he had taken on no Republican clients since 2001. He said last week he had forgotten that he worked for California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon in 2002 and for the effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis last year.

Asked how this squared with his MSNBC role, Luntz said he was working only for the network during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. "If they want to identify me as a Republican, I don't care," Luntz says. "I just want to do the work. . . . Where in the work is there a bias?" He said he sometimes speaks to Democratic groups as well as Republican ones. "I will present information to anyone who seeks it," Luntz says.

One person he has briefed is Kerry senior adviser Tad Devine. "I certainly have no complaints about Frank," Devine says. "I've always found him to be a very smart guy, insightful, doing a straight-up job in terms of research." For the moment, though, Luntz is sidelined at MSNBC.

Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal has written a moving account of life in Iraq -- in an e-mail to friends that got splattered across the Web. Noting that a recent car bomb blew out the windows in her house, she says life in Baghdad "is like being under virtual house arrest. . . . Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come. . . .

"One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if anything could salvage it from its violent downward spiral."

Too opinionated for a newspaper reporter? "As a human being, you make observations and form opinions," Fassihi says by e-mail. "But what distinguishes good journalists is their ability to separate opinion from fact. I've done that through out my career and plan to continue doing it, and would never cover any story where my mind isn't open to new facts and new ideas." Managing Editor Paul Steiger calls her work "a model of intelligent and courageous reporting."

Does anyone really want journalists so robotic that they have no views about life in a war zone?

Tennessean columnist Tim Chavez has plenty of opinions as well. Chavez, who has twice interviewed Bush, believes the media are siding with Kerry by ignoring much of the good news in Iraq.

After one attack, Chavez quoted an e-mail from a Marine lieutenant colonel in Iraq -- who was quoting his "intelligence guys" -- as saying that NBC's footage of nearby kids being carried into a hospital "was staged and probably old footage." NBC dismisses the charge as absurd.

Chavez also quoted the lieutenant colonel as saying that after a battle in Najaf, the media ignored the fact that "HUNDREDS of dead women and children were brought out" from a shrine. Chavez added: "That's bad journalism -- by a news media acting in concert with Kerry."

All of this brought an artillery blast from New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who was in Najaf and calls the account "entirely false." In a letter posted on Jim Romenesko's media Web site, Berenson asks whether the officer could "really think that the correspondents on the scene would have covered that up, or that the Iraqi government and the American military would not have broadcast that fact around the world? . . . We didn't report it because it never happened."

Chavez apologized last week "to the journalists I impugned with an unnecessary political message." He says in an interview that he belongs to a Marine family support group and wants "to be real gung-ho for them. . . . I want to help our troops over there. I've been trying to give them an unfiltered forum."

But doesn't Chavez have a responsibility to verify his facts first? "There's no way for me to check it out because I'm not in Iraq," he says. Some would call that bad journalism.

Fox's Sean Hannity was peppering John Kerry adviser Michael Meehan with questions last week: What about Kerry backing a nuclear freeze? Opposing the death penalty? Missing committee votes?

"Why don't you just talk, Sean, and I'll yield my time back," a frustrated Meehan said.

Next Hannity had the Bush-Cheney campaign communications director, Nicolle Devenish, ask Meehan a question. During a commercial break, Meehan walked out.

"I didn't get much of a chance to finish the answers," Meehan says. "I figured if Hannity wants to turn the show over to the Bush debate side, I didn't need to be there. Usually you get to have at least a noun and a verb strung together."

Says Hannity: "I was asking him some simple yes-or-no questions and all he wants to do is give me the talking points. He couldn't take the heat. He can spin it any way he wants but that's baloney."

"U.S. Report Finds Iraqis Eliminated Illicit Arms in 90's" -- Thursday's New York Times.

"Saddam Worked Secretly on WMDs" -- Thursday's Washington Times. (A smaller subhead did add: "But no trace of weapons found.")

On the other hand, The Washington Post's headline -- "U.S. 'Almost All Wrong' On Weapons" -- required a correction. The quote came not from the report's author on Wednesday, as the story said, but from his predecessor last January.

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