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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Kerry Comeback Alert

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; 8:25 AM

Is he the comeback kid?

Is the race suddenly close?

Is Bush blowing the lead?

_____More Media Notes_____
A Trillion-Dollar Story (washingtonpost.com, Sep 15, 2004)
Tick, Tick, Tick . . . (washingtonpost.com, Sep 14, 2004)
The Kitchen Sink Campaign (washingtonpost.com, Sep 13, 2004)
On Guard (washingtonpost.com, Sep 10, 2004)
Excavating Bush's Past (washingtonpost.com, Sep 9, 2004)
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Are Lockhart and McCurry working their magic already?

I have no idea, but check this out: "In the latest national survey of 1,972 registered voters by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted in two waves over a seven-day period Sept. 8-14, finds that the president's 52%-40% advantage in the initial period dissipated in the polling conducted Sept. 11-14. The second wave of interviewing shows the race even among registered voters, at 46%-46%. When the sample is narrowed to likely voters, Bush holds a statistically insignificant lead of 47%-46% in the second wave, down from the huge 54%-39% advantage he held in the first wave of interviews."

I now look forward to reading a wave of stories about how all the previous media criticism of the Kerry campaign as too timid, disorganized and unfocused was wrong.

Or not.

Uh-oh. Looks like the Kerry surge has faded. Here's a new poll (new in the sense that I got the results 12 hours after Pew's) that has Bush standing tall:

"President Bush has surged to a 13-point lead over Sen. John Kerry among likely voters, a new Gallup Poll shows," says USA Today. "The 55%-42% match-up is the first statistically significant edge either candidate has held this year.

"Among registered voters, Bush is ahead 52%-44%.

"The boost Bush received from the Republican convention has increased rather than dissipated, reshaping a race that for months has been nearly tied. Kerry is facing warnings from Democrats that his campaign is seriously off-track."

And here's a chilling thought, from the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt:

"What if the polls are wrong, and we aren't surveying the real likely electorate?

"This might be more than an academic issue. A number of polls this presidential race show a gap in the preferences of registered voters vs. likely voters. In these models, the president usually does better with likely voters, the figure most news organizations emphasize. To get to likely voters, all polling organizations use what is called a 'screen,' asking questions to determine who is likely to actually turn out on election day.

"These screens differ greatly, as there is no consensus among experts on what works best."

Now I'm all confused!

Is this the new Lockhartian message? "Sen. John F. Kerry on Thursday accused President Bush of living in 'a fantasy world of spin,' telling thousands of members of the National Guard gathered for their annual convention here that Americans deserve a president who is strong enough to lead and strong enough to tell the truth about the spiraling violence in Iraq," reports the Los Angeles Times.

"He also lashed out at the 'back-door draft' that has turned members of the National Guard into regular active duty troops without giving them the benefits received by full-time members of the military. . . .

"Kerry's comments were among his most pointed critiques of the president and the war to date. Lashing out at Bush for a failure of truthfulness and leadership and for ignoring 'the best advice of America's own military,' Kerry charged that the president was not strong enough to level with the nation about a war that is going badly."

I've been trying to find someone amid the editorial clutter who's defending "60 Minutes" these days, but it's hard.

Andrew Sullivan is among the harshest toward Dan Rather and CBS News chief Andrew Heyward:

"I have to say that the risible statement given by CBS News Wednesday night finally did it for me. Who do these people think they are? They have failed to find a single expert who will back the authenticity of the memos; their own experts say they warned CBS not to go with the story; Killian's secretary thinks they're fakes . . . and yet Rather and Heyward say they stand by their story and will continue to investigate the provenance and dubiousness of the forgeries!

"This beggars belief. How do I put this to Rather: it doesn't matter if the underlying story is true. All that matters is that CBS's evidence is fake. Get it? End of story. For what it's worth: I believe Bush got into the Guard because of his dad's connections. I believe he probably didn't perform his duties adequately in his final two years. When I first read the CBS story, I thought the docs were 'devastating.' I'm not backing this president for re-election. But all that is completely beside the . . . point. Journalists are supposed to provide accurate evidence for their claims. CBS didn't.

"And its response to the critics is to stonewall and try and change the subject. The correct response -- the one they'd teach you in kindergarten journalism class -- is immediately to check the authenticity of the documents as best you can, and if the doubts persist, to apologize immediately and yank the story. Can you imagine what CBS News would do if a government official found to be peddling fake documents refused to acknowledge it? And kept repeating his story nonetheless? They'd be all over it. But, you see, they are above politicians. They are above criticism. And they are stratospheres above bloggers who caught them red-handed."

National Review delivers a spanking:

"It appears likely that CBS News based a blockbuster report on George W. Bush's National Guard service on faked documents. If so, either through negligence or malfeasance, it has attempted to perpetuate a gross fraud on the American public. In its defenses aired so far, it has been evasive and downright misleading. Needless to say, this is not the work of a reputable news division. The strategy that now makes most sense from the perspective of the selfish interests of those responsible at CBS is to batten down the hatches and hope the document flap blows over and is eventually just chalked up as a 'controversial report,' instead of dealing seriously on air with the doubts and retracting and apologizing if -- as appears likely at this point -- the evidence shows the documents to be forgeries.

"This strategy cannot be tolerated by the broader political and journalistic community. Until CBS cleans its own house, it cannot be considered just another news organization, in good journalistic standing. Which brings us to the presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled a debate on foreign policy for October 13 at Arizona State University. The moderator the commission has seen fit to anoint for this encounter is Bob Schieffer of CBS News.

"In other words, one of the greatest gifts in terms of exposure and responsibility in the fall campaign is being handed to a representative of the CBS News division. This cannot stand, and Republicans in particular ought to scream about this choice, given the evident disregard CBS has for fairness and accuracy. Schieffer should be replaced by someone from some other organization."

That strikes me as misguided. Why blame Bob, who is almost universally regarded as fair?

Well, it's not just conservatives. Here's Dan Kennedy:

"As everyone except Dan Rather has acknowledged, CBS lost control of this story because of its own shoddy reporting. On Tuesday, the Dallas Morning News broke what to my mind is the most significant story yet in figuring out the truth behind the fake Killian memos. Every account I saw yesterday credited the Morning News for its exclusive.

"Yet the CBS.com article makes absolutely no mention of the Morning News. Instead, 60 Minutes interviewed the same woman whom the News interviewed several days ago -- Marian Carr Knox, former secretary to the late lieutenant colonel Jerry Killian -- and made it look almost as though it were CBS that was getting to the bottom of this whole mess.

"I also saw two CBS transcripts on Lexis-Nexis from earlier in the day Wednesday, hyping the 60 Minutes story. Neither of them mentioned the role of the Morning News, either.

"Now, giving credit to competitors is a sometime thing. Television news orgs tend to be worse about it than print, although newspapers often don't give credit when they should, either. But this isn't a matter of giving credit. This is a matter of a major new witness, Knox, providing further evidence that the memos CBS presented as genuine could not possibly have been produced in the early 1970s. The Morning News report was the most significant to date in proving that the memos were not what CBS claimed they were. Last night, CBS pretended as though Knox were its own witness.

"It just so happens that CBS may be able to prevent what's already a major scandal from turning into a cataclysmic one, given that Knox also says the memos appear to be based on actual documents that existed at one time. But CBS should stop pretending that it's even in the game. Instead, it's sitting in the bleachers, hoping that other news orgs will dig up enough to let them salvage just a tiny bit of pride."

Okay, here's a somewhat different take in the New Republic from Telis Demos:

"Being a media critic this week has been pretty easy. The bloggers and pundits who studied kerning, superscripting, and IBM typewriters have been vindicated: Dan Rather and CBS most likely presented forged documents alleging that George W. Bush did not honorably complete his National Guard duties. From there, conservative critics have drawn their conclusions pretty easily: Stanley Kurtz of National Review Online argued that Rather violated journalistic ethics in order 'to save the faltering Kerry campaign.' In The Christian Science Monitor, Michael Caputo writes: 'Only smart politics and hard work can recover a campaign in disarray. Somehow, John Kerry's allies forgot this rule. So did Dan Rather.' In other words, Rather and CBS were doing exactly what Fox News, The Washington Times, and the rest of the right-wing shadow media do: advocating for their side under the guise of reporting the news.

"But not all bad journalism is created equal. Dan Rather may have indeed been duped, but even if that is the case, his mistake was far less problematic than the offenses against journalism perpetrated daily by Fox News and other unabashedly conservative media outlets. CBS News may be many things, but it is not the left-wing equivalent of Fox News. And we ought to be much more concerned about the willful journalistic contortions of the latter than the alleged sloppiness of the former.

"Let's start by taking as a given what conservatives have long assumed about Dan Rather: that he's a partisan Democrat whose political beliefs infect his journalism. Under these circumstances, Rather could be guilty of a particular kind of bias -- namely, not vetting sources that supported his inclinations as closely as he would have vetted sources that contradicted them. At worst, Rather is guilty of sloppily fact-checking the veracity of forged documents because of his political views -- and of therefore reporting lies as truth.

"If this last offense sounds familiar, it's because the right-wing media does it all the time. In February 2004, for instance, Fox News broadcasters Brit Hume, Sean Hannity, and John Gibson all showed a photo of John Kerry standing next to Jane Fonda on a podium at an anti-Vietnam War rally in the 1970s. It turns out the photo was fake. Did hordes of media critics demand retractions from Hume, Hannity, and Gibson? Of course not."

We're now down to criticizing the CBS critiquers, as OpinionJournal's James Taranto does:

"Mike Kinsley must have a certain amount of sympathy for Dan Rather. After all, Kinsley went through something similar three years ago, when this column exposed how Kinsley, then editor of Slate, had fallen for an obvious hoax. Kinsley first stonewalled, Rather-style, then apologized, but only after a New York Times investigation proved the story was not only fake but inaccurate.

"Anyway, Kinsley recently landed a new job as editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, and today -- in an editorial we're willing to bet Kinsley himself wrote -- the paper weighs in on the '60 Minutes' scandal. The editorial begins by acknowledging that "CBS News was had," but then goes on to make the following curious statement:

"Whatever the truth, CBS' real error was trying to prove a point that didn't need to be proved. It doesn't take documents for anyone to realize that Bush pulled strings to get into the National Guard.

"Whoa there, Mike. CBS's 'real error' was 'trying to prove a point that didn't need to be proved'? Here we thought CBS's real error was publishing false information! If Kinsley doesn't think that was a 'real error,' we begin to understand how the monkeyfishing article got published back in 2001."

Bill Kristol deconstructs Kerry on Imus:

"On Don Imus's radio show, John Kerry suggested that he would not have gone to war with Iraq, knowing what we know now (no evident stocks of weapons of mass destruction): 'Not under the current circumstances, not that I see. I voted on the basis of weapons of mass destruction,' Kerry told Imus.

"So Kerry is in the process of completing the repudiation of his previous, pro-war/anti-execution of the war, position. On August 9 of this year he said that, knowing what he knows now, he still would have voted to authorize the war. Even more directly, on May 3, 2003, Kerry had said that 'it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.'

"No longer. Kerry does not now 'support[s] that fact.' He is now the anti-war candidate, this time presumably for good. Leaving aside (important) questions of Kerry's character and credibility, the stage is now set for a straight-up debate: Kerry's view is that we would be safer to have left Saddam in power. Bush's view is that we (and the world) are safer having removed Saddam, and that American strategic goals in the war on terror have been advanced."

It turns out I've been wondering the same thing as Imus:

" 'Where's Edwards?" Mr. Imus demanded, referring to Mr. Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards. 'I wondered if he was still on the ticket. We haven't heard from him,' reports the New York Times.

"Mr. Kerry assured Mr. Imus -- the broadcasting personality who long ago endorsed Mr. Kerry -- that Mr. Edwards was campaigning hard. But Mr. Imus is not the only person who is asking that question these days.

"At a time when Vice President Dick Cheney has been mocking and pummeling Mr. Kerry across the country, reveling in the traditional fighting role of a vice-presidential nominee, Mr. Edwards has adopted a decidedly less belligerent and lower-profile stance as he campaigns through communities like this small town in southeast Ohio. Only in the last few days, with criticism percolating among Democrats, has he become louder in taking on the administration."

Still sounds pretty faint from where I sit.

Here we go again on the journalists-facing-jail front:

"A federal district judge in Washington has ordered a reporter for The New York Times to testify before a grand jury investigating the disclosure of the identity of a covert C.I.A. officer," says the NYT.

"In a decision dated Sept. 9 and released yesterday, the judge, Thomas F. Hogan, said the reporter, Judith Miller, must describe any conversations she had with 'a specified executive branch official.' The judge said Ms. Miller had received subpoenas issued by a special prosecutor investigating 'the potentially illegal disclosure of the identity of C.I.A. official Valerie Plame.' "

Finally, a remarkably candid Leno interview with Nikki Finke in the L.A. Weekly:

"Jay Leno says, 'I'm not conservative. I've never voted that way in my life.' He 'really worries' what a Dubya victory in November will do to the makeup of the Supreme Court. He believes 'the wool was pulled over our eyes' with the Iraq war. He thinks the White House began using terrorism 'as a crutch' after 9/11. He feels that during the campaign Kerry should 'make Bush look as stupid as possible.' He believes 'the media is in the pocket of the government, and they don't do their job' so 'you have people like Michael Moore who do it for them.'

"He has on his joke-writing staff a number of former professional speechwriters for Democratic candidates. 'No Republicans.' When it comes to Bush, he doesn't think his politics are much different from Letterman's. 'Does he show his dislike maybe a little more than I do? Probably.' Leno used to read Mother Jones magazine.

"Could it be? Is it possible? Is Leno, 'the right comic,' really a closet lefty?"

Excuse me while I catch my breath.


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