By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2004; 8:27 AM
Before you do anything else: If you've ever gotten the endless runaround from customer service or waited on hold roughly forever, take a look at my thoughtful treatise--okay, it' a rant--on the subject. All feedback welcome.
And if you had better things to do than read the paper this weekend--which I find hard to imagine--you missed the lowdown on a new anti-Fox News movie in the spirit of "Fahrenheit 9/11." I examine whether the documentary itself is fair and balanced.
Now, since you may not get bombarded with e-mails from the Bush and Kerry campaigns, I thought I'd let you in on a great backstage spinning war.
First Matthew Dowd, BC '04's chief strategist, said in a memo that the John-John ticket would have a 15-point lead after the Democratic convention. This, he says, is because of the bounce from Kerry picking Edwards and the normal lift a candidate gets from his four-day coronation.
Ingenious. If Kerry does rocket to a double-digit lead, Dowd can say, well, no big deal, we anticipated that and we'll close the gap after our convention. If Kerry's lead is smaller, the Bush camp can crow that he failed to meet expectations and didn't get much by adding southern comfort to the ticket.
Now comes Kerry pollster Mark Mellman with the counterspin. "The Vice Presidential And Convention Bounce Is Likely To Be Limited," his memo says.
"Despite the high ratings for the Edwards pick, we do not anticipate a substantial bounce in the horserace as a result of either the selection, or the convention. Challengers sometimes get convention and Vice Presidential selection bounces because they have not consolidated their partisan base. Most recent polls show John Kerry already getting 82%-89% of the Democratic vote. Thus, there is little base left for John Kerry to consolidate. He has already accomplished that goal.
"Sometimes challengers get a big 'convention' bounce because of events that have nothing to do with the conventions. Going into the 1992 convention, Bill Clinton was running third and Ross Perot was getting 30% of the vote. During the Democratic Convention, Perot dropped out, temporarily increasing Clinton's margin by a net 28 points. Clinton's gain had less to do with the convention and lots to do with Perot, but Republicans gleefully use that swing to boost their 'convention bounce' calculation."
Message: If we don't get a big boost out of Boston, it doesn't mean much. And if we soar in the polls, it's--repeat after me--better than expected.
Meanwhile, have you ever seen anything like this John-John rollout (at least since the Clinton-Gore bus trip in '92?). They have just played the media like a fiddle, getting the pictures--and the message--they want conveyed to the public. And in yesterday's front-page pieces based on interviews, they even managed to get three different leads!
The New York Times: "Senator John Kerry and Senator John Edwards declared on Friday that slipshod intelligence invoked by President Bush to invade Iraq had cost the nation lives, billions of dollars and international prestige, signaling that the Iraq war would be a central issue in their White House campaign."
The Washington Post: "President Bush has governed in a dishonest fashion, trampling values on every issue except fighting terrorism and leaving voters 'clamoring for restoration of credibility and trust in the White House again,' John F. Kerry and John Edwards said in an interview."
The Los Angeles Times: "Counting on his liberal base to stick by him, Sen. John F. Kerry plans to aggressively court more conservative voters with a message that emphasizes traditional values of service, faith and family."
The partners also got plenty of press for their Lesley Stahl sitdown.
The Boston Globe: " Democratic presidential candidate Senator John F. Kerry, in a national television interview last night, compared the youthfulness of his running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, to that of President John F. Kennedy, and said Edwards was 'more qualified' to lead the nation than George W. Bush was four years ago."
NYT: "Turning one of the Republicans' main lines of attack back in their faces, Senator John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, suggested on Sunday that it was hypocritical for their opponents to raise questions about their wealth and that of Mr. Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards."
The veep's wife has split with her husband on the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment:
"Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Cheney, said yesterday that states should have the final say over the legal status of personal relationships," the AP reports.
And the Dems have trumped Zell Miller's decision to speak to the GOP convention, says the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"In a move sure to embarrass Republicans, Ron Reagan will address the Democratic National Convention this month . . .
"A registered independent who has long been an outspoken liberal, Reagan said he would not campaign for Kerry or any other candidate. He said he would vote for Kerry "as a way to defeat Bush."
Here's something that could have been a front-page story, but which the NYT put at the bottom of Page 15 and other papers ignored. John Edwards, the self-proclaimed champion of the little guy, used a tax shelter to avoid paying $600,000 in Medicare taxes--this from a man who made $27 million in the four years before entering the Senate and had criticized tax shelters for undermining Medicare. What would the media reaction had been if Dick Cheney was found doing the same thing?
Still, Edwards is a big plus for the ticket, says the New Republic's Ryan Lizza:
"Time has a new poll confirming that, in general, Edwards is an asset to Kerry while Cheney is a liability for Bush. It's the first poll I've seen since Kerry selected Edwards that has detailed questions about Edwards and Cheney and a significant sample size.
"Edwards's 'favorability' rating among registered voters who know enough about him to have an opinion is a healthy 39 percent, while just 12 percent view him unfavorably. Cheney's favorable rating is 41 percent, but his unfavorable rating is up to 40 percent. Worse, Cheney's job approval rating is a dismal 41 percent, while 47 percent disapprove of the job he's doing. That, of course, is the number to watch when thinking about whether Cheney's experience is an asset or not. If voters think the job you are doing sucks, your experience is a liability.
"Indeed, the poll confirms this with this stunning conclusion: Asked, 'which vice presidential candidate do you think would make a better president,' voters picked Edwards over Cheney 47 percent to 38 percent. So much for Cheney's decades of Beltway gigs being a good contrast with Edwards's single term in the Senate.
"But surely voters think Edwards's background as a lawyer is a bad thing, right? Nope. Thirty-five percent say it would make them more favorable toward him, while 28 percent say it would make them less favorable. Fifty-five percent say his days as a lawyer demonstrates a 'willingness to fight for the average person against big companies,' while only 26 percent echo the Bush campaign line that 'it contributed to the problem of frivolous lawsuits.'"
Rich Lowry sees Kerry morphing on the message front:
"Kerry has long lacked a campaign theme. By saying the other day that the Edwards 'two Americas' line is what the campaign is 'all about,' Kerry has signaled that he is ready to adopt the Edwards message. As for Bush, he has matched Kerry almost vacuity for vacuity. Yes, he wants to persevere in Iraq and preserve his tax cuts. What else? A forward-looking second-term agenda with thematic coherence and political punch has been AWOL. The Bush campaign should take a page from Kerry -- let John Edwards show the way.
"The Edwards theme of 'two Americas' -- one characterized by 'work,' the other by 'wealth' -- amounts to a frontal attack on capital and efforts to foster its accumulation. Edwards has complained about Bush's income-tax cuts 'on the rich,' and scored him for wanting 'to eliminate the capital-gains tax, dividends tax, the estate tax, all the taxation of wealth or passive income on wealth, and shift that tax burden to people who work for a living.' Edwards, in other words, takes direct aim at Bush policies rewarding savings and investment.
"The opposition Edwards tries to make between work and wealth doesn't make sense. Why do people work? For wealth. Rewarding wealth means rewarding the fruits of work. For instance, two-thirds of the beneficiaries of Bush's cut in the top marginal tax rate own some form of small business. In America, you work, make a business succeed, then get wealthy (and become the target of demagogic politicians -- the American dream!).
"Edwards is bucking an important demographic trend. The percentage of Americans owning stock increased from 19 percent to 52 percent from 1983 to 2001. When Edwards criticizes those hoping their savings and investments will produce 'passive income,' he is lashing out at most of America. His vision of Wall Street as the province of barons in top hats belongs in the 1930s."
And now, without further ado, today's print column:
The good news for President Bush is that he has dominated media coverage in recent months, a new study says.
The bad news is that much of the reporting has focused on the president's character -- and has been negative by more than a 3-to-1 margin.
The bad news for John Kerry is that the media assessments of his character have been negative by a margin of more than 5 to 1. The good news is he's been so overshadowed that there haven't been that many stories about him.
In an era when Republicans and Democrats increasingly view the media with distrust, the findings could spark a renewed debate on biased coverage in the final months of a tight campaign. But there's no question, based on an accompanying poll, that the press is having an impact on the 2004 election. The more people read and watch, the study says, the more likely they are to echo the themes emphasized by journalists.
The report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center and University of Missouri journalism school looked at newspaper, broadcast and cable coverage from late March through early June. Researchers found that coverage often revolved around news events, such as the struggle in Iraq, and not campaign activities.
The most prevalent message about Bush, says the study, is that he is "stubborn and arrogant." Second most prevalent: Bush "lacks credibility." Third: The president is a "strong and decisive leader." Of all the comments about character, 56 percent were negative toward Bush, and 16 percent positive.
The most commonly reported theme about Kerry: he "flip flops" on issues. Second: He's "very liberal." Third: "A tough guy who won't back down from a fight."
Of all the characterizations, 23 percent were negative toward Kerry, and 4 percent positive.
And where are these judgments coming from? In many cases, journalists themselves. The assessments of Bush's arrogance came from reporters more often than the Kerry campaign (46 to 28 percent), and at about the same rate on credibility, the study found.
For example, CBS's John Roberts reported in April: "At stake tonight, the president's credibility, chipped away at in recent weeks by the twin issues of Iraq and the 9/11 investigation."
"The fact that reporters feel pretty free to just infer things, or interpret from other people's statements, makes it easier for the campaigns to spin," says Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. Campaign strategists "can say these things, even anonymously, and reporters will put it in their own words."
Negative characterizations of the Massachusetts senator were driven far more often by GOP attacks than journalists themselves, such as NBC's Tim Russert saying in April: "And the Republicans pounding away on the flip flops of John Kerry, day after day."
Possible explanations, according to Rosenstiel: The Bush camp is more aggressive in going after Kerry, or journalists are biased in the Democrat's favor.
The negative reporting seems to have had a limited impact on Bush. According to the poll, 53 percent see him as tough and 48 percent as strong and decisive -- followed by 44 percent who say he's stubborn, 33 percent who say he twists the facts and 27 percent who call him a wealthy elitist.
The image of Kerry is less distinct but more negative: 36 percent say he flip-flops, 28 percent say he twists the facts and 20 percent call him a wealthy elitist -- followed by 18 percent who say Kerry is strong and decision and 15 percent who call him tough.
A blizzard of ads has had relatively little impact on the public, despite the two campaigns' combined spending of $150 million, the project found. But the more ads viewers see, the more likely they are to say that Kerry flip flops, a constant theme of the Bush ad blitz.
The researchers dutifully crunched the numbers on late-night political jokes. Jay Leno was the "least edgy," although the only one to zing Kerry as an elitist. David Letterman was "more pointed" and "probably harder on the president." Jon Stewart was the most likely to jab the administration as a whole, especially over Iraq, but his "digs at Kerry are less frequent."
John Edwards, a media favorite during the veepstakes, has drawn strikingly upbeat coverage in the week since he became John Kerry's running mate, fueled by those perfect photo ops with his wife and kids. But the biggest windfall for Kerry has been the revised psychoanalysis of the man from Massachusetts.
The choice showed him to be "methodical, discreet, coolly pragmatic and exceedingly self-assured" (New York Times); "comfortable enough with his own national security experience to select a running mate with little background in foreign policy or defense" (Boston Globe); "secure enough to have picked a running mate widely judged to be the more effective campaigner" (Washington Post); "displayed a trait rare among politicians: true self-confidence" (the New Republic).
Talk about a bounce.
The New York Times reports, quoting an unnamed New York Post employee, says that owner Rupert Murdoch himself phoned in the tip that led to that humiliating tabloid banner about John Kerry picking Dick Gephardt as his running mate. Murdoch on Friday denied being the source, according to Reuters.
Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader kicked off a self-examination this way:
"CLARIFICATION: It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission."
The paper published a long July 4 mea culpa, acknowledging that it deliberately played down the civil rights protests of the 1960s. When arrests forced a story onto Page 1, it was done in terse, police-report fashion. And events in the black community were usually relegated to a column called Colored News.
"It was a standing order that an effort at a dining room or restaurant or march would not get Page One coverage, that it would go inside," former editor Don Mills was quoted as saying. "The management's view was that the less publicity it got, the quicker the problem would go away."
Managing Editor Tom Eblen says the project was inspired by a speech by former editor John Carroll, who now runs the Los Angeles Times, and a reporter who found few clips while doing research for the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling.
Reader reaction has been "very positive," Eblen says, especially among African-Americans. Readers appreciate "the fact that we acknowledged it wasn't covered very well and took an honest look at why that was."
From the Houston Chronicle: "An editorial in Wednesday's Chronicle carelessly referred to Sen. John Kerry in one reference as 'President Kerry.' The Chronicle regrets the error."
© 2004 washingtonpost.com