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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Reverse Media Bounce

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; 8:21 AM

Four years ago, the pundits trashed Al Gore's convention speech. He sounded like a "vice president on speed," Sam Donaldson said.

But then a funny thing happened. Gore shot up, by as much as 17 points, in Newsweek, USA Today and Washington Post polls. And the tone of the coverage was dramatically altered. The previous blather was inoperative -- the convention was a smashing success!

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Kerry Wows the Media (washingtonpost.com, Jul 30, 2004)
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Who ya gonna believe, journalists seemed to be telling themselves, your own eyes or the polls?

Now the opposite seems to be happening. Kerry's tightly scripted convention drew lots of favorable coverage, especially his address ("I've never seen the man speak so well"--Joe Klein), and yet the Boston bash didn't move the polling meter. Kerry may even have dropped a couple of points. So now the media -- who ya gonna believe? -- are in full reassessment mode.

Maybe it was a lousy convention after all!

Old CW: Lack of Bush-bashing a brilliant strategy, appealing to independents.

New CW: Bored everyone to tears.

Left unexamined is the possibility that maybe conventions just don't matter that much anymore, or that there are so few undecideds in 2004 that neither candidate has much room to bounce. That, after all, would call into question what 15,000 of us were doing all week in Boston.

David Broder isn't reassessing, but he seems to sense a big whiff by Kerry:

"As one of the distinct minority of journalists who was not blown away by Kerry's performance, I was not surprised at the apparent lack of progress by the Democratic challenger. I thought it was pretty clear that Kerry had not bombed but also that he had not hit a home run. . . .

"What strikes me now is that many of my colleagues -- and perhaps the Kerry campaign itself -- are missing the significance of Kerry's lost opportunity. . . .

"Kerry and other speakers fixated on one brief shining moment in his pre-political career: his valiant service as a Navy officer in Vietnam. It became the all-purpose metaphor -- "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty." But it never really merged with the story of his later life, and the American people are plenty smart enough to remember that throughout the 1990s, Democrats insisted that Bill Clinton's avoidance of military service during Vietnam was no disqualification for his serving as commander in chief.

"Left largely unanswered -- or only vaguely outlined -- was the question of what Kerry had done with his life in the decades since he came home from Vietnam, particularly in his 20 years of Senate service. President Bush immediately pounced on the omission, suggesting in his very first speech since Kerry's nomination that the senator has few 'results' for which he can claim credit as a legislator. The charge is unfair, but Kerry left himself wide open to it."

Mickey Kaus, no fan of Kerry, sees a more fundamental problem:

"Donkey Rising's Ruy Teixeira spends rather too much time explaining away the disappointing (for Kerry) post-convention horse-race polls.

" 1) As Teixeira notes, Kerry's beating Bush on the issues (and on various leadership qualities) yet he still hasn't taken a clear lead among likely voters. Tell us why is this good news for Kerry again? 2) On the biggest issues -- Iraq and the economy -- the trend seems likely to be in Bush's favor. If that happens, won't the horse-race results follow that trend? 3) The convention news was grim for Kerry not because it failed to shore up his base (it did!) or because the voters don't agree with him on the issues (they do!) or because he didn't 'set himself up for a successful fall campaign' (he did!). The problem is that it is Kerry who has to wage that 'successful fall campaign' -- and what the convention may have told us is that voters, despite agreeing with the Dems on all sorts of matrixes, don't find Kerry personally appealing even when they see him give a good speech.

"At least not appealing enough to vote for him. That bodes ill for Democrats this fall, no matter how well Kerry has 'set himself up.'"

Progressive Editor Matthew Rothschild found the whole thing a bit tepid:

"John Kerry got little or no bounce from the convention, and I'm not surprised.

"Leaving aside the fact that there just aren't that many undecideds out there, the Kerry convention strategy was flawed: It was too buttoned down, too defensive, and too 'on message.' Especially when the message wasn't sharp enough.

"Kerry's strategists were content to show that John Kerry can defend the country and salute the flag as well as the Republicans, that he can pray as fervently Sunday to Sunday, that he can throw the family values charge back, and that he can offer a few more tax breaks than the Republicans on issues like health care, child care, and education.

"But that's not enough to make the sale. It neither energizes the base nor persuades nonvoters, Greens, Naderites, Independents, or moderate Republicans that Bush is too scary to leave in office.

"The Kerry folks made a crucial mistake by playing too nice, by not allowing harsh criticism of Bush's policies or of his cast of reckless and inept characters, like Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz."

But wouldn't people who welcome denunciations of Cheney, Ashcroft et al. already be for Kerry?

The senator is taking a stand on the media:

"Lamenting the concentration of power in a shrinking number of big media companies, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry pledged today to resist mergers that limit the number of news and entertainment outlets," says the Los Angeles Times.

"Speaking to a convention of minority journalists, he vowed to name people to the Federal Communications Commission who were 'committed to enforcing equal employment and ensuring that small- and minority-owned broadcasters are not consolidated into extinction.'

" 'As president, I will expand opportunities for people of color in the media,' Kerry told several thousand spectators at the Unity: Journalists of Color convention."

Gee! I didn't know a president had that power.

"Kerry said there were too few minority editors, anchors, news executives and owners of media organizations."

We'll see what Bush tells the group today.

You know that group of veterans that has surfaced with a TV spot ripping Kerry's conduct in Vietnam, contrary to what his band of brothers says? The Boston Globe has found a credibility problem:

"A key figure in the anti-Kerry campaign, Kerry's former commanding officer, backed off one of the key contentions. Lieutenant Commander George Elliott said in an interview that he had made a 'terrible mistake' in signing an affidavit that suggests Kerry did not deserve the Silver Star -- one of the main allegations in the book. The affidavit was given to The Boston Globe by the anti-Kerry group to justify assertions in their ad and book.

"Elliott is quoted as saying that Kerry 'lied about what occurred in Vietnam . . . for example, in connection with his Silver Star, I was never informed that he had simply shot a wounded, fleeing Viet Cong in the back.' . . .

"Yesterday, reached at his home, Elliott said he regretted signing the affidavit and said he still thinks Kerry deserved the Silver Star. 'I still don't think he shot the guy in the back,' Elliott said. 'It was a terrible mistake probably for me to sign the affidavit with those words. I'm the one in trouble here.'"

And how did the president's team react? Not by denouncing the ad as "dishonest and dishonorable," as John McCain did.

"The White House yesterday distanced itself from a political ad that questions John Kerry's Vietnam service and called on the Democratic presidential nominee to join President Bush in demanding an 'immediate cessation' of all advertisements by outside groups," reports the Washington Times. 'We have not and will not question Senator Kerry's service in Vietnam,' White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One."

That "immediate cessation," of course, would pull the plug on the far heavier barrage of Democratic group ads that are keeping the Kerry message on the air in August, when he's bound by public financing limits while Bush gets to spend freely until his convention.

There are plenty of columnists out there -- you know who you are -- who so faithfully defend the party line that they might as well be on the payroll. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in a refreshing bit of honesty, is going off the Wall Street Journal payroll:

"With the decline of the Democratic Party I have become convinced there is a greater chance we will win the war if the Republican Party wins the election.

"In the past four years I have written about and given advice to both parties in this column. But a week ago, while watching the Democratic convention, I made a decision.

"I am going to take three months' unpaid leave from The Wall Street Journal and attempt to support the Republican Party in the coming and crucial election. (Every four years everyone says 'this is the most important election of my lifetime,' but this year I believe it is true.) I'm going to give whatever advice and encouragement I have in terms of strategy, approach, message -- I hate that word -- and issues.

"No one has asked me to do this, and I do it as a volunteer, not for a salary but simply to give my time to help what I think is the more helpful side. This will take a bite out of my finances but I can do it. Actually most of us, when we die, wind up with a few thousand dollars in the bank. We should have spent it! I am going to spend mine now.

"The White House does not need my help. They have the best political strategists, communications specialists and speechwriters since the Reagan era, which had the best of all these since the time of JFK. President Bush has his sound, and it's a good one. He's getting his sea legs on the stump -- it's hard to go from being-president to being-president-and-running again-for-president, it's a bit of a shift and is always awkward. But he's got it together and they've got it together. There are others, however, lower down on the power pole, who might benefit from another hand on deck."

Dan Kennedy spots a bit of news about Fox:

"DOES ROGER AILES KNOW ABOUT THIS? The most entertaining news from the Kerry campaign trail comes in the last paragraph of Anne Kornblut's story in Thursday's Boston Globe:

"Some 200 business leaders endorsed Kerry yesterday, including executives from Oracle, Bank of America, and three other companies who flew here to attend the round-table. They decried rising US deficits and what several said was a chilly international business climate under Bush. Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, said that the Bush administration's 'isolationist' and 'occasionally bellicose' rhetoric was bad for US financial interests and trading abroad.

"Odd, but searching for 'Chernin' at FoxNews.com yields nothing since August 2003. You'd think they'd want to get this up right away, so that they could be fair and balanced and all. In fact, Media Log looks forward to the sight of Sean Hannity interviewing his boss on the depradations of George W. Bush."

Alan Keyes (who once ripped Hillary Clinton as a carpetbagger) is reported by the Chicago papers today to have decided to run for Senate in Hillary's real home state of Illinois, even though he lives in Maryland. The Chicago Tribune offers this editorial:

"Mr. Keyes may have noticed a large body of water as he flew into O'Hare. That is called Lake Michigan. It's large. It's wide. It's deep. And we'll spoil the surprise: You can't even see across it. Welcome to Illinois. . . .

"In a move that seems a tad, um, rude, Keyes said he'd get back to them. He's off to Maryland. He'll let them know by Sunday if he accepts their nomination. Whatever he does, the state GOP has created a terrible situation for itself. If Keyes accepts, he will run and will lose. And then he will hop on the next flight back to Maryland, and the state's GOP will be left with nothing but the smell of jet fumes. If Keyes decides not to run, how stupid Republicans will look. They'll be back to finding a candidate from Illinois, because the candidate from Maryland spurned them."

Josh Marshall scoffs at Keyes's contention that he would be "laying it all on the line":

"Now, this is classic Keyes as the master of grandiloquent nonsense. Hearing that he will lay all it on the line this time makes you wonder what he possibly could left off the line when he ran for office in 1988 (Senate), 1992 (Senate), 1996 (president) and 2000 (president).

"As you can see, Keyes appears to suffer from an affliction which presents as its primary symptom the inability to go more than four years without entering a campaign in which he will get trounced beyond all reckoning but will nevertheless get a chance to show up at a few debates and work himself into a lather."

The Teresa issue is getting lots of attention, as Ryan Lizza notes in The New Republic:

"Something seems to get into Teresa Heinz Kerry's system by the end of the day. At morning events, she is more on-message and sometimes even an inspiring speaker. By the evening she is, as she described herself to a crowd last night, 'sassy.' When she takes the stage, reporters exchange knowing glances, double-check their recording equipment, and prepare to scribble furiously. Last night's gift to the staged monotony of Kerry's 'Believe in America' tour was Heinz Kerry's instantly famous retort to pro-Bush hecklers trying to disrupt a picturesque Kerry rally of thousands at a park in downtown Milwaukee.

"Most newspaper and TV accounts didn't note it, but just moments before the flare-up, Heinz Kerry was telling the crowd about standing up against bullies and oppressors, specifically in apartheid South Africa. 'It's important in life to take a stand,' she said, 'whether you're alone in a room or in a crowd.' As if on cue the gang of Bushies in the distance began their irritating bullhorn chant of 'four more years.' She seemed to make the connection between what she had just said and the protesters. How could she not take a stand? 'They want four more years of hell,' she shouted to thunderous cheers. The crowd then responded with a witty chant of 'three more months,' which she gamely picked up and began reciting herself.

"The exchange seemed to tick her off enough that she then . . . added a jab at Bush's Vietnam service to her introduction of her husband. Kerry was 'a man,' she said, who believed 'in going in the line of fire, not by going elsewhere.' As her husband addressed the crowd, she stood behind him glaring at the hecklers. . . .

"Please. Republicans should attack Kerry if he hadn't come to his wife's defense. If Kerry supporters tried to shout down the first lady at a Bush rally -- if they weren't taken away in handcuffs, as seems to happen these days to Bush protesters -- don't you think Bush would have a sharp word or two for them?"

Finally, the Associated Press picks up on a classic comment from the leader of the free world:

"President Bush offered up a new entry yesterday for the catalog of 'Bushisms,' declaring that his administration would never stop thinking about ways to harm the United States. Bush misspoke as he delivered a speech at the signing ceremony for a $417 billion military spending bill."

Well, it's been a long campaign.

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