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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Blogger Bias

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2004; 9:27 AM

In basketball, it's easy to get faked out.

The opposing player feints to the right, you react, and he drives left and goes to the hole, leaving you in the dust.

In politics, there are plenty of head fakes as well.

_____More Media Notes_____
Gasping Through the Stretch Run (washingtonpost.com, Oct 19, 2004)
Truth and Consequences (washingtonpost.com, Oct 18, 2004)
The Debate Over Mary Cheney (washingtonpost.com, Oct 15, 2004)
Bobbing and Weaving (washingtonpost.com, Oct 14, 2004)
Facing the Nation (washingtonpost.com, Oct 13, 2004)
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You know all those ads that John Kerry keeps putting out? The ones that keep getting shown on the newscasts and that people like me keep writing about? Well, some of them are phantom ads. That is, the Kerry campaign hasn't spent a buck to air them. They just use them to generate what political pros call "free media."

I write about the Kerry fake-out here. And over here, a piece on how the candidates, in their ads and stump speeches, keep attacking positions that their rivals don't really hold. A sort of bogeyman approach, you might say, in an effort to fake out the rest of us.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is now saying that viewers were faked out by the political furor over its plans to air an anti-Kerry movie. The company says it never really planned the carry the whole thing. Except that its vice president told me and other reporters that the 42-minute "Stolen Honor" would air as part of a special, though it might be truncated if John Kerry agreed to come on. Kerry wasn't going to be head-faked by that one.

So now the 62-station television chain, whose stock has been heading south, says it will air only part of the movie Friday night as part of a larger special that will also look at media bias. (Not Sinclair's, I bet. Maybe they could have on the ex-Washington bureau chief who was fired for criticizing the plan to air "Stolen Honor.") That's at least a partial victory for the Democrats who were going haywire over this October surprise. Here's our report.

Now that I've assigned all this homework, let me move on to a little cyberspace controversy about campaign coverage. I assume when I read the various bloggers that everything they put up is filtered through their point of view. Otherwise, why blog? It's not like being a wire-service reporter. Plus, as one ex-network exec observed in a remark that infuriated the practitioners, you can do it in your pajamas. If you even bother to put on pajamas.

One of the most popular blog guys by far is Glenn Reynolds, a Tennessee law professor who links to a zillion other bloggers on InstaPundit. He got a little criticism from a far less well-known cyberwriter named Tony Pierce, who was responding to something that Jeff Jarvis wrote on his Buzz Machine. So Reynolds responded thusly:

"1. InstaPundit is not an unbiased news service. It consists entirely of my opinions and such links to factual items as I find interesting. Its whole purpose is as a vehicle for my biases, in fact. It is not unbiased and objective in any fashion, but rather is opinionated and slanted, much like other, more respectable, outlets such as The New York Times and TonyPierce.com.

"2. I do, in fact, support the reelection of George W. Bush, for reasons that should be clear to long-term readers. While I'm not overjoyed with Bush (I'd prefer Lieberman/Cheney, or Cheney/Lieberman), I think that electing John F. Kerry at this juncture would be like electing the ugly bastard child of Jimmy Carter and Millard Fillmore -- in 1940. (I could be wrong, of course, and if Kerry should happen to be elected, I fervently hope to be proven so. But that's how it seems to me. I mean, Jesus, just look at the guy.)

3. If this bothers you, please sod off and go read Atrios or Kos."

Which brought forth this response from Tony Pierce:

"A few more disclaimers that I would have liked to have seen in Glenn's disclaimer

"4. Don't expect me to ever tell the truth about the current administration. When they are wrong, [screw] up, or have bad days I will bury it because if I don't the republic might fall.

"5. If you don't share my political beliefs don't expect me to link to you, even if I am writing about you directly.

"6. Even if I make 30 posts in a day about the alleged biases and failings of newspapers, candidates, or journalists, don't expect me to ever write about the alleged biases and failings of right-wing bloggers or the administration.

"7. I don't have comments because I don't like people reminding me of my shortcomings.

"8. I have never seen a slam on the Dems that I haven't liked or linked.

"9. I am happy with this war, this president, the debates, the lack of weapons of mass destruction in iraq, the lack of troops in Afghanistan, the US economy over the last four years, and the gas prices here in the states.

"10. I'm not interested in being anything more than a tool for the right and an echo of their propaganda.

"11. I am proud of the fact that I am less-balanced than Matt Drudge."

Whew! It's a cyberjungle out there.

Andrew Sullivan is a bit gentler in knocking Reynolds:

"He can be really funny. I wish he'd be more abusive at times - of the people who deserve a little slapping around. And I haven't heard the term 'sod off' since I left England. Good for him. But it's also true that he doesn't really defend his own pro-Bush sentiments at any length, and he routinely avoids any news that could reflect badly on the president. I'm sure Glenn is aware of the many mistakes in Iraq, but he doesn't link to them, and seems content merely to link to positive news. That's his prerogative, of course. . . . But it is a cocoon of a sort. And his assumptions would be more persuasive with a bit more substantiation at times."

And the Buzz Machine post that started it:

"I am seeing a qualitative difference between (a) news media that try -- unsuccessfully -- to deny bias, and (b) individuals' blogs that carry bias, naturally, and (c) blogs that are founded on bias. When I get email or links from a blog in category C -- like, say, CrushKerry -- I frankly don't pay much attention to it because I can predict precisely what it's going to say.

"If I see a story in media from category A that doesn't admit its bias, I look at it with suspicion and exhaustion because I get tired of trying to figure out its perspective. But when I see a person in category B publicly grapple with an issue and when I know that person's perspective, I find the discussion far more interesting and illuminating. After the debates, I enjoyed going back and forth among bloggers voting for one side or the other to see it through different lenses; that was helpful. And that works only when the lenses are transparent."

Social Security is the hot issue on the trail, reports the Los Angeles Times:

"Amid signs the presidential race is in a dead heat, President Bush targeted his campaign on the battleground state of Florida today, defending his record on Social Security, healthcare and even the shortage of flu vaccine from John F. Kerry's attacks.

"For his part, Kerry has seized on the future of Social Security as a potent campaign issue, hammering on it all week in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. 'On Nov. 2, Social Security is on the ballot,' he warned at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 'A choice between one candidate who will save Social Security -- and another who will undermine it.'. . . .

"The president said the Massachusetts senator is trying to scare Americans into believing a second Bush term would ruin Social Security and bring back the draft. 'We will keep the promise of Social Security for all our seniors,' Bush said in St. Petersburg. 'We will not have a draft. We'll keep the all-volunteer army.'"

I guess he left out the part where he's trying to scare people about Kerry's "government-run" health plan. There's a whole lot of scaring going on in the final stretch.

Bush is winning one part of the expectations game, says the Washington Times:

"American voters, while split over who should be the next president, overwhelmingly predict that President Bush will vanquish Sen. John Kerry, an expectation that could affect the outcome of a close election.

"While the various national polls show that voters prefer the president over Mr. Kerry by an average of four points, those same surveys place Mr. Bush some 20 points ahead on the question of which candidate is expected to win."

This is a more important indicator than it might seem, since it suppresses excitement about Kerry.

Cheney goes nuclear:

"Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday raised the possibility of terrorists bombing U.S. cities with nuclear weapons and questioned whether Senator John F. Kerry could combat such an ''ultimate threat . . . you've got to get your mind around,'" says the AP.

The Democratic nominee, despite those recent appearances in black churches, is not galvanizing African-Americans, reports USA Today:

"Black voters could indeed make the difference in must-win, closely divided states such as Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. But Kerry has been slow to excite them.

"The Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, a leading think tank on issues affecting African-Americans, released a poll Tuesday that found 18% of black Americans would vote for President Bush. That's twice the share of black votes Bush drew in 2000, though far lower than Kerry's 69%."

GOP vs. NYT? Y-E-S, says Salon's Eric Boehlert:

"Nobody connected with the Bush-Cheney campaign appears even slightly concerned about being caught denigrating the Times; they're more than happy to do it on the record, as the White House has all but declared open warfare on the nation's leading newspaper.

"The latest volley came over the weekend when Republican campaign officials accused the Times Sunday magazine of fabricating a provocative quote from Bush in which he bragged -- behind closed doors and speaking to wealthy supporters -- that he would announce plans for "privatizing of Social Security" early next year, after his reelection. When Democrats jumped on the remark, dubbing it the 'January surprise,' Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie dismissed the Times' work as 'Kitty Kelley journalism,' insisting Bush never uttered the phrase attributed to him. But the Times stands by the 8,300-word story by Ron Suskind, author of 'The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill,' a revealing account of the former secretary of the treasury published earlier this year.

"That confrontation and the Bush campaign's harsh accusation that respected journalist Suskind and the editors of the Times are liars come on the heels of a series of denigrations by the White House. The Times' reporter recently was banned from Cheney's campaign plane. And in his acceptance speech before the Republican Convention, Bush mocked the paper by distorting, out of context, one of its columnist's writings of almost 60 years ago. . . .

"'Presidents like spin and secrets, journalists don't, so this is a relationship fraught with potential discomfort,' says Times executive editor Bill Keller. He observes that the paper has dealt with difficult episodes with various White Houses in the past. 'But I admit we're puzzled over what seems to be a more intense antipathy at this White House, especially since the campaign heated up.'

"Keller adds, 'I can only speculate, but some of it may be that they think whacking a big newspaper with "New York" in its name plays well with the [conservative] base. Perhaps they think if they beat up on us we'll go soft on them.'"

If that's the plan, it's not working.

The New York Daily News has a new wrinkle in the O'Reilly lawsuit:

"Scandal-hit Bill O'Reilly's accuser had a crush on the talk show host and voluntarily engaged in 'intimate' phone talks with him, according to a former friend of the woman.

"But at some point, the ex-pal said, O'Reilly's relationship with Andrea Mackris went sour - and she vowed to take her boss down in a juicy tell-all book.. . . .

"Mackris' lawyer, Benedict Morelli, slammed Paratore's claim as 'garbage' and called him a 'spurned potential lover.'

"'He asked her out in October last year and she said no,' he said. 'The only thing I've heard about this guy is when I asked Andrea if there was anybody she has disappointed like this, and his name came up. It's garbage.'"

Did he mention it was garbage?

Still lots of buzz over the dressing down that Jon Stewart gave Carlson & Begala on "Crossfire." Here's Slate's Dana Stevens:

"Boy, I'm telling you. You spend one weekend in the boonies, visiting some crunchy friends with no TV set, and you miss out on the biggest television story in months: something actually happens on a political talk show! Moral of story: never go anywhere, and watch as much TV as possible. But meme time be damned: I just have to say a few words about Jon Stewart's live freakout on Crossfire last Friday. Well, perhaps not so much 'freakout' as 'searing moment of lucidity.'

"Hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala had invited Stewart on the show to 'take a break from campaign politics' (Carlson's words), have a few laughs, and promote his new book, America (The Book). Too bad for them that the host of The Daily Show had another agenda in mind. Within less than a minute, the interview degenerated (or ascended, depending on your point of view) into an encounter of the sort not often -- OK, never -- seen on the talk-show circuit. Stewart was like the cool college roommate you bring home for Thanksgiving only to spend the evening squirming as he savages your parents' bourgeois values. 'Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations,' he told the dueling pundits. 'You're part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks.' . . .

"A trot through the blogosphere suggests that Stewart's hyper-sincere Crossfire turn may have cost him a few fans, even as it solidified his diehard base. I wouldn't be surprised if the news media's recent crush on Stewart -- the rave reviews of America, the high-profile journalists appearing on his show -- turned a corner after this. As America: The Book makes clear, nobody likes a civics lecture. But you'd be hard-pressed to ask for more entertaining television than Friday's live smackdown.

"Stewart's naked appeal to his hosts to 'please stop, stop, stop. Stop hurting America,' had a loopy, apocalyptic power. It burned a hole in the screen, like Peter Finch as the crazed anchorman in Network, bellowing, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.'"

I felt like bellowing that just yesterday when I was writing all these stories. Fourteen days till E-Day.


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