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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Up Next: The News In Red and Blue

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2004; Page C01

If you were watching the network evening news in June, July and August, you would have seen somewhat favorable coverage of John Kerry -- six out of 10 evaluations were positive -- and somewhat unfavorable coverage of President Bush.

If you were watching Fox News Channel's 6 p.m. newscast, you would have seen about the same coverage of the president. But Kerry's evaluations were negative by a 5 to 1 margin.

Fox News's coverage of the Kerry campaign has been, Brit Hume says, "extremely fair." (Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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That finding, by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, might suggest that some Fox folks have it in for Kerry. Or it might suggest that the broadcast networks are too easy on Kerry, who the group says has gotten the best network coverage of any presidential nominee since it began tracking in 1988. Or that we have entered an era of red media and blue media to match the country's polarization.

With some conservatives calling for a boycott of CBS and Dan Rather, are we now living in a fragmented universe in which people consume mainly the media that match their own prejudices and predilections?

"Red Truth holds that Rather has at last taken his place alongside other disgraced liberal icons," says a Time cover story. "Blue Truth sees Rathergate as a sideshow; the problem with the mainstream media is not that they are biased but that they are lazy and have given Bush a free pass."

On every major story this side of Hurricane Ivan, the media are seen by partisans as blowing in one direction or the other. Iraq war? Journalists are either unpatriotic naysayers hurting the morale of American troops, or pathetic pantywaists who blindly carried the false White House claims of WMDs. The campaign? Journalists are either nasty nitpickers who are painting Kerry as an elitist flip-flopper the way they distorted Al Gore's record, or liberal sympathizers who are openly rooting for Kerry and can't hide their distaste for the president. CBS? They are fellow travelers who share Rather's bias and had to be prodded into challenging "60 Minutes" by fearless bloggers, or White House lackeys stoking a phony media controversy rather than uncovering the real story of Bush allegedly being AWOL.

Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor, whose "Special Report" was examined by the study, says he's surprised by the anti-Kerry findings. "Our day-in, day-out coverage by Carl Cameron has been extremely fair to Kerry, and the Kerry campaign has recognized this," he says.

"We did a lot on the Swift Boat Veterans. We thought it was a totally legitimate story and found it an appalling lapse by many of our competitive news organizations that were treating that story like it was cancerous." But even there, Hume says, "we were abundantly fair to John Kerry's side."

Matthew Felling of the media center is skeptical. "If this is what passes for 'fair and balanced' journalism, it looks like someone has a finger on the scale at Fox News," he says. For the NBC, CBS and ABC evening newscasts, Kerry drew 62 percent positive evaluations and Bush 41 percent.

Some of the anti-Kerry comments come from the show's commentators, not its reporters. On Thursday, after airing straightforward news reports on a speech by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and Kerry's criticism of the remarks, Hume asked his pundit panel for reaction. "Disgraceful," said Charles Krauthammer. Michael Barone called it "bad politics." Mort Kondracke accused Kerry of "pessimism."

Bush appears to favor the red media. In recent weeks, he has given interviews to Rush Limbaugh and Fox's Bill O'Reilly (who asked some probing questions). Kerry doesn't so much favor the blue media as the lite media, chatting up Jon Stewart, David Letterman, and Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, who gushed about how handsome he is.

Frank Rich, the liberal New York Times columnist who dismisses Fox as "GOP-TV," says one secret to its success is that "its competition is so weak at providing the hard-hitting, trustworthy news that might draw an alternative crowd." He also writes that CNN, in keeping informal Kerry advisers James Carville and Paul Begala on the air, has abandoned "even a fig leaf of impartiality" and is "now as inextricably bound to the Democrats as Fox is to the Republicans."

CNN executives note that their network was deemed the most trusted news outlet in a Pew Research poll. The same survey found that 52 percent of Fox viewers are conservative, while 44 percent of CNN's audience say they're Democrats -- a split that seemed to be underscored at the summer conventions. CNN won the cable ratings race at the Democratic gathering, while Fox -- in a truly remarkable milestone -- beat not just its cable rivals but also the big broadcast networks in covering the GOP convention.

Fox's success is based not just on perceived ideology -- it's fast-paced, pugilistic and positions itself as taking on the elites. Had Fox, like "60 Minutes," aired a story based on apparently bogus documents, owner Rupert Murdoch told Editor & Publisher, "we would have been crucified. All of the traditional media is against us." Plus, there's a clear niche: 48 percent in a new Gallup poll call the media too liberal.

Debra Saunders, a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes that some on the right will use CBS's National Guard debacle "as an excuse to boycott mainstream media. . . . They stick with the little news shops that only sell what they want to hear in the firm belief that they should not be exposed to news they don't like. . . . Do they understand that bragging about not reading a newspaper is analogous to bragging that you only speak one language?"

So are we reaching a point where part of the country relies on Fox, Rush, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard and the Free Republic Web site -- and the rest on NPR, Al Franken, the New York Times, the Nation and Josh Marshall's blog? Those who tout the role of bloggers in blowing the cyberwhistle on CBS's documents say the landscape has shifted. "Nowadays everyone has a megaphone and those with something interesting to say often discover that their megaphone can become very large, very fast," writes Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit.com.

Few would want to return to the days when three networks and a couple of newspapers controlled the news agenda. But isn't something lost when everyone goes surfing off in their own media direction?

A Game of Chicken

The Democrats had a fine time last week taunting the Republicans for avoiding televised face-offs over President Bush, the National Guard and those discredited CBS documents.

"Bush Campaign Gets a Case of Camera Shyness," said one Democratic National Committee release, complaining that GOP operatives were rejecting invitations to debate John Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart.

Now it's the other side's turn to crow. Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie accepted an invitation to debate Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe on yesterday's "Meet the Press," but McAuliffe -- and Kerry campaign chief Mary Beth Cahill -- said no, citing scheduling problems.

"Trying to get Terry McAuliffe on a television show with the chairman is like trying to catch a wild chicken in a farm yard," says RNC communications director Jim Dyke. But the Democrats decided they wanted to debate the president's war, not campaign politics. "Given the deteriorating situation in Iraq," says Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton, "we offered all our foreign policy surrogates to all the Sunday shows that would take them."

Walters Walks Away

She started out as a "Today" staffer who could only write "tea-pourer" segments for women. And after a final tribute that even included Gilda Radner's "Baba Wawa" spoof of her, Barbara Walters hung it up at "20/20" Friday night.

The final show gives us a reason to look back on a remarkable career. Walters interviewed everyone from heads of state to Monica Lewinsky to, on Friday, former teacher-seductress Mary Kay Letourneau.

Walters, said to be 73, was a groundbreaker: First female co-anchor of "Today." First female co-anchor of an evening news broadcast (an ill-fated experiment on ABC) for the then-princely sum of $1 million.

She could be "impatient," "compulsive" and "demanding," she told the Chicago Tribune. And occasionally critics made fun of her, such as when she asked Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she'd like to be, and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter whether they slept in a double bed.

But Walters, whose "20/20" seat will be taken by Elizabeth Vargas, continues to outlast the critics. She'll still do ABC specials and her daytime talk show, "The View."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company