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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Who Do You Believe?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2004; 8:56 AM

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.

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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."

Moving on . . . In the continuing effort to capture Kerry's essence, the New York Times looks at his decision-making and finds he once told Dick Holbrooke to read a Peter Galbraith article in the New York Review of Books. Positive: That's probably a conversation Bush has never had. But "the downside to his deliberative executive style, they said, is a campaign that has often moved slowly against a swift opponent, and a candidate who has struggled to synthesize the information he sweeps up into a clear, concise case against Mr. Bush.

"Even his aides concede that Mr. Kerry can be slow in taking action, bogged down in the very details he is so intent on collecting, as suggested by the fact that he never even used the Medicare information he sent his staff chasing.

"His attention to detail can serve him well on big projects, as it did when he sent aides scurrying across the country to find long-lost fellow Vietnam veterans who could vouch for his war record. But sometimes, his aides say, it is a distraction, as it was in early 2003, when they say he spent four weeks mulling the design of his campaign logo, consulting associates about what font it should use and whether it should include an American flag. (It does.)"


"His habit of soliciting one more point of view prompted one close adviser to say he had learned to wait until the last minute before weighing in: Mr. Kerry, he said, is apt to be most influenced by the last person who has his ear. His aides rejoiced earlier this year when Mr. Kerry yielded his cellphone to an aide, a move they hoped would limit his distractions in seeking out contrary opinions."

Stop him before he consults again!

The Chicago Tribune also finds Kerry less than crisply decisive:

"With just five weeks left in his quest to become commander in chief and chief executive officer of the country, Kerry has earned a reputation as the consulter in chief, always seeking another opinion and rarely completely settled on a course of action.

"Over six political campaigns and two decades running a Senate office, it is far from certain how this legislator with a yearning for consensus would govern as president. His campaigns always have been messy affairs with no clear lines of authority, constant late-night meetings and abrupt shifts in strategy depending upon whose opinion registered with the candidate last...

"Kerry has never run much of anything, except for the small cookie store in Faneuil Hall that he started with a friend years ago."

"With five weeks remaining in the presidential contest," says the Los Angeles Times, "the race has narrowed to a struggle over roughly a dozen states, with President Bush holding the advantage in the fight for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

"But strategists in both parties agree the outcome could once more come down to Florida, the hurricane-battered state that decided the 2000 election after a 36-day legal and political brawl. . . .

"Both campaigns had viewed the country as a land of unbounded opportunity. Bush's team once spoke of carrying California, but a Los Angeles Times poll last week showed the president trailing in the state by 15 percentage points. Kerry campaigned in Virginia, but his team has since written off the state, which has not voted Democratic in a presidential race since 1964. Strategists for the two camps are making cold-eyed calculations about where their candidates stand realistic chances of winning. As a result, states are rapidly falling off the political map, leaving just a handful that Democrats and Republicans rate as true tossups.

"Those states, totaling 79 electoral votes, are Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, West Virginia and New Hampshire."

I just had a nightmarish thought: What if the vote was really close in Florida, and that night there was a hurricane...

Is Kerry getting it together? The Boston Globe poses the question:

"The perception of a Democratic presidential campaign in disarray remained so widespread Wednesday morning that Senator John F. Kerry got unsolicited advice from a woman attending a town hall meeting on Social Security: Beef up your rapid-response team, the retired lawyer suggested.

"The remark prompted laughter, including from the candidate himself. But the Kerry campaign was already undergoing a transformation.

"Between a speech Monday in New York that gave a point-by-point accounting of continued problems in Iraq, and a speech Friday in Philadelphia that accused President Bush of taking his eye off the real terrorist threat, Osama bin Laden, the Kerry campaign seized control of the political dialogue during a week that was supposed to have been dominated by the incumbent as he visited the United Nations and invited Iraq's prime minister to the White House.

"Through speeches and two news conferences, Kerry attacked Bush for having created a costly diversion in the war on terror by invading Iraq. His ad-makers pumped out television commercials overnight that used footage from the day before to criticize the president's policies and statements. And the new message team of John Sasso, Michael McCurry, and Joe Lockhart helped manage events in a way they believe will put Kerry in a strong position heading into the first presidential debate Thursday night."

Andrew Sullivan invokes the THK factor:

"More off-message, paranoid ramblings from Teresa Heinz Kerry. She really is an embarrassment: a stereotype of the arrogant, mega-rich liberal, who has long forgotten that the only reason anyone is interested in what she has to say is her inherited money. My own theory is that she also has something to do with the new gender gap, where women are no longer as Democratic as they once were. Women look at Kerry's marriage and do not relate. They see a man who has married mega-wealthy heiresses twice, and they then look at the Bush marriage and see something simple and calming and traditional.

"I'm not saying that Kerry's marriage is any less admirable than Bush's; or that this kind of criticism is in any way fair. It isn't. I'm just saying that many people, especially in the heartland, are uncomfortable with it. I'm therefore simply amazed that the Kerry team are still allowing THK to mouthe off at events. Maybe she has too much leverage to be silenced. But someone needs to silence her, if Kerry is to have a chance. And soon."

The New Republic's Ryan Lizza, eyeing the upbeat spin on Iraq from Bush and Ayad Allawi, says the reporters' questions at their presser reflect Kerry's effort to "point out the gap between Bush's rhetoric on Iraq and the reality on the ground there. Thursday's press conference showed how successful Kerry has been in making the 'reality gap' a central narrative of the campaign. There were nine questions, and seven of them were about chaos in Iraq:

"--Mr. President, two more Americans have been beheaded. More than 300 Iraqis have been killed in the last week. Fallujah is out of government control. And U.S. and Iraqi forces have been unable to bring security to diplomatic and commercial centers of Baghdad. Why haven't U.S. forces been able to capture or kill al Zarqawi, who's blamed for much of the violence?

"--Mr. President, John Kerry is accusing you of colossal failures of judgment in Iraq and having failed to level with the American people about how tough it is there. How do you respond to him?

"--Mr. President, you say today that the work in Iraq is tough and will remain tough. And, yet, you travel this country and a central theme of your campaign is that America is safer because of the invasion of Iraq. Can you understand why Americans may not believe you?

"--Sir, may I just follow, because I don't think you're really answering the question. I mean, I think you're responding to Senator Kerry, but there are beheadings regularly, the insurgent violence continues, and there are no weapons of mass destruction. My question is, can you understand that Americans may not believe you when you say that America is actually safer today?

"--Sir, I'd like you [to] answer Senator Kerry and other critics who accuse you of hypocrisy or opportunism when, on the one hand, you put so much stock in the CIA when it said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and now say it is just guessing when it paints a pessimistic picture of the political transition.

"--You have been accused on the campaign trail in this election year of painting an overly optimistic portrait of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Yesterday, in Valley Forge, you said that there was a 'handful' of people who were willing to kill to try to disrupt the process. Isn't that really understating the case, particularly when there are intelligence reports that hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign fighters are streaming across the border from Syria to take up the fight of the insurgency?

"--Don't the real voices of the Iraqi people, themselves, contradict the rosy scenarios you're painting here today?"

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