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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Four . . . More . . . Years?

The Left Contemplates the Unthinkable

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page C01

The cover of the Washington Monthly asks the burning question: "WHAT IF HE WINS?"

The outcome of the race remains in doubt, of course, but there are huge implications for the media -- especially its openly liberal branch -- if President Bush is reelected next week. Some are already using apocalyptic terms. The New Yorker is backing John Kerry today in the first endorsement in its 80-year history.

President Bush, shown in Warrensburg, Mo., in September, may like photographers, but he holds reporters at bay. (Larry Downing -- Reuters)

_____More Media Notes_____
As the Debates Went, So Went Coverage of The President (The Washington Post, Oct 27, 2004)
'Balance' in a Spinning World (The Washington Post, Oct 18, 2004)
When Private Passions Meet Public Journalism (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
A Changed Political Landscape, or an Isolated Peak in the Polls? (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
Up Next: The News In Red and Blue (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2004)
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Media Backtalk (Live Online, Oct 25, 2004)
Media Backtalk (Live Online, Oct 18, 2004)
Media Backtalk (Live Online, Oct 11, 2004)
More Discussions

"There will be a period of grieving," says Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of the Nation. "We will continue to fight the good fight during what we think is the dismantling of our democracy."

But her liberal magazine has grown from 100,000 in circulation to 170,000 in the past four years. "Bush has been bad for the nation but good for the Nation," she admits.

From the 36-day recount through the Iraq war and beyond, George W. Bush has been at the center of the political and media universe. He's had a testy relationship with the establishment press: the fewest news conferences of any president in more than four decades, an administration that thrives on secrecy and a vice president who has denounced the New York Times and barred its reporters from Air Force Two. Not to mention a special prosecutor who is threatening to put reporters in jail in the Valerie Plame case.

It's no secret that many journalists feel burned by the administration's WMD claims during the run-up to war and that their coverage has gotten tougher over the past year. Will attitudes harden on both sides if they have to coexist for another four years?

"I think journalists will accept the judgment of the public and read the victory as an acceptance that the rules are now changed," says Washington Monthly Editor Paul Glastris, a former Clinton administration official. "The way they've been treated, the way the administration buries information and misrepresents almost anything they want to would just be an accepted fact of life. There will be a defining down of the acceptable standards of what government can do."

Here are what some liberals had to say in Glastris's magazine about a second Bush term:

CNN's Paul Begala: "He and his allies are likely to embark on a campaign of political retribution the likes of which we haven't seen since Richard Nixon."

Columbia's Todd Gitlin: "I would not be surprised to see outbursts of political violence the likes of which we haven't seen since the Weather Underground of the 1970s."

Harvard's Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton aide: "The beginning of the end of American greatness."

Blogger Kevin Drum: "One word: scandal."

Hyperbole, perhaps, but some on the right also see profound consequences. If Bush beats John Kerry and Republicans keep control of the Hill, writes conservative activist Grover Norquist, "the modern Democratic Party cannot survive."

It's hardly unusual for partisans to use tough language in a close campaign. But liberals have a way of talking about the president that fairly drips with disdain. If Bush wins, says Joe Conason, a columnist for Salon and the New York Observer, "I will be worried. I will be concerned for the world."

"Oh man," the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh said recently. "If he's reelected, we're really in trouble."

The New Yorker's editorial says Bush's record is "one of failure, arrogance" and "incompetence." A Nation editorial bemoans "the list of his mistakes, delusions, deceptions, follies, tragedies and crimes." A New Republic editorial accuses Bush of "ideological certainty untroubled by empirical evidence, intellectual curiosity, or open debate." This isn't patty-cake.

New Yorker Editor David Remnick says that he broke with tradition because "the magazine's not a museum; it's a living thing that evolves" and that he and his editors reached a consensus without consulting the owner. "I have no idea who Si Newhouse is voting for," Remnick says.

Part of the White House/Fourth Estate divide may be cultural. Although Bush bestowed nicknames on reporters during the 2000 campaign, he's made clear while in office that he doesn't need them. He's given few interviews other than to sympathetic hosts such as Bill O'Reilly or soft touches like Dr. Phil (though he appears with ABC's Charlie Gibson today, while Kerry chats up NBC's Katie Couric). He says he doesn't read newspapers because he prefers "unfiltered" news from his staff. When Kerry invoked the press during the third debate, Bush shot back: "I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations," before stopping himself with a chortle.

But just as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News thrived during the Clinton years, the Bush era has given rise to liberal blogs, Air America Radio and a slew of Al Franken-like bestsellers. And Bush would remain a fabulous target for outraged liberals who might have to modulate their rhetoric during a Kerry presidency.

In a second term, writes Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff, "the take-it-on-the-chin liberal media, the imitate-the-conservative-media liberal media finds a subject -- bad Bush -- that can make it money as well as make it feel good about itself."

It's always possible that if Bush wins, the tensions between the two sides will fade with the campaign -- that is, if there's not another bitter recount.

"When the president is very popular, the press is less critical," Conason says. "I think he'll have a honeymoon for a while. He had a long one last time, even though he didn't win."

Media Bias Watch

Has the press been unfair to President Bush? Thirty-seven percent of voters think so, while 27 percent find the media coverage unfair to John Kerry. And that is nearly double the number who found the press tilted against Al Gore four years ago.

Overall, half the voters surveyed by the Pew Research Center say most newspaper and TV reporters want Kerry to win, and 58 percent say their personal views color their coverage.

Partisan affiliation, not surprisingly, plays a major role. More than half the Republicans surveyed, for example, see an anti-Bush bias in the press. Only a quarter of Democrats see a slant against Kerry.

Media preferences are also a key factor in these judgments. Forty-six percent of those whose main source of election news is Fox News say the media's campaign coverage has been excellent or good. But 61 percent of those who rely on newspapers, 63 percent of network news watchers and 64 percent of CNN viewers give the coverage excellent or good ratings. And 72 percent of Fox viewers say the media have too much influence on the outcome, though a majority of other media consumers agreed. (The Supreme Court, apparently, was not offered as an option.)

As for the great cable divide, 70 percent of regular Fox News viewers are supporting the president, while 67 percent of CNN watchers are Kerry backers, according to Pew. There was more of a split among network news viewers (51-40 Kerry), newspaper readers (50-40 Kerry) and local TV watchers (46-42 Kerry).

The good news: Sixty-six percent of those surveyed find the election interesting (up from 35 percent in June), and 73 percent say it is informative. And even the media's approval rating has been creeping up, with 54 percent rating the coverage good or excellent, up from 47 percent in June. That could change, of course, depending on whether the networks can avoid a repeat of their last Election Night fiasco.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company