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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Future Is Now

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; 8:56 AM

In this warp-speed campaign, you got yer pre-debate spin, yer during-the-debate spin and yer post-debate spin.

Now there's a new category: Predictive spin. Meaning, pre-spin speculation on the post-game spin. Meaning, the seemingly daunting task of predicting the future.

_____More Media Notes_____
The Ultimate Expectation (washingtonpost.com, Sep 29, 2004)
Debating the Debates (washingtonpost.com, Sep 28, 2004)
Who Do You Believe? (washingtonpost.com, Sep 27, 2004)
You Didn't Get This From Me . . . (washingtonpost.com, Sep 24, 2004)
Blowin' in the Wind (washingtonpost.com, Sep 23, 2004)
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Hey, you've got to think outside the box. Just what a media columnist needs for the traditionally slow morning-of-the-debate news vacuum.

I, for one, have no idea what the post-debate blather will look like. It depends on whether one of the candidates sighs, lies, fries under the hot lights or says the other guy is no Jack Kennedy. Of course, with a long list of rules on what they can't do--who ever heard of not being able to ask your rival a question?--maybe the Florida face-off will be drained off any semblance of spontaneity.

But since we know (see yesterday's column) that the media verdict is as important as what millions of Americans think they see on the screen--that is, until we tell them what they really saw--there's naturally lots of interest in what how the Fourth Estate will handle the aftermath. Substance or suntans? Fact-checking or theater criticism?

In this hothouse comes Mike Murphy, Republican spinner extraordinnaire, predicting the next plot twist in the Weekly Standard:

"A sure bet in this campaign is that the media will write a big October comeback story for John Kerry. It is inevitable for three reasons. First, the media works in a pack that is happiest when following a simple narrative. Second, from moribund to miracle campaigner is Kerry's tiresome myth turned worn-out cliché. Third, this is indeed a tight race and--as with any incumbent seeking reelection--the undecided vote will break heavily against Bush, which will make Kerry look like he is surging late. (Even hapless Michael Dukakis had such a late surge.)

"The signs of this pending storyline are already apparent in the coverage of Kerry's new team of savvy advisors. Their decision to bet the entire Kerry campaign on a debate over the Iraq war--a strategic suicide note in my view--is the required 'big move' such stories demand and is being applauded as a masterstroke. This is where narrative and reality truly differ. If President Bush wins this campaign, the decision to focus the entire Kerry campaign on a debate over the war, instead of on domestic issues, will be a key ingredient to the president's success. Kerry's mistake is that it is impossible to have a serious campaign-winning political victory over the administration without a serious policy difference between the two. Howard Dean had a policy difference with the Bush administration on Iraq; Kerry essentially does not.

"All his squirming and wiggling aside, Kerry essentially supported the war. . . .

"The media's Kerry comeback will unfold in earnest after Thursday's debate. What actually happens in the debate, barring a highly entertaining Tourette's style meltdown by one of the candidates, really doesn't matter. This is the first campaign debate in George W. Bush's career where he has entered with performance expectations, a troubling burden. While I expect the president will actually do well, that expectations game and the comeback narrative will combine, through the media's funhouse mirror, to put Kerry back in the race. Even though it may ultimately be simply an optical illusion."

But it's hard for the poll-addicted press to write a comeback story without the right polls.

So here's one, from the Los Angeles Times:

"President Bush has a 5 percentage point lead over Sen. John F. Kerry among likely voters, but nearly one-fifth say the candidate debates that begin to Thursday could change their decision, a new Times poll has found."

Can "Race Tightening" be far behind?

"Bush leads Kerry among likely voters in the survey, 51% to 46%. With both men holding at least 90% of the voters from their own party, Bush has seized the advantage by moving ahead among several key swing voter groups that both sides covet, including independents, suburbanites and married women. . . .

"The perception of Bush as a determined leader is boosting him even with some voters ambivalent about his policy choices, especially the decision to invade Iraq."

That could be awfully hard for Kerry to change at this stage.

For one camp, says the Philadelphia Inquirer, the goal is brevity:

"For Kerry aides, preparing the Massachusetts Democrat to debate President Bush on foreign policy tonight has had less to do with providing him material - he inhales facts the way a Hoover vacuums a carpet - and more with restraining him from exhaling it all back when asked a question.

"Kerry held four full-length mock debates with aides, said Stephanie Cutter, his communications director. Each was videotaped, and Kerry and his aides watched the tapes afterward to look for any ways he could improve his performance. Aides used a buzzer to help him keep his answers short."

For both sides, says USA Today, it's steering clear of gaffes:

"When President Bush and rival John Kerry meet Thursday night in Coral Gables, Fla., for their first debate, their most daunting opponent may be the English language, not each other.

"Words -- the wrong ones, garbled ones or too many -- have often been the bane of these men. Presidential debates have tripped up many a candidate before them, even those with smoother command of grammar and diction.

"With millions of voters watching on TV, Thursday night's 90-minute foreign policy faceoff could be a defining event in the presidential campaign. Kerry likely will try for brevity and clarity. Bush likely will aim to avoid mangled syntax and phrases he'll regret."

And they have little running room on Iraq, says the Wall Street Journal:

"What voters say they want out of these encounters, more than facts and figures, is a clearer sense of the two men's judgment. And on that score, both bring real vulnerabilities to the debate. Mr. Kerry's months of public agonizing over whether he supported the Iraq war have made him an easy target for charges of flip-flopping. Meanwhile, polls say Americans increasingly doubt that the Iraq war Mr. Bush started is worth its escalating cost."

Josh Marshall faults the Dems for lousy spin skills:

"Democrats, I think, have seldom really appreciated that there is such a thing as a post-debate debate. I don't mean that they don't know about putting out surrogates or trying to spin the results. Of course, they do. But in 2000 at least (and certainly in analogous situations in this cycle) the effort was very reactive and scattershot. And that inevitably leaves the Democrats trying to parry or deconstruct the ways that Republicans are trying to define what happened. In that way, they're fighting at best for a draw.

"Republicans are already leaking hints and taunts about whether Kerry will sweat profusely under the lights, whether he's too tanned and other similar nonsense. But the antic nature of these taunts doesn't mean they won't be effective. They're meant to throw the other side off balance and, in a related manner, to provide grist for a catty and frivolous press corps."

Catty and frivolous? Why would anyone conclude that, Mr. Pajama Blogger?

"So what's the Democrats' plan going into this debate? . . . It's easy to predict that there will be several exchanges in the debate where the president will describe the situation in Iraq in ways that are entirely belied by the reality of the situation. Perhaps he'll mention the situation in Fallujah where his intervention in the battle planning had such disastrous and feckless results. Will the pundits and talking heads be primed for those moments? Or only for Kerry's moments of over-fancy rhetoric?

"Will the Dems be ready to hit on these issues and focus the post-debate debate on the president's recklessness, lack of a plan and inability to level with the public about what's happening in Iraq?"

The Note offers a preview by looking at yesterday's Diane Sawyer interview with JFK, "which make[s] us wonder how much more debate prep there is to do.

DIANE SAWYER: Was the war in Iraq worth it?

JOHN KERRY: We should not have gone to war knowing the information that we know today.

DS: So it was not worth it.

JK: We should not -- it depends on the outcome ultimately -- and that depends on the leadership. And we need better leadership to get the job done successfully, but I would not have gone to war knowing that there was no imminent threat -- there were no weapons of mass destruction -- there was no connection of Al Qaeda -- to Saddam Hussein! The president misled the American people -- plain and simple. Bottom line.

DS: So if it turns out okay, it was worth it?

JK: No.

DS: But right now it wasn't--

JK: It was a mistake to do what he did, but we have to succeed now that we've done what he's -- I mean look -- we have to succeed. But was it worth -- as you asked the question -- $200 billion and taking the focus off of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? That's the question. The test of the presidency was whether or not you should have gone to war to get rid of him. I think, had the inspectors continued, had we done other things -- there were plenty of ways to keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein.

DS: But no way to get rid of him.

JK: Oh, sure there were. Oh, yes there were. Absolutely.

DS: So you're saying that today, even if Saddam Hussein were in power today it would be a better thing -- you would prefer that. . . .

JK: No, I would not prefer that. And Diane -- don't twist here.

"Definitely suggests something longer than a two-minute statement"--the maximum allowed by debate rules.

Here's some sobering information from the National Annenberg Election Survey:

Many adults in the U.S. misjudge where the presidential candidates stand on important public policy issues. . . . A majority of adults still do not know which presidential candidate favors allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market, which candidate favors eliminating tax breaks for overseas profits of American corporations, or which candidate favors completely eliminating the estate tax.

"Polling conducted from September 21 through 26 among 1,189 adults showed 64 percent of respondents were able to correctly identify George W. Bush, rather than John Kerry, as favoring laws making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion. Sixty percent recognized that Bush, not Kerry, favors making the recent tax cuts permanent. But only 33 percent knew that Bush (and not Kerry) favors eliminating the estate tax; 23 percent of respondents incorrectly said that it was Kerry who favors eliminating the estate tax. When asked to name which presidential candidates favor a given policy position, respondents named the correct candidate a little more than half of the time."

Hey, start paying attention!

Salon's Mary Jacoby has the lowdown on the latest fallout from CBS's National Guard story--the spiking of another piece:

"One measure of the debacle is a '60 Minutes Wednesday' segment that millions of viewers now will now not see: a hard-hitting report making a powerful case that in trying to build support for the Iraq war, the Bush administration either knowingly deceived the American people about Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities or was grossly credulous. CBS news president Andrew Heyward spiked the story this week, saying it would be 'inappropriate' during the election campaign.

"The importance that CBS placed on the report was evident by its unusual length: It was slated to run a full half hour, double the usual 15 minutes of a single segment. Although months of reporting went into the production, CBS abruptly decided that it would be 'inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election,' in the words of a statement that network spokeswoman Kelli Edwards gave the New York Times.

"The real reason, of course, was that because of CBS's sloppy reporting on the Bush National Guard story, the network's news executives believed they could no longer report credibly on the heart of the Iraq nuclear issue, involving another set of completely forged documents: those purporting to show that Iraq had purchased yellowcake uranium from the African country Niger.

"Salon was given the videotape by CBS News on the condition that we report on it only shortly before it was to air. But after the network effectively spiked its own story (which was reported by Newsweek online and by the New York Times), we sent an e-mail late last week to CBS stating that we believed that the embargo no longer applied. We received no reply and therefore feel free to report.

"How the fake Niger documents surfaced was at the heart of the '60 Minutes' report by veteran correspondent Ed Bradley. . . .

"A source close to CBS said Bradley was furious with the decision to spike the report and angry that the reputation of the '60 Minutes' Sunday program has suffered because of the missteps of the Wednesday version of the show. Bradley did not return phone calls seeking comment. On Tuesday, his assistant said the correspondent was 'swamped' after returning from a trip to the Middle East.

"The report contains little new information, but it is powerfully, coherently and credibly reported. It features the first on-camera interview with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who received the fake Niger documents in 2002 and passed them on to the U.S. embassy in Rome. Burba tells how she traveled to Niger and concluded that Iraq could not have purchased uranium from the tightly controlled French-run mines in Niger and that therefore the documents must have been faked."

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber tries to knock down an emerging media cliche:

"If you've been following the presidential campaign these last few weeks, you've probably heard a thing or two about security moms--the erstwhile soccer moms who became obsessed with terrorism after September 11, and, in the process, began tilting Republican. The typical 'security mom' story--variations of which have appeared in The Washington Post (twice), The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer in recent weeks, as well as on CNN, ABC, and NPR--cites the hair-raising effect of the recent Russian school massacre. It mentions Laura Bush's frequent pitches to women on security matters, and notes how the Republican Convention was awash in security talk.

"Often the stories are larded with a testimonial by a real-live security mom, invariably a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-death penalty former Gore supporter who's convinced only George W. Bush can keep her children safe. All of them conclude that security moms could cost John Kerry the election.

"Oh, and the stories usually have one other thing in common: They're based on almost no empirical evidence.

"As with most urban myths, the idea that terror-related anxiety would drive women into the Republican column is eminently plausible: You'd expect the maternal instinct to make women more concerned about security in the high-risk, post-September 11 environment. And, indeed, though women have routinely favored Democrats over Republicans by double-digit margins during the last 25 years, the early post-9/11 era did show some erosion of the so-called gender gap. . . . According to a post-election analysis conducted by the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, Democrats only won women by a two-point margin during the 2002 midterm elections. (Congressional Democrats lost men by roughly 10 points in both 2000 and 2002.)

"It's not clear that even the 2002 result was attributable to security moms, however. One problem for Democrats that year was that Republicans turned out in much greater force."

But it has such a nice ring to it now that the soccer moms have disappeared.

I love this little item about Fox from Hotline:

"FNC sent a camera crew to a Howard Dean book signing to ask Dean why he wouldn't appear on the 'O'Reilly Factor':

"Dean: 'Bill's show is about Bill, not his guests.'

"An FNC person off-camera asked: 'All the other candidates have come on. Why won't you come on the show?'

"Dean: 'I consider it to be a mark of pride.'

"FNC person: 'It will be a fair and balanced interview.'

"Dean: 'Yeah right'"

And, of course, the most important story in Washington: baseball!


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