For Democrats, How Long a Honeymoon?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

The media kept saying the war was going badly. The Bush administration said progress in Iraq was being obscured by relentlessly negative coverage.

The media kept saying the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina was badly botched. President Bush initially said his administration was doing a heckuva job.

The media kept saying the Democrats were heading for a big win on Election Day. Karl Rove, when told by National Public Radio's Robert Siegel that he was reading the same campaign polls as the White House strategist, declared: "No, you're not. No, you're not. No, you're not. I'm looking at 68 polls a week . . . and I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House."

The GOP lost control of Capitol Hill last week for a number of reasons, particularly the war (the televised pictures of growing casualties were hard to shake off) and the scandals involving Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham and Mark Foley (all of which were broken by news organizations). At times it seemed journalists and administration officials were offering two different versions of reality. But in the end the polls accurately forecast the thumping to come.

Now the question is whether a press corps that has been openly at odds with the president will hold the newly empowered Democrats to the same tough standards.

As with any new regime, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi are enjoying a media honeymoon for the moment -- especially Pelosi, because of her status as the first woman in line to become House speaker and her grandmother-of-five persona. That may not last long. But where will journalists set the performance bar?

If the Democrats don't pass much legislation, or if they craft bills that Bush vetoes, will the press blame them for gridlock? If they start rejecting one Bush nominee after another, will the press say they are obstructionist? If, after railing against Republican corruption, they pass only cosmetic ethics reform, will the press say they were all talk and no action?

When Democratic committee chairmen issue subpoenas and conduct oversight hearings, will news accounts portray them as harassing the White House? Or will journalists recognize that aggressive congressional inquiries were a normal practice until the GOP Congress, which loved to investigate the Clinton White House, essentially stopped scrutinizing the Bush administration? And if Senate Republicans who denounced Democratic filibusters start trying to talk things to death, will journalists call them on the double standard?

While Bush retains the biggest megaphone, Democratic leaders will be getting more television time now that they control the House and Senate. In a media-drenched culture, the sound-bite warfare may prove as important as the legislative maneuvering.

The biggest change may be in store for liberal commentators, radio hosts and bloggers, some of whom enjoyed a good long gloat last week. For years now, they have been on offense against the administration and the war, and taking potshots is plenty of fun, as conservative pundits learned during the height of the Clinton scandals. But now the lefties will have to spend time defending the Democratic leadership for any missteps and failures. And if Reid and Pelosi compromise with their more moderate colleagues, will hard-driving liberal bloggers turn on them?

For much of his tenure, Bush has used the media as a foil, limiting access, criticizing news organizations for disclosing national security secrets, and mocking the "prognosticators" who said the Republicans were headed for defeat. But as his popularity has declined, he has held more news conferences and invited more journalists over for White House chats. If the president can mend fences with his Democratic antagonists, maybe peace with the Fourth Estate is also at hand.

Cutting the Chatter

Free speech is getting less frequent on the "CBS Evening News."

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