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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."

A daily commentary segment that was launched when Katie Couric took over the newscast, "Free Speech" has opened up the program to outside voices but also drawn strong criticism from some network staffers.

Now Couric and her executive producer, Rome Hartman, have decided to cut back the feature to somewhere between one and three times a week, in part to make room for more news.

"We had to figure out how it would work and how it wouldn't work, to see what soared and what splatted," Hartman says. "We've learned that timeliness is important," and that it's better to have the commentaries "feel like they're part of the news rather than out of left field."

Among the network's correspondents, he says, "some people felt it was taking up air time that might otherwise go to them, which is understandable. And some people just didn't like the idea of opinion. But a significant number of people felt the other way."

"Free Speech," which has also provided the umbrella for Bob Schieffer's weekly commentary -- the status of which is now unclear -- did not air at all last week.

The segment has provided a precious 90 seconds of the newscast, for example, to a protesting Gallaudet University student and an illegal immigrant identified only as Carlos. When an 89-year-old driver was convicted of killing 10 people in Santa Monica, Calif., CBS gave air time to a physician who was hospitalized for three months after being hit by an elderly driver.

But the segment has also given a forum to those who already have pretty big platforms: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Arianna Huffington, National Public Radio's Juan Williams and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, along with such prominent politicians as Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Barack Obama.

Hartman says he and Couric are now leaning more toward "regular folks" over "the I'm-famous-and-I-have-something-to-say model."

Parting Words

In another change for "CBS Evening News," the program now has to get along without Jim Stewart, who is retiring to Florida.

During his 17 years as a correspondent, it became increasingly difficult to stick to his mission of covering the FBI, CIA and terrorism, Stewart says.

"More and more of my time was spent answering to the whim of the moment, even if it wasn't going to be put on the air, and less time covering my beat," he says. "It was to answer the question in the mind of an executive in a nanosecond about something they saw on a cable channel. Literally 15 times a week, I would get what are called check-it-outs. It would be breaking news on MSNBC that white powder was found on a subway in Chicago, or something like that."

Stewart, 60, is admired in the business for his aggressive style. He says the networks have been hurt by the shrinking number of Washington correspondents and the loss of those specializing in such beats as the State Department, aviation or the environment.

"When you lose beat reporters, you lose depth," he says. "You lose a sense of what you're talking about." With the exception of ABC's disclosure of Rep. Mark Foley's e-mails to congressional pages, he says, "I don't remember a time lately when the networks really broke big news. Certainly there's less expertise available to the networks. We've become generalists, to our detriment."

Stewart had considered retiring earlier, but "the money in broadcast journalism can be very intoxicating and make you almost addicted to sticking around for that one more contract."

Stewart says Katie Couric was indirectly responsible for his 1990 hiring. CBS decided it needed a second reporter at the Pentagon, he says, after NBC tapped Couric as the No. 2 correspondent there.

But he struggled to make the transition from his previous job at Cox Newspapers. "For the first six months I was lost," Stewart says. But he says he became more valuable to the network after Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the Persian Gulf War.

"Saddam saved my job," says Stewart.

Howzat?

"Poll: Afghans Express Confidence in Country's Direction, Security" -- Thursday's USA Today

"Afghans Losing Faith in Nation's Path, Poll Shows" -- Thursday's New York Times.

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