Media Notes: Arlen Specter Coverage - A Double Standard on Party-Switchers?

Richard Shelby went from Democrat to Republican -- a
Richard Shelby went from Democrat to Republican -- a "desertion." (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

I was surfing the cable news channels, where the swine flu outbreak was being treated as possibly the next bubonic plague, displacing the news of President Obama's 99th day in office, when word broke that Arlen Specter was switching parties.

The political bombshell reverberated across the screen for hours, until the networks ditched the Pennsylvania senator for a low-speed police chase of a stolen rig with a man clinging to the back. I was waiting in front of a camera at that moment to talk about the feverish flu coverage on Headline News, and never did make it on the air.

News seems more ephemeral than ever in this age of TiVo and tossed-off tweets. But it's worth hitting the pause button to examine how media organizations chronicled the Specter saga.

The political elements, naturally, were front and center -- Specter's fear of losing a GOP primary next year, and his moving the Democrats within one Al Franken victory dance of a filibuster-proof majority. But in the straight-news reports, little attention was devoted to this question: Was this a betrayal of the voters who elected Specter?

Most journalists assumed the role of handicappers, accepting as a given that this is the way the game is played. So what if Specter had promised to serve six years as a Republican? So what if Specter had told Newsweek less than three weeks earlier that "I'm a Republican and I'm going to run in the Republican primary and on the Republican ticket"? He was acting to save his skin; no further explanation necessary.

This value-neutral reporting was reflected in the headlines: "Specter Switches Parties; More Heft for Democrats" (New York Times). "Specter Gives Dems a Boost in Stifling Dissent" (USA Today). "Specter Leaves GOP, Shifting Senate Balance" (Washington Post). Not a hint that he had done anything untoward.

There were some exceptions among mainstream journalists. Doyle McManus wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Specter was "cheerfully open about the cynicism of his move." Time's Michael Grunwald said the move highlighted his "desperate opportunism." The question surfaced only briefly yesterday on two Sunday shows: CBS's Bob Schieffer asked Specter about Republicans who voted for him and whether "you let them down," while NBC's David Gregory asked about David Broder's criticism, in The Washington Post, of the senator's "willingness to do whatever will best protect and advance the career of Arlen Specter."

Correspondent Carl Cannon, on AOL's new PoliticsDaily site, says conservatives are right in complaining that much of the media have "a double standard regarding party-switchers. . . . When Republicans morph into Democrats, we tend to act like they finally saw the light, and quote them ad nauseam about how the Republican Party has gotten too narrow, etc., etc." But when a Democrat joins the GOP, "we concentrate on the tactical advantage to the party switcher."

When it comes to commentators, their analysis often turns on the direction of the defection. In 1994, when Democratic Sen. Richard Shelby switched parties days after the Republicans won control of Congress, a New York Times editorial said: "Talk about slipping out of the hills to bayonet the wounded! . . . His desertion to the victorious Republicans this week was hardly a huge surprise." But when Jim Jeffords flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats by leaving the GOP in 2001, the Times said approvingly that the Vermont lawmaker had given George W. Bush "an embarrassing lesson" for having pulled a "conservative bait-and-switch" on the country.

Specter's move also gave rise to plenty of prognostication about the struggling Republican Party. To be sure, a party that has been virtually wiped out in the Northeast and controls nothing in Washington is in poor health. But it's worth recalling how quickly the diagnosis can change.

Days after Bush was reelected in 2004, the New York Times reported that "the Democratic Party emerged from this week's election struggling over what it stood for, anxious about its political future, and bewildered about how to compete with a Republican Party that some Democrats say may be headed for a period of electoral dominance." Another piece said there were "signs" of "a Democratic party seemingly trapped in second place," with Democrats asking: "What will it take to break the pattern -- an act of God?"

The Los Angeles Times said the '04 outcome "threatens to leave Democrats at a long-term disadvantage in future races for the White House and battles for Congress." Another story had "insiders" concluding that "the blue-state party needs a face from a red state if it is going to expand beyond its base on the two coasts and preserve its hold on the Upper Midwest." Funny, then, that a Midwestern nominee carried such states as North Carolina and Virginia.

There was, of course, no way to predict that Bush's second term would be sunk by Katrina, bloody chaos in Iraq and a financial meltdown that would require a massive bank bailout. But that is precisely the point: Crystal-ball journalism tends to be overtaken by events.

By week's end I turned my attention back to swine flu -- excuse me, the H1N1 outbreak -- and the not incidental question of whether we're all going to die. But that was soon overshadowed by Chrysler's bankruptcy, which was eclipsed by Justice David Souter's retirement announcement, which spawned rampant speculation about who might be named to succeed him.

Still, the constant cable coverage suggested that the flu remained exceedingly scary, or why would the story be on hour after hour? Only after days of such teeth-gnashing did ABC's in-house doctor, Timothy Johnson, say the media were overreacting and the Los Angeles Times report that scientists believe the virus may do less damage than run-of-the-mill outbreaks.

If that's true, swine flu will have been the most over-hyped story since Paris Hilton went to jail -- and the media will lurch toward the next crisis.

Fading Sun

The firings last week at the Baltimore Sun, where nearly a third of the newsroom was axed, left the survivors confused about the paper's future.

"That's the question all of our members are asking: What's the plan?" says Angie Kuhl, the top Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild official at the Sun.

Editor Monty Cook says the paper will have to get by with fewer editors as it merges its newspaper and Web site. "We're not backing away from accuracy," he says. "We're not sacrificing accuracy for speed."

A third of the 61 people who were fired were editors, including the deputy managing editor, two top editorial page editors, two sports editors, the science editor and about half the copy desk -- who were asked to leave the building immediately. "They do seem to be preserving the beat reporters and investigative reporters," Kuhl says. "But all the people who make the paper behind the scenes seem to be devastated."

While most newspapers are undergoing sharp cutbacks these days, the Sun's situation is especially severe because its owner is the bankrupt Tribune Co. Given how thin the paper feels these days -- and despite Cook's plans to hire "community coordinators" to engage with bloggers and Facebook users -- it's hard to see how these cutbacks will help the Sun rise again.

"We are not abandoning the print product," Cook insists. On a personal level, he says, "this was one of the most difficult weeks any of us at the Sun has experienced."

Premature Disclosure

After a newsroom revolt, Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern has halted a marketing project that asked readers to react to summaries of stories in progress that had not yet been published. Kern told his paper he took responsibility for what he called "a failure of communication and a breakdown in judgment."

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