"John Kerry Must Go."

That Village Voice headline may be a tad dramatic, but stories about disaffected Democrats are spreading like wildfire through the media forest.

Never mind that the Massachusetts senator is just about even with an incumbent president six months before the election. The naysayers are seizing the spotlight.

"There's definitely a Beltway maelstrom," says Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. "There are a whole bunch of Monday-morning quarterbacks who live in Washington and feed a lot of these reporters. People use the press as a giant instant-message board."

No wonder Slate blogger Mickey Kaus has started a "Dem Panic Watch." Consider:

"Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme, Democrats Fear," says the New York Times.

"It's six months until the election, and Democrats are already having buyer's remorse," says John Fund of OpinionJournal.com.

"Democratic leaders fear he's getting 'Gored,' " says the Associated Press.

"The Trouble Is, So Far Kerry Stinks On TV," says the New York Observer.

Some Democrats are "pretty freaked out" by Kerry, says the New York Post. They see "a listless and message-less mishmash," says Newsweek. The man "has something of a gift for the toxic sound bite," says Time.

Kerry's spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, scoffs at "all these unnamed sources griping," though some have expressed their reservations on the record. "We do know what we're doing, believe it or not," she says, recalling how the early obituaries for Kerry during the primaries gave way to stories that "we're geniuses." President Bush's campaign spokesman, Terry Holt, attributes the coverage to "John Kerry's own words and missteps."

Why all the downbeat stories?

* Democrats can't believe that Kerry is slightly trailing Bush after the violent setbacks in Iraq and the fallout from the 9/11 commission hearings.

* Handicappers don't understand how a decorated Vietnam War veteran running against a man with gaps in his National Guard record got bogged down explaining whether he had thrown away his medals or his ribbons 33 years ago.

* Journalists slavishly follow the polls in search of some new trend to divine.

* The veepstakes thing is really getting old.

"Kerry has not had a good few months, but I'm not sure that's particularly relevant," says Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein, who views the election as mainly a referendum on Bush. "It's not easy for the challenger to generate enough sustained attention before the convention to tell a story. Bill Clinton was in third place at this point. There's a tendency in the press corps to ride the waves high and low in these races."

New York Times columnist David Brooks doesn't see the pessimism toward Kerry as media-driven. "No one really loves him, and a lot of people are cool to him, so there's not a passionate well of support. Republicans think Bush is making huge mistakes, but still have a level of emotional commitment to the guy."

Strange as it seems, given that Kerry swept to the nomination, at least a few chattering-class members are discussing the Torricelli option, a reference to the replacement of scandal-scarred Robert Torricelli on the New Jersey ballot late in the 2002 U.S. Senate campaign.

"Look for the Dem biggies, whoever they are these days, to sit down with the rich and arrogant presumptive nominee and try to persuade him to take a hike," writes Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway. Kerry also might be struck by lightning the next time he goes snowboarding.

Most campaigns go through these turbulent cycles. In early September 2000, a front-page New York Times story warned: "Prominent Republicans around the country, including several who advise Gov. George W. Bush, say they are worried that his candidacy has floundered in recent weeks." Time's cover said: "Humpty W.: How Bad a Fall?" Matt Lauer said on "Today" that "there's growing concern in Republican circles about a loss of momentum in the Bush campaign."

Kevin Drum, a California-based columnist for the Washington Monthly, says that Kerry isn't a great campaigner but that "it's just too early" for such pieces. "I'm not sure it's anything other than [reporters] looking for a story. . . . It's pretty much inside the Beltway."

Kerry challenged the prevailing wisdom last week, telling reporters: "I like where we are today."

News that American soldiers were mistreating Iraqi prisoners didn't exactly come out of nowhere, although it seems that way.

The New York Times reported last May that two dozen detainees had complained of mistreatment, quoting one man as saying a British soldier kicked him in the ribs and hit him over the head with a gun.

In October, the Los Angeles Times reported on negligent homicide charges against two Marines in the death of a prisoner, and said six others were charged with hitting and kicking prisoners. In December, the paper covered charges against a Marine officer who ordered prisoners to stand for 50 minutes each hour, handcuffed, with burlap bags over their heads.

In October, The Washington Post reported on charges against an Army commander who fired his pistol near a detainee's head. And several news organizations reported in March that six soldiers were criminally charged in the alleged assault and sexual abuse of about 20 Iraqi prisoners. Most of these stories ran on inside pages.

Amazingly, CNN reported in January that, according to a Pentagon official, "U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners." The story sank without a trace.

Why didn't these reports get what political strategists call "traction"?

There were no horrifying pictures of the kind revealed by "60 Minutes II" and, later, The Post. It was hard to believe such practices were widespread. Politicians were not focusing on the issue, and the press was more concerned with American casualties.

In retrospect, these scattered allegations were missed opportunities for the media. By last week, the three newspapers and others had no trouble finding Iraqis who said they were mistreated in prison -- and playing up these accounts.

CNBC has axed "The News," the flagship program started by Brian Williams when the network was launched in 1996.

The reason? "To have a more cohesive prime-time lineup," says spokeswoman Amy Zelvin. Which means making room for ex-tennis star John McEnroe's talk show, along with Dennis Miller's talk show. Which means news has become expendable.

NBC News President Neal Shapiro put out a statement praising the current anchor, John Seigenthaler, who will play a bigger role on "NBC Nightly News." Where, presumably, they still care about news.

Get ready for Imus, the television show. Of course, Don Imus's radio show is already simulcast on MSNBC, but he has always been adamant that it's a radio show that happens to run on cable. Now MSNBC executives plan to move the I-Man and his crew from their Queens studio to a new set in Secaucus, N.J., to add more visual elements and glitzier production. One complication: Imus needs a way to keep broadcasting in the 9-to-10 a.m. hour, when MSNBC has moved on to other programming.

In the newsmag world, Time and U.S. News have the prisoner abuse scandal on the cover and Newsweek has Rummy ("No Good Defense")--which makes you wonder why Time kissed off the "60 Minutes II" pictures last week with only half a page.

The Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-na-kerryiraq9may09,1,7945057.story?coll=la-headlines-elect2004 describes Kerry's dilemma:

"In a speech nine days ago in Missouri, Sen. John F. Kerry laid out his case against President Bush on Iraq, saying the administration had left America dangerously isolated from the rest of the world.

"But the presumed Democratic nominee did not mention the brewing international furor over the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison, an issue that seemed ready-made to bolster his critique.

"The Massachusetts senator's initially guarded response to the scandal underscores the delicate balancing act he faces in calibrating his reactions to developments in Iraq.

"Though setbacks for the U.S. may strengthen Kerry's assertion that Bush is mishandling the conflict, any criticism he makes of the military effort threatens to undermine the Democrat's portrayal of himself as a national security hawk who unflinchingly backs U.S. troops, political experts said. At the same time, some analysts said, Kerry has not made full use of the opportunity to present himself as a viable alternative."

The administration still Doesn't Get It when it comes to getting out in front of an awful story:

"The Defense Department is planning to provide Congress with many more pictures of the abusive treatment of Iraqi detainees, but has not decided whether to release them to the public, Congressional leaders and Pentagon officials said Sunday," says the New York Times. | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/10/politics/10PENT.html

"In the end, President Bush is likely to make the determination on making the images public, aides said.

Inside the White House, several of Mr. Bush's aides have argued that he has little choice but to make them public. Sooner or later, they say, the images will leak out, prolonging the pain, fueling Iraqi and Arab suspicions of a Pentagon-orchestrated cover-up, and giving new life to calls for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's removal."

Imagine if Rummy had held a news conference to release, and deplore, the original photos rather than waiting for Dan Rather and CBS to break the story.

Here's a depressing lead, from The Washington Post: | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11227-2004May8.html

"Deep divisions are emerging at the top of the U.S. military over the course of the occupation of Iraq, with some senior officers beginning to say that the United States faces the prospect of casualties for years without achieving its goal of establishing a free and democratic Iraq."

Columnist Linda Chavez | http://www.townhall.com/columnists/lindachavez/lc20040505.shtml is drawing some heat for these observations about the prisoner scandal:

"It is hard to know what led to this breakdown in discipline. But one factor that may have contributed -- but which I doubt investigators will want to even consider -- is whether the presence of women in the unit actually encouraged more misbehavior, especially of the sexual nature that the pictures reveal.

"Before you dismiss the suggestion as some sort of raving misogynistic fantasy, let me explain why this possibility should at least be explored.

"Although the military brass has been loath to admit it, the increased presence of women in the military serving in integrated units has made military discipline more challenging. While some advocates of women in the military have argued that women's presence would improve behavior, in fact, there is much evidence to suggest it has had the opposite effect. For years now, the military has ignored substantial evidence that the new sex-integrated military interferes with unit cohesion and results in less discipline."

Salon | http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2004/05/07/abuse_gender/index.html asks the question from the other side: "How Could Women Do That?"

At the Buzz Machine, Jeff Jarvis | http://www.buzzmachine.com/archives/2004_05_06.html#006996 takes a swipe at Tom Friedman, and then goes out on a politically incorrect limb:

"Friedman then joins the lynch mob forming on the left against Donald Rumsfeld:

"This administration needs to undertake a total overhaul of its Iraq policy; otherwise, it is courting a total disaster for us all. That overhaul needs to begin with President Bush firing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- today, not tomorrow or next month, today.

"Sorry, friend, but I disagree with that, too. Rumsfeld is, like it or not, one of the most competent members of the Bush administration. He executed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brilliantly and, God help us, we don't know whether we will have to go to war again. The utterly bungled aftermath is somewhat but not fully his fault; let's remember that authority in Iraq was taken away from his man and given to Powell's man. The utterly abhorrent and just stupid abuses in Iraqi prisons also may not prove to be fully the fault of Rumseld's command; I'm waiting to hear how much the CIA is responsible.

"And let me say something quite unpopular and throw just a little perspective into the Iraqi prison scandal. I'll repeat: What happened there was wrong and strategically idiotic and does not reflect either American ideals or American aims for the region. However, let's remember that this is a war; the people being interrogated were likely suspected in movements to bring more violence upon not only American soldiers but also the Iraqi people. The means were wrong but the end was right."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page doesn't like the authorized-leaked-Rummy-to-the-woodshed stories:

"Mr. Rumsfeld can more than hold his own.

"Our concern is with his boss, President Bush, and whether he and his political advisers appreciate who the actual target is of this week's game of ginning Rummy. The resignation the critics really want is the one that would start next January 20.

With that in mind, we'd like to know who thought it'd be smart to leak that Mr. Bush had 'reprimanded' Mr. Rumsfeld in a private meeting for not fully alerting him to the details of the abuses. This is odd on the merits, since the complaint seems to be mostly about the public relations of the event, not the substance. The Central Command was itself pursuing the Abu Ghraib probe with vigor on several fronts, and we can only imagine how civilian Defense officials would have been criticized had they jumped down the military chain of command to interfere.

"The White House hope seemed to be that this 'reprimand' would distance Mr. Bush from the anger and frustration all Americans feel about what happened at Abu Ghraib prison. But far from helping Mr. Bush, the calculated leak amounted to putting blood in the water."

If you're into the internal scuffling of the Kerry campaign, the New Republic's Ryan Lizza | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?pt=%2FYerWsLy%2FdlsarHQ3Ll4hx%3D%3D has a road map:

"The most persistent critique from Democrats is that Cahill, who is in charge of building Kerry's staff, is hiring aides from an extremely narrow circle of her friends, former colleagues, and even relatives. Inside the Kerry campaign, Cahill's penchant for bringing on only those she knows is jokingly referred to as the 'friends and family plan.'

"Several of the campaign's new power centers are populated with old Cahill allies. This clique is often described as the Ted Kennedy faction of the campaign, because Cahill was once his chief of staff. But that's a misnomer. Many of the aides lumped into the friends and family plan have nothing to do with Kennedy. Deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf, a former senior Richard Gephardt aide who was given a broad portfolio last January, is an old friend of Cahill. Miles Lackey, John Edwards's chief of staff, was recently hired as deputy campaign manager for policy and speechwriting. He's also an old FOC. Stephanie Cutter, the brassy and turf-conscious communications director who rules over a growing message fiefdom, is a longtime Cahill protege. ...

"Some Democrats are whispering about the fact that Cahill's sister and brother-in-law, Ann and David Castagnetti, are now on the Kerry payroll...

"Shrum has critics and enemies within almost every faction of the party. Some of the criticism is right, some wrong. Shrum is often lumped in with the Cahill clique as part of the Kennedy axis because Kennedy is one of his best friends. But he is not as close to Cahill as press reports suggest. He actually represents a discrete power center whose main interest is unimpeded access to the candidate, which he now has."

Fox has a new critic, according to the

University of Oregon's Daily Emerald: | http://www.dailyemerald.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/05/07/409bbfc0d5b00"In a scathing critique of Fox News and some talk show hosts, such as Bill O'Reilly, [LA Times editor John] Carroll said they were a 'different breed of journalists' who misled their audience while claiming to inform them. He said they did not fit into the long legacy of journalists who got their facts right and respected and cared for their audiences.

"Carroll cited a study released last year that showed Americans had three main misconceptions about Iraq: That weapons of mass destruction had been found, a connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq had been demonstrated and that the world approved of U.S intervention in Iraq. He said 80 percent of people who primarily got their news from Fox believed at least one of the misconceptions. He said the figure was more than 57 percentage points higher than people who get their news from public news broadcasting.

"'How in the world could Fox have left its listeners so deeply in the dark?' Carroll asked."

But that presumes Fox is the cause of these attitudes, rather than attracting viewers who already hold these beliefs.