Just as the media are showing signs of Iraq withdrawal syndrome, nine Democrats and one network are trying to fill the void.
It may be way too early for normal people to care, but ABC News is staging a debate next week among the baseball-team-size field vying for President Bush's job.
After weeks of bunker-busting coverage of America at war, ABC and George Stephanopoulos may have trouble generating much shock and awe for the South Carolina clash among six members of Congress, a former senator, a former governor and a raspy-voiced reverend. But political reporters, all but sidelined by the war, are raring to go.
"You want to hit people over the head and say, 'Pay attention! This is my beat! One of these people could be president!' " says USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. But, he says, "I think the South Carolina debate is a mistake. I don't care if it's broadcast on al-Jazeera, there's a level of interest that can't be maintained at this stage."
The dilemma for the media goes well beyond the May 3 debate. Journalists have been so thoroughly invested in the war -- with big newspaper special sections and huge boosts in cable news ratings -- that they suddenly find themselves with no compelling narrative to sell. After you've ridden around the desert in an Abrams tank, covering the tax-cut debate or legislative funding fights can seem rather mundane.
The new zeitgeist was on display the other day when the cable news outfits broke away from a Donald Rumsfeld news conference to go live to a California coroner talking about a body that could be that of Laci Peterson, who disappeared on Christmas Eve -- back when television was still obsessed with such cases. Iraq suddenly seemed like . . . history. What's next, the return of killer sharks?
Still, ABC is excited about its coup. "It's early, but the whole cycle started earlier this time around," says Stephanopoulos, who will moderate the debate -- to be shown on ABC affiliates in such early-contest states as New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina -- and play excerpts on "This Week" the next morning. "The whole thing is speeded up."
A dozen reporters have already signed up to go to Columbia, S.C. "The war as a story has dialed down significantly, and there's been no big story to replace it," says Roger Simon, chief political writer for U.S. News & World Report. "But there's an ongoing campaign. There are people out there running, raising millions of dollars, and if they want to get together and debate, it's not my place to say I'm going to ignore it because it's too early. I don't know what 'too early' means."
One thing that too early means, with such a large field, is that there's no clearly defined plot line, no front-runner to be taken down, no rhetorical shootout between two leading contenders. It's a challenge for reporters to be fair to all nine contenders, and a 90-minute debate leaves everyone from Joe Lieberman and John Kerry to Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun with less than 10 minutes apiece -- not exactly the stuff of high drama.
These cattle shows, writes Time columnist Joe Klein, "are exercises in diminution. The serious candidates are forced to share the stage with the likes of Al Sharpton, and then further insulted when Sharpton gets the best applause and biggest laughs from the crowd."
Stephanopoulos, who worked for one of the candidates, Dick Gephardt, in the early '90s -- "It was a long, long time ago," he says -- knows that the event could have a high snooze factor. ABC is still tinkering with the format for the debate, which will be rebroadcast by C-SPAN the next day.
"The obvious challenge is starting to tease out the differences between them and avoid canned speeches," Stephanopoulos says. "With nine people giving canned speeches, the time gets eaten up very quickly. That's going to put a lot of the burden on me to keep the discussion moving and find points of disagreement."
Maybe they can all kick around whether Saddam is dead or alive.
Less Than Verbatim
Education Secretary Roderick Paige sparked calls for his resignation after the Baptist Press quoted him as saying that he believes it is important for schools to teach Christian values.
But after comparing a tape of the interview to what was published, department officials found the Q and A riddled with errors. Paige spokesman Dan Langan wrote the Southern Baptist Convention news service that "the discrepancies between what was said and what was reported need to be addressed immediately."
Baptist Press has now done that: "The report accurately portrayed the substance of Dr. Paige's faith in God but contained factual and contextual errors in other respects. We regret the misrepresentations by the writer. Todd Starnes has been a trusted correspondent but no longer will be employed to write for Baptist Press."
In the published piece, Paige was quoted as saying:
"All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community."
In the transcript, Paige was asked whether he prefers Christian, private or public universities. In response, he said: "That's a judgment, too, that would vary because each of them have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities. But, you know, all things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities."
Langan says he wanted "to ensure the secretary's comments were presented accurately and in their entirety." A Baptist Press executive did not return calls and Starnes says he can't comment. He explained, though, that he conducted the interview on a cell phone at a Kinko's and worked from handwritten notes.
Drilling the Wrong Man
The Portsmouth, N.H., Herald slammed Rep. Jeb Bradley in an editorial last month for "voting" to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "A promise is a promise, even if you work in Washington," the headline said.
Oops! Not only did the New Hampshire Republican not cast such a vote, he opposes any drilling.
In a correction, the paper blamed "a breakdown of internal protocol. . . . This editorial not only contained an important factual inaccuracy, it also proved to be unnecessarily embarrassing for the congressman and the Portsmouth Herald."
Smoke but No Fire?
The King County Journal in Washington state ran a bogus story last year on a phony fire at a home, staged by authorities, to cooperate with an investigation. The story helped smoke out an inmate in a murder-for-hire probe. "We had no desire to blow their case," Editor Tom Wolfe told his paper.
When Ari Fleischer was in a long line for the Delta Shuttle to head to New York for NBC correspondent David Bloom's funeral, an airline employee offered to escort the president's press secretary directly onto the plane. Fleischer declined, saying he would wait like everyone else. A moment later, another worker pulled him out of line and subjected him to a random search. No such indignities on Air Force One.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.