Suddenly, George W. Bush is looking very much like Al Gore.
Not in his politics or persona, of course, but in the way the media have largely trashed his debate performances.
A new study says that 59 percent of the stories mainly about Bush during the two-week debate season were clearly negative, meaning that they contained statements at least 2 to 1 critical of the president, who scowled his way through the first face-off with John Kerry. That mirrored the 56 percent negative coverage that Gore got four years ago, when his sighing performance was later mocked on "Saturday Night Live."
By contrast, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, just 25 percent of the stories about Kerry were decidedly negative, which is better than Bush, as the perceived winner, did during the 2000 debates. Just over a third of the Kerry stories from Oct. 1 through 14 were clearly positive, compared with 14 percent for Bush.
All this had little to do with the candidates' positions on Iraq, terror and taxes. Just over one in 10 stories was framed around issues. What's more, only 8 percent of the debate stories were about the impact of what was discussed on citizens, while nearly 80 percent dealt with politics and performance.
"You can't discount the possibility that there's some personal preference that creeps into this," Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, says of the anti-Bush tilt. But, he adds, "we're so focused on who won and who lost, and if someone is perceived to have lost, what the implications are for their campaign. All that 'winning' and 'losing' doesn't help people figure out who would be a better president."
The study examined four newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and Columbus Dispatch), the Big Three network morning shows and evening newscasts, PBS's "NewsHour," CNN's Aaron Brown newscast, Fox's Brit Hume newscast and five Internet blogs.
Media coverage is all about interpretation these days. Only 14 percent of the stories examined were straight news accounts of events. Of the remaining stories that had a clear theme, 38 percent were clearly negative and 26 percent clearly positive.
On the Bush-Kerry debates, the project says that some may attribute the tilt against the president to liberal bias, while others believe that Bush just turned in a weaker performance. In any event, there were striking differences among media outlets.
Newspapers were the harshest in tone against Bush, with 68 percent of the print stories overwhelmingly negative toward the president, compared with 26 percent negative toward the Democratic nominee. Network news was the least negative toward Bush (33 percent) and toward Kerry (11 percent), but there were differences according to time of day. Overall, the CBS, NBC and ABC morning shows were more positive than the evening newscasts.
In one example of a negative story, CBS's John Roberts reported, after the former U.S. administrator in Iraq said there had not been enough American troops there: "The famously disciplined Bush campaign appeared to trip all over itself trying to clean up the mess. . . . A day of contradictory messages is not the way that the Bush campaign wanted to go into this important debate."
On the other side, on ABC's "Good Morning America," Sinclair Broadcasting commentator Mark Hyman said, in invoking an anti-Kerry film about Vietnam: "Why won't John Kerry face these people? Why is he afraid of a bunch of 60- and 70-year-old tortured and wounded American POWs? If he's afraid of them, what happens when al Qaeda attacks us? Is he gonna run away from them as well?"
As for cable, on Hume's "Special Report," "the bulk of Fox's positive stories favored Bush and their negative stories concerned Kerry," the study says. Brown's "NewsNight" was "mostly neutral" in tone, but "not a single CNN story was both dominated by and positive for President Bush."
Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour," meanwhile, was a picture of balance: Nearly all the coverage looked at both candidates, 59 percent was neutral, and the rest was evenly split between positive and negative.
In the blog world, the project looked at conservative sites (Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds's InstaPundit), liberal sites (Josh Marshall's Talking Points, Eschaton) and ABC's the Note. While noting their speed, the study found that half the postings were about politics, 15 percent about policy, 13 percent about candidate fitness and 11 percent about media fitness.
"If the mainstream press is criticized for being too obsessed with inside baseball tactics, theater criticism and not particularly focused on the ideas of candidates," the report says, "the top bloggers don't distinguish themselves as a kind of new media in that regard. They play the game as often as most mainstream outlets."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.