Some awfully good journalism was committed during the seemingly endless presidential race that ends, if America has any luck, tomorrow. But for the conflict-obsessed, celebrity-salivating, echo-chamber media, it was also the Leave No Trivia Behind campaign.
At any given moment, the election narrative was about John Kerry's spacesuit and George Bush's suit bulge. It was about Swift boats and superscript and scowling. It was about Teresa ("Shove it") Heinz Kerry and Mary Cheney's sex life and Jenna & Barbara & "Sex and the City." It was about Alexandra Kerry's breasts and Alexandra Polier's nonexistent affair with Alexandra Kerry's father.
Some of these episodes were harmless distractions (unless, like former AP reporter Polier, you were hounded by journalists over a false Internet rumor that made its way into the newspapers). But in other cases, the campaign was hijacked by sidebar stories that the media pumped up or twisted out of shape.
Kerry's third-debate comment about Mary Cheney was jarring to many and prompted outraged comments from the vice president and his wife. But was it worth three weeks of arguing on the talk shows?
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's attacks on Kerry's Vietnam record -- in ads that initially aired in just three states -- touched a nerve. But did the media have to devote the month of August to whether Kerry deserved his combat medals 35 years ago? And again rehash Bush's National Guard service, aided by the botched CBS story that triggered a debate over the typographical capabilities of 1972 government typewriters? There were periods when the coverage was more about the war in Vietnam than the war in Iraq.
And with the passage of time, doesn't the replaying of the Howard Dean scream 4,182 times look a little silly? The guy lost Iowa (despite the fact that the media had all but anointed him the nominee weeks earlier) and was entitled to a little good-natured venting.
The chances of John McCain breaking ranks to run with Kerry were always slim, but reporters kept flogging the story, even when it was downgraded to a mere rumor. Dick Cheney hurling an epithet at Sen. Patrick Leahy sparked days of shock and awe -- and a rare appearance of the F-word in The Washington Post -- by journalists who hear coarser language around their terminals.
The press seemed happy to indulge the GOP portrait of Kerry as a French-looking, wine-sipping windsurfer -- though the camouflaged senator played his own photo-op games by shooting swing-state geese -- and some of the big spreads on the family's lavish vacation homes resembled real estate porn.
And the condescending focus on Bush's mangling of the language showed that some journalists continued to misunderestimate him.
The fixation on tracking polls and convention bounces seemed more intense than ever, perhaps because there are so many more surveys. There were memorable "scoops," too, like the New York Post's front-pager on Kerry picking Dick Gephardt as his No. 2. And sometimes it seemed like the election was more about Michael Moore (the noted USA Today columnist), Howard Stern, Bill O'Reilly, Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Jon Stewart and Dr. Phil than the candidates themselves.
Perhaps fittingly in an age of rising media distrust, news outlets kept seizing the spotlight with their own mistakes and missteps. From Dan Rather's crumbling National Guard story to Sinclair Broadcast Group's initial plan to air an anti-Kerry film, from Fox's Carl Cameron ridiculing Kerry as a "metrosexual" to the aborted "60 Minutes" plan to explode the missing-Iraqi-ammo story two days before the election, it was not a stellar year for some news outlets.
Against this backdrop, the groups Media Tenor and the Center for Media and Public Affairs found Kerry getting the best television coverage of any presidential candidate since the latter group began such studies in 1988. From Oct. 1 to 22, the network evening newscasts carried stories with just 23 percent negative evaluations of Kerry, compared with 64 percent negative evaluations of Bush. Kerry had a slimmer lead in September, with 49 percent negative coverage to the president's 66 percent. Fox's "Special Report" was three times more anti-Kerry and yet more balanced, with comments about both candidates this month 68 percent negative.
Reporters' liberal leanings might account for some of this, along with the rave reviews for Kerry's debate performances, but it also seems likely that coverage of news developments in Iraq and elsewhere were seen as hurting Bush. One "negative" comment cited by the study came from CBS's Rather: "It's the first net job loss on a president's watch since Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression of the 1930s." But that also happens to be factually accurate.
Facts have sometimes been in short supply as most news organizations have aired or published the attack ads on which both candidates have spent mega-millions, often with little attempt at pointing out their exaggerations or falsehoods. To challenge the candidates' claims inevitably sparks criticism about reporters seeming to favor one side or the other.
Journalists have also let the candidates largely dictate what is and isn't covered. Urban poverty? A non-issue. Affirmative action? It only came up at those "minority" debates in the Democratic primaries. The environment? Once in a blue moon. Aging baby boomers threatening to bankrupt Social Security? That draws an occasional think piece, but the candidates, and thus the press, are studiously avoiding the issue.
Whatever their shortcomings, journalists have also churned out hundreds of stories on the candidates' positions on Iraq, terrorism, jobs, taxes, health care, stem cell research and a host of other concerns. Anyone who complains about not being able to find substantive reporting hasn't been looking very hard.
O'Donnell's L Word
When Swift Boat Veterans author John O'Neill appeared on "Scarborough Country" two weeks ago, MSNBC commentator Lawrence O'Donnell ripped into him and his "disgusting, lying book."
O'Donnell, a Democrat and "West Wing" writer, repeatedly interrupted O'Neill with his literary critique: "That's a lie, John O'Neill. Keep lying. It's all you do." And: "That's a lie. It's another lie. That's a lie." And: "You lie in that book endlessly." And: "You're just lying about it." And: "You're totally afraid of the truth."
Undeterred when O'Neill accused him of lying, O'Donnell kept firing: "You have no standards, John O'Neill, as an author. And you know it. It's a pack of lies. You are unfit to publish." And: "He just spews out lies." Not to mention: "I just hate the lies of John O'Neill." Oh, and there was: "He's been a liar for 35 years."
MSNBC said in a statement that O'Donnell "crossed a line. MSNBC believes he was disrespectful to you, the viewer, and that his insults did nothing to forward the debate or the understanding of a very critical issue. We have spoken to Lawrence O'Donnell, and he agrees."
Except that O'Donnell, who didn't know the statement was coming, doesn't agree. He was "too loud," he admits, in what was "an uncontrollable outburst on my part," and "my manner was everything I hate about cable TV shouting matches." But, O'Donnell says, "I don't apologize for a single word that I said. . . . People have been coming out of the woodwork to tell me how great they thought it was. There's a big 'mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore' contingent out there on this subject that feels I was giving voice to their position."
Fox's Take on Osama
John Kerry's campaign has backed off a threat to boot a Fox News producer from the candidate's plane after an anchor made an on-air crack that infuriated Kerry advisers.
Shortly after the Osama bin Laden tape was released late Friday, Fox's Neil Cavuto, who has contributed money to President Bush, agreed with a guest who said the terrorist's video amounted to an endorsement of Kerry -- after a second guest dismissed the idea, saying there was no Kerry-Edwards sticker in the cave. "He's all but doing that. I thought I saw a button," Cavuto said.
Spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter told the Boston Globe it was an "outrageous comment" and told Fox its producer would be jettisoned unless there was a retraction or apology. Fox spokesman Paul Schur now says "the matter has been resolved and we continue to travel with Kerry."