Jul 1 2004

Covering the ‘Caged Hamster’

Media's picture of Kerry based on RNC distortions

“Like a caged hamster, Senator John Kerry is restless on the road,” wrote the New York Times ‘ Jodi Wilgoren (6/13/04), beginning a piece that promised “authentic insights” into the Democratic presidential candidate. Aside from the banalities (Kerry dislikes wearing suits on hot, humid days, and uses a cellphone more than John Glenn did when he ran for president in 1984), what’s most striking about the piece is how closely it mirrors the Republican caricature of Kerry, portraying him as an elitist with “a prep-school cultivated competitive sensibility,” whose speeches “are filled with multisyllabic upper-crust phrasing,” and as a “contradictory” character who “is anything but simple and straightforward.” Even his playing a musical instrument is portrayed as somehow weird and un-American: “And where former President Bill Clinton plays cards and President Bush turns to the treadmill, Senator Kerry strums his Spanish classical guitar in a kind of musical meditation.”

Wilgoren’s piece, with its effect of amplifying Bush campaign allegations about Kerry, is typical of 2004 presidential campaign coverage . This phenomenon is seen not only in the media’s frequent forays into trivia, but also in their attempts to cover substantive issues—as in February, when the Republican National Committee (2/22/04) released a list of weapons systems that Kerry allegedly “voted against.”

Partisan TV pundits like Fox News Channel ‘s Sean Hannity (3/1/04) quickly echoed these charges, claiming, “He’s voting against every major weapons system we now use in our military.” The partisan Hannity’s participation in the RNC’s attack was perhaps to be expected, but he was not the only media figure to pass along the Republican allegations without examination. CNN anchor Judy Woodruff (2/25/04) framed the issue this way in an interview with Rep. Norm Dicks (D.-Wash.): “The Republicans list something like 13 different weapons systems that they say the record shows Senator Kerry voted against. The Patriot missile, the B-1 bomber, the Trident missile and on and on and on.”

Embarrassingly, Dicks had to explain to Woodruff that most of the weapons “votes” weren’t individual votes at all, but a single vote on the Pentagon’s 1991 appropriations bill. Woodruff responded to this information with surprise: “Are you saying that all these weapons systems were part of one defense appropriations bill in 1991?”

But Woodruff wasn’t alone. When Bush/Cheney campaign strategist Ralph Reed explained to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (2/3/04) that Kerry’s record was one of “voting to dismantle 27 weapons systems,” Blitzer responded to Reed’s deceptive spin by turning to guest Ann Lewis of the Democratic National Committee and saying, “I think it’s fair to say, Ann, that there’s been some opposition research done.”

One of the few reporters to take a serious look at the RNC’s list—on which 10 of the 13 items refer to the single 1991 vote on an appropriations bill—was Slate’s Fred Kaplan (2/25/04). Kaplan noted that 16 senators, including five Republicans, voted against the bill, and concluded that the claim against Kerry “reeks of rank dishonesty.” Kaplan also pointed out that at the time of the 1991 vote, deeper cuts in military spending were being advocated by some prominent Republicans—including then-President George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who was secretary of defense at the time.

As Kaplan noted, Cheney appealed for more cuts from Congress: “You’ve squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don’t fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements.” Cheney went on to name the M-1 tank and the F-14 and F-16 fighters—all of which would later appear on the RNC’s list—as systems that “we have enough of.”

For many reporters, though, such facts weren’t allowed to get in the way of what they seemed to consider the standard back-and-forth of a political campaign. Fox News Channel’s Carl Cameron (2/27/04) was typical: “With the GOP attacking John Kerry’s votes to cut defense over the years, the Democratic frontrunner, once again, counter-attacked what he calls the president’s ‘mishandling’ of the war on terror.” Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler (2/27/04) likewise noted that “the Bush campaign has criticized Kerry in recent days for voting against some increases in defense spending and military weapons programs during his 19-year congressional career.” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw (3/2/04, MSNBC ) also seemed to accept the charges at face value, noting that “the vice president just today was talking about [Kerry’s] votes against the CIA budget, for example, intelligence budgets and also weapons systems. Isn’t [Kerry] going to be very vulnerable come the fall when national security is such a big issue in this country?”

“Kerry propaganda”

Brokaw alluded to a new allegation against Kerry that emerged in March: According to the Bush campaign, Sen. Kerry had tried to cut $1.5 billion from the intelligence budget, a move Bush called a “gutting.” Though you wouldn’t have known it from most of the coverage, the Washington Post noted on March 12 that Kerry’s proposed cut was actually smaller than the eventual $3.8 billion cut passed by the Republican-led Congress, which focused on a mismanaged intelligence program that had accumulated excess funds. But some outlets aren’t interested in such nuance. Later that day, on Fox News Channel ‘s Special Report, panelist Juan Williams seemed to have read the Post article, arguing that Republicans had pushed the same kinds of cuts. Fellow Fox panelist Mort Kondracke cut him off: “That’s Kerry propaganda.”

It’s good to see that pundits recognize the concept of propaganda; that might have helped them to interpret the Bush campaign’s claim that Kerry has voted “for higher taxes” more than 350 times. This number, as commentators like Michael Kinsley pointed out (Washington Post , 3/24/04), is deeply misleading, counting votes to keep tax rates the same, or even to lower them by less than Republicans wanted, as votes for “higher taxes.” Even with this dubious definition, the Republican list counts the same votes multiple times.

Nonetheless, some journalists allowed the charge to be repeated without correction. CBS reporter Byron Pitts (3/5/04), for example, announced a Republican claim that the Bush tax cuts would be in jeopardy under a Kerry administration, then turned to Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who stated, “Senator Kerry has voted for tax increases over 350 times.” While Evans exaggerated an already misleading claim, CBS viewers were not told that there was anything questionable about the 350 figure.

On rare occasions, some outlets do step back and take a look at the big picture on truth in campaign advertising. A Washington Post report (5/31/04) on Bush and Kerry ads used rather blunt language in concluding that many of the claims made about Kerry by the Bush campaign—on issues like the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind and gasoline taxes—are simply false. According to the Post , the ads “distort Kerry’s record and words to undermine the candidate or reinforce negative perceptions of him,” with some ads amounting to a “torrent of misstatements.”

When NBC Nightly News (4/6/04) invited Brooks Jackson of Factcheck.org to debunk misleading campaign ads, Jackson called the taxes allegation “so bogus,” and dismissed another anti-Kerry ad about his alleged support for a gas tax increase. But anchor Brian Williams neutralized this attempt to set the record straight: “It is hard to tell fact from fiction,” he concluded.

French connection?

CNN ‘s Inside Edition took this practice of amplifying GOP talking points to a new low with a segment (5/25/04) devoted to the notion that John Kerry seems, well, French. “He caught flak early in the campaign for his French connections,” explained anchor Judy Woodruff. The “flak” seemed to consist of Republicans making fun of Kerry for either “looking French” or speaking the French language fluently. Anchor Wolf Blitzer got the ball rolling by announcing that “the French, of course, among other things helped to strain the alliance between the United States and its European allies over the war in Iraq.” CNN then explained that Kerry has French family, and has summered in that country.

Then CNN turned the microphones on the American public. Random people interviewed on the street offered negative impressions of the French; they’re uppity, arrogant, and even “international.” That last word is trouble, at least to Woodruff: “A tricky word to be saddled with if you’re running to lead a war-time White House and your relatives across the pond have not embraced the war.”

Viewers may have been left wondering what to make of such a story: Various Republicans and right-wing pundits have done their best to turn a bigoted view of French people into a campaign issue. CNN took that bigotry and, rather than denouncing or criticizing it, decided to expand on it, connecting Kerry to various negative stereotypes about French people. Ironically, near the end of the piece Woodruff remarks that connecting Kerry to these negative feelings about the French might be dirty politics: “Some accused the GOP of speaking in code.” The same charge could be made against CNN .

Kerry’s “Missteps”

When not amplifying Bush talking points, media were focusing on Kerry’s alleged gaffes or misstatements, ranging from convoluted explanations of his Senate voting record to whether or not he owns a sports utility vehicle. But while these relatively trivial aspects of John Kerry’s record have come under intense and prolonged media scrutiny, journalists have shown a reluctance to highlight much more significant falsehoods by Kerry’s main rival, George W. Bush (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/20/04 ).

Time magazine’s May 10 story, “What Kerry Means to Say,” is a typical example of recent Kerry coverage. After noting Kerry’s opportunities to score points against a White House besieged by questions about Iraq, the September 11 commission and the Supreme Court, reporter Karen Tumulty asks, “But what did the challenger find himself talking about for three days? The answer is whether or not Kerry threw away his medals or his ribbons in the early 1970s.”

Tumulty attributes this story line to a personal flaw in Kerry: The campaign has often been about the “traps that the Bush campaign is adept at setting for Kerry, and the personality trait that makes Kerry walk right into them.” Of course, Kerry “found himself” talking about the distinctions between ribbons and medals because these were the topics that journalists were asking him about. And on occasions like the “medals” flap, the press corps seemed to smell blood, latching on to stories of dubious importance that seem to portray Kerry as faltering or changing course.

Thus, before the medals “controversy,” media interest was centered on claims about Kerry’s medical records from Vietnam. After Kerry pledged on NBC ‘s Meet the Press to release medical records from his service in Vietnam, ABC World News Tonight (4/21/04) reported that Kerry’s service “has become the subject of controversy” because some of his critics were raising doubts about his first Purple Heart. When the medical records did little to bolster their case, the press corps switched to another GOP spin point: Kerry didn’t get the records out fast enough. ABC ‘s report included a soundbite from RNC chair Ed Gillespie: “When President Bush committed to release all his military records on the same program, he kept his word. John Kerry should do the same.” The fact that Bush took five days after his Meet the Press appearance to get his records out while Kerry took three did not deter media outlets from doing stories on this nonexistent issue. (Bush has yet to release his pay records or his final personnel evaluation, claiming that they are no longer available—Salon , 2/18/04—surely an issue of greater weight than how many days a document release took.)

Throughout the various reports of Kerry “missteps” is the sense that the Kerry campaign is in a state of disarray, and unable to deal with such problems: “Bad Timing as Kerry Slips Out of Picture,” claimed one New York Times headline (4/1/04); “Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme, Democrats Fear,” claimed another piece a month later (5/2/04).

The microscopic scrutiny the press corps pays to Kerry’s statements is jarring, considering the obviously lenient attitude journalists takes when it comes to Bush’s much more important “flip-flops.” A Timemagazine piece (4/12/04) wondered why Kerry’s alleged inconsistencies were more important than Bush’s. The magazine offered one explanation: “How tight the label sticks depends a lot on the impression voters have already formed, which means that a less well-known candidate can be vulnerable in ways a familiar one may not be.” Not mentioned was the rather significant role played by the press corps in determining whether such a label “sticks.”