Jul 1 1988

Fear & Loathing at the Democratic Convention

Lloyd Bentsen and Michael Dukakis

Lloyd Bentsen and Michael Dukakis accepting the Democratic nomination.

By the end of the Democratic Convention, media cliches about the campaign had outpaced peaches as Georgia’s leading export. Through dint of repetition, the most dubious claims became truisms.

If there was a chorus that resounded in Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum even louder that Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America,” it was the media’s unanimous refrain about those darned “special interests.” Reporters applied this pejorative label mostly to Jackson constituencies. Bruce Morton (CBS, 7/16/88) spoke of the Democrats’ need “to shed the image of the special interests.” John McLaughlin (NBC/PBS, 7/17/88) warned of a Democratic Party “in the vest pocket of special interests.” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (PBS Washington Week in Review, 7/15/88) spoke of Dukakis’s desire not to “kowtow to every special interest group, whether it be labor or the teachers or black voters.” At one point, Lesley Stahl of CBS proclaimed from the convention floor that she’d uncovered some “special interests hiding in the wings”—a reference to a couple of union officials.

Traditionally the phrase “special interests” has referred to economic interests that rely on dollars instead of numbers of supporters to dominate politics. But the media have turned the phrase upside down, applying it almost exclusively to women (51 percent of the populace), black and Hispanic Americans (19 percent), labor unionists (17 million), seniors, gays and lesbians, and other constituencies representing millions of voters.

There are, of course, special interests in the Democratic Party: the oil, chemical, agribusiness, pesticide and banking industries represented by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, for example. But not one network correspondent referred to these powerful, well-hidden forces as special interests. Although reporters often referred to Dukakis’s desire to avoid appearing as though he had “caved in” to Jackson, none referred to Dukakis’s selection of running mate Lloyd Bentsen as “caving in” to the corporate elite or conservative special interests.

The class bias of hanging the “special interests” label on labor and minorities—and not business and the wealthy—was graphically demonstrated in coverage of Jackson’s tax proposal. This measure (which NBC’s Bob Kur and other reporters described simply as a proposal “for higher taxes”) called for a tax freeze on the middle class and the poor, while increasing taxes only on wealthy individuals and corporations. When the proposal was defeated, journalists were virtually unanimous in characterizing it as a Dukakis victory over the “special interests.” It could also have been described as a victory for big business special interests, but few mainstream reporters played it this way. Many of the network TV news stars who declared the vote a victory over “special interests” are themselves in the highest tax bracket.

Jesse Jackson’s willingness to contest platform issues appeared irksome to some reporters who seemed more fond of open debate at the Communist Party’s June conference in Moscow. One correspondent commented that Jackson “threatened to spoil the convention” with floor fights. Jackson delegates “are capable of causing trouble,” said Bill Plante (CBS, 7/16/88); colleague Dianne Sawyer added that they “have the threat of disruption over issues.” Dukakis platform issues were equated with reasoned unity, minority planks with divisiveness.

Throughout the convention, the media seemed bent on boosting Democratic Party moderates while denigrating progressives. Journalists chanted mantra-like that “the Democrats need to move to the center and to the right” in order to win. The need to avoid the dreaded “liberal” image has become a media truism, but as Lesley Stahl assured viewers (CBS, 7/18/88), Dukakis could ward off that specter thanks to his “six-gun shooting Texan,” Lloyd Bentsen.

Media pundits applauded deference to party conservatives, symbolized by the choice of Bentsen as a running mate. The dean of political columnists, David Broder, expressed approval (Washington Post, 7/14/88) that Dukakis “sent an unmistakable message to the activist constituencies of the Democratic Party that the days of litmus-test liberalism are finished.” Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press (7/17/88), Broder was more explicit: “There is a consensus in the Democratic Party that has moved to the center and the right—and the Jackson people are way out of this consensus.”

Broder and his colleagues have consistently ignored issues polls indicating public support for may progressive reforms. A New York Times/CBS Poll (12/1/87) reported: 71 percent to 26 percent of Americans say the federal government should provide jobs to all who need them; 78 to 19% say government should guarantee medical care to everyone; 62 percent to 35 percent favor federally-sponsored day care; 38 percent favor reducing military spending while 13 percent favor increases.

Yet reporters continue to question whether Dukakis is “too liberal to win,” though polling data suggests that he is much closer to mainstream opinion than George Bush, who is rarely stigmatized by the media as being “too conservative” for the electorate. On some of the key issues such as military spending, Dukakis’s positions are arguably to the right of public opinion.

Cokie Roberts marveled on ABC’s Good Morning America (7/22/88) that a poll showing Dukakis ahead of Bush was taken on Wednesday “after the most liberal night of the convention…before Bentsen and Dukakis appeared with the more moderate views that more Americans are attuned to.” Perhaps she meant the views that journalists are attuned to.