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Boston 2004: The Media’s Missed Opportunity

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

A healthy and functioning democracy must rely on the free flow of information between citizens in the public sphere, and our representative system can only truly fulfill its promise when the media takes seriously its responsibility as the primary facilitator of this exchange. Sadly, because of the three major television networks’ decision to allot the Democratic and Republican national conventions a scant three hours of coverage each, the marketplace of ideas is effectively left in the hands of the sound bites and unverified distortions of preening pundits.

This media’s lack of democratic accountability adds an element of hearsay and abstraction to the political process that is funneled down through the fabric of our society, distorting the message and creating a confused political climate in which voters are left with the spin, but without the facts. The media’s handling of the Democratic National Convention serves as a prime example of its neglect of substantive ideas in favor of sensationalism, and its magnifying of talking points in order to find a hook to sell to the American public=

Take for instance the famous "baby bump" the ticket allegedly received following the convention. Newsweek was in such a hurry to release its poll results on July 31, the magazine claimed that the Kerry/Edwards ticket’s four-point bounce was the smallest ever recorded in the history of the magazine’s convention polls. The problem, however, was that Newsweek conducted half the poll before Kerry had even made his convention speech, which as his first address to the nation would obviously cause the numbers to spike in one direction or the other. Moreover, even with an accurate reading, the "bounce" story missed the point. Most Americans have already made up their minds about their votes. But a Gallup Poll taken just before and just after the convention found movement in a very telling statistic: 48 percent of Americans said they trusted Bush to "handle the responsibilities of commander in chief of the military," and an equal number said they trusted Kerry. The real story here is the numbers in the poll before the convention, when Bush led Kerry on that question 51 percent to 43 percent. That’s a pretty significant closing of the gap on a central issue of the campaign.

Many members of the media also embarrassed themselves by focusing on what Paul Krugman terms "the triumph of the trivial." Leading into Kerry’s big speech, perhaps the biggest story to obsess television and tabloid reporters was Teresa Heinz-Kerry’s now infamous "shove it" response to a reporter, Colin McNickle. This was taken almost universally to be evidence of her temper and instability, and therefore, somehow, her husband’s unsuitableness for office. What was rarely if ever reported, however, was the fact that McNickle’s paper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is the plaything of far-right billionaire Richard Mellon-Scaife, who financed the Arkansas Project, the $2.4 million smear campaign during the 1990s which sought to paint the Clintons as drug dealers, thieves and murderers. The newspaper has attacked Heinz-Kerry and her philanthropic projects for years, and McNickle, as editor of the editorial page, has been responsible for many of the false accusations and distortions about her charities contained in its pages. (I have dealt with some of these charges HERE http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040412&s=alterman Under McNickle’s editorship, the page has taken such principled stances as regularly calling Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell a socialist, and referring to an anti-immigrant militia in Arizona as "a suitable and practical expression of disgust." It is the only newspaper in the United States to publish a column by white nationalist Sam Francis, a racist so extreme he was fired from The Washington Times.

One of the more egregious omissions in the convention coverage came not from the convention itself, but may have come about because of it. In a piece that ran in The New Republic (http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040719&s=aaj071904) in mid-July, John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari found evidence, provided by Pakistani security officials, that the Bush administration was leaning on Pakistan to produce a big-ticket terror arrest sometime around the Democratic Convention. Right on time, Pakistan trotted out the arrest of al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani on July 29. In the television coverage of the arrest, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC stood alone as the only one to mention the connection between the arrest and The New Republic article, even though TNR editor Peter Beinart had appeared on NewsNight on July 7, and CNN anchors had talked about the article throughout the news coverage on July 8. Had they forgotten so quickly, or was it that they didn’t want to dull the excitement of the arrest with a magazine article that was already almost two weeks old?

As these distortions, subplots, and failures in reporting consumed network anchors’ time, the Bush campaign rolled out its tactic for the Republican Convention later this month. Its plan is to forcefully paint John Kerry as an object of derision and humor, a move of calculated hubris that belies the administration’s lack of any real accomplishment to boast of these past four years. The president has already begun, continually referring to the fact that Kerry has sponsored no major legislation during his time in Congress and mocking his supposed ineffectual leadership style. Matt Yglesias nailed the liberal (or rational) response to this tactic in The American Prospect, writing, "While John Kerry was serving as an officer in the United States Navy, leading men in a shooting war and winning an armful of medals in the process, Bush was a male cheerleader and fraternity president at Yale. He later went on to use family connections to land a spot in the Air National Guard, duty from which he took ample time off to run losing political campaigns. Kerry became a leader in an influential movement, a candidate for office, a successful prosecutor, the Lieutenant Governor of a medium-sized state, and then a U.S. senator during a period when Bush was letting alcoholism nearly wreck his marriage, doing something with drugs he refuses to answer questions about, and running a variety of businesses into the ground, losing his dad’s friends a bundle of money in the process." (http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=8287) After a tightly controlled, and mostly positive Democratic Convention which critics nevertheless claimed was rife with "Bush-bashing," one wonders how the press will cover these slights against a war hero and long-term U.S. senator.

For a rare example of journalism the way it should be practiced, we have, alas, to turn to Jon Stewart. In his August 2 interview with Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX), the latter casually launched into the conventional GOP talking points to claim Kerry to be the most "liberal" of all U.S. senators, and John Edwards to be the fourth. But Stewart called his bluff and Bonilla dissolved into a puddle of evasive and embarrassingly ill-informed doubletalk.

(You can read it HERE http://www.dailykos.com/story/2004/8/3/33853/77159) More and more, it’s the "fake" news that gives Americans their clearest picture of just how silly—and sanctimonious—their real news has become.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including "What Liberal Media?" Research assistance by Paul McLeary.

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