TCS Daily

The Great Struggle: Media vs. Voters

By James Pinkerton - February 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Can John Kerry actually beat George W. Bush? The Bay State Senator, fresh from his victories in seven of the last nine primaries and caucuses, is certainly on a roll; he's got the Big Mo. And he'll be getting lots of help from the Big Me -- as in Media. But for the moment, the media are touting a Golden Boy, John Edwards, the moptopped senator from North Carolina. Although by November, if history is any guide, the media will have settled on a Golden Democrat -- most likely Kerry -- to swoon over.

Kerry is one point ahead of President Bush in a poll from the American Research Group, seven points ahead in a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll, and nine points ahead in a Quinnipiac University poll. But surveys, shmurveys. What matters, maybe as much as anything in this Information Age, is the wishes of reporters and other content-conveyors. And reporters, of course, want a close race; they have an institutional and ideological interest in a competitive election, in the primaries and then in the general election. And if Bush loses in November, well, that's OK.

Political journalists -- they like it when they're called "Big Feet" -- believe reporting on presidential politics to be the acme of their profession. Ever since the 1973 publication of Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, which turned Johnny Apple and David Broder into gods, it's been understood that covering a "presidential" is the route to fame, fortune, and, lately, cable-news gigs.

Yet those gigs don't last long if the campaigns they cover don't last long. Happily, there's a way to address that potential shortfall -- by pumping up losers into winners. And so in the aftermath of Howard Dean's defeat in New Hampshire -- a state he had been expected to win handily just weeks before -- the headline over Walter Shapiro's column in USA Today the next morning was a chirpy, "Regardless of place, Dean's machine still sets pace."

To be sure, media misapprehension, even manipulation, of the New Hampshire results is nothing new. In fact, it's kind of the rule. In 1952, Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) decided to challenge President Harry Truman for the Democratic nomination; he traveled up to New Hampshire in his trademark coonskin cap, challenging the media to follow along with him. There was no real reason for the results to matter much -- the number of delegates at stake was tiny -- but the media bought into upstart Tennessean's unhorse-the-king story line. Kefauver won the primary, the TV cameras got the whole story, and Truman soon withdrew from the race.

Ever since, New Hampshire, later joined by Iowa, has achieved mythic status. And since it's all a myth, it's easy to fabricate the "reality" of the results. In 1968, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson defeated challenger Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) by eight points in the Granite State primary. But the media hated LBJ over Vietnam, and so it declared that McCarthy was the winner in the "expectations game," which mattered more than the actual results; Johnson soon announced his retirement. Four years later, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Me.) defeated Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) by nine points, but the media liked McGovern a lot more than Muskie, pronouncing McGovern to be another expectations-game victor. The South Dakotan went on to win the Democratic nomination.

And the media-makes-it-true rule also applied in 1992's New Hampshire primary. Reporters, most of whom adored Bill Clinton, agreed that the Arkansan was the "comeback kid" that election night, even though he had just lost to former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) by eight points.

Yet of course, not every media dream comes true. Although Dean was kept alive by reporters, post-New Hampshire, the notion that he posed any sort of alternative to Kerry collapsed on Tuesday night, in the face of seven huge defeats.

But don't cry for the media, because they have a new flavor to savor, John Edwards. He's now emerging as best he can -- and as best as the media can help him -- as The Alternative to Kerry, the rival who makes this a Two Man Race, complete with a Climactic Showdown in some future contest. Surely there's a book contract for some scribbler in that High Stakes Drama.

What's the evidence that reporters like Edwards? The better question is, "Where to begin?"

Here's Tom Brokaw on Tuesday night, temp-punditing on MSNBC. Brokaw, who is in his 60s, seemed boyishly eager for the boyish Edwards. The news of the evening, Brokaw said, was "the remarkable ascent of John Edwards. He's been going up every day." To be sure, the NBC anchorman allowed a little realism to creep into his commentary, as when he added, "He's not quite the frontrunner." But, Brokaw continued, "He has the best stump speech; he delivers it with all the skill of a trial lawyer." Evidently, being a trial lawyer, in Brokaw's mind, is a high compliment.

It fell to Chris Matthews, sitting on the same panel as Brokaw, to add some perspective. Noting that it was Edwards' great good fortune that South Carolina reported its election results first among the seven states, Matthews observed, "This guy will win the battle of the first editions... This guy knows how to project a one-state victory where you were born into a national mandate... It'll look like he won it all tonight."

That's for sure. On Wednesday morning, the only Democrat pictured on the front page of my edition of the New York Times was Edwards; Wesley Clark, who won as many states as Edwards on Tuesday night, and John Kerry, who won five times as many states, were nowhere to be seen. And in the Washington Post Wednesday morning, one front-pager headline read, "The Race Is Lopsided, but It's not Over." And inside the Post, in the "Style" section -- the part of the paper most Washingtonians read first, even if few admit it -- the header was "Carolina Confidence: John Edwards Knew He Was Born to Win This One."

Also on Wednesday morning, as recorded by the Media Research Center, Katie Couric of NBC's "The Today Show" declared Edwards' "two Americas" speech -- which is, after all, his standard stump speech -- to be "quite moving." As the MRC observed, "Couric soon revealed she was just channeling the views of liberal political operative, and former Clinton enabler, Dee Dee Myers, as she prompted Myers: 'You were quite moved by that speech.' And, without naming anyone, Couric insisted Edwards' diatribe got 'positive reviews, even from conservatives.'"

It's easy to see how all this good coverage helps Edwards, but how will it help Kerry? It won't help the Massachusetts man in the narrowest sense, of course, because it keeps Edwards alive. But in the broader sense, Edwards helps Kerry by keeping Democratic juices flowing. To be sure, if Edwards were slashing into Kerry, such negative campaigning would be harmful, but Edwards isn't doing that. Why not? Many think he is angling to be Kerry's running mate.

So what happens next? Let's play this out a little. Almost certainly, Kerry will clinch the nomination in the next few weeks. That is, Kerry will likely snuff out Dean in the Michigan and Washington state caucuses this Saturday. Meanwhile, a media-juvenated Edwards will probably polish off Wesley Clark in the Tennessee and Virginia primaries on Tuesday. And so it will be what the media love: a two-man race (sorry, Rev. Al and Dennis). It would be seismic, of course, if Kerry couldn't beat Edwards in, say, California, Illinois, and New York.

But on the presumption that Kerry prevails, he might select Edwards as his running mate, in which case, Brokaw, Couric, et al. will have a ticket they can truly drool over.

But even if Kerry doesn't pick Edwards, it would appear that a big chunk of the media -- not as big as it once was, but still big -- is going to be plumping for the Democratic ticket. One need only browse through and that becomes apparent quickly enough.

So the major media will do their best to make this to a competitive race, both this winter, among the Democrats, and next fall -- against Bush. Indeed, with the general election in view, it's little wonder that, for example, Bush's Texas Air National Guard service is coming enormous scrutiny. The mainstream media weren't much interested in turning Bush into Dan Quayle in 2000, but they seem eager to do so in 2004. That scrutiny alone could make a huge difference in a tight race.

Of course, nothing is sure, because the voters, after all, get to play in this election as well. Much to the media's consternation, George H.W. Bush overcame a 17-point deficit against Michael Dukakis in April 1988 to come and win by eight points that November.

So Election '04 could be a struggle between the media and the voters. As noted, John Kerry could win this thing.

The author last wrote for TCS about Janet Jackson, the FCC and regulating the boob tube.


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