TCS Daily

Media Poverty Pimps

By James Pinkerton - August 27, 2004 12:00 AM

So you think that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are going to win this election for George W. Bush? You might have to think again. John Kerry might be getting clobbered by his fellow Vietnam vets, but George W. Bush is still getting massacred in the media. So this race ain't over, not by a Crawford mile. It's the economy, stupid, that Kerry -- with a little help from his Fourth Estate friends -- should've been talking about.

Right now, the polls show the President pulling ahead of his challenger. The Los Angeles Times shows W. up by three points among registered voters, 49:46. That three-point surplus is a big shift from the two-point deficit the Texan suffered from just before the Democratic convention; indeed, it was the first time all year that Bush has been ahead in this particular survey. And a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows similar good news for Bush: he's up by three among likely voters, 50:47.

Let's face it: given the news of the last few weeks, it could hardly be otherwise. Kerry was never a particularly attractive candidate. This JFK is a windbag-wannabe knockoff of the earlier JFK. And he was on wrong side of most Democrats on the hottest issue of the '04 primary season, the Iraq war.

But if Kerry was mostly without charm, he was not without wile. He boiled his candidacy down to one salient issue: that he was more electable than Howard Dean because he was a war hero. And so he announced his candidacy in front of a decommissioned aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown, in his home state of South Carolina -- oops: Kerry is from Massachusetts. But the Palmetto State provided a more hawkish "visual," and so the always-flexible Kerry announced from Charleston. Even so, he was going nowhere till the eve of the Iowa caucus, when ex-Green Beret Jim Rassman, having just flown in to Des Moines, threw his arms around his fellow Viet vet, declaring that Kerry had saved his life in 'Nam. So Democrats had found their war hero, or so they thought. And then, of course, Kerry turned his acceptance speech in Boston into a Vietnam reunion, filling the place with every vet he could find.

Then came the Swifties, who found a lot more Viet vets to join them on their side -- the anti-Kerry side. There's no need to rehash all the pros and cons now, since it's been done everywhere else.

So suffice it to say that Kerry was foolish to make such a big deal out of Vietnam, for such a long time. He had a good hand, but he played it too long. After all, the Swifties have been visible since May 4, when they held a presser at the National Press Club in Washington, in which they made most of the now-familiar anti-Kerry allegations. I happened to watch it on C-SPAN and was stunned by their specificity, as well as their vehemence. Yet for whatever reason -- more on that in a bit -- the Swifties didn't get much ink or airtime three months ago. It was only when they re-emerged in August, in the wake of Kerry's Vietnam pageant, that they started to draw the challenger's blood. First a little, then a lot.

Once Kerry got wind of the Swifties, he should've laid off the 'Nam stuff. His war service had won him the nomination; now it was time to drop the topic and moved on. Had he done so quietly, over the course of the summer, he could have brushed off the Swifties by saying that the election was about the future, not the past. But by dwelling on his version of his Silver-Bronze-Purple tour of duty, he guaranteed the Swifties a symmetrical degree of mediattenion for their version of his life. Which the Boatmen took advantage of. They have spent a reported $1 million or so on their TV spots, but earned a billion dollars in media attention, easy.

So what should Kerry have done? He should have said, loudly, "I'm not going to talk about VIETNAM," confident that most Americans had some inkling, at least, that he had gone over there, at least, to fight. Then he should have talked about the economy, dummy, confident that his message would be sonic-boomed by pressy afterburners.

And what friends would those be? Why the media, of course.

Consider, as a case study, the coverage of the Census Bureau's document, "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2003," released on Thursday. To put it mildly, reporters were all over it, like ants on apple pie. Which leads me to wonder: is it just my paranoia, or is a document devoted to covering three of Marian Wright Edelman's favorite social indicia -- the sort of favor that friendly bureaucrats would do to help the cause of a certain political ideology and a certain political party?

What follows are the key data from the Census report. I'm sorry that this is about to get boring, but I assure you of this: if you can make it through this number-laden paragraph, you'll soon see that highly paid television professionals did a great job of jazzing up this info. So here goes: The number of children in poverty, as defined by the government, rose from 34.6 to 35.9, which is to say, an increase of 1.3 million, or 3.7 percent; thus the poverty rate rose from 12.1 percent to 12.5 percent. As for health care, the number of Americans without health insurance, the feds say, rose from 43.6 million to 45 million, an increase of 3.2 percent.

So how did the media play it? How did journos handle these marginal increases? As huge paradigm-shifting news, that's how. Here's how it went on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight": the great man itself was not around, but guest-anchor Kitty Pilgrim proved that she, too, could channel Dick Gephardt just fine. Working above a chyron entitled "Middle Class Assault," she intro'd the Census numbers, calling them "alarming" and "astonishing." The poverty rate was "soaring," she declared, reminding viewers that the economy was the number one issue for voters.

Then came reporter Bill Tucker, asserting that "real wages have been declining for the last 30 years." To be sure, these "facts" are much disputed, since, at best, they represent just one series of data and, at worst, they are simply wrong. As economists Michael Cox and Richard Alm demonstrated in their landmark 1999 book, Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We're Better Off Than We Think, what matters more than money is what can be bought with that money. And the country is so full of color TVs, air conditioners, and automobiles -- not to mention myriad products that didn't exist 30 years ago -- that even the statistical "poor" have plenty. Needless to say, Cox and Alm weren't featured in the package. Instead, viewers saw Jared Bernstein, of the left-wing Economic Policy Institute, who rang the econo-emergency bell.

Next at bat for CNN was reporter Louise Schiavone, who called the news "a political windfall for the Democrats," while showing footage of Kerry. Not a Swiftie in sight. Bracketing her commentary around an appearance by yet another liberal talking head, Kathleen Stohl of Families USA, Schiavone expressed her bewilderment that "poverty is up in the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth." And oh yes, defying those who thought it couldn't get any worse, "The wage gap between men and women continues to grow."

Then back to Pilgrim, who declared, "George Bush is a miserable failure." OK, I made that last one up, but the presentation was so thoroughly Gephardtian that for a moment I thought I saw those words on the crawl.

But wait! There's more. The CNN woman ended with an Inspiring Quotation from Frederick Douglass: "Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe." Maybe all supply-side economists should just turn themselves in now, for their first self-criticism session.

A few minutes later, it was time for ABC's "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings. He told us that the number of uninsured had gone up "quite dramatically." And then, showing off his wide-ranging vocabulary, he added that the number of children in poverty had gone up "quite dramatically." Perhaps to add some lexical spice to the show, Jennings welcomed reporter Betsy Stark on to the set. How could these hard times be happening, the anchorman wondered, "when the economy is supposed to be getting better." [emphasis added] Stark's answer was that it was a "jobless recovery." Oh yeah, that jobless recovery -- the one that's created 1.5 million jobs in the last year.

But to the ABC man, the Census report offered occasion to note the "sharp differences" between the two presidential campaigns. And so, for further sharpening, he turned to Dan Harris, a reporter in the field. Harris observed that the number of uninsured had increased by "five million" since Bush took office. Whoa, you might be saying -- if in fact you had read that deadly-dull-data paragraph up above. In that graf, we saw that the number of uninsured had increased by 1.4 million in 2003. Yes, but you see, it's increased by a total of five million since Bush took office. And maybe it's just a coincidence that the bigger number, 5 million, is the one that the Kerry campaign would like reporters to use in their packages.

Harris found a woman in Anoka, Minn., "who spends so much on medicine that she's had to cut back elsewhere." Well, yes, that's the way things work in economics: you spend more on one thing, you spend less on other things. But of course, if she had to cut back on food, that would, in fact, be terrible. But what was this woman cutting back on? "We don't travel so much," came the answer. "We might not retire early." The horror, the horror. [Editor's note: for more on middle-class purchasing choices, see Arnold Kling's related article, Understanding Middle-Class Squeeze]

Finally, at 7 pm, came "NBC Nightly News" starring Tom Brokaw. Like Jennings, Brokaw made the Census report the second item on his broadcast. But unlike Pilgrim and Jennings, Brokaw chose to accentuate the positive; he showcased Bush's Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who noted that gross domestic product had risen 4.8 percent in the past year, and that productivity had grown at the fastest three-year rate in more than half a century. Kidding! Gotcha again. Those economic stats are correct, but they weren't heard one little bit on NBC, nor was any glimpse of Evans ever seen.

Instead, Brokaw threw it to Ron Allen, reporting from Coolville, Ohio, for a look "at just a few of the real-life stories." Sadly, although maybe unsurprisingly, there was seemingly no joy in Coolville. Instead, there had been a "big increase in the number of poor children because of heavy job losses, especially in factory jobs that pay good wages." And so, "like an increasing number of Americans, the people of Coolville live with less."

So what's the political fallout from all this depression? Back in New York City, Brokaw posed that question to Tim Russert, who observed solemnly that a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy by a 52:43 percent majority.

OK, OK, but what about print? There's no need to stretch this article out forever; let's just note this fair-and-balanced headline from the AP: "Ranks of Poverty-Stricken, Uninsured Rise, Census Finds For Third Straight Year, Numbers in Both Categories Increase." Yikes! And this: top of the fold, left-hand side, in Friday's Washington Post: "Poverty Rate Up 3rd Year In a Row." And because it's the Post, in the second graf, readers saw the obligatory, "Hit hardest were women . . . and children."

There was no mention in any of this coverage about the Swifties, which is OK. But nowhere in any of these news shows was any consideration of three possibilities: first, that maybe Bush's policies over the last three-and-a-half years have made conditions better than they would have been otherwise; second, that maybe Kerry's policies would make things worse; and third, that maybe, as a practical matter, there's little to be done about the "creative destruction" that's churning the US economy.

Kerry might not be much of a campaigner, and he might have flubbed his Fall message, but he has the media to fall back on.

But don't take my word for it -- after all, I work for Fox. Take the word, instead, of Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek, a certifiable media-elite-ster.

On the July 10th airing of "Inside Washington," a political chat show, Thomas said, "Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win." He continued, "They're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there's going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points."

You know, 15 points is a lot. Bush may be up by three, but if the press gives Kerry 15 -- and if Thursday's night's news is a harbinger -- then the Democrat is still in the game.


TCS Daily Archives