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Trivial pursuit
John Kerry’s strong debate performance refutes the media’s focus on superficial charges and countercharges

BETWEEN JULY 29, when John Kerry delivered his well-received acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and last Thursday, when he debated George W. Bush in the first of their three encounters, the real presidential campaign of candidates and issues, of people and ideas, had all but disappeared. Instead, we were subjected to a media-driven frenzy over faux issues such as whether Kerry had earned his medals in Vietnam (he had) and whether Bush had completed his National Guard obligations (he hadn’t, a point now lost thanks to the well-documented screw-ups of CBS News). Kerry was also kept continually on the defensive by a string of negative attacks emanating from the Republican camp, ranging from charges that he is a "flip-flopper," to Dick Cheney’s mind-boggling assertion that a vote for the Massachusetts senator would be a vote for another terrorist attack.

Last Thursday, the Kerry of Republican caricature was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he delivered a firm, coherent, and at times eloquent critique of Bush’s failed policies abroad and at home — in Iraq, on homeland security, on deficits and unfair tax policy, and on such vitally important matters as what to do about North Korea’s looming nuclear-weapons capabilities. The president, by contrast, seemed to shrink into himself, groping for words, unable to defend his miserable record, obviously irritated that he even had to share the stage with Kerry. Not surprisingly, most of the post-debate polls showed that the public believed Kerry had won. And by early this week, opinion surveys suggested that the race was back in a dead heat, as it had been for months before the relentless attacks on Kerry in August and September took their toll.

What a commentary this is on the facile, superficial job the media are doing in covering the campaign. Polling is an uncertain science that tells only part of the story — though the media make it seem like it’s the whole story. It is surely significant that Kerry does far better when the public gets to see and hear him unfiltered than he does when he is subjected to the media-refracted prism of charge and counter-charge. More than 60 million people watched the first debate. For 90 minutes, they got a far truer picture of the differences between the two major-party candidates than they had received from weeks of media coverage and $150 million of Republican attack ads.

Kerry’s two-month swoon wasn’t entirely the media’s fault. As has been the case with his Senate campaigns, he often seemed to be running for president on autopilot, showing the discipline and drive he needs to win only at the last possible moment. He won the Democratic nomination with a brilliant, hard-driving campaign in December and January, a comeback made final by the implosion of Howard Dean. Since then, Kerry’s tortuous rhetoric ("I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it") and his seeming inability to explain his complicated views on Iraq in plain English have served repeatedly to undermine his campaign.

Still, media malfeasance has been significant. Though the print media did a reasonably good job of disproving the claims of the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, we know that most people use the electronic media as their main information source, and talk radio and the cable news channels — especially Fox News — kept their phony accusations alive for weeks. Another example was on view at the Republican National Convention, where born-again evangelical Democratic senator Zell Miller attacked Kerry with numerous falsehoods that were inadequately refuted by the media — claiming, for instance, that Kerry had opposed a range of weapons systems without bothering to note that then–secretary of defense Dick Cheney, among many others, including Republican senators, had also opposed those weapons.

On less substantive matters, last week Fox News’s chief political correspondent, Carl Cameron, was caught penning an article for Fox’s Web site that included phony quotes attributed to Kerry, which had the senator proclaiming himself a "metrosexual" and rambling on about his cuticles. And it’s not just Fox. Recently, the indispensable Daily Howler revealed that a pompous-sounding quote often repeated as evidence of Kerry’s reputed inability to connect with ordinary Americans — "Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR?" — had apparently been concocted by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. (Kerry’s actual quote: "Now, I happen to like NASCAR ...") As with earlier media preoccupations over Kerry’s haircut and his preference for Swiss cheese on hoagies, such trivia is both demeaning and unfair. For some reason, such abuse rarely seems to be directed at Bush.

It’s time for the media to spend more resources covering the candidates and the issues and less on treating this like a cross between a celebrity gossipfest and a sporting event. This isn’t 2000, when "the issues," such as they were, included that infernal lock box for Social Security and prescription-drug benefits for senior citizens. As Bush himself likes to point out, this is a post-9/11 world. Everything has changed. The issues this year are war and peace, life and death, America’s standing in the world, the future make-up of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary, and Bush’s relentless assault on the poor and the middle class, on the environment, and on such matters of basic human dignity as women’s access to safe, legal abortion, gay and lesbian couples gaining the same rights as their neighbors, and working-class families’ ability to afford health care or to give their kids a decent college education.

Those are the issues on which the election should be decided. Will the media play their constitutional role? Or will they mindlessly repeat Republican spin points, portraying Kerry as a flip-flopping, cheese-eating surrender monkey?

INSTANT POLLS taken after Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate showed that John Edwards and Dick Cheney had fought to a standoff. An ABC News survey of debate-watchers awarded the night to Cheney by a margin of 43 percent to 35 percent, which may be just a reflection of the fact that 38 percent of respondents were Republicans and 31 percent were Democrats. For instance, CBS News, which surveyed uncommitted voters, found that 41 percent of respondents thought Edwards had won, and just 28 percent went with Cheney. If nothing else, these mixed results should give media commentators pause. In the post-debate spin on Tuesday night, the talking heads were falling over themselves in their rush to praise Cheney, perhaps out of some artificial notion of "balance" following Bush’s pathetic performance last week.

Give Cheney credit for being focused, businesslike, and deeply negative. As it turned out, the debate couldn’t have taken place on a worse day for him. Paul Bremer, the White House’s former proconsul in Iraq, delivered a speech that he’d assumed was off the record (imagine that) in which he said the Bush administration had not stationed enough troops in Iraq to provide for security — exactly the point that Kerry and Edwards have been making. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations that he had "not seen any strong, hard evidence" linking Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda — a denial of one of Cheney’s favorite talking points, and an assertion from which Rumsfeld quickly attempted to back away.

With the heat on at Tuesday’s debate, Cheney did what he’s so good at: he lied. When Edwards accused Cheney of falsely promoting the idea that Iraq had been involved in the terrorist attacks of three years ago, Cheney replied, "The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11." But as the Washington Post pointed out on Wednesday, "in numerous interviews, Cheney has skated close to the line in ways that may have certainly left that impression on viewers, usually when he cited the possibility that Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, met with an Iraqi official — even after that theory was largely discredited."

The public’s perceptions of Tuesday’s debate will not gel until the spinners have had their way for the next day or two. The media need to follow the Post’s example by telling the truth about the disingenuous character of Cheney’s performance — and, indeed, about the entire lying gang in the White House.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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