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The press and the front-runner

The earpiece was blasting the chorus of "Free Ride," the Edgar Winter Group apparently being the very definition of hip at the Fox News Channel. I stared at the camera and tried to look relaxed. The next voice I heard was that of John Gibson, host of a show called The Big Story. "Dan," he said, "todayís big question. Has the media been going easy on Kerry?"

Iíd come to VideoLink, a Watertown TV studio with a photo of world-class media hound Alan Dershowitz in the lobby, so that I could disagree with the proposition that itís all hearts, flowers, and goo-goo eyes between the media and Massachusetts senator John Kerry. The notion struck me as so preposterous that, when they first asked me to come on, I thought they might be joking. They werenít. Apparently the belief has set in ó among Republicans as well as some Democrats ó that the media have been a lot easier on Kerry than they were on former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

Well, then. Where to begin? For starters, letís look back to the early preseason of this presidential campaign, when Kerry was the clear front-runner and Dean was "Howard Who?" From late 2002 until the summer of 2003, the media attacked Kerry relentlessly, and in most cases over stupid, trivial issues.

There was, for example, the matter of his $75 haircuts (initially reported by Matt Drudge as costing $150), the subject of some clucking in December 2002. This was actually chewed over by Judy Woodruff on CNNís Inside Politics, who said of the Kerry campaignís attempts to set the record straight on this deadly serious issue, "Just two days after moving closer to a presidential race, John Kerry already is in denial mode." Can you imagine?

The media also told us that Kerryís wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was a "loose cannon," and that the rather recent revelation of the senatorís Jewish roots suggested that heís a man with an identity problem. Slateís Mickey Kaus started a "Kerry Mystery Contest" to figure out why Kerry was so "loathsome." The nadir was reached last August, when Kerry had the nerve, during a visit to the cheese-steak capital of Philadelphia, to ask for Swiss on his hoagie rather than the locally acceptable Cheez Whiz. Dana Milbank wrote on page three of the Washington Post that if "Kerryís presidential aspirations melt like a dollop of Cheez Whiz in the sun, the trouble may well be traced to an incident in South Philadelphia on Monday." Really.

By Labor Day, of course, Dean had established himself as the front-runner, a position he would not relinquish until January 19, when he came in third in the Iowa caucuses. Understandably, the media dropped Kerry like a fetid carcass and went to work on Dean. In this task journalists were aided and abetted by Deanís penchant for colorfully inept quotes (his avowed desire "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks," a strangely juridical remark about Osama bin Laden, and an accurate but tone-deaf statement that the capture of Saddam Hussein did not make the United States safer), as well as his insistence on keeping many of his gubernatorial records secret.

This past Monday, the day of my appearance on The Big Story, marked the second week of Kerryís renewed status as the front-runner. It took a few days for the media to reverse the battleship and aim their guns at him. But, already, weíve seen substantive, serious reporting on Kerryís dependence on lobbying money (front-page stories in Saturdayís Washington Post and New York Times); a vile attack in the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Sherman, a Vietnam veteran who still has not gotten over his hatred of Jane Fonda and the anti-war movement; and, most ludicrously, a media boomlet in stories about whether Kerry has used Botox to smooth out his long, haggard face. A cover story in last weekís New Republic went so far as to suggest that his liberalism would doom him this fall.

Of course, thereís nothing wrong with tough scrutiny. The danger is that the media will repeat their performance from the 2000 campaign, when they seriously damaged Al Goreís chances with what proved to be phony, Republican-driven stories about his "inventing" the Internet (he never said he did), his "discovery" of the Love Canal toxic-waste site (ditto), and his boast that he and his wife, Tipper, were models for Erich Segalís 1970 book Love Story (it turned out that he was accurately recounting a newspaper story that was itself incorrect). Meanwhile, the Boston Globeís reporting, in 2000, that George W. Bush had apparently gone AWOL for a year from the Texas Air National Guard barely got any national play. Some liberal media, huh?

John Gibson didnít seem like a bad guy, which is probably why his show is on at 5 p.m. instead of prime time. But he couldnít get it out of his head that the press is soft on Kerry. "The media hasnít jumped up and down on him for his self-contradictory positions over the years," he said. "Heís for something one day, and heís against it the next. And heís done plenty of that in his long career as a senator, but the media has kind of given him a pass on that."

Leaving aside the matter of whether Gibsonís characterization is correct (Kerry is something of a waffler, but more on nuances than broad themes), itís fair to say that any media pass he has enjoyed is already beginning to change.

Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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