Monthly Archives: July 2004

Which Candidate Is It We Don’t “Know”?

An excerpt from the CJR Campaign Desk interview with Philip Gourevitch, staff writer at The New Yorker, where he wrote an in-depth profile of John Kerry.

I think it’s very interesting that in this election, the complaint from the press quite often is that Kerry has not made his story accessible to the public, he has not made himself familiar, that people don’t know who he is. Which is really interesting considering that the guy he’s running against has no story at all, and considering that we live in this age of the politician who must have the story, the anecdotal story. [Bush] is born to extraordinary privilege into an intensely insular, emotionally repressed, dynastic family. He grows up with extremely mediocre performances and seeming to have neither interests nor excellence in any field, except he’s a good partier in college and he seems to be able to collect people around him. He has some kind of power there in his ability to make connections with people. He drifts through his 20s. He becomes an alcoholic — and an ugly one. He failed serially at businesses. None of this is stuff [Bush] could ever mention again, nor is it ever mentioned except, supposedly, hostilely. In other words if you mention it, it’s considered hostile rather than a matter of fact and of record which all of it is. And then, the idea is, all of that is completely erased and redeemed through a conversion experience. It’s a very weird story. One doesn’t feel that one knows [Bush].

CNN: Liberal Network No More

The Columbia Journalism Reviews Campaign Desk has an item today about CNN, which has often been portrayed by conservatives as a liberal network. In fact, conservatives describe any media that isn’t right-wing as liberal. In their lexicon, there’s no such thing as moderate or objective news reporting. If you’re not conservative, you’re liberal.

That’s bad enough when describing voters and politicians, but for a profession that’s supposed to be fair, balanced, accurate and objective, it’s an absurd dichotomy.

During the Democratic convention, I watched mostly CNN and MSNBC, with a little PBS and no Fox. After four nights, I could no longer tolerate Chris Matthews on MSNBC, a guy I had once turned off and then began watching occasionally. But his shouting and stepping on people’s comments revealed not just a conservative slant but a bore who bullies people, even his own guest pundits. His style was contagious during the convention, infecting Andrea Mitchell, Howard Fineman, Willie Brown and Joe Scarborough (himself a bruiser). They constantly talked over one another to the point that you couldn’t tell what was said half the time.

CNN with Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenberg at least had a lower volume. But as the CJR piece points out, they, along with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and others, revealed if not a conservative tilt, an unprofessional refusal to challenge pundits on their talking points. I had pointed out two misrepresentations yesterday, and the CJR writer later in the day mentioned them on his post.

CNN also did something the other networks didn’t. Immediately after Edwards’s and Kerry’s speeches, CNN brought in representatives of the Bush campaign to counter the speech. Edwards drew Ralph Reed and Kerry’s antagonist was Ed Gillespie of the RNC. In both cases, Blitzer, who has never struck me as more than a not-so-pretty-face-but-a-perfectly-trimmed beard of an anchor, and Woodruff and Greenberg, for whom I have had respect, never challenged the GOP on their talking points.

But in all the coverage, the media’s obsession with the talking points dominates. Flip-flopping is one. IN a Lexis-Nexis search, I found more than 80 newspaper articles that mention the term over the past week. Forty-nine magazine articles used it over the past six months. And on the tube every major network – from Fox to NPR, CNN to PBS, MSNBC to CNBC repeated the charge.

One could argue that they should because people are thinking that way about Kerry. But the only reason they are is because the GOP has constantly promoted it. Even his most notorious flip – his not vote for $87 billion for the Iraq War was clearly at the time described as a vote of protest against the Bush administration’s refusal to curtail tax breaks to pay for the war. It was a fiscally responsible vote to take. Remember, Bush could have reduced the amount requested or reduced the tax cuts to address those issues. But he didn’t knowing most lawmakers wouldn’t oppose it because they were afraid of the exact charges the Bush campaign now makes. So instead of calling Bush on his political ploy, the media – and with relish CNN – constantly regurgitates the point.

This proves the thesis of many writers, including Eric Alterman, Joe Conason, Al Franken and others: The way to intimidate the media is to accuse it of being liberal. The defendant then will bend over backwards to prove you wrong – by being an attack dog for the right.

More on Kerry’s Speech

Howard Kurtz summarizes coverage of Kerry’s speech

And Kurtz quotes from conservative blogger Instapundit, though I couldn’t find it on the site myself:

It’s the thing about critiquing a speech–it’s all so inherently subjective, like critics disagreeing over a movie. It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that the mainstream media–the folks who don’t overtly come at politics from the left or the right–were nearly unanimous in hailing the speech. That, I predict, will convince people out there that it was a better speech than they might have thought.


The president, who did not favor impaneling the [9/11] commission and then said he was in no rush to institute further reforms, has now decided he must do something soon, aides have said.

How High the Bar?

John Kerry last night gave a pretty good speech – but he raced through it as if to get it behind him and relieve the pressure of the “expectations.”

Hell, who knows if that’s a correct interpretation. We had quite a few last night. On public TV, New York Times columnist David Brooks said it was “almost a Republican speech,” but then agreed with Mark Shields that it sounded party neutral and was Kerry’s “speech of his life,” as in best of his life, although he could have been referring to his six-plus minute recounting of his life.

Jeff Greenberg pointed out that only two and half sentences were about how to fight the war in Iraq differently.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said it “almost matched Bill Clinton’s.”

Even Pat Buchanan, who seems to increasingly find ways of jabbing Republicans, was “moved by that speech” and that Kerry “did more than I thought he could.”

On MSNBC we know that Andrea Mitchell said the “rhetoric was wonderful,” but Joe Scarborough thought it was rushed. What the rest of the Hardball crew thought was impossible to decipher because they kept shouting over one another. Couldn’t happen to a better guy than CHRIS MATTHEWS. (You make me wanna shout. Throw my head back and shout. Throw my hands up and shout. Kick my heels up and shout. Come on now.)

But the best analysis of the speech was by Lawrence O’Donnell, former staffer to the late Sen. Pat Moynihan and writer of West Wing episodes. On Charlie Rose, O’Donnell said the speech was not written for the conventioneers or the people at home last night watching on TV. The speech was targeted, O’Donnell said, to the 8 percent of the electorate who are undecided in the swing states. They wouldn’t have watched last night’s speech because they wouldn’t sit through 50 minutes of a political speech. Rather it was written – and delivered — for the sound bites that could be extracted for tomorrow’s Today Show and Good Morning America, where many more people will see it.

Tom Shales, who panned Edwards’s speech the night before, seems to agree.

His speech was well-written and did more than perfunctorily cover such issues as national security, health care and education, but Kerry stepped on some of his best lines by racing furiously to the next remark. It was his own version of a TV game show from the ’50s called “Beat the Clock.”

Many of his catchier statements will look better in sound bites than they did in the context of the speech because they will be trimmed into tight, neat little packages and viewers won’t hear Kerry zooming ahead to the next topic: “The future doesn’t belong to fear, it belongs to freedom!” And, “It’s time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families!” And so on.

Shales also refers to, but I swear cleans up, the night’s technical snafu. Somebody inadvertently opened the mic of the TV producer-director of the convention for the Democrats, Don Mischer, right after Kerry’s speech. Mischer was not happy with the rate of balloons falling. “Go balloons. More confetti,” he yelled. “Let’s move it.” And then clearly exasperated that many balloons were resting snuggly in their nests in the ceilings, he screamed, “What the fuck are you guys doing up there?”

Oh, I guess wishing they were dead – or at least had the night off.

Stewart Tells Off Koppel

The headline is a little overstated. It was a cordial conversation and reading it afterwards makes it sound a little more contentious than it was. But here’s the exchange between Koppel and Stewart last night.


It’s that, the partisan mobilization has become a part of the media process. That they’ve realized that, this real estate that you possess, television, is the most valuable real estate known to rulers. If Alexander the Great had TV, believe me, he would have had his spin guys dealing, you know, Napoleon would have had people working. The key to leadership is to have that mouthpiece to the people, and that’s what, and that’s what this is. You guys are, this is a battle for the airwaves. And that’s what we watch, and that’s what’s so, I think, dispiriting, to those at home, who believe that, I think, there’s a sense here that you’re not participating in that battle and there’s a sense at home watching it of you’re absolutely participating and complicit in that battle, in the sense of this.


(Off Camera) Go a little further, go a little further on that.


I’m a news anchor. Remember, this is bizarro world. And I say, the issue is healthcare. And insurance, and why 40 million American kids don’t have insurance, 40 million Americans are uninsured. Is this health insurance program being debated in Congress good for the country? Let’s debate it. I have with me Donna Brazile and Bay Buchanan. Let’s go. Donna. I think the Democrats really have it right here. I think that this is a, a pain to the insurance companies and to the drug companies and I think it’s wrong for America. Bay. Oh, no, no, no. That’s incorrect. What it is is, and then she throws out her figures from the Heritage Foundation and she throws her figures from the Brookings Institute, and the anchor, who should be the arbiter of the truth says, thank you both very much. That was really interesting. No, it wasn’t. That was Coke and Pepsi talking about beverage truth. And that, that game is what has, I think, caused people to go, I’m not watching this.


(Off Camera) All right, so you have found an answer, through humor …


No. It’s not an answer.


(Off Camera) … no, well, a truth, an answer in the sense that through humor …


I found an outlet. I found a catharsis, a sneeze, if you will.


(Off Camera) But it’s not just a catharsis for you, it’s a catharsis for your viewers. Those who watch say at least when I’m watching Jon, he can use humor to say, BS. You know, that’s a crock.


But that’s always been the case. Satire has always been.


(Off Camera) Okay, but I can’t, I can’t do that.


No. But you can say that’s BS. You don’t need humor to do it, because you have, what I wish I had. Which is credibility, and gravitas, this is interesting stuff. And it’s all part of the discussion, and I think it’s a good discussion to have, but I also think that it’s important to take a more critical look, you know? Don’t you think?


(Off Camera) No.


And certainly not from me.


Not from you.


I’m, I know my role. I am the dancing monkey.


(Off Camera) I’ve had enough of you. You’re done. You’re finished. Thank you, Jon.


You’re very welcome.

The Speechifying

I’ve watched a month’s worth of television in the last couple of days. I figure if the Dems are going to put on a show the least I could do is to see how good a show they do.

But what has struck me most are the pundits. Hell, they’ve drug out Steve Buscemi, the actor who blew away people before he was blown away himself on the Sopranos. (I watch some TV.) Buscemi was asked by CHRIS MATTHEWS (read as scream!) of Hardball just how bad was Al Shapton’s speech last night. Geez, is Buscemi really qualified to do that? He didn’t appear so with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Besides, should we care what he thinks? In addition to Matthews, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Howard Fineman of Newsweek were appalled, but reports this morning say he electrified the audience.

Al Sharpton drew a rousing response when he forcefully challenged Bush’s argument last week before the Urban League that the Democratic Party takes black voters for granted. But Sharpton said that Republicans turned their backs on black voters years ago, and that it was Democrats who fought for and delivered civil rights and voting rights.

“Mr. President, the reason we are fighting so hard, the reason we took Florida so serious, is our right to vote wasn’t gained because of our age,” he said. “Our vote was soaked in the blood of martyrs, soaked in the blood of good men, soaked in the blood of four little girls in Birmingham. This vote is sacred to us.” With applause rising from the convention floor, Sharpton shouted, “This vote can’t be bargained away. This vote can’t be given away. Mr. President, in all due respect, Mr. President, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale.”

And in the Times:

The Rev. Al Sharpton took the fight directly to President Bush in a booming and freewheeling speech on Wednesday night, challenging the president’s commitment to basic civil rights and recalling the disputed Florida vote of 2000, which has become a rallying cry for many black voters.

Mr. Sharpton, whose one-liners and rhythmic cadence were audience favorites during the primaries, had a hard time at first, his voice shouting, his face scowling. But Mr. Sharpton soon regained his familiar tone, hitting Mr. Bush with some of the most caustic and pointed remarks of the convention.

Edwards also got good marks, and of course, they’ve already anointed Barack Obama the next Democratic nominee based on his speech.

Fact is, there have been some good speeches, but nothing to make the hair on my arm stand up. Nothing that gets my heart pumping with an adrenaline rush. Certainly nothing to make my eyes well up.

But the media is determined to rate these speeches: Which ones succeeded (Obama, Edwards, Clinton). Which fell flat (Kennedy, Heinz Kerry, Dean). Which were counter-productive (Sharpton, if you believe the MSNBC crew and of course, Fox News.) George Stephanopoulos, who by himself can discredit an entire profession, gushed after Edwards’s speech, that he was “very effective” and “most impressive” in his quieter moments.

But maybe in the confines of the Fleet Center when one is waiting for something to get excited about, the speeches can “electrify,” But sitting at home, which where the real audience lies, I think I lot of folks are yawning.

Give Sharpton credit for taking Bush on and Edwards credit for at least have some substance, but some of his speech seemed to be trying to out GOP the Republicans.

And we – John and I -we will have one clear unmistakable message for Al Qaida and these terrorists: You cannot run. You cannot hide. We will destroy you.

Believe me, I’m not wearing love beads or a tie-dyed shirt, but I’m not comfortable with that John Wayne shit. I don’t think he was talking of the way to truly destroy Al Qaeda. Which is to change some of our oppressive policies and get Saudi Arabia to offer some kind of education that isn’t inculcating children with fundamentalist doctrine. We can’t kill them all. Every one killed creates two new ones. But the Dems seem to be too afraid to trust the judgement on the American people. They just want to prove they love our soldiers and will give them more protective armor.

In fact, Stephanopoulos and I agree (I worry that’s not a good thing) about the effectiveness of quieter moments. All the speakers seem to be shouting. I guess it’s expected when you see a vast sea of signs and smiles waiting to wave and beam. It’s hard to believe you can be intimate.

But if the TV audience is the true target – however small that may be (registration required) – they need to talk softer. Converse, not yell.

I just hope Kerry doesn’t adopt those oh-so-stentorian tones tonight.

Stewart: The Best Commentator

I’ve come late to the Jon Stewart fan club. In fact, I’ve never watched more than a few seconds of his show when one of my teenaged kids has it on. It’s not that I’ve not liked him, but it has to be pretty special programming for me to sit in front of the tube – maybe, say, a meaningless baseball game or a women’s pool tournament.

But after hearing him last night interviewed by Ted Koppel, I think I’ll start watching The Daily Show. I’ve heard a couple of interviews of him during the convention, but last night he put Koppel in his place with a biting indictment of the mainstream press. (I’ll post the relevant transcript once Lexis-Nexis has it.) Koppel’s main story was about the plethora of media attending the convention and their tendency to be perceived as presenting a point of view. When asked how things could improve, Stewart presented a perfect hypothetical case about two spokespersons from competing viewpoints who are allowed to present – unchallenged – their spin. Stewart said Koppel and others need to challenge points that are wrong, false or incomplete.

No better example was when Ralph Reed, a Republican operative (that minimizes his role but I’m not sure of his title; basically, he runs the Republican’s southern strategy and is former head of the Christian Coalition), was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer and Co. on CNN immediately following John Edwards’s speech. Reed was allow to call John Kerry “the most liberal senator” who votes against weapons systems and intelligence programs and that he had voted for higher taxes 350 times over his career.

“You can’t serve in the U.S. Senate for 19 years, vote for higher taxes 350 times, advocate $7.4 billion in intelligence cuts one year after the first World Trade Center attack and not have your opposition talk about it,” Reed said

Just last Tuesday, Spinsanity, a site that tracks misleading political information, debunks the “most liberal” tag. The 350 tax votes has also been proven false.

But Blitzer and Nancy Woodruff never challenged Reed.

The same is true about the flip-flopping. The charge is relentlessly repeated by the media. Why? Because the GOP says so. They make the claim so often that the media simply repeats it to get the same reaction. But by doing so the media reinforce it. In fact, on a recent “Meet the Press,” host Tim Russert (one of the most overrated journalists) asked of his guest journalists, “Is this campaign going to be one about who’s the biggest flip-flopper?”

Bush has flipped and flopped on many issues, but the media never cites these flip-flops to reveal the bogus nature of the claim. Any politician with a record has changed votes on certain issues or would appear so depending how you characterize the issue. Reporter and author Joe Klein said last night that Kerry is having a tough time of addressing the $87 billion flip flop when he voted for it before he voted against it. Klein pretended not to know how to address it but then gave what I thought was a pretty good start to a response. He said Kerry should say it was a protest vote because of the way Bush was handling the war. What Kerry should say is that it was a protest vote because Bush wouldn’t pay for the extra $87 billion by cutting other programs or rescinding his tax cuts. What’s wrong with saying that?

While the Democrats are trying to be positive (and I hope not positively boring or timid to many), the media will continue to look for conflict and is willing to regurgitate any charge to that end. They might say it reflects today’s politics Maybe so. But I was struck while watching an hour or so of talking heads. They belonged to Bob Dole, Joe Biden, George Mitchell and David Gergen. They proved that disagreement can be cordial.

Coulter Fired

USA Today decided to fire right-wing columnist Ann Coulter before she published even one column. The paper thought her first column had a “basic weaknesses in clarity and readability that we found unacceptable.”

Makes me wonder if the USA Today editors had bothered to read anything by Coulter before they hired her.

Here is Ann Coulter’s commentary on the dust-up and the original column. Note how she refers to herself in the third person. This lady apparently can’t reconcile her own thoughts with her own mind.

The plan?

While former President Clinton hit a home run with his speech last night, the story just below the front page fold on The Washington Post this morning suggests Kerry is losing ground. The tenor of the article about The Post’s latest poll is that Kerry is so undefined that he risks losing the vote of even those who are unhappy with Bush.

Cheryl Utley, 43, of Lowell, Mich., would seem to be exactly the kind of voter Kerry is targeting this week. Utley, a restaurant worker, is an independent living in a battleground state. She is leaning toward Bush even though she has supported Democrats more often than she has Republicans. “I have more of a sense of where he stands on things than Kerry,” she said.

Utley wants Kerry and the Democratic Party to talk about domestic issues, specifically education and “what they plan on doing about health care for middle-income or lower-income people.”

“I have to face the fact that I will never be able to have health insurance, the way things are now. And these millionaires don’t seem to address that,” she said.

…”I would like him to come right out and explain that to people, what he really believes, in a way that everyone will understand him,” said Rose Spalding, 45, a Kerry supporter in Cumberland, Maine. “He needs to be really clear and concise about that and show he’s really different from Bush.”

…”You pretty much know what Bush’s philosophy is on everything he’s doing,” said Mike Miller, 57, of Russellville, Ark., who is “on the fence” but favoring Kerry. “I’d like to know about Kerry’s philosophy on the economy: how he’s going to get our national debt down. . . . Is the deficit even a concern of his?”

It goes on like this, with voters asking how Kerry will deal with the key problems.

But where does Bush stand? Do we know how he’ll cut the deficit? Assuming we know he’s not going to raise taxes, where will he cut spending? We know Kerry’s tax plans – more cuts for the middle class and repeal of tax cuts for the rich – so how are Kerry’s plans any less certain than Bush’s?

This poll may impact Kerry’s speech. Will Kerry talk policy on Thursday night or stick with the suggested formula of introducing his personal side? More important, will the media judge his speech based on whether he outlines his policies sufficiently to address the concerns of the voters interviewed for The Post story? If he comes across as warm and fuzzy, he risks further criticism about the lack of specifics.

Meanwhile, will the media demand the same specifics from Bush and then examine and critique them?

The article also serves the purpose of the GOP in its fourth paragraph.

The poll suggests that negative ads by the Bush-Cheney campaign that have been airing since early March, as well as attacks by Republican officials, have been increasingly successful in planting the image of Kerry as an unreliable leader who flip-flops on the issues — perceptions that Democrats will work hard to reverse at their convention.

The press, in covering the campaigns’ strategies instead of policy positions, repeat the Bush campaign’s positioning of Kerry ad nauseum. Thus, journalists are delivering in free media the flip-flop charge, playing directly into the GOP hands. What specific charge can you name that the media has delivered for the Democrats? That that would be hard to identify, speaks probably not as much to the bias of media but to the lack of discipline in the Kerry’s message machine.

On the Diana Rehm show just ended, Susan Page said what she is looking for in Kerry’s speech is what he would do in Iraq and in healthcare and demonstrate the strength and consistency of his views. Will Kerry take the bait?