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American Journalism Review
Not Too Shabby  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Not Too Shabby   

While their propensity for predictions led to some high-profile embarrassments, the news medias coverage of the Democratic primaries was much better than it is often portrayed.

By Rachel Smolkin

Pummeled as the real losers after a passel of Democrats jousted for the presidential nomination, the news media actually covered the campaign with verve and insight.

Not at first glance, maybe. And certainly not without obvious missteps. The media were wrong about Sen. John Kerry--twice, first declaring him a front-runner a year before the voters turned out, then depicting his campaign as moribund when it sagged last fall. The media were wrong about former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean--twice, first disregarding him, then trumpeting him as a virtual lock for the Democratic nomination.

When Dean imploded, the media took an excessively peppy cheer by the former Vermont governor and portrayed it incessantly as uncontrolled rage by a man with a penchant for combustion. The cable networks led the way in reducing Dean to a scream.

Yes, the media made all their usual mistakes by overvaluing mercurial polls. And yes, they covered the campaign as a horse race and yes, during primary and caucus nights the TV anchors and pundits fixated on which candidates should drop out and generally ignored substantive policy discussions.

But a close reading of the coverage shows that in their rush to find a front-runner, many influential political journalists included caveats to signal why the race might not unfold as expected. At the start of the Iraq war, military analysis tended to embrace the prevailing mood, ignoring alternatives that could debunk conventional wisdom. The best political reporters generally avoided such pitfalls before the primaries by describing circumstances as they appeared at that moment, then suggesting other possible outcomes and noting voters had not had their say.

Much of the pre-primary and primary coverage was fascinating. The New York Times particularly excelled at capturing the narrative drama of the race. Twin front-page Times stories on February 1 explained how Kerry persevered and why Dean crumbled. A page-one November 11, 2003, article about Kerry firing his campaign manager described a 45-minute telephone conference call he had with aides and included the vivid detail that Kerry could be heard "eating his supper over the speakerphone." At one point, he blamed the news coverage for his problems.

CNN's campaign desk offered moments of illumination on caucus and primary nights, particularly through solid reporting by veterans such as Candy Crowley and careful, thoughtful context by analysts such as Jeff Greenfield, who shuns the polling obsession as "just plain silly." And The Note, ABC's fine political Web site, served campaign news summaries and roundups with a side of attitude that's lively and entertaining without seeming smug or snide. It's timely, informative and free--an extra plus.

The mainstream media showed flashes of responsibility, particularly on the wispy rumor about a Kerry affair. A scandal so vague that even the substance of the allegation was mystifying clawed its way into cyberspace and British tabloids through the Internet gossip site of Matt Drudge, who achieved notoriety for outing Newsweek's story on President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky before editors deemed it ready for publication. Most newspapers and TV news programs prudently treated this non-rumor rumor with the disdain it deserved.

Changes in technology and composition of the press pool have made grading the media's political coverage both easier and a lot trickier. No longer a finite band of "Boys on the Bus," the media have burgeoned to include cable networks, online political news sites and bloggers. The "political media" have become a far more diverse aggregation, and fairly assessing their coverage has become more complex. A Lexis-Nexis search turns up titillating and outrageous examples to support almost any theory of media performance, particularly during a political campaign.

With such readily accessible fodder, media bashing has become a fun and frequently appropriate national pastime. And a number of media analysts interviewed for this article say some reproofs for the 2004 presidential primary season and its precursor, the so-called "invisible primary," were richly deserved.

Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media writer, has used his column to upbraid his prediction-obsessed colleagues. "It would be hard to give the media glowing marks since this has been an embarrassing year in which reporters have consistently gotten things wrong," Kurtz says. "Driven by a seemingly uncontrollable desire to predict the future, most journalists missed the rise of Howard Dean, then rushed to anoint him as the nominee while writing off John Kerry and only belatedly jumped back on the Kerry bandwagon. It's hard to think of another campaign season in which the press missed the boat so often."

In a February 23 column, Kurtz urged political reporters to "swear off some long-standing habits," noting the media for decades have "built their campaign narratives around four bedrock pillars: money, organization, polls and endorsements. But much of that has crumbled in the shifting sands of the 2004 race." In a telephone conversation, Kurtz says, "It's ridiculous to jump on anybody's bandwagon a year before the voters go to the polls."

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California, offers a similar assessment. "The media always spend too much energy and time on the horse-race aspect, and it was no different this year," she says. "I don't remember that they anointed a front-runner this early and disanointed a candidate this early, as they did Howard Dean, or declared him dead and then resurrected him, as they did John Kerry."

James P. Pinkerton, a Newsday columnist, Fox News contributor and former aide to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, agrees the press "pretty much succumbed to the temptation [to predict] who's the winner, who's not the winner. They said, 'Kerry's the loser, Dean's the winner,' over and over, and then, when they were [proven] completely wrong, they said, 'Next!' "

National political journalists offer apologies, explanations and a dose of self-mocking humor to assess their performance.

"We've done great," jokes Dan Balz, a national political reporter for the Washington Post. "We had Howard Dean as the nominee, and it's played out exactly that way."

Adam Nagourney, the national political reporter for the New York Times, says "the biggest mistake that all of us made was to forget the fact that voters don't start paying attention until January 4 or so" of an election year. "I certainly reached a point in my mind where I thought it was hard to see how Dean wouldn't win the nomination. And that was dumb."

Mark Halperin, ABC News political director and coauthor of The Note, says, "there was too much scrutiny of Howard Dean--not enough at the beginning, and too much compared to other candidates at the end. We, the overall political media, failed to scrutinize the position and backgrounds of other candidates in the field because there was so much emphasis on Dean."

The media trumpeted Dean because modern precedent and measurable phenomena--money, organization, polls and endorsements--made a strong case for his nomination.

In eight of the 10 contested nomination races from 1980 to 2000, one candidate raised the most money during the year before the election and led in the last national Gallup poll before the Iowa caucuses. In every one of these races, that candidate went on to win his party's nomination, says William G. Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University.

By those standards, Dean looked like a winner. He had collected more than $40 million by the end of 2003 and led in national polls. He had launched an Internet revolution. He picked up endorsements from two major labor unions, from popular Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and from Al Gore, the former vice president, whom many Democratic activists believe was unjustly denied the presidency. "We have all been very humbled by this whole experience because there have just been a number of things that we have all sort of grasped and held onto because they have always been true in the past," says Karen Tumulty, the national political correspondent for Time magazine. "We concentrated on those things because those things were tangible. Those...were things we could measure."

One reporter who does not sound particularly humbled is Howard Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent and an analyst for NBC. Fineman wrote the January 12 story for Newsweek's cover, "Doubts About Dean," which began by describing the murmured concerns about Dean creeping into the blogosphere.

"We were ahead of the curve in putting that cover line out there, and if you read the story, we anticipated the collapse of Dean," Fineman says. He calls the cover "brave and correct" and, citing historical precedent, defends his description of Dean in that story as the "odds-on favorite" to win the nomination.

His article continued with an observation and a caveat: "Under the old rules--which may or may not apply to likely Democratic primary voters in the Age of Bush--Dean would seem to be ripe for a fall." Fineman notes he wrote a Web piece in May 2003 identifying Dean as a "man to watch, if not the man to beat" and concludes, "I identified him on the way up and on the way down."

Fineman's defense has merit. In fact, top political journalists offered a more careful and even insightful look at the race than a cursory glance at the front-page headlines, magazine covers and TV coverage suggests. To say only that the press stumbled misses the excitement and volatility of the campaign--Kerry did founder, Dean did surge, Kerry did rebuild his campaign team, and Dean's organization in Iowa ultimately was more fragile than expected.

"It's easy to say the press got it wrong twice," Balz says. "But this is a process, and there are ebbs and flows." Through most of 2003, he notes, few political reporters actually named a front-runner. "There was some early on about Kerry," Balz says, "but there's more coverage about [Kerry] being the front-runner in early 2003 now than in early 2003." Indeed, Balz wrote on February 21, 2003, "there is no obvious front-runner."

There was some "front-runner" coverage about Kerry in early 2003--reflecting conventional wisdom that looks a lot smarter now than it did four months ago. "A Front-Runner Already?" asked a February 3 Time magazine story, and writer Tumulty observed, "Kerry is starting to look like a front-runner." The February 24 cover of The New Republic queried, "Who Can Beat John Kerry?" and reporter Ryan Lizza wrote, "Kerry has emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination."

On February 26, 2003, a New York Times headline boldly declared, "In the First Mile of a Marathon, Kerry Emerges as a Front-Runner." But the story, which Nagourney wrote, framed Kerry's status more carefully. He is "being viewed by many Democrats" as "the leading candidate in the ever-growing field," Nagourney wrote, then sprinkled in caveats--that such a status "is largely a matter of perception," and because voters had not yet had their say, it "could end up being of fleeting consequence."

Nagourney says Kerry's campaign was pushing the idea of him as a front-runner, as were many others in the Democratic Party. "I went to great lengths not to call him a front-runner," Nagourney says. He's comfortable with the piece, calling it a "very reported" article. "The trick with all these stories is to try to capture the moment without being predictive before anyone votes," he says. "You want to avoid making blanket statements like you're God."

By late summer, the media had belatedly caught on to a Dean surge that was playing out in cyberspace and at local "meet-ups" around the country. In early August, Dean appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek--high-profile placement that signaled he had become the man to beat.

For Time's cover, "The Dean Factor," Tumulty began her story this way: "Look back at nearly every campaign trail to the White House, and you will find embedded in the asphalt the flattened form of a once captivating outsider." She described a story line in which a candidate seizes imagination, upsets the dynamic of the race and garners attention and praise from the media, along with talk that he has created "a phenomenon that will change politics." He then "makes a rookie mistake or two under the TV lights; the reporters turn on him; his fanatical legions realize he wasn't the guy they thought he was; and finally his demise becomes part of the winner's heroic backstory."

Tumulty's article then examined why the "most watched and feared candidate of the moment may be rewriting that plot." But it holds up pretty well because her opening paragraph outlined that age-old alternative scenario--one affirmed by later events adhering to that pattern.

Newsweek's cover asked, "Howard Dean, Destiny or Disaster?" Jonathan Alter's story called Dean "the hottest thing in the Democratic Party" but also raised the electability question that would prove so central to Democratic voters during primary season. "The greatest fear among certain Democrats is that if Dean does win the nomination, his liberal supporters will put their Birkenstocks on the gas pedal and drive the party right over the cliff, la George McGovern in 1972," Alter wrote. "The dilemma for Democrats tempted by Dean is whether to go with their hearts or their heads."

In late 2003, the coverage of Dean turned sharply negative and remained so into early 2004 as the Iowa caucus neared. "There was intense scrutiny of Dean in November, December and January," ABC's Halperin says. "Everyone would have been served better had that happened over a longer period." He notes the press could have done a better job highlighting statements Dean had made during the spring, summer and early fall. "We've got to try to maintain an even standard throughout the cycle for candidates who are doing well."

The media mined the former Vermont governor's background. A page-one New York Times story on November 22 described how Dean "lived the life of a ski bum in Aspen," Colorado, after receiving a medical deferment from Vietnam for a bad back. A January 8 report on NBC News featured old videotapes from a Canadian public television show in which Dean insulted the Iowa caucuses as "dominated by the special interests." Dean's opponents attacked him vociferously, and Dean himself exacerbated the onslaught of critical stories with a series of impolitic remarks about wooing "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" and about Saddam Hussein's capture not making America safer. When he yelled at a 67-year-old Iowa man, his aggressive behavior played into an emerging media narrative about Dean's explosive temper.

Despite the intense scrutiny, the media portrayed Dean as the favorite, and some reports suggested he was barreling to victory. Dean "has erased questions about his staying power," the New York Times' Nagourney wrote in a page-one lead on November 9. But he added a caveat in his fourth paragraph: Given the large field, Dean's "lack of experience in national politics and his tendency for intemperate remarks, his success...hardly means he is assured of being nominated."

USA Today on December 9 said Gore's backing "fuels a growing perception that Dean will be hard to stop." Harry Smith, cohost of "The Early Show" on CBS, declared January 6 that Dean "remains the front-runner...and many political pundits believe the only man that can beat Dean is Dean himself." A January 11 Baltimore Sun story began, "Weeks of relentless pounding by his Democratic opponents appear to have done little to dim Howard Dean's appeal in Iowa," putting him "in position for a major victory in this state's presidential caucuses next week."

But as the Iowa caucuses loomed, attentive political journalists began reporting that Dean's victory no longer seemed a given. Kerry and Sen. John Edwards were surging, and the outcome was shaping up as a four-way toss-up among Dean, Kerry, Edwards and Rep. Dick Gephardt.

"Dean's campaign is showing obvious signs of nervousness," the Washington Post's Balz reported in a front-page January 15 story. Two days later, a page-one Post story, headlined "4 at the Top; 3 Days to Go," declared the four-candidate race was "too-close-to-call." Also on January 16, a front-page USA Today story noted, "not since the caucuses began to count presidential preferences in 1972 has the race been so fluid at this late stage."

Jeff Greenfield, CNN's senior analyst, says retrospective descriptions of the media's performance have been off target. "When I read the post-Iowa, New Hampshire analysis [that] the pundits got it wrong: No they didn't. Once this thing started, people in the press started very quickly noticing that Kerry was moving up, Edwards was moving up," he says.

Tucker Carlson, cohost of CNN's "Crossfire," says, "It wasn't that the press missed some tidal wave offshore and nobody bothered to get their binoculars out. The criticism is that the media didn't anticipate moves that the voters themselves didn't anticipate."

When Dean learned of his third-place finish in Iowa on January 19, he rolled up his sleeves and roared his defiance in a rallying cry that would rule the late shows and the cable news channels. Relentless replays of the "I Have a Scream" speech, as it quickly became known, marked a low point in coverage of the primary season. The cable prime-time shows and broadcast news networks aired Dean's shriek 633 times over the next four days, according to National Journal's Hotline.

"Is he the first candidate in history who ended the speech with a cheer?" asks Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College in California. "Lots of candidates have said things like 'Hooah!' and 'Yahoo!' Why was his scream really a sign of mental disturbance? Or was he just trying to fire up his troops after a defeat? A lot of people had been talking about the anger of his speeches and had been looking for an occasion to highlight it."

ABC's Diane Sawyer assembled a story explaining that Dean's scream had sounded far different in the room. A handheld microphone filtered out background noise and isolated his voice. But Sawyer collected other tapes from that night carrying the sound of the crowd. In the room, she concluded, the "so-called scream couldn't really be heard at all." She then aired sound bites from top executives at CBS News, ABC News, Fox News and CNN, who collectively acknowledged the media overplayed the scream.

But some journalists defend exposure of the scream that wouldn't fade.

"Things like that grab people's attention for a reason," says William Powers, National Journal's media critic. "It's the kind of thing your mother calls you about." Powers says he isn't justifying the widespread mockery of the speech, but it was a "raw, real human moment that we don't get much of. I've read the argument that the clip didn't capture the moment. In a way, to me, that's beside the point. It was odd, and it was intriguing and a little bit unsettling. It showed certain qualities that even he has said were not presidential."

Mark Effron, vice president of daytime news programming for MSNBC, says the perpetual replays were legitimate. He says that cable news examines and chews over the news of the day. "It's a place for analysis and evaluation and playing things over again, whether it's the Howard Dean scream or the Janet Jackson Super Bowl" breast-baring.

CNN's Greenfield also defends the replays, noting programming on cable news assumes viewers are tuning in and out throughout the day, and the proliferation of media outlets contributed to the heavy coverage. "If Ed Muskie had or had not cried in 1972 and we had three cable networks, you would have seen that 500 times," Greenfield says.

Comparing Dean's speech with George W. Bush's more composed demeanor in 2000 after his New Hampshire loss to Sen. John McCain, Greenfield says the microphone issue is "unbelievably trivial in my view. You are the front- runner. In the first test, you're knocked to the ground, you have half the votes of the winner, and now you're stepping out on stage. It's the first time a relatively large number of people is going to watch you and see how you take a punch.... I don't often literally feel my jaw dropping, but I was sitting on the anchor desk, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

While the media showed unbridled enthusiasm for the Dean scream, they showed more restraint on February 12, when the Drudge Report, which Drudge bills as 80 percent accurate, began to blare rumors of Kerry's "recent alleged infidelity." The site did not specify an allegation but stated that various media outlets were investigating Kerry's relationship with a woman. In the four days after Drudge splashed this undefined rumor on his site, it ricocheted through conservative talk radio, British tabloids and onto the front pages of the New York Post and New York's Daily News. Drudge's site claimed local TV stations across the nation "reported the allegation extensively."

But mainstream newspapers and television networks generally avoided it. Calling the gossip "much ado about not very much," Fox News Managing Editor Brit Hume said on "Fox News Sunday" that the absence of even a clear allegation was "pretty thin stuff on which to base a lot of reporting. And nobody in the mainstream media did anything with it until--really, until Kerry's denial."

Several news outlets did broadcast or publish Kerry's February 13 denial of an affair to radio host Don Imus. Many reported a February 16 denial by the woman allegedly linked to Kerry, and some stories examined how the media had handled the rumor. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman wrote in a February 18 story that it had "moved like a virus through the media bloodstream." There were some exceptions to the mostly responsible handling of the Kerry rumor. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page trumpeted Drudge's "world exclusive" on its OpinionJournal Web site.

The February 12 Journal posting began with the bizarre disclaimer that Drudge once said his material was 80 percent accurate, "so there's a chance this is part of the other 20%. On the other hand, the last time Drudge broke a story like this, it not only turned out to be true but led to the only impeachment of a president during the 20th century." A February 13 piece by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed cited Drudge, dished up additional unproved allegations from an unnamed source and included the irrelevant detail that Kerry "dated alotta women" after his divorce and before his second marriage.

And a February 16 Washington Times story, "U.S. newspapers tread lightly in rumor on Kerry infidelity," ironically published on page one, began by asserting, without evidence, that the "story is being shushed around the family dinner table--and in newspaper city rooms--but all the neighbors are talking about it." The story quoted a Republican media strategist as saying the media had a "double standard" in covering rumors about presidential candidates because Bush's National Guard service "was pounded on by the press and Democrats, yet it was based on unsubstantiated rumors." There was no balancing comment from a Democratic strategist, or from a media or political analyst drawing a distinction between the two allegations.

But a February 22 column by Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler quoted Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. as saying, "There is no comparison whatsoever between this and the issue of how President Bush performed his National Guard service."

The media's issue coverage also was more extensive than generally believed. Newspapers published candidate profiles and many stories contrasting their positions on key topics. A series of occasional Washington Post articles on candidates and their signature issues included examinations of Dean's record on health care, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich's passion for civil liberties, the Vietnam War's influence on Kerry and the Rev. Al Sharpton's spotlighting of police misconduct. A New York Times series compared candidates' positions on the economy, health care, foreign policy and education. On "Meet the Press," NBC's Tim Russert grilled candidates on statements past and present.

But issue distinctions in the 2004 contest tended to be less pivotal than arguments over who could best Bush in the fall. "There was a stunning absence of issue debate," says Ron Brownstein, national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a CNN political analyst. "Issue debates between candidates really did not play a central role, except for the argument that Dean fostered over Iraq, and, to some extent, the tax cut and 'No Child Left Behind,' " Bush's landmark education law.

Even when those issues were front and center, candidates framed their positions more in terms of what that revealed about their willingness to stand up to Bush than ideological distinctions per se. "That makes it harder for the press," Brownstein says. "Edwards was out there for a very long period basically delivering his stump speech every day without opening a new front."

As Super Tuesday neared in a two-man race, Edwards tried to distinguish his position from Kerry's on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Apart from Iraq, that spat marked one of the few sustained issue-oriented exchanges.

For those who craved substance, a seemingly endless parade of debates sponsored by media organizations offered the chance for candidates to define their positions and spar with their opponents. The debates gave an equal platform to Democratic candidates who barely registered in the polls and frequently complained that the press was ignoring them.

Even the horse-race coverage, though excessive, had its place. I plead guilty to a base instinct: I sort of like horse-race coverage. Not all by itself, of course, and not at the expense of more diligent and sophisticated reporting. But journalists lap up polls and buzz about who's up or down, so why shouldn't the public be allowed in on the fun?

What makes the horse-race coverage disturbing is the tendency to tout polls without any context or perspective--without reminding viewers that these are interesting, and often completely meaningless, snapshots, that they may not reflect reality and even if they do, reality can change. "The proper thing is to say, 'Will that hold? Or will some other event change things?' " Greenfield says. To illuminate his point, he offers a sensitive baseball metaphor: When the Red Sox are up in the 7th inning against the Yankees, "you can't predict what's going to happen."

In his February 7 column, headlined "Gut Check," National Journal's Powers declared there's "something deeply wrong with the campaign coverage. Everyone senses it lately, watching the media's bogus handicapping, the embarrassing mood swings over the various candidates, the need to be always building somebody up while taking somebody else down." Powers posits that the "deeply wrong" something could be the media's troubles getting at "that very public space where candidates go to connect with the mass of voters"--the media itself.

"We haven't figured out how to cover the interaction candidates are having through the media with the broad public," Powers says, elaborating on his column during a telephone interview. "It's odd that we're not good at it, because we're the media."

Contemplating an example of one journalist who does offer a gut check, Powers suggests Tom Shales, the Washington Post's TV critic, who trains his sharp wit on everything from the latest dismal new reality series to the president's State of the Union address. "There's something Tom Shales does when he reviews a presidential speech that is incredibly valuable to me," Powers says. "He doesn't write about literal policy proposals--more a sense of how it came across in the gut."

Refreshingly nonpartisan, Shales described Bush's demeanor in a White House speech after Saddam's capture as "temperate and relatively low-key," observing, "Now and then he seemed about to break into a conquering grin, and probably no one would have blamed him, but he kept his cool." But Shales panned Bush's January State of the Union address as having "too many moments of cockiness." He said the president's "gung-ho delivery" lacked "dignity and certainly lacked graciousness." And after Bush sat for a February interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," Shales wrote that the president "looked unusually tired, his eyes puffy and bagging.... Bush, from the outset of the session, came across as defensive and slightly, subtly agitated."

Gut checks, though intriguing, are elusive, and it's easy to see how they could get reporters into even more trouble than those unreliable tangibles of money, organization, fundraising and endorsements. Still, they're a worthwhile pursuit that could further enrich the spirited coverage offered so far in the 2004 presidential race--even if they give additional ammunition to the media critics.

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