This week, Media Matters focuses on conservative misinformation in the media surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Convention viewers who watched and listened as speaker after speaker called for a reduction of the budget deficit, a strong and secure America, access to health care, effective and affordable education for our children, and compassionate and responsible care for our parents must have been confused to hear these views described in the media as "out of the mainstream."
They may be even more surprised, after a week of hearing about Senator John Kerry's "reinvention," to know that it is George W. Bush who changed his position on same-sex marriage; George W. Bush who changed his position -- twice -- on the Texas Patients Bill of Rights; George W. Bush who claimed he would be fiscally responsible and then ran up the largest budget deficit the United States has ever known; George W. Bush who promised to leave no child behind and then didn't bother to fund the law of the same name; and George W. Bush who fought tooth and nail against the creation of the 9-11 Commission, then took credit for it. But between relentlessly falling for conservative spin, and holding George W. Bush to a lower standard, the media hasn't paid much attention to these things. Perhaps, when it comes to media coverage, George W. Bush is benefiting from what he once denounced: the soft bigotry of low expectations.
DRUDGE SMEARED KERRY; MEDIA FOLLOWED HIS LEAD
On Wednesday, Internet gossip Matt Drudge smeared John Kerry, resurrecting a long-discredited story that Kerry reenacted combat scenes on film during his service in the Vietnam War in order to further his political ambitions. Drudge cited a 1996 Boston Globe article and two books by discredited Kerry-bashers but didn't note that the story was debunked nearly two years ago by Bill Keller, who was a New York Times columnist at the time and is now the paper's executive editor.
In September 2002, Keller wrote, after viewing the actual footage in question, "The first thing to be said is that the senator's movies are not self-aggrandizing. Mr. Kerry is hardly in the film, and never strikes so much as a heroic pose. These are the souvenirs of a 25-year-old guy sent to an exotic place on an otherworldly mission, who bought an 8-millimeter camera in the PX and shot a few hours of travelogue, most of it pretty boring if you didn't live through it." Keller also wrote that, according to the Swift Boat Sailors Association, "[L]ots of enlisted men did the same." Former Senator Max Cleland (D-GA), a strong Kerry supporter who lost three limbs in Vietnam, told Keller that he has hours of film from his service in Vietnam, which, Keller wrote, "he has had edited into a three minute meet-the-senator video."
Drudge's resurrected smear showed up in convention coverage on talk radio and cable news all day Wednesday and Thursday -- despite Keller's explanation that the story is false and that there was "nothing self-aggrandizing" about the films.
ABC's online political newsletter, The Note, recently named "Bill Keller and Jill Abramson of the New York Times" as the two people with the most "power in this election year to influence the entire free media cycle." Next on the list? Matt Drudge.
Unfortunately, in this case at least, it seems The Note was wrong: Matt Drudge had a larger influence on free media than does Bill Keller.
TWO DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTIONS: ONE REAL, ONE MEDIA-CREATED
Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Senator John Edwards spoke of "two Americas." For many Americans watching at home, it must have seemed like there were two Democratic conventions, too: the convention the Democrats were holding and the convention many in the media portrayed. The real Democratic convention was an optimistic, forward-looking event featuring speech after speech about responsible and reasonable plans for the United States. Meanwhile, many in the media presented a false picture of a convention filled with hate, weirdness, and ultra-liberal, outside-the-mainstream speakers and speeches.
How did this false portrayal come about? The week before the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign unveiled their attack points about the convention: that Democrats are undergoing an "extreme makeover" to hide their ultra-liberal, out-of-the-mainstream views. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 54 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, but that didn't stop much of the press corps, credulous as always when it comes to conservative spin, from buying into conservative claims that Democrats are out of the mainstream.
MEDIA INACCURATELY PORTRAYED KERRY, EDWARDS, AND DEMS AS ULTRA-LIBERAL, OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM
Unsurprisingly, conservative journalists and pundits took up the GOP's rhetoric as their own; Sean Hannity, best-known as co-host of FOX News Channel's Hannity & Colmes, was a particularly egregious practitioner. On his nationally syndicated radio show, Hannity announced: "That's why we call it the Reinvention Convention, 'cause they want to convince you that he is something that he is not. John Kerry is out of the mainstream."
A quick look at some of the issues conservatives frequently use to portray their opponents as "out of the mainstream" shows how absurd Hannity's claim was. Same-sex marriage? True, John Kerry opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Then again, so did George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2000. (They've since changed their mind in a shameless election-year flip-flop designed to appeal to their base.) And according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 38 percent of Americans supported the constitutional amendment, while a majority agrees with Kerry that the issue should be left to the states. Abortion? Kerry favors reproductive rights for women but voted in favor of an effort to ban late-term abortions, except in cases where the life or health of the woman is at risk; a majority of Americans agree that abortion should be legal in most cases. Record federal budget deficits? George W. Bush created them; John Kerry opposes them. And while we don't have the polling handy, we'd be willing to bet that most people are with Kerry on this one.
On issue after issue, the majority -- or, at least, a plurality -- of Americans agree with John Kerry's positions. When Hannity and his ilk call Kerry "out of the mainstream," one is forced to wonder if they know what the phrase means.
Meanwhile, CNN senior analyst Bill Schneider and National Review editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg offered gross distortions of a poll of Democratic delegates -- distortions that, conveniently, fit into the story line that Democrats are out of touch and ultra-liberal.
Schneider, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, misled his viewers by claiming that 75 percent of convention delegates favor "abortion on demand." Schneider based his claim on a poll of delegates in which only one of three choices did not involve drastic new restrictions on abortions -- unsurprising, then, that most delegates chose that option. But it was certainly not an indication that they "endorse abortion on demand."
In a column published in USA Today, Goldberg also distorted the delegate poll in order to argue that the Democratic delegates were, in his words, "far to the left of the mainstream." Goldberg claimed that "5 out of 6 say the war on terrorism and national security aren't that important." This, of course, is absurd: Nearly everybody thinks national security is important. But that isn't what the poll asked; delegates were asked which single issue they "think will be the most important campaign issue in your state?" Goldberg's distortion was triply dishonest: The poll didn't even offer "national security" or "the war on terrorism" as choices (it offered "war" and "terrorism" and "Iraq"). It didn't ask if delegates thought those issues were "important"; it asked if they thought they were the "most important" -- and it asked for their political judgment about which issue would be the most important campaign issue (not which were the most inherently important to them or to Americans).
Goldberg wrote his column for USA Today as a last-minute replacement for right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, whom the paper initially hired to provide conservative commentary about the convention, then decided to replace after seeing her first submission. Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten addressed the question of why USA Today hired Coulter in the first place: "In the end, it's not a very intriguing question, because the answer is the same when you ask why the three networks have abandoned genuine coverage of national politics for faux-reality shows. It's what happens when journalists of whatever stripe forget their obligation to the public interest and allow themselves to become mere agents of avarice."
Some conservative pundits were so committed to advancing the GOP's talking points that, when confronted with yet another mainstream, reasonable speech, they got a little desperate. Here's how American Prospect senior correspondent Nick Confessore described National Review columnist Roger Clegg's attempt to shoehorn Barack Obama's speech into the proper RNC-dictated framework: "Clegg is a generally serious guy. But I'm not sure what the big deal is. What he paints is a completely [sic] caricature of the Democratic Party, a right-wing straw man that overstates the degree to which the Democrats are the party of left-wing multiculturalism and racial radicalism. ... [I]n essence, he is complaining that Barack isn't conforming to a silly conservative stereotype. It doesn't surprise me when Republicans and conservatives try to spin the Democrats as an over-the-top anti-religious and radically multicultural party. But it's rare to see them swallow their own spin."
In a moment that nicely summarizes much of the media's coverage of the Democratic convention, FOX News Channel anchor Greg Jarrett went above and beyond the call of duty in advancing GOP talking points: Jarrett asked a conservative guest a leading question designed to elicit a statement about Senators John Kerry and John Edwards being liberals; when the guest wasn't sufficiently on-message, Jarrett jumped in to make this highly misleading statement: "I thought you were gonna name the two prominent Democratic groups that gave John Kerry the most liberal rating in the U.S. Senate, and I think Edwards came in fourth."
MEDIA PORTRAYED DEMOCRATS AS MEAN, ANGRY, AND STRANGE
Another dominant strain of conservative misinformation in the media this week -- and one not unrelated to claims that Democrats are out of the mainstream -- was a constant effort to portray convention-goers as mean, angry, strange, and weird.
Bill O'Reilly got things started before the convention even began, unleashing a torrent of insults on his July 21 radio broadcast. O'Reilly, previewing the Democratic convention, called Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle "no good"; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi a "nut"; and former Senator and Vietnam War hero Max Cleland "strange."
CNN Crossfire host Robert Novak didn't waste any time in his rush to portray Democrats as outlandish fiends: He cut straight to the point, referring to Democratic delegates as "flesh-eating people."
CNN Live From... co-host Miles O'Brien also painted Democrats as out-of-control weirdos, suggesting that former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean might "melt down or something" during his speech. (Dean didn't, as it turned out.)
On FOX News Channel, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace compared Teresa Heinz to Eva Peron, while FOX & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said her speech "got off on a weird foot."
On July 26, right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage called convention speaker and Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Gloria Feldt "the president of planned deathhood action fund" and compared her to Joseph Goebbels. Raising the question of where conservative pundits are getting their Goebbels-related talking points, Bill O'Reilly also invoked the Nazi propagandist this week. On his July 28 FOX News Channel show, O'Reilly said filmmaker Michael Moore "has more power than probably anybody else other than Kerry and Edwards. It's scary. It's scary. You know this happened in Nazi Germany. ... Who was the most powerful person in Nazi Germany other than Hitler and Himmler and Goering, who? You guys know? ... Goebbels. The propaganda minister."
Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk critiqued a New York Times article that pushed the "angry Democrats" story line: "In a page one, above-the-fold story today, Adam Nagourney and David Rosenbaum of The New York Times tantalize us with the assertion that Boston Democrats are 'brimming with anger at President Bush but backing John Kerry's call to tone down attacks on the president over the next four days.' Eager to hear about all those angry Democrats, Campaign Desk made its way past the lede, over the jump, and all the way to the end of the piece -- and found no angry Democrats in sight. ... We're willing to grant that there are probably angry Democrats in Boston, somewhere (beginning, perhaps, with bloggers stuck in long lines for the bathroom). It's just that Nagourney and Rosenbaum apparently haven't found any yet."
Joshua Micah Marshall wrote of the media's fixation on the "anti-Bush rage" story line, "[O]ne thing I've heard a lot is this sense that this convention is brimming over with anger and anti-Bush rage and that the organizers are busy tamping it down and doing all they can to keep a lid on the rage. I haven't seen that. From Republicans this is spin, which is fair enough or at least understandable. From journalists I think it's just laziness or an unhealthy addiction to conventional wisdom. This is my third day now milling through the crowds, listening to conversations, talking with activists and elected officials. And the impression I have is almost exactly the opposite."