Writing about a new Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) study that suggests President George W. Bush has received harsher media coverage of his debate performances than Senator John Kerry, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz failed to note that this media coverage was consistent with the views of a plurality of voters who watched the debate and thought Kerry performed better than Bush. In comparing coverage of Bush's debate performance with coverage of then-Vice President Al Gore's in 2000, Kurtz ignored the fact that in 2000, unlike in 2004, the media's debate coverage actually contradicted the public's initial reaction. Finally, Kurtz suggested that 2004 media coverage of Bush's debate performances may be due to liberal media bias -- without explaining how that was consistent with the "trash[ing]" the media gave Gore's 2000 debate performance.
Kurtz began his October 27 Washington Post "Media Notes" column by comparing coverage of Bush's 2004 debate performance with coverage of then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000:
Suddenly, George W. Bush is looking very much like Al Gore. Not in his politics or persona, of course, but in the way the media have largely trashed his debate performances.
But Kurtz ignored one striking difference: In 2004, polls taken immediately after the debates showed that viewers thought Kerry outperformed Bush. As the Boston Globe noted in an October 27 article about the PEJ study:
In anointing Kerry the winner of the debates, journalists took cues from the snap polls used to gauge public reaction to those events. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that viewers declared Kerry the winner of the first debate by a ratio of 53 to 37 percent. The public saw the second debate as a largely even contest. But in the final debate, Gallup respondents, by a ratio of 52 to 39 percent, thought Kerry was the victor.
While the apparently negative coverage of Bush's 2004 debate performance reflected the public's immediate (that is, pre-media and campaign spin) opinion of the debates, 2000 debate coverage contradicted the public's immediate reaction. As The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby and others have noted, viewers thought Al Gore won the 2000 presidential debates. Somerby noted in an October 4 article:
Bush and Gore had just finished their first debate; when the CBS overnight poll came in, a substantial majority of TV viewers thought Gore had won the debate. (In the CBS poll, 56 percent favored Gore; 42 percent picked Bush.)
Somerby also noted in an August 1, 2002, article:
Take the first Bush-Gore debate, the event which decided the election. Six different networks took instant polls. Gore won every single poll -- and then your press corps got busy. They decided that Gore's very-troubling sighs were the evening's extremely important Top Story. For the next several days, they played loops of Gore sighing (with the volume cranked), and the polls, they were quickly a-changin'.
As the Boston Globe noted -- but Kurtz did not -- in covering the PEJ study:
According to a similar study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in 2000, Bush enjoyed more favorable media coverage in the final stages of that campaign than Al Gore.
So, in 2000, negative coverage of Al Gore's debate performance didn't match the public's initial reaction to the debates; rather, media coverage directly contradicted it. And in 2004, negative coverage of Bush's debate performance reflected initial public reaction.
But Kurtz completely ignored this, instead focusing on suggestions that some sort of "liberal bias" may have led to negative coverage of Bush:
"You can't discount the possibility that there's some personal preference that creeps into this," Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, says of the anti-Bush tilt. But, he adds, "we're so focused on who won and who lost, and if someone is perceived to have lost, what the implications are for their campaign. All that 'winning' and 'losing' doesn't help people figure out who would be a better president."
On the Bush-Kerry debates, the project says that some may attribute the tilt against the president to liberal bias, while others believe that Bush just turned in a weaker performance.
Perhaps because he didn't bother to mention the public's reaction to the debates, Kurtz didn't address the obvious questions:
• If negative coverage of Bush's debate performance indicates liberal media bias, does the public's negative reaction to Bush's debate performance indicate liberal bias among the American people?
• If "liberal bias" explains the media's negative coverage of Bush's 2004 debate performance, what could possibly explain the media's negative coverage of Al Gore's 2000 debate performance?
• Did the media's negative coverage of Gore in 2000 indicate a conservative bias?