1. Failures in covering Iraq, Al Qaeda, and WMD
Although the 9-11 Commission found that Iraq did not collaborate with Al Qaeda in the September 11 terrorist attacks, nor did Iraq provide Al Qaeda with training, funding, or any other assistance worthy of note, several polls and studies, including an October study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, have shown that large percentages of the American people believe Iraq was involved in the 9-11 attacks and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When so many people believe something so wrong about a topic so important, it is pretty clear that the media bears a large portion of the responsibility; indeed, sloppy -- and, in some cases, just plain wrong -- reporting and unquestioning repetition of Bush administration claims and suggestions about Iraq led to an alarmingly misinformed public.
While many leading news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, acknowledged the failings in their pre-war reporting, they continued to make many of the same mistakes, repeating without challenge Bush administration claims about Iraq.
2. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth debacle
The wall-to-wall media coverage of the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) and its attacks on Kerry allowed a small group of partisans running an ad in a small handful of states to dominate the presidential campaign for more than a month. By covering SBVT so extensively, the media ensured that the group had far greater reach than its ad buy would suggest. An August poll by The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 57 percent of the American people were familiar with the SBVT ads, even though they were running in only a few markets. Making matters worse, not only did the media give SBVT extensive coverage, the coverage was largely uncritical: false attacks weren't challenged, and the group's partisanship and lack of credibility were rarely examined.
3. Double standards in coverage of flip-flops, Vietnam records
While the media extensively covered John Kerry's so-called "flip-flops" and his alleged tendency to take multiple sides of every issue, President George W. Bush's many abrupt changes of position on important issues weren't treated the same way. Kerry's changes, no matter how small, were often treated as indicative of a character flaw and inability to make decisions. Bush's flips, no matter how large, tended to be reported "straight," as a simple change in policy. To cite but one example, Bush did an about-face on gay marriage this year -- announcing in February that he supports a constitutional ban on gay marriage, a reversal of his longstanding position that the issue should be up to the states. Yet the media rarely focused on Bush's vacillation on gay marriage; one New York Times article even noted that a Bush change in position "provided an opportunity for the White House to maneuver Senator John Kerry into a position where it could again accuse him of taking both sides of an issue."
A similar double standard emerged in media coverage of the candidates' Vietnam-era records. While allegations against Kerry were broadcast extensively, documentary evidence that Bush failed to show up for National Guard duty got comparatively little attention; when the media did briefly turn to Bush, it largely focused on CBS's handling of allegedly forged documents rather than on Bush's actual record, which contains overwhelming evidence that he had shirked that duty and lied about it.
4. Lack of balance in media coverage
From NBC Meet the Press roundtable and panel discussions that skewed heavily to the right to CNN's pattern of reporting only poll numbers that were favorable to Bush to MSNBC's debate coverage, which consistently featured more conservative pundits and guests than progressives, broadcast and cable news suffered from a massive lack of balance.
5. Media frequently described Kerry as not likable or trustworthy
Kerry was often caricatured as a stiff, aloof, unlikable, and elitist candidate; he was commonly said to be unable to "connect" with people. This entirely subjective assessment -- an assessment that would seem to be at odds with Kerry's track record of being chosen by voters to represent them -- became self-perpetuating.
6. Media repeated GOP spin that Kerry is weak and terrorists wanted him to win
The Bush-Cheney '04 campaign's efforts to portray Kerry as a weak leader whom terrorists preferred as president were successful in large part because of how thoroughly that message permeated the news media. The suggestion that Al Qaeda wanted Kerry to win was a repeated theme in media coverage of the campaign and terrorism, and the media played into (and failed to explain) the Bush administration's efforts to politicize the war on terror. For example, in the weeks before the Democratic National Convention, The New Republic reported in an article titled "July Surprise" that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistan to announce captures of so called "high-value targets" -- terrorist operatives -- during the convention; at the time the New Republic article was published, it received some media attention, including from CNN. But when a capture was indeed announced during the convention (though the high-level Al Qaeda operative had been captured the weekend before the convention), the media -- including CNN -- ignored its own prior reporting of the New Republic article foreshadowing the announcement of just such an arrest.
7. Media coverage too often focused on trivial issues
Media coverage of relatively trivial matters like Mary Cheney's sexuality and CBS News' use of questionable documents obscured much more significant matters. After the third presidential debate, Kerry's supportive comment about Mary Cheney got far more media coverage than Bush's false denial that he had said he wasn't concerned about Osama bin Laden. Rather than focusing on why America's commander in chief isn't concerned about the man who orchestrated the September 11 terrorist attacks, or why he lied about it, the media focused on Mary Cheney's sexuality. Similarly, when the media finally took a look at Bush's Vietnam record, after weeks of obsession with Kerry's war record, coverage quickly focused almost exclusively on CBS's role in the story rather than in what Bush did and when. For example, Media Matters noted in September that "Only 5 percent of reporting in [two days of CNN's] Inside Politics' ... packages about 'Bush's National Guard Service' actually discussed the allegations or evidence against Bush."
8. Kerry, Edwards called first, fourth most liberal members of Senate
The press repeated the wildly misleading GOP talking points that Kerry and John Edwards were the first and fourth most liberal members of the Senate as ranked by National Journal. The Kerry-as-liberal storyline was a large component of the campaign media coverage -- even though it was based on false GOP claims.
9. Insufficient coverage of 9-11 report and other major reports
Major investigations and reports, like the 9-11 Commission report, weren't thoroughly examined. Media Matters for America found, for example, that the media almost completely ignored evidence in the 9-11 Commission report that the Bush administration lied to the commission.
10. Media drew false equivalencies between disparate actions, statements
The media's tendency to draw equivalencies between misstatements of different severity by the candidates was so severe that ABC News political director Mark Halperin was moved to write a memo to his colleagues, reminding them that "[w]e have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that."
As Media Matters noted before the Halperin memo: "If John Kerry says in the second presidential debate that two plus two equals five, and George W. Bush says two plus two equals 127,000, we fear The Washington Post will tell us they're both equally guilty of fudging the numbers."
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- which, as Cox News Service noted in August, MMFA took the lead in debunking -- played a hugely influential role in the 2004 presidential campaign, aided by extensive and unquestioning media coverage.
As Media Matters for America noted this week:
Several conservative pundits have touted the influence of anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (now officially called Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth) on the outcome of the November 2 presidential election. Media Matters for America voluminously documented the group's false and discredited allegations against Senator John Kerry and the intense media coverage the group received, especially in August 2004 following the Democratic National Convention.
These triumphal pronouncements contrast sharply with complaints during the election by L. Brent Bozell III, founder and president of the conservative Media Research Center. Bozell complained that the news media was ignoring Swift Boat Vets, as MMFA documented here and here.
FOX News Channel managing editor and chief Washington correspondent Brit Hume was among those who touted the group's impact following the election. In September, however, Hume expressed dismay to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz about the lack of media attention paid to the group and explained why FOX News' Special Report with Brit Hume had devoted so much time to the group's false allegations against Kerry: "We thought it was a totally legitimate story and found it an appalling lapse by many of our competitive news organizations that were treating that story like it was cancerous."
Hume explained SBVT's effectiveness this week:
"[A] new poll in twelve key battleground states shows that when it comes to which interest groups and their ads were most effective this campaign, the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth leads the pack. The poll conducted by Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates shows that 72 percent of voters were aware of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, compared with only 49 percent who knew about the anti-Bush group MoveOn.org. In addition, far more voters say the Swift Boat Veterans had the most impact than say that about any other group. What's more, 39 percent of Bush voters say the anti-Kerry group had the most impact while less than half that number of Kerry voters said that about that anti-Bush group." [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 11/3/04]
In the wake of Bush's narrow re-election this week, many in the media rushed to declare that Bush had a "mandate." MMFA illustrated the absurdity of the notion that Bush's bare majority constitutes a "mandate":
• With the exception of the 2000 election, Bush's popular vote margin of about 3.6 million votes (out of approximately 115 million total votes cast) was the smallest since 1976, when then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (D) defeated President Gerald R. Ford (R) by about 1.7 million votes.
• Though Bush won more votes -- 59.2 million -- than any presidential candidate in U.S. history, Kerry's vote total -- 55.7 million -- was still greater than any U.S. presidential candidate in history prior to 2004. That means more Americans cast their vote against Bush than against any other presidential candidate in U.S. history.
• As Wall Street Journal Washington editor Albert R. Hunt pointed out (WSJ.com subscription required) on November 4, "It was a GOP sweep, but it also was the narrowest win for a sitting president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916."
• Percentage-wise, Bush's victory was the narrowest for any wartime incumbent president in U.S. history. (For the purpose of this calculation, MMFA counted the following presidential elections as wartime incumbent elections: 1848, 1864, 1900, 1944, and 1972. Popular vote data for 1812 is unavailable.)
• A Gallup poll conducted just after the election found that 63 percent of voters would prefer to see Bush pursue policies that "both parties support" compared to only 30 percent who want Bush to "advance the Republican Party's agenda."