The press manufactures John Kerry's tears


The Barack Obama madrassa hoax isn't the only recent, dishonest campaign story that deserves close scrutiny. Another, perhaps even more disturbing, press deception revolved around Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and the announcement he made from the floor of the Senate on January 24 that he would not run for president in 2008. Disturbing, because the fraud did not involve Fox News or the right-wing but instead was driven by mainstream media outlets.

The Barack Obama madrassa hoax isn't the only recent, dishonest campaign story that deserves close scrutiny. Another, perhaps even more disturbing, press deception revolved around Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and the announcement he made from the floor of the Senate on January 24 that he would not run for president in 2008. Disturbing, because the fraud did not involve Fox News or the right-wing but instead was driven by mainstream media outlets.

Kerry's speech, which was mocked in the press for being poorly stage managed (it was too wordy, pundits complained), was also badly mangled by scores of major news players who concocted the phony storyline that Kerry had shed tears of regret while announcing his plans to sit out the 2008 race.

Kerry did no such thing, but reporters and pundits went ahead and manufactured the narrative that the "emotional" and "choked up" senator became "tearful" as he publicly "let go of his White House dreams." None of that was accurate. Kerry did become temporarily emotional, but not while he was discussing his political ambitions.

Granted, the incident was relatively minor, and Kerry himself is no longer the Democratic Party's standard bearer, which likely explains why the dishonest coverage of his speech received so little attention. But for observers who want to understand the media's mindset as the next White House run unfolds, they'd be hard-pressed to find a more telling and alarming example than the coverage surrounding Kerry's straightforward proclamation last week.

Indeed, the incident raises all sorts of doubts, on the eve of the 2008 campaign, about the ability of Beltway journalists to perform the simplest tasks, such as taking notes when a prominent Democrat gives a speech and then accurately reporting on that speech.

Not surprisingly, the nasty Kerry narrative was launched last week by Matt Drudge who posted the wildly inaccurate headline "Kerry Tears on Senate Floor," which in turn linked to a misleading Financial Times report about Kerry's speech. The FT article incorrectly reported that Kerry had been "choking back tears" as he spelled out his campaign plans.

Adopting Drudgespeak, journalists quickly echoed misinformation about Kerry's presidential announcement:

  • The Boston Globe painted a very dramatic picture, labeling Kerry "tearful." The paper emphasized that Kerry, "choked back tears on the Senate floor" as he made his statement.
  • The dispatch from Connecticut's Hartford Courant was even more vivid, with readers informed that Kerry teetered on an emotional breakdown: "Choking back tears, he could barely get out the words."
  • The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz emphasized, "The Massachusetts senator, his voice breaking, disclosed that he would, in fact, not be a candidate for president in the next election."
  • MSNBC's Tucker Carlson mocked Kerry's "teary" campaign speech and told viewers it was "sad to watch John Kerry cry up there today."
  • Roger Simon, a columnist for the newly minted Beltway news outlet Politico, wrote that Kerry "tearfully" bowed out of the 2008 race.
  • The New York Daily News reported an "emotional" Kerry had been "choking up a little as he let go of his White House dreams."
  • A New York Sun editorial reported, "Senator Kerry had to choke back tears as he announced, on the floor of the Senate, the end of his long quest for the presidency."

Not one of those descriptions was accurate.

For the record, at no point did Kerry shed any tears on the floor of the Senate last Wednesday; he simply did not "cry." Rather, during a single sentence Kerry became emotional and his voice caught. The press' key distortion though, was that the single sentence had nothing to do with running for president again. Instead, Kerry was momentarily overcome with emotion when he noted that the misguided war in Iraq threatened to undo everything he had fought for since his return from Vietnam more than three decades ago.

As The Chicago Tribune's political blog, The Swamp, accurately noted, "It was when Kerry talked about coming home from Vietnam that he choked up."

Still, members of the press blissfully manufactured the storyline suggesting the senator shed tears of self-pity over his dashed presidential hopes.

This is the kind of trickery one would expect from right-wing bloggers, anxious to manufacture any sort of slight to embarrass a former Democratic presidential candidate. But why would members of the mainstream press corps stoop to such depths as fictionalizing the account of Kerry's speech? Either journalists who reported on and pontificated about the speech didn't actually witness it (a distinct possibility), or they simply decided to improve the narrative and bump up the drama by literally inventing the "fact" that Kerry was "tearful," a false description that appeared in the very first sentence of the Boston Globe article.

Again, here's the video of Kerry's Senate speech. Watch it. (Fast forward to the 29-minute mark if you want to see only the final six minutes, which is where the news was made.) See for yourself that when discussing his campaign decision Kerry's voice was clear and forceful, not "choked up" or "emotional." See also that at no point did the senator become "tearful."

Does the press even take campaigns seriously?

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) last week talked about wanting to have a real dialogue with the American people during her White House campaign. I'm sure she's not alone among White House aspirants. But you know what, Al Gore wanted to have a real dialogue in 2000 and so did Kerry in 2004, yet the campaign press corps was more interested in catcalls about whether Gore "invented" the Internet, whether he really grew up on a Tennessee farm, and what earth tone shirts he was (or was not) wearing on the campaign trail. For Kerry, they wanted to dissect the larger meaning of his hair, mock his recreational activities, and debate whether his wife was too bitchy to be first lady. And now, as Kerry departs the stage, they make up facts about his Senate speech.

Too often today campaign reporting has become, in a word, gruesome. That's tied to the point I made in last week's column about the 2008 campaign running interminably long at 22 months. It's not just the length of the marathon, or the fact that almost nobody outside the Beltway Bubble is paying close attention to the grapefruit league machinations taking place on the field right now. It's that it pains me to contemplate the amount of bad journalism that's going to be produced during that very long stretch of time. Clownish coverage of the Kerry speech simply confirms my worst fears that large portions of the political press corps (with their "eye-rolling superiority," as the Daily Howler weblog put it) no longer take politics, or presidential campaigns, seriously.

How else to explain the fact that MSNBC's Carlson not only made up facts about Kerry crying on the Senate floor but then suggested it would have been best if, as in the final scene from Of Mice and Men, somebody simply took a gun and shot Kerry as a mercy killing. "Just blow[] him into the next world," as Carlson put it.

Sadly, the press' foolery last week was not limited to inaccurately describing Kerry's emotional state. There was an equally disingenuous sub-meme that Kerry's speech was insufferably long. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank complained Kerry "meandered through the better part of half an hour before getting to the point" about not running in 2008. Milbank's Post colleague Howard Kurtz also mocked Kerry for being too long-winded: "It was the quintessential John Kerry. ... Kerry began to talk. And talk." (Both Milbank and Kurtz deducted style points because Kerry's speech was not entirely about Kerry himself, which apparently broke some sort of Beltway Cardinal Rule for politicians.)

Back at MSNBC, Carlson joked the address was "about nine hours long," adding, "It was like a Fidel Castro speech."

Fact: Kerry's insightful speech, the bulk of which provided a larger overview of the challenges facing Iraq today, ran a grand total of 36 minutes.

The truth is, what Kerry did during his eloquent and passionate critique of the war last Wednesday was what our Founding Fathers hoped U.S. senators would use the chamber for: to speak in depth about the difficult issues facing the day. What the press was doing, I have no idea. Indeed, the same Founding Fathers, who brilliantly carved out a unique role for the free press in our democracy, would have been stunned if they had witnessed Kerry's address and then read the fictionalized accounts of him allegedly breaking down in tears on the Senate floor.

Lastly, note the other manufactured theme that popped up in the Kerry coverage last week -- that Kerry didn't win in 2004 because voters did not know where he stood regarding Iraq.

"He lost the presidential election largely because of his inability to articulate what he really thought about the war," wrote Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker, making the point several other pundits did. That has become the media's accepted conventional wisdom. Much of that is driven by the fact Republicans turned Kerry's 2004 comment, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion [in war spending] before I voted against it," into a rhetorical club and to portray Kerry as a flip-flopper. So yes, Republicans, along with the obedient press corps, insisted -- and continue to insist -- that Kerry's position on the war in 2004 was muddled. But was it?

I recall a certain catchphrase Kerry used during the campaign to describe Iraq. He called it the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time. (Kerry used that exact phrase in his Wednesday speech in the Senate.) And a search of the Nexis database yields more than 1,600 news references from the 2004 campaign that mentioned Kerry as well as the three phrases "wrong war," "wrong place" and "wrong time." That's because Kerry repeated the mantra at nearly every possible public appearance during the final months of the campaign. But now the press tells us Kerry never articulated a clear position about the war.

Then again, it's the same press corps that last week told us Kerry was crying on the floor of the Senate.

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