As debates loom, will media learn from past coverage shortfalls?

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

As the media prepare to cover the debates, Media Matters has compiled several items from the 2004 presidential debates identifying patterns of misinformation in the media, at least one of which has already resurfaced this year.

As the media prepare to cover the 2008 presidential and vice-presidential debates, Media Matters for America has compiled several items from the 2004 presidential debates identifying patterns of misinformation in the media. These include echoing the Bush campaign's claims that Sen. John Kerry's debating skills were vastly superior to those of President Bush, thereby lowering expectations for Bush; reversing themselves on the significance of a debate after a consensus emerged that Kerry won; hosting politically skewed panels to analyze debates; and purporting to give balanced fact checks by equating assertions by Kerry that were true, but in their judgment incomplete, with claims by Bush that the media themselves identified as false. Media Matters has already identified at least one of these patterns resurfacing.

Not-So-Great Expectations: Media's spin favors Bush -- again

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential debates, media including CNN and columnists at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, and The Miami Herald played the "expectations game," setting the bar low for Bush while heightening both the expectations and the stakes by treating the debates as make-or-break for Kerry. As Media Matters demonstrated, this repeated the media's performance prior to the 2000 election, in which they raised the stakes for Vice President Gore and set a low bar for then-Gov. Bush.

This week, Media Matters has identified at least one instance in which the media asserted that expectations for Sen. Barack Obama are higher than for Sen. John McCain, with Politico's Eamon Javers saying that a "stumble[]" by Obama "could be a real disaster for the Obama camp."

After "make-or-break" buildup, CNN commentators downplayed debates' significance

In the buildup to the first presidential debate of 2004, CNN commentators called the event "a decisive moment"; a "key opportunity" for Kerry; "the most important night of John Kerry's presidential campaign"; a chance for the candidates to win "the very big prize" of undecided voters; and "a pivotal moment." After the debate, these same CNN commentators said Kerry performed well -- but then downplayed the significance of the debates.

Networks persisted with façade of "balance" in post-debate fact checks

After the October 8, 2004, presidential debate, TV networks continued a pattern of false equivalence that Media Matters documented after both the first presidential and the vice-presidential debates. In the purported interest of fairness, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN juxtaposed, for example, Kerry's accurate employment figures, which they characterized as incomplete, with Bush falsehoods about Kerry's tax plan and about inroads the United States had made in dismantling Al Qaeda.

Debate debacle: An MMFA review of MSNBC's skewed debate coverage

Media Matters analyzed MSNBC's coverage of all three presidential debates, as well as the vice-presidential debate, and identified imbalanced panels featuring conservatives and Republicans such as Pat Buchanan and Ben Ginsberg without any Democratic counterparts; definitive declarations of victory for the Republican ticket that were dramatically at odds with the consensus throughout the media and through public polling; faulty fact checks and focus groups; unequal numbers and order of guests; and numerous individual instances of conservative distortion and misinformation.

Also, Media Matters had noted after the October 13, 2004, presidential debate that four of the first five guests on MSNBC's coverage were supporters of Bush; a second Kerry supporter was not interviewed until exactly one hour after the debate had concluded. Indeed, after interviewing Kerry political adviser Robert M. Shrum, the next four guests were then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), Bush campaign senior adviser Karen Hughes, former New York City mayor and Republican National Convention prime-time speaker Rudolph Giuliani, and then-White House communications director Dan Bartlett.

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