Not Too Shabby: While Their Propensity for Predictions Led to Some High-Profile Embarrassments, the News Media's Coverage of the Democratic Primaries Was Much Better Than It Is Often Portrayed

By Smolkin, Rachel | American Journalism Review, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview

Not Too Shabby: While Their Propensity for Predictions Led to Some High-Profile Embarrassments, the News Media's Coverage of the Democratic Primaries Was Much Better Than It Is Often Portrayed


Smolkin, Rachel, American Journalism Review


Pummeled as the real losers after a passel of Democrats jousted for the presidential nomination, the news media actually covered the campaign with verve and insight.

Not at first glance, maybe. And certainly not without obvious missteps. The media were wrong about Sen. John Kerry--twice, first declaring him a front-runner a year before the voters turned out, then depicting his campaign as moribund when it sagged last fall. The media were wrong about former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean--twice, first disregarding him, then trumpeting him as a virtual lock for the Democratic nomination.

When Dean imploded, the media took an excessively peppy cheer by the former Vermont governor and portrayed it incessantly as uncontrolled rage by a man with a penchant for combustion. The cable networks led the way in reducing Dean to a scream.

Yes, the media made all their usual mistakes by overvaluing mercurial polls. And yes, they covered the campaign as a horse race and yes, during primary and caucus nights the TV anchors and pundits fixated on which candidates should drop out and generally ignored substantive policy discussions.

But a close reading of the coverage shows that in their rush to find a front-runner, many influential political journalists included caveats to signal why the race might not unfold as expected. At the start of the Iraq war, military analysis tended to embrace the prevailing mood, ignoring alternatives that could debunk conventional wisdom. The best political reporters generally avoided such pitfalls before the primaries by describing circumstances as they appeared at that moment, then suggesting other possible outcomes and noting voters had not had their say.

Much of the pre-primary and primary coverage was fascinating. The New York Times particularly excelled at capturing the narrative drama of the race. Twin front-page Times stories on February 1 explained how Kerry persevered and why Dean crumbled. A page-one November 11, 2003, article about Kerry firing his campaign manager described a 45-minute telephone conference call he had with aides and included the vivid detail that Kerry could be heard "eating his supper over the speakerphone." At one point, he blamed the news coverage for his problems.

CNN's campaign desk offered moments of illumination on caucus and primary nights, particularly through solid reporting by veterans such as Candy Crowley and careful, thoughtful context by analysts such as Jeff Greenfield, who shuns the polling obsession as "just plain silly." And The Note, ABC's fine political Web site, served campaign news summaries and roundups with a side of attitude that's lively and entertaining without seeming smug or snide. It's timely, informative and free--an extra plus.

The mainstream media showed flashes of responsibility, particularly on the wispy rumor about a Kerry affair. A scandal so vague that even the substance of the allegation was mystifying clawed its way into cyberspace and British tabloids through the Internet gossip site of Matt Drudge, who achieved notoriety for outing Newsweek's story on President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky before editors deemed it ready for publication. Most newspapers and TV news programs prudently treated this nonrumor rumor with the disdain it deserved.

Changes in technology and composition of the press pool have made grading the media's political coverage both easier and a lot trickier. No longer a finite band of "Boys on the Bus," the media have burgeoned to include cable networks, online political news sites and bloggers. The "political media" have become a far more diverse aggregation, and fairly assessing their coverage has become more complex. A Lexis-Nexis search turns up titillating and outrageous examples to support almost any theory of media performance, particularly during a political campaign.

With such readily accessible fodder, media bashing has become a fun and frequently appropriate national pastime. …

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