Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2004 / 24 Elul 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Crazy like Fox: Of bounces and non-bounces | John Kerry never got his bounce in the polls after the Democrats' national convention - the bounce that some of us were sure he'd get. Doesn't tradition dictate that each party's nominee get a boost after four days of continuous television coverage? It was in the cards.

But someone dealt the country a different hand this strange election year. Tradition must be on vacation. Senator Kerry may have picked up a point or two in some polls after the Democratic convention, if that much, but it was more dribble than bounce.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, seems to be doing much better in the polls after his convention. A couple of them gave him a double-digit lead, which will surely fade, but is still impressive. Because W's dramatic rise in the polls may not be entirely due to convention coverage, since he seemed to be gaining slightly in the weeks before the Republican convention opened.

Go figure. John Kerry's campaign certainly hasn't been weak. He's been stumping day and midnight. His selection of John Edwards as a running mate seemed to make good political sense at the time. What went wrong?

Can it be the impact of those commercials from the Swift Boat Veterans - the ones questioning his record in Vietnam and criticizing his congressional testimony against the war 30 years ago? Can they be having a greater impact than all the millions George Soros has poured into massive efforts like over the years? Hard to believe.

Maybe it was the difference in how the political designers put together each party's convention. Maybe if John Kerry hadn't made his convention all about his service in Vietnam, as if he hadn't done anything of note since, he might be doing better now. Americans are a forward-looking people; it's hard to believe we're more interested in what a nominee said and did 30 years away than what he'll do now.

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What happened? Here's my theory about last week's deviation from the typical election-year pattern, in which each of the major presidential candidates is supposed to enjoy a spike in the polls after his party's nominating convention:

For decades, the major television networks pretty much had the game to themselves. They're still there, and so is their political orientation-left of center, albeit in a smooth, respectable way. In that sense, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings don't differ all that much from Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley in their liberal heyday.

But a powerful new influence is now at work. Cable television, like talk radio, has shifted the balance, countering the influence of The Big Three on the tube and the agenda-setting influence of the New York Times and Washington Post in print. And the biggest success story on cable of late has been Fox News, which is about as fair and balanced as the Republican National Committee (all right, that's an exaggeration, but not much of one) while its cable rival, CNN, is closer to the DNC.

Anybody who doubts that Democrats tend to watch the news on CNN while Republicans prefer Fox need only note the Nielsen ratings during this year's conventions:

CNN drew the greatest number of viewers during the Democratic convention in Boston (an average of 2.3 million a day) while Fox averaged 2.1 million, and MSNBC 1.3 million.

But when the Republicans convened in New York, Fox zoomed ahead, attracting 4.3 million viewers the night Zell Miller and Dick Cheney addressed the convention, while CNN drew only 1.1 million and MSNBC less than a million. And here's the kicker:

During the hour Wednesday night when Messrs. Miller and Cheney were giving the opposition the works, Fox News beat out each of the Big Three networks. It used to be a rarity for a cable network to draw more viewers than any of the Big Three, but Fox attracted an average of 5.9 million viewers that hour-compared to NBC with 4.5 million, ABC with 3.3 million, and CBS with 2.6 million. CNN and MSNBC lagged behind with some 1.2 million viewers each.

Is it George W. Bush's appeal that explains how well Fox is doing in the ratings this summer, or is it Fox's appeal that explains how well George W. Bush is doing?

It's a kind of chicken-or-egg question. The two-Fox and the GOP-seem to share a symbiotic relationship, each strengthening the appeal of the other. Can it be that they speak more directly to The People, that great behemoth the Democratic candidates are always invoking?

American public opinion is a fickle, mercurial mix of many different factors, and the growing influence of Fox News is only one of them. But it may be making all the difference this year. At this point, its influence seems to be outweighing that of its cable rivals, the old Big Three, plus NPR thrown in for good measure. Maybe that's why the old expectation that each party would get about the same bounce out of its convention no longer holds. Indeed, the whole complexion of American politics could be changing because of one upstart, and very foxy, network.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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