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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2004 / 2 Kislev, 5765

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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A bad election for old media |
It was a bad election for Old Media. More than in any other election in the last half-century, Old Media — The New York Times and CBS News, joined often but not always by The Washington Post, other major newspapers, ABC News and NBC News — was an active protagonist in this election, working hard to prevent the re-election of George W. Bush and doing what it could for John Kerry. The problem for Old Media is that it no longer has the kind of monopoly control over political news that it enjoyed a quarter-century ago. And its efforts to help John Kerry proved counterproductive.

Compare the campaign of 2004 with the campaign of 1980. Back then, most voters got their news from the three nightly newscasts of CBS, ABC and NBC. The agenda for those newscasts was set largely by The New York Times, which network producers and anchors picked up on their doorsteps every morning in New York and Washington.

I had a theory in the 1980s that you could cover the presidential campaign from five rooms — the two rooms in which the candidates' morning meetings were held and the three rooms, all on the West Side of Manhattan, in which the network producers and anchors decided what would run on the 6:30 newscasts. The interaction between the people in those five rooms pretty much determined what the voters would learn about the candidates and the campaigns.

Not so today. The ratings of the nightly newscasts have been on a downward trajectory since the 1980 campaign, as voters have been presented with other means of following the news. New Media has emerged: talk radio, Fox News Channel, the proliferation of Internet weblogs, which together make up the blogosphere. The left liberalism that is the political faith of practically all the personnel of Old Media is now being challenged by the various political faiths of New Media. Old Media no longer controls the agenda.

But it tries. At two crucial points in the campaign, Old Media used leaks from dubious sources to run stories intended to hurt the Bush campaign. The first was Dan Rather's Sept. 8 "60 Minutes" story on Bush's Texas Air National Guard record based on documents supplied by Texas Bush-hater Bill Burkett. CBS, admirably, posted the documents on its websites, and within 14 hours bloggers — led by, and — had demonstrated that these purported 1972 documents had been produced on Microsoft Word. CBS's document experts, it turned out, had refused to authenticate them. Not until Sept. 20 did Rather acknowledge the documents were dubious. The story hurt Rather and CBS, not Bush.

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Then there was the New York Times's front-page headline story Oct. 25 on supposedly missing weapons in Iraq. The story, based on leaks from International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed el-Baradei, who was trying to keep his job, turned out to be full of holes. But John Kerry decided to center his campaign for four of the five weekdays of the last full week of the campaign on the story. This, even though polls showed Bush had an advantage on handling Iraq. The Times story ended up hurting Kerry rather than helping him.

Finally, consider the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story. Kerry strategists are now saying that Kerry should have responded to the Swifties' charges sooner. But they didn't because they were confident Old Media would bury the story. Which it did, for months, from the formation of the group in April, the publication of its book "Unfit for Command" and the TV ads that started running in the summer. Old Media loved the Kerry narrative (decorated hero returns from Vietnam and opposes the war) and didn't want to disturb it by airing the Swifties' charges.

But the story got aired on New Media, the Swifties' book zoomed to No. 1 on and Kerry responded to the charges on Aug. 19. Then Old Media had to cover the story, and while many stories brushed the Swifties' charges aside as "discredited," more careful examinations, as in The Washington Post, showed the charges had some substance.

Kerry would have been better served, it turned out, by apologizing early on for his 1971 testimony that besmirched all troops in Vietnam. He could have done so in the spring when questioned by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," but decided not to. Memo to future Democratic nominees: You can no longer rely on Old Media to hush up stories that hurt your cause. Your friends in Old Media don't have a monopoly any more.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone