Bush vs. Kerry vs. the Media

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As long as there has been an American press, our elections have been fought in the media. What's notable about Election 2004 is how much of it was fought against the media. Throughout the campaign, Democrats complained about an unholy alliance of Fox News, Matt Drudge, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Rush Limbaugh et al., who former contender Al Gore charged constituted a G.O.P. "fifth column" within the press. The flak came from both sides. During their last debate, President Bush chided John Kerry, "I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations," nodding toward moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS. It was a not-so-subtle allusion to the bungled 60 Minutes story about Bush's National Guard service, which the President's backers saw as proof that the media had it in for him.

Media blaming is an old staple of politics, but rarely has it been so widespread and loud. Many of the political books that have dominated the best-seller lists — from Ann Coulter, Al Franken and the like — are as much about bias charges as about politics. The most active political blogs are full of posts that pick apart reports for slant. Both sides see the U.S. as the Matrix, a virtual reality in which citizens are conned into voting against their own interests. And considering the major screwups on major stories in the past four years, the public was ripe to believe the worst of the media.

The 2000 Florida debacle, a still fresh memory in 2004, was more than a neutral foul-up to Gore supporters. The premature call for Bush was first made at Fox News, where Bush's cousin John Ellis was analyzing exit polls. That became the model for the liberals' pro-Bush-bias narrative: a core of Bushite media was pushing G.O.P. spin, attacks and talking points, and cowing the mainstream media into running with it. "The media are a kind of prisoner of the fear of being labeled liberal," says Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media? "This gives the right enormous license to mislead."

In the conservatives' parallel anti-Bush-bias narrative, of course, mainstream journalists were biased. Its fifth column consisted of snooty elitist media that disdained Bush's intelligence, faith and policies — a fixation culminating in Dan Rather's report, which questioned Bush's Guard service on the basis of documents that the network later had to acknowledge may have been forged. Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS correspondent and the author of Bias and Arrogance, two broadsides against liberal bias, says the suspect documents in the CBS report "made it through all their checkpoints. Why is that? Because they wanted it to be true." The media elite were even willing to endanger lives for Kerry, if you believe Drudge's insinuation last week that ABC News held back a purported al-Qaeda tape threatening an attack bigger than 9/11 for fear of its effect on the election (ABC aired the tape the next night).

If the bias arguments provided useful campaign spin, though, their greatest effect may come after the election is over. After all, if the media were biased against your side, the logical conclusion is that under "fair" media, the scales would have fallen from the eyes of decent Americans and your man would have won, or won by a much bigger margin. Either you believe that your candidate was robbed by a system in which his message was drowned out, or you believe that he won despite running into a head wind. Now the President will have to govern in an environment in which all information — terrorism alerts, budget estimates, war reports — is assumed to be politicized and every medium for conveying it distrusted by someone. He will do so against an even more aggrieved partisan opinion industry that doubtless will conclude it lost because it wasn't loud enough. He will be assured, at least for now, of being able to convince half the country of just about anything and having consensus on just about nothing.

God knows the media can use criticism, and lots of it. But because so much media criticism is currently so politically driven, it sends the message that bias is everywhere — left and right — and that only suckers believe the press is a neutral arbiter. The goal of the most partisan media critics, it seems, is less to become satisfied with coverage than to be continually, strategically dissatisfied with it, the better to pressure it in their direction. Their goal may be not so much to smash the Matrix as to give their side more influence within it. This is, after all, the election year in which we saw the founding of liberal Air America to counter conservative talk radio. No doubt more partisan outlets will sprout in the next angry four years. And the media-bias critics of 2004 will have won an ironic victory: ensuring media bias a long, healthy life.

Reported by Andrea Sachs/New York