How media coverage tried to influence the electoral outcome
Once it became clear that dominant fractions of the ruling class had come to recognize that a division of labor between the two major political parties that coincided with the best interests of the national capital rested on the election of John Kerry, the mass media quickly fell into line to help facilitate this result. The first inklings of this came in the positive coverage of Kerry’s speech at New York University in September, where he changed position and clearly denounced the war in Iraq as the wrong war at the wrong time, a distraction from the war against terrorism and the crusade to find and kill Osama bin Laden. But the first clear expression of the media’s new orientation came in the coverage of the first presidential debate, focused on foreign policy – supposedly Bush’s strong card, according to the media pundits. The media made it clear that Kerry was the big winner in that debate, that Bush was the big loser, and that Kerry and the Democrats had emerged from the debate with a renewed confidence and self-assurance.
Soon afterwards, the vice presidential debate pitted the experienced Dick Cheney against the newcomer John Edwards. Again the media coverage of the debate emphasized an important breakthrough for the Democrats. Cheney had launched a blistering attack in the debate against what he called Edwards’ “undistinguished” career in the Senate. Cheney charged that though he presides over the meetings of the Senate, he had never met Edwards until they walked on stage for the debate. The media was all over this charge and by the 7:00 am news shows the next day had gathered video tape of at least three occasions when the Cheney and Edwards had met. One showed the two men sitting side by side at Senate prayer breakfast. Whatever advantage Cheney had had during the debate quickly evaporated with the exposure of his blatant lie.
The media moved quickly after the third presidential debate when Bush had scoffed at Kerry’s charge that the President had publicly stated that he was not concerned about bin Laden. When Bush made that denial, Kerry simply grinned. Perhaps he knew that by the next morning the media would produce video to show that Bush had indeed made such a comment at a press conference, again exposing the Republicans as liars.
ABC News executives subsequently issued a memorandum to their staff which argued that while both candidates were distorting and stretching the truth in their campaign speeches and political commercials, Kerry’s distortions tended to involve only peripheral issues, but Bush’s dealt with issues at the heart of the campaign. The memo therefore instructed network journalists to highlight these gross distortions in their coverage.
Officials in the permanent bureaucracy seeking to influence the course of the election began leaking a series of damaging stories to expose Bush administration errors and wrongdoing, particularly in regard to Iraq. The media promptly picked up these stories and gave them wide exposure, including reports about the Bush administration’s efforts to create secret changes in the military justice system that circumvented the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Central players in this scandal were Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Attorney General Ashcroft, and White House aides. The plan was so secret that neither Secretary of State Colin Powell nor National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice were informed. An anonymous source within the CIA reported that there had been widespread opposition to the plan because it violated American democratic principles. Yet another damaging story concerned the disappearance of 380 tons of high explosives that American troops had failed to secure and which had probably fallen into the “wrong” hands and are probably being used against American forces in Iraq. And just a week before the election, sources in the FBI leaked details of a planned criminal investigation of Halliburton’s preferential treatment in the granting of lucrative no-bid contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. (VP Cheney was the chief executive of Halliburton prior to the 2000 election.) The media also gave prominent and sympathetic play to the story of the 19 soldiers who refused a direct order to participate in a supply caravan to deliver fuel supplies in Iraq, because they complained it was a “suicide mission” because their trucks were not armored and they would not have an armed escort. Rather than portraying these soldiers as mutineers and cowards, stories described them sympathetically, as brave and honorable soldiers fed up with being poorly supplied and armed – exactly what the Kerry campaign had been charging for weeks.
One media commentator even noted a shift in coverage by the pro-Bush media controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. For example, the NY Post ran a picture of Bush and Kerry standing side by side after one of the presidential debates, which unflatteringly depicted Kerry towering over the president. One Bush-Cheney campaign official reportedly complained, “Couldn’t they choose a better angle?”(amNew York, Oct. 21, 2004)
Yet another example of the media falling into line could be seen in what happened with the threat by pro-Bush Sinclair Media company to air a 45-minute anti-Kerry documentary attacking Kerry’s Vietnam war record on the 60 local stations it owns across the country, many of them in the so-called battleground states. The chief executive had actually compared the refusal of the mainstream networks to broadcast the film as tantamount to supporting holocaust revisionists. However, under pressure from journalists from within their own organization, major stockholders, and government officials, Sinclair backed down, and excerpted several scenes from the controversial documentary along with scenes from anti-Bush films to include a shortened and more “balanced” report on the campaign.