Accuracy in Media

On substance, President Bush won the first presidential debate, historically the most important of the debates because it frames the coverage of the final weeks of the campaign. But Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has been rising in the polls ever since the first debate.

This is undoubtedly because prominent conservatives joined liberals in the media in declaring Bush “the loser.” But he became the “loser” mainly because he made some funny faces and seemed exasperated with some of John Kerry’s statements. 

Liberal presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said the “reaction shots” of Bush making faces?pictures that were shown in violation of the debate rules and repeated over and over? could seal Bush’s fate on Election Day. She compared it to pictures of Richard Nixon sweating during his debate with John Kennedy, a turning point in that campaign, which Kennedy went on to win.

Bush has been trying to repair the damage caused by the negative reviews by joking about his performance.

This turn of events was extraordinary because the evidence showed that voters clearly thought that Bush, despite fidgeting and grimacing during those “reaction shots,” would do better on Iraq and be a better commander-in-chief. Most people thought that what a candidate said was more important than how he said it, or how he looked in response to the other candidate’s comments.

Conservatives without access to the media told us that they thought Bush had turned in a solid performance. One said, “I felt that Bush really did well last night and I was puzzled by the reaction from left and right that it was a smashing Kerry victory. The USA Today numbers seem to bear out that the victory was on style, but people still like, believe, and trust Bush more.”

This was a reference to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll survey of 615 registered voters who watched the debate and gave John Kerry the win on style but Bush the win on substance. Asked whether either candidate demonstrated he is tough enough to do the job, Bush won 54-37. People were asked, “regardless of which presidential candidate you support, please tell me if you think John Kerry or George W. Bush would better handle the situation in Iraq.” The answer: Bush won 54-43. Asked, “Who do you trust more to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief of the military,” Bush won 54-44. Asked “Who was more believable,” Bush won 50-45.

These striking numbers prompted the New York Daily News to run an item headlined, “Kerry won the debate?or did he?”

AIM issued a press release stating that, “While proclaiming a Kerry victory over Bush, the media have ignored hard data showing that the debate reinforced strong support for Bush on all of the major foreign policy issues.” AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid said the media “spin” over the debate demonstrated a pro-Kerry bias contradicting the hard data about what the candidates accomplished during the debate and the impressions they left with voters.

It looks like Bush was sandbagged. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post noted that he “may have been so expressive in part because he thought the debate rules disallowed such reaction shots…” The rules prohibited the TV networks from showing an opponent’s reaction during a candidate’s response, a technique known as a “cut-away.”

But the networks broke the rules. A Reuters story noted that, “Fox News Channel, whose turn it is under a rotation system to operate the ‘pool’ cameras for all the networks in the first debate on Thursday in Coral Gables, Florida, said it would follow its own editorial judgment in operating its cameras.” Fox News spokesman Paul Schur said, “They don’t want reaction shots. We’re not going to bow to outside pressure. We’re not going to follow these restrictions.”

Consequently, the reaction shots, which created the perception that Bush had lost the debate, were shown over and over again. One blogger on the website of the conservative World Magazine asked, “Does TV’s thirst for visual moments like reaction shots further dumb down the debates?”

One had to conclude that the answer was yes, that both liberal and conservative media personalities were preoccupied with style, not substance. The perception that Kerry looked “presidential” in this critical first debate gave him a needed boost. It may be just enough to put him in the oval office.  

Liberals Love Conservatives 

In an email to its supporters, the George Soros-funded said that, “Even the conservative pundits gathered on Fox News had to admit that Kerry looked pretty good last night.” It also quoted “right-wing commentator Joe Scarborough” on MSNBC as saying that Kerry won the debate.

Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart sent a message to Kerry-Edwards supporters noting that conservative Bill Kristol of Fox News had described Kerry as “forceful and articulate.”

But it was difficult to maintain such a position when Kerry had claimed that he would give no other nation veto power over U.S. foreign policy, while insisting that he would subject deployments of U.S. troops to a “global test.” This was another example of a Kerry “flip-flop,” of far more significance than Bush making faces at the debate.

Over at the Washington Post, reporters Jim VandeHei and Dana Milbank were quick to quote Kate O’Beirne of the National Review as saying that Bush did a bad job. They reported that, “…Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that Kerry enhanced his chances of winning in November by hammering the President’s credibility on Iraq and avoiding the meandering responses that have plagued him throughout the campaign. Some conservatives, such as Kate O’Beirne of the National Review, said Bush’s performance was damaging. ‘I thought the President was repetitive and reactive,’ she said.”

The next day, Dan Balz of the Post was referring to how Kerry was hoping to  “capitalize on the momentum from a strong debate performance?” The spin had now become established fact because conservatives had joined the liberals in bashing Bush. The positive press gave Kerry supporters what they had been hoping for. In a pivotal development in the campaign, a new poll found that Kerry had taken the lead over Bush in the wake of his debate performance.

Interestingly, the Balz story said that, “Bush advisers were described as stunned by how negative the reviews were of the President’s performance, which many of them regarded as not his best but not so bad.” Those advisers must have been stunned by the fact that some of those reviews had come from pundits and commentators considered sympathetic to Bush.

O’Reilly Hails Kerry

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News was among those pundits, declaring that, “the debate helped Senator Kerry. It did not help President Bush.”

In a press release, The Democratic National Committee declared that, “The reviews are in and according to the talking heads and today’s news it is clear that at last night’s debate America saw John Kerry as the next President of the United States. Kerry’s strength, conviction, and steady command of the facts left no doubt that he can lead the fight on terrorism and finish the job in Iraq. Kerry beat expectations, he looked presidential, and he proved his foreign policy credentials.”

The release cited various pro-Kerry comments, several of them from conservative talking heads:

Fred Barnes of Fox News and the Weekly Standard declared that, “Kerry did very well and we will have a presidential race from here on out.”

Joe Scarborough of MSNBC said “It was John Kerry’s best performance ever?As far as the debate goes, I don’t see how anybody could look at this debate and not score this a very clear win on points for John Kerry.”

Rich Lowry of National Review said that, “Kerry certainly helped himself tonight. He had command of the facts.”

At this point late in the campaign, it was unclear whether Bush could rebound to win the election. If he loses, the turning point could well be how conservatives on Fox News and in the rest of the media panned him for that first debate performance, helping to create the perception that Bush couldn’t defend his own record and policies.

Those conservatives were certainly entitled to their opinions but they seemed not to understand how their comments could and would be used by the liberal media and liberal groups to damage Bush politically. 

Scarborough Attacks Bush

Some of the most vicious comments about Bush came from Joe Scarborough, a former conservative Republican congressman, on MSNBC. “President Bush let his supporters down last night,” he said.

Scarborough called the President “strangely unfocused, as if he had something better to do than to explain to Americans and our allies exactly why it is that we’re spending billions of dollars in Iraq and losing more young American soldiers’ lives every day. Now, simply put, the President’s performance was embarrassing. The fact that George W. Bush could do little more than tell us 11 times that he has a hard job, and then ask for 30 additional seconds to tell us that he has a hard job, and then slump and look around during the debate like some junior high school jock thrown in debating class by his parents, was an absolute disgrace.”

Debate Was Stacked

But in an analysis of the debate posted on the AIM web site, Washington, D.C. radio host Julian Tepper noted that Bush’s perceived poor performance partly stemmed from the nature of the questions posed by moderator Jim Lehrer of public broadcasting. The questions included:

(To Bush): “You said there was a miscalculation…in Iraq. What was the miscalculation and how did it happen?

(To Kerry): “What colossal mis-judgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

(To Bush): “Mr. President, has the war in Iraq been worth the cost in American lives?

(To Kerry): “You’ve repeatedly accused President Bush…of lying to the American people on Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.”

Tepper noted that “the structure and content of the debate” had “put the President’s decisions and performance on trial, but not the Senator’s,” and had “transformed a process that should have allowed us to measure them both into one that was limited to accusations against Pres. Bush.”

He explained, “But for the ‘voted for, before I voted against’ characterization of his vote on Iraq and troop funding, Kerry faced not one question about his performance. And yet, who among us would not agree that a judgment about a candidate’s visions and future actions is far better reached when based on a review of his record of performance than on what he now might say. Lehrer’s questions (especially the ones he did not ask) deprived us of a debate that would have allowed us to use it to make that judgment.

“Especially because of Kerry’s repeated emphasis on the necessity of broad coalitions, Lehrer could have allowed us to test the sincerity of that position by getting him to explain why he voted against the first Gulf War, where there was not only broad European, but also Arab participation.”

Tepper concluded that the public had been “shortchanged” by Lehrer’s performance. And the implication was that the conservative commentators who joined the criticism of the President failed to notice how the questions had been designed to make Bush look bad.   

William Benoit, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri, analyzed the debate and concluded that Bush was on the defensive three times as much as Kerry. Clearly, much of this was due to Jim Lehrer’s questions.


As the presidential election approached, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior, defending Dan Rather and virtually begging John Kerry to appear on his show. During an appearance on the CBS 60 Minutes program, O’Reilly told reporter Mike Wallace that he might vote for Kerry, whom he described as a “patriot” he has known for 25 years. O’Reilly denounced the Swift Boat vets’ ads against Kerry as “awful” and “terrible.”

Nine days earlier, however, on his own “O’Reilly Factor” show on the Fox News Channel, O’Reilly had said that Kerry acted in a “craven” manner when he came back to the U.S. after the Vietnam War “by besmirching all the fine soldiers in Vietnam” when he called them war criminals. While interviewing John O’Neill, co-author of the anti-Kerry book, Unfit for Command, O’Reilly said, “I enjoyed your book.”

Pandering To Kerry

Some observers suspected that O’Reilly, after having secured an interview with President Bush for his show, was desperate to get an interview with Kerry before the election. In fact, when Kerry advisor James Carville appeared on his show on September 23, O’Reilly virtually begged Carville to set up a Kerry interview for him. 

This curious rhetoric might be dismissed as inconsequential were it not for the fact that he claims to provide a “No Spin Zone” to 3-4 million people a night.

Defending Dan Rather

O’Reilly, in an October 6 commentary, came to the defense of Dan Rather, who was caught using forged documents to smear President Bush. O’Reilly declared that “constant criticism and threats can wear you out” and that “Dan Rather’s not getting away with anything. He’s been held accountable in the court of public opinion. If we continue to punish the guy, it just seems to be over the top.”

O’Reilly said that Rather, under investigation for his fraudulent reporting, had received enough “punishment” and that it was time to give him “a break.”

“Although the evidence is, over the years, that Dan Rather favors the Democratic Party or at least the left spectrum,” O’Reilly said that he didn’t want to get involved in a process of “tearing a guy [Rather] to pieces.”

O’Reilly, who has achieved financial success by appealing to conservatives, had gone on 60 Minutes sounding like a liberal. He told the program that he is pro-gun control, anti-death penalty, and pro-gay adoption “as a last resort.” O’Reilly also offered the opinion that conservative critics of the Al Gore theory of global warming are “idiots.”

O’Reilly Burned By Facts

As AIM has documented, O’Reilly has claimed that unnamed scientists at MIT, which he described as “the best in the world,” believe that “all this fossil fuel is hurting the earth” and that global warming is occurring and must be urgently addressed. O’Reilly says he opposes the global warming treaty but believes the federal government has to take immediate and drastic action to curb the use of fossil fuels. He opposes gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

However, the most prominent expert on global warming at MIT is meteorologist Dr. Richard Lindzen, a leading critic of the theory who has never been invited on “The Factor.”

O’Reilly took this controversy one step further on 60 Minutes, not only telling Mike Wallace that “global warming is here” but that “all these idiots that run around and say it isn’t here” are “ridiculous.”

Lindzen has engaged in climate and climate-related research for over 30 years and has testified before Congress. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the author or co-author of over 200 papers and books.

Lindzen Blasts O’Reilly

Lindzen told AIM that he didn’t know of anybody at MIT who is on O’Reilly’s hysterical side of the debate. He said that some colleagues waffle and say, “Well, we don’t know but it could be a serious problem.”

The average temperature over the last century has gone up between a third and two-thirds of a degree, Lindzen said. “If you’re not intelligent enough or sensitive enough to know that every day of your life you see ten or twenty times that variation, then please stop the conversation,” he added. He said that such a minor change, which can be entirely natural, grabs the public’s attention when it is put on a graph “and made to look like Mount Everest.”

Perhaps O’Reilly wants to go easy on Rather because of his own mistakes and flip-flops on the issues.

Factor This

Lindzen, however, thinks people are wising up. “People have more sense than we give them credit for,” he said. “No one thinks of O’Reilly?or these days almost any newscaster?as an authority and that’s for the good. I think CBS has done a wonderful service.”

He was referring, of course, to the CBS “Rathergate” memo scandal that has exposed the corrupt and deceptive nature of journalism today. It is noteworthy that 60 Minutes, the same program that perpetrated a fraud on the American people with the fake Bush/National Guard memos, was the vehicle for O’Reilly’s outrageous and completely indefensible comments on global warming, and that O’Reilly had come to Dan Rather’s defense in the scandal.

O’Reilly made the offensive comments about “idiots” at the expense of the millions of conservatives in the viewing audience who generate the ratings that helped O’Reilly buy his wife a gas-guzzling Mercedes-Benz. O’Reilly, the “working class guy” who makes $10 million a year, told Wallace he doesn’t set foot in the car and “I’m not driving” it. He sounded like John Kerry, who, when caught riding in an SUV to an environmental event, claimed it was really his family’s car, not his.

What You Can Do

Please order gift subscriptions to the AIM Report for your family, friends and neighbors. Also, please consider a contribution to our Media Monitor fund so that we can place our radio commentaries on more radio stations.  To donate, click here.

And don’t forget to order a copy of our new film, Confronting Iraq, which has received standing ovations and wide praise at film festivals around the U.S.

Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.


Comments are turned off for this article.