Despite Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas’ assumption that most media backed Kerry, and that the bias could translate into anywhere from 5-20 million votes, Bush won anyway. One study found media stories favoring Kerry by two-to-one. When the Swift Boat vets with their powerful anti-Kerry message came along, they were for the most part snubbed or dismissed by mainstream media. So how did Bush win, and what does it mean for the relevance of mainstream media?
A possible answer comes from Australia, where Peter Murphy, a communications professor, says that Bush was able to win because successful politicians sidestep the media and speak directly to the electorate. Bush went to as many rallies as possible, looked into the camera, and spoke directly to the voters.
Mainstream media, sensing a challenge from the new media, are increasingly ringing an alarm bell over its alleged unreliability. However, there are many reasons why people go to the Internet. For many, communication by interested observers at the speed of light has exposed the chinks in Big Media’s armor. Internet bloggers were a big factor in uncovering the “Rathergate” fake memo story. “They smell a rat when opinion is wrapped up as news,” Murphy says. The less assurance they have that they are getting solid and complete information, the more they will seek information elsewhere. And contrary to the cranky warnings of some mainstream journalists, there is more than just Rush Limbaugh and streaming talk radio on the Internet. People can surf the web and find a plethora of government documents, including budget reports, General Accounting Office reports, voting records, as well as material produced by independent think tanks.
To put it plainly, most people aren’t stupid. Consumers of the news are just that–they’re customers, and if they don’t think they’re getting a good deal, they will shop elsewhere. The brutal fact, Peter Murphy says, is that “media gatekeepers” matter less and less in elections. Add to that the fact that journalists and academics were most strongly in favor of Kerry, and their influence diminishes even more.
Just as the media were abuzz as to whether the Iraq war would sink Bush’s chances of reelection, they were saying the same thing of Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, a strong backer of the war. Howard’s government won in a landslide, and gained an extra five seats in their House of Representatives as well as control of the Senate. Asked if he expected such a resounding victory, Howard told ABC radio: “I genuinely was surprised at the extent of our victory.”
Murphy concludes the left-leaning media in both Australia and the U.S. hurt their party of choice. He says media folks sympathetic to Kerry didn’t want to say the obvious–that Kerry was aloof, patrician, incoherent, pandering, and unelectable. “That’s just the problem with media bias,” he says. “When your friends write you up you’ll always be a shining knight–until you crash and burn.” And now it’s the media crashing and burning. Let’s toast some marshmallows, shall we?