With the election now over, the role of journalists’ personal preferences for Kerry will continue to be questioned by media watchdog groups and news consumers. Days before the election, a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University found that news stories were favoring John Kerry by a ratio of almost 2 to 1. The bias was evident and obvious.
On CNN’s Reliable Sources on October 17, host Howard Kurtz interviewed Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas. Kurtz asked him about a comment he made on “Inside Washington” that because of the media’s portrayal of Kerry and Edwards as “young and dynamic and optimistic,” the campaign could garner maybe 15 points. Thomas said that reporters “absolutely” want Kerry to win but back-peddled from the 15-point figure, suggesting 5 points was more realistic. After the program aired the GOP then sent out an urgent email to supporters stating that “most reporters want John Kerry to win” and that, based on Thomas’ statements, the bias could be worth 5 to 15 percentage points?or 5 to 20 million votes?on Election Day. This story of “election influence” could hardly be heard above the clamor over the Sinclair affair.
GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie said that much of the Kerry campaign’s political calculation relied on the media reporting as fact baseless charges of voter intimidation, ‘privatizing social security’ and ‘reinstating the draft.’ Other charges included blaming President Bush for the flu vaccine shortage when Kerry opposed liability reform for vaccine manufacturers, and the demonstrably false charge that the President has banned stem-cell research.
On the Kurtz program, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post described reporters who covered the third debate as clueless. Milbank said that most reporters thought the debate was a draw. But after polls were released the following day, the reporters altered their coverage to fit the poll results. Milbank said reporters were “just blowing in the wind,” and that they resembled Kerry “in that windsurfing ad first going one way and then another.” Milbank insisted, however, that a bias for Kerry did not affect coverage. Milbank contended that Bush being back in the White House might provide more interesting stories for reporters.
A recent Associated Press study finds that readers of all political persuasions want the following: more objectivity, fewer anonymous sources, healthy skepticism?not hostility, and more critical thinking. They want balance in coverage. One reader said, “Tell us both sides of the story, but don’t feed us two sets of talking points and call it objectivity.” While readers said human error goes with the territory, even more said that the media should work harder to win back public trust.
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas isn’t so optimistic. He thinks this past election cycle is the last for Big Media to be taken seriously. Cable news and the Internet are the future, he says. It’s the repeated failures of media that have created the very market that made cable TV and grass-roots Internet news sites so popular and successful. The “old media” are going, going, gone. And the “new media” are in.