Election 2004 and Beyond: Did the Media Fail?

Thursday, February 17, 2005
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater


A report card on both new and old media's coverage of the election and its aftermath. Was the print media more accurate and nuanced than the electronic media in reporting on the candidates and framing the central questions facing the country? What was the impact of the Internet and the emerging blogosphere? Has media coverage of the president and his foreign and domestic policies changed since his re-election? Are American news sources, particularly TV networks, fulfilling the role envisioned in the Constitution for media in a democracy?


Terence Smith joined The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in August 1998 to establish and lead the media unit as its senior producer and correspondent. Smith and his unit are four-time winners (2003, 2002, 2000, 1999) of the Arthur C. Rowse Award for Media Criticism, given by the National Press Club. Prior to joining PBS, Smith spent 20 years as a national and foreign correspondent and editor with the New York Times and 13 years with CBS News.

Cathy Young is a columnist for the Boston Globe, and a columnist and contributing editor for Reason magazine. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Born in Moscow, she has lived in the United States since 1980. She is the author of two books: Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (1989), and Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (1999).


Video of Election 2004 and Beyond: Did the Media Fail? is now available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]

TERENCE SMITH said he would discuss both the highs and the lows of the media coverage of one of the most interesting, closely fought elections in recent decades.

There was a lot of good work done, especially in the print media, stories that challenged candidates' inconsistencies, dissected their TV advertising, and framed the claims and arguments of both sides clearly and fairly. The "so-called mainstream media" -- such papers as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe -- and also USA Today provided such coverage. There was good work done as well on television. Frontline profiled the candidates in effective, informative ways. Smith's own program, The NewsHour, where "we dare to be dull," looked hard at the candidates and many of the key issues; we developed fact-check segments about what the candidates were saying on the stump and ad-watch segments that focused on their paid commercials. There was also a lot of good discussion in the "welter of talk" available on the cable news channels. "It was unfortunately very heavily mixed with opinion."

The Internet Comes of Age
The most significant new aspect of the coverage of the election, different even from that of the 2000 presidential campaign, was the attention paid to and the coverage provided by the Internet. In at least two respects, this was the election in which the Internet came of age.

First, the Internet emerged as a powerful, even unprecedented fund-raising vehicle. The Internet has created the template for campaign fund-raising in the future. The Internet had been long promised as a source of money for politics, but it really delivered in the 2004 campaign, raising hundreds of millions of dollars. The Democrats used the Internet more effectively for fund-raising this time around, but the Republicans will surely catch up in a big way. They already had begun to catch up by the end of the campaign.

Second, and more important, the Internet established itself as a source of news coverage, fact checking and criticism of the candidates, their surrogates and of the mainstream media. Both established Internet web sites and "the ever-growing army of bloggers" were major players in the campaign and have continued to be a significant presence in the media landscape since the election. Smith cited the famous (or infamous) instance of the decisive role played by bloggers in exposing the forged documents used in the CBS story purporting to show that President Bush had been derelict in his National Guard duty during the Viet Nam war. This episode demonstrated the power of this new medium to challenge mainstream news providers and to shape the national debate. One has to wonder, Smith added, whether this story was truly "spontaneous" -- that is, whether the bloggers who first raised questions about the authenticity of the documents were acting independently or had been tipped off somehow. His skepticism may be misplaced, Smith acknowledged, but it does seem implausible to him that only 18 minutes into the hour-long CBS broadcast the blogosphere was already circulating questions about the evidence. In any event, the power of weblogs to influence political discourse in our country is now undisputed.

Smith also cited two recent instances of the influence of the Internet. Complaints generated by bloggers were instrumental in the recent resignation of Eason Jordan, chief news executive of CNN, who was alleged to have implied in a speech that coalition forces in Iraq may have targeted journalists. Second, an article in the Internet magazine Slate exposed the counterfeit journalist -- later shown to have advertised as a gay prostitute in nude photos on pornographic web sites -- who had been admitted to the White House press corps and for two years had been lobbing soft questions to President Bush during news conferences. These examples show the power of the Web not only to offer commentary, but to drive events and force responses from mainstream media and from politicians.

Among the low points in the campaign coverage, Smith said, was "that whole senseless distraction about the war in Viet Nam. Not the war in Iraq, the war in Viet Nam. We had to spend about a month arguing about that, and the respective roles of the two candidates." This discussion led nowhere; nothing new was turned up.

When the controversy turns from the topic itself to the media delivering it, the original subject tends to get lost. This is distressing if the subject itself is significant and calls for answers. In the CBS case, for instance, the original questions was, "Did the President receive preferential treatment as the privileged son of a distinguished Texan" when he served in the National Guard and when he was allowed to leave the Guard before completing his service? And the corollary question: If the documents CBS was using were faked, who faked them, and why? Good questions, never answered.

One could make a similar point about the Eason Jordan case. The questions he raised about the role of coalition forces and the death of journalists in Iraq have not been adequately pursued by the media and remain unanswered.

There were also some big shortcomings in the category of unaddressed topics. Our media, for instance, have never resolved the problem of how to cover the war on terror as a political issue. It certainly is a political matter. How to separate the politics from the news? The media have muddled the concept of national security with this generic war on terrorism, and then mixed Iraq in unthinkingly. In the short-handing practiced by most media "this all gets blended in to a fair muddle."

One major weakness of the media coverage of the election was its failure to recognize and to report on the Republicans' superior competence at electioneering. They ran a far more effective campaign, a sophisticated 50-state operation. They proved to be far better than the democrats at organizing and better at getting their message out.

CATHY YOUNG said she felt both the right and the left were broadly dissatisfied with the mainstream media. There was a failure to cover many important issues. It was "the most mean-spirited, the most hysterical campaign in my memory." It was ridiculous that we spent so much time refighting the war in Viet Nam, but we must remember that Kerry set the agenda on this topic by stressing his war experience at the Democratic convention. Young found it "amazing" that the Democrats underestimated the backlash from veterans over Kerry's anti-war activism when he returned from Viet Nam. The Kerry campaign's slowness to respond to the swift boat ads showed a "shocking lack of preparation" and foresight.

A New Media World
The election of 2004 certainly revealed that we live in a new media environment. One key change was the rise of Fox News, the appearance of a vigorous, ideologically different voice among TV news sources. This new voice was, of course, especially audible on the Fox talk shows.

The second major element in the new media landscape was the rise of the blogs. How fast this has all happened! How many of us even knew what blogs were two or three years ago? Both for better and for worse, the blogosphere undermines the power of the old media gatekeepers, and the old fiction of journalistic objectivity. But there has been a lot of utopian talk about the rise of citizen journalists and how anyone with a computer can now be a journalist. Has this created more noise than light? Probably. But it is important to remember that mainstream opinion columnists compete with each other for attention and information and, like bloggers, often reach beyond their expertise.

The degree of polarization in our media and our politics is unprecedented in her experience, Young said. But we must realize that blogs, though they surely contribute to this polarization, merely magnify tendencies that already exist in the mainstream media. Young said she does believe, as one commentator has suggested, that the blogosphere hurt the Democrats in the election. The Democratic bloggers pushed the party to the left away from the moderate center of the country, while the right wing blogs did an effective job of denigrating and discrediting the mainstream media. Both these tendencies, then, were helpful to the Bush campaign.

A degree of perspective is helpful in thinking about the undeniable polarization we all recognize. Our media is more partisan, yes, but in this it resembles the European model and also resembles the media landscape in the U.S. of 50 or so years ago. There are advantages in getting beyond the era when a belief in the media's commitment to a so-called objectivity encouraged or enabled unacknowledged assumptions that were in reality liberal or elitist. A more overt politicization of our media may be preferable to the subtle and largely unconscious bias of an earlier era.

But Young cautioned that the notion of aiming for an honest objectivity remains important; it would not be healthy if everyone assumed it was appropriate to inject one's political views into one's reporting.

Mainstream Errors
The mainstream media's preconceptions led to certain revealing failures, according to Young. A kind of basic script or template gets accepted, creates certain expectations and obscures certain facts or realities. For example, there was lots of coverage of the role of evangelicals in the Bush campaign, but little attention to the sharply partisan, pro-Democratic role played by African-American churches.

The division of the country into red states and blue states was simplistic and deceptive, Young said. To label entire states and regions as uniformly conservative or uniformly liberal was a foolish, fundamental error. Such neat ideological patterns don't hold. Atheists voted for Bush; 25 percent of gays voted for Bush. One way the media failed was to give inadequate coverage to folks who did not fit the stereotypes.

Post-Election Climate
Right now the big story is the media manipulation by the White House. First, we had the story of the conservative columnist Armstrong Williams who was paid $250,000 to promote Bush's no child left behind policy. And now we have this new story about Jeff Gannon-Jim Guckert, who was accepted as a legitimate journalist and given a place in the White House press conferences. Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times today says the Republicans are not just tampering with the press but reinventing the press. But this seems excessive. "Both these stories strike me as not so much insidious as incredibly stupid." Williams was a pro-Bush columnist and would have supported the President in any case. The Gannon case is even more bizarre. Couldn't the White House have found someone "who was not moonlighting as a stud service person?"

This certainly undermines the notion of the Republicans as evil geniuses of media manipulation.

Finally, the crossing of lines between journalists and politicians has happened before in the respectable media as well. Such respected journalists as Bill Moyers or Chris Matthews have worked as staff members, speechwriters and consultants for Democrats. There is a bit of a double standard here when it comes to the right.


WILLIAM URRICHIO, CMS Director: Some stories seem to have a life of their own because some issues dominate while others are quickly forgotten. How does this happen? Who decides which stories are covered? Is it the politicians or the people? And does the press itself not have any leadership in setting the news agenda for the public?

SMITH: The media does pick from what is in front of them and what is already a major issue in the campaigns. For instance, the swift boat advertisements were a relatively inexpensive way to bring certain claims to the forefront of the media, because they were constantly replayed by news stations. I’m bothered that so much time was spent rehashing the allegations, motivations, and the Kerry campaign’s response. The media did not investigate the details and substance of the claims. When this was finally done weeks later, the claims were found to have little substance. This is where the news failed. The media should not just repeat old information in order to make up for the lack of time or ability to dig deeper.

YOUNG: But again, people will ask, why should the media set the agenda? I think that the politicians set the news agenda. For instance, the Kerry campaign was not prepared to deal with the swift boat charges. They did not do any investigative work of their own. So, it is not fair to pile all the blame on the media.

QUESTION: I agree that the Kerry campaign should have been more prepared, but I also thought that the media was slow to uncover the facts. I am interested in the colors used to represent each political party. Red is known to be a dominant, vibrant color, suggestive of power, while blue is a more passive color. Is this representation a media creation? Perhaps this representation should be altered in the future.

YOUNG: This is interesting, because it wasn’t very long ago that red used to stand for communism!

SMITH: This graphic representation began on TV screens in 1996 or 2000, I think. The red-blue referral became set in stone in 2000 when the election results were so close and the election maps were looked at frequently. It is only a shorthand reference for which party carried the state.

JOELLEN EASTON, CMS graduate student: Could you contextualize the resignation of PBS president Pat Mitchell in today’s discussion?

SMITH: She will fill out her term, so she is not actually resigning. She advised the station managers that she will not continue after this term. But her announcement raised bigger issues. It is a changing world for public broadcasting. Corporate underwriters are less willing to support public broadcasting and the political perspectives of different broadcast are being examined more critically. In my opinion, public broadcasting should be allowed to become more financially independent and therefore free from political considerations. In order to be effective, public broadcasting needs to figure out how to define itself.

QUESTION: Most of the media coverage during the campaign centered on two candidates, who had very similar platforms. Why wasn’t there more coverage of the other candidates? More information on them would allow new ideas to surface and would allow viewers to judge the candidates for themselves. Why is the media avoiding these candidates?

SMITH: Because the public only devotes a certain amount of time to media coverage, the news organizations have to focus their coverage on the areas they think matter most. The question is how much time should be given to a candidate who may bring in new ideas but, facing political realities, will not win. It is a question of balance.

YOUNG: It is not all the media’s fault that the coverage seems biased. We do have a basic two-party system that makes it almost impossible for a third-party candidate to win. The news organizations are limited by time and resources.

QUESTION: MIT students seem to be cynical about the mainstream media. They say they feel manipulated by these news sources. They go to the BBC, Jon Stewart, and religious/secular alternative news sites instead. This trend suggests that students are not being educated about politics, which worries me. How can we get students to become engaged in the mainstream media?

YOUNG: One way for the mainstream media to attract the younger generation is to get into the areas that the alternative sources are good at – blogging, for example. Also, young people today are used to everything being quick, so the speed of the Internet news sites is especially attractive to them. I think the mainstream media could also attract the younger generation by providing a greater diversity of voices. By diversity, I do not mean only gender and ethnic diversity, but also a diversity of viewpoints. Perhaps by offering more competing viewpoints the truth will emerge.

SMITH: It used to be believed the younger people do not get interested in the news until they have a house and a young family. I am not certain that model will continue. That is why it is important that the mainstream media have a conversation with their audience in order to find out what viewers want to know.

QUESTION: I’d like to hear more about the media’s coverage of Election Day itself. We didn’t hear much about the mechanical problems or the long lines of voters waiting to vote. I feel that these problems do not fit with a legitimate government. Where was the media coverage of this?

SMITH: There was some coverage of these irregularities, but the conclusion was that they did not change the final outcome. On election night, the largest news organizations were very careful not to predict the winner based on exit polls. They were careful not to repeat their mistake from 2000.

YOUNG: Again, it seems the politicians set the news agenda. The Kerry campaign decided that the charges were not substantial enough and did not pursue the charges. This is why the irregularities did not become a huge news story

QUESTION: There seems to be increasing partisanship in the media, yet there are more independent political parties today than in the past. Also, the younger generation seems to be less partisan because they have not decided their political identity or are just apathetic, yet they do not believe the media is objective. What can account for this?

YOUNG: I think the people who are less partisan, who are more laid back and apathetic, are less likely to seek out alternative media sources, while those with stronger opinions seek out like-minded news sources. This may account for the polarization.

SMITH: America is a divided country, something that was obvious from the close results of the last two elections. It seems that people go to alternative media sources that support their views for a sort of reaffirmation or feeling of community.

BLOSSOM HOAG, MIT: I’m very active with the Sierra Club. Environmentalists may feel that no matter how much time they devote to working on a campaign it doesn’t make a difference. The media didn’t cover the environmental issues of the last election. Even though these issues weren’t prevalent in the campaign, I think the media could delve into areas other than those that make up the forefront of the campaigns.

SMITH: What more would it have taken to arouse the environmental community? The Bush administration rolled back several pieces of environmental legislation and promised to do more, yet the voices of the environmentalists weren’t as strong and loud as would be expected.

HOAG: The environmentalists supported Kerry because of his environmental stance, but this stance never came out in the media.

YOUNG: A lot of issues ended up being treated as secondary to Iraq. Iraq took up a lot of the attention.

DAVID THORBURN, Communications Forum Director: I fear that there is a strong tendency for the democrats, or both sides, to blame the media. Perhaps the problem lies not with the media, but with our country’s imperfect democratic processes. There is no range of parties or a parliamentary model that allows for different voices to be heard. Many of the problems being brought up here, it seems to me, are not attributable primarily to the media, but to the simplifying and polarizing tendencies built into our two-party system.

YOUNG: It does seem that this oversimplification of different views has led to the feeling many people have of being politically homeless. Many people are alienated by some part of a party platform and do not complete identify with one party.

QUESTION: The two presidential candidates were so alike and repeated the same points. I feel that the candidates could have separated themselves by bringing up issues that were their own, such as the environment for Kerry. Gore didn’t bring up his environmental stance either, and he ran for president before 9/11. The fact that these issues were not at the forefront of either election may have nothing to do with 9/11. Could the candidates be more concerned about how they are perceived when they hold a particular stance?

SMITH: Kerry did make speeches on the environment, but they were drowned but by other issues. Candidates repeat again and again their few basic points because they believe in repetition to drive home a message.

YOUNG: The environmental message can be alienating to some part of electorate. For instance, Gore’s message, that it is necessary to alter our lives and our society for the environment’s sake, can easily be interpreted negatively by the Republican Party. As a result, these issues may not seem to be as valuable to a candidate who is trying to win an election.

QUESTION: Kathy talked about the need for a greater diversity of voices in media, and Terence said that the media couldn’t do a quick and effective review of the swift boat claims because of a lack of resources. I’d like to know what kind of impact media conglomeration will have on the coverage of the campaign and on continuing coverage of the administration.

SMITH: The consolidation of media is a major issue. TV broadcasting can be very profitable, but a consequence is that news departments become just a cog in a profit-making machine. The problem in media coverage is not in the established opinion news, which is known to hold a particular bias. The problem occurs when “opinion is inserted under the guise of objectivity” – when a news station claims to be fair and balanced, yet inserts bias.

YOUNG: Having fewer owners does not necessarily mean they all have the same views. In cities, the closing of newspapers is a problem because there is a loss of editorial viewpoints. However, it is possible for owners to ensure that diverse viewpoints are maintained. The Detroit News merged operations with the Detroit Free Press, but maintained separate viewpoints. I do think that bloggers and internet-based media are a positive, refreshing addition that allows for the emergence of new and different voices.

QUESTION: Kathy asked at one point, who elected the media? This is troubling to me. Her suggestion that the politicians elect the media implies that the media has to know its place and is inferior to politics. It also suggests that politics is a monolithic party, which is not true. Can you offer me any clarification?

YOUNG: The question of who sets the agenda is complicated. In an ideal world, the people would decide the agenda. I think that in the past decades, there was a media monolith that decided it should set the agenda and promote certain political values. Bloggers and the internet have begun to challenge that.

SMITH: The only people who elect the media are those who pay for a newspaper or turn on a certain TV news station.

QUESTION: Why has the fact that Bush only speaks to self-selected audiences been ignored by the media? Also, a poll revealed that 40% of people believe that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. How would the media have developed strategies to reduce that misinformation and confusion?

SMITH: It is not surprising that the public believed that, because it was clearly intimated by the administration and war supporters. The technique of self-selecting audiences is not original and has been taken to a new level by the Bush administration. Bush does this not just for campaigns, but also for regular speeches. This means that the president never hears any criticism. These staged events receive little coverage by the media.

--first part of summary compiled by Joellen Easton
--discussion section compiled by Marie Thibault