It may only be a few days since George W. Bush announced his choice for running mate, but it feels like months. Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney has met a media reception that reminds many Americans about what is wrong with the Washington press.
The Associated Press headline read "Cheney Defends His Record." Reuters: "Cheney Defends Voting Record in Congress." The New York Times: "Voting Record Dogs Cheney as GOP Team Campaigns." The Washington Post headline was softer: "Bush-Cheney Debuts in Wyoming." But the Post made up for it in the subhead: "Running Mate Challenged on House Record."
Not only were the headlines similar, the stories were, too. Every one was frontloaded with the same plot: Arch-conservative under fire. Cheney forced to defend his record in Congress.
Forced to defend it from whom, exactly?
The stories hinted of a united outrage and a fusillade of questions hitting Cheney. But there weren't hecklers or protestors in the audience asking the questions. Reporters were writing about themselves.
"Despite the campaign's efforts to keep a cheery face on the day's lone event," wrote The Washington Post's Terry M. Neal, "the two men could not avoid questions about Cheney's votes." He then passed along the colorful work of Democrats who "have characterized him as to the right ideologically of former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the National Rifle Association."
The New York Times was a bit more reserved, saying that "the Texas governor was quickly hit with questions...." The AP reported that Cheney "defended his conservative record in interviews on three network morning television programs...."
Quite unsurprisingly, while the media has represented the Bush-Cheney campaign bombarded by questions about Cheney's fitness for office, the handiwork of the Democrats and Gore was carefully concealed.
The press could have easily taken a different tack. For instance, reporters could write about how quickly and how nasty the Democratic response was to Bush naming Cheney. They could ask why Democrats must smear Cheney so early. (Answer: To shape public perception while voters are still gathering information.)
The press, in short, could take a more neutral position. The storyline could focus on negative campaigning and the politics of personal destruction. Instead, reporters have taken the path of least resistance by softening and cloaking Democratic Party opposition research and rhetoric. The New York Times said the Democrats "pointed to Mr. Cheney's conservative voting record." The Post called the Democratic attacks "efforts to portray" the two as the first "Big Oil" ticket.
Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Democrats were "fairly bursting" at the chance to "highlight" Cheney's record.
That record includes, Barabak reported, "numerous votes against abortion and gun control — issues of symbolic importance to many swing voters." Not only is this straight out of the Democratic playbook, it is unsupported in the article and by fact. For anyone familiar with polls, Barabak is either sloppy or dishonest. Gun control and abortion are not priorities for swing voters. Not even close.
Yet, all of the stories had some version of the Democrats' spin. Cheney's votes against gun control, against South African sanctions, against the ERA, and against gaggle of favored liberal programs. For liberal journalists, Cheney must answer for such outrages.
Cheney answered alright. But it didn't really matter what he said. As a result, he was portrayed as defensive about his record as a Wyoming congressman and, worse, his performance was graded by the same people who felt he had something to defend.
According to the Washington Post, he "struggled to explain his votes" while Bush "jumped in" — as if Cheney's record and performance were so poor he needed help. Even as Cheney argued for understanding his votes in context, the Post wrote that he "suggested that he had softened some of his hard-line conservative positions." One doubts "hard-line" was the term the soft-spoken Cheney used to describe his record.
When Cheney "defended" the use of the surplus for Social Security, AP reporter Laurie Kellman said the Democrats "pounced on the remark" — presumably after the brand new candidate's words were passed on to interviewee Doug Hattaway, the spokesman paid to work for Gore.
With Cheney, the Democrats are setting the agenda with journalists acting as their willing minions. It is a role journalists are too often willing to play. Compare Cheney's debut with what greeted Al Gore when he appeared side by side with candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.
Nothing but praise. Gore wasn't pressed to explain his radical views on the environment — even though he had just written a book on the subject. There were no stories about how his "Earth in the Balance" was "dogging" Clinton-Gore '92. In fact he was praised.
Gore's views on the environment were as extreme from a GOP perspective as Cheney's are to a liberal Democrat. After all, Gore had just written Earth in the Balance which conservatives saw as a textbook of environmental radicalism.
But reporters never pressed Gore on the issue. They never even asked him about GOP complaints in 1992. Instead, they praised him.
Jim Hickey of ABC's "Good Morning America" saw only plusses with Gore:
One of the biggest advantages in choosing Gore as a political partner is the Senator's track record on the environment. He is a best-selling author on the subject. It's a track record the White House tries to paint as extremist. But Gore has already received the endorsement as an outstanding choice by the Sierra Club and other powerful conservation groups.
Only one journalist pressed Gore on the radical demands of Earth in the Balance. That was former CNN reporter Catherine Crier.
The Cheney gambit is a familiar one to conservatives. The media generate a furor and call that furor news.
What we're seeing now is only the beginning of the hit job on Bush-Cheney. This week, he is painted as "outside the mainstream." (Thank you, Dan Rather. Your place on the White House Christmas card list is secure in the Gore White House.) The coup d' grace comes after a series of reporting about the views of these reporters is given heft by the polling arm of the big papers. The media pollsters will ask what the public thinks about Cheney.
The same public that lacks almost any knowledge about candidates will hear the sound and fury and get suspicious. The polling on Cheney will raise the hackles of a skeptical public. And then the media will dutifully report that Cheney and his views are a liability to Bush because he didn't "come off" well when explaining his record. The formula is well known and the Democrats are counting on it.