The media and the election

Last week, the New York Times ombudsman was forced to acknowledge that the Times headline about the 9/11 Commission's findings on an Iraq Al Qaeda link was misleading. He noted, however, that the error was unintentional, whatever that might mean.

A few days back the Times reported the results of its latest Presidential election poll conducted with CBS News. The front page headline was that approval for President Bush was down to 42%, a new low. In the 11th paragraph, the reader, if he had stuck around that far, would also have learned that instead of being 8 points behind Kerry, as he had been in the previous month's CBS poll, the two candidates were now running even —— Bush ahead by a point in a three way race, Kerry ahead by 1 point in a two man race. One might argue that closing an 8 point gap would be the bigger story, but in this case, one would be wrong, in the eyes of Times editors.

These are errors of commission: deliberate attempts to either slam the President, or present a picture that he is deep political trouble.

One area of the news that might provide a different reading would be the growth of the economy and new job creation. Yesterday, it was reported that consumer confidence had reached a much higher level than analysts had expected.  Perhaps the million new jobs in  the last three months is at least known to the families who now have an additional worker employed, even if the media has not made a big story of it. Friday, this month's jobs report will be issued. Wall Street forecasters believe another 250,000 jobs were added in June, which would bring the total for  4 months to over 1.2 million new jobs.

This story, I will safely predict, will appear on the Times business page, not the front page (of course, if the jobs number is disappointing, the story might then move up to the first page). This is a journalistic error of omission. Another error of this kind was the news story that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Vice President Cheney in terms of maintaining the privacy of conversations of his Energy Task Force. This story did not merit a front page article in the Times, even though this was a very big issue for the Times, which editorialized about if frequently for months.

What defines blatant bias in the country's most respected news paper?  Bias, it seems to me, is a pattern of consistently presenting the news so as to advance a partisan cause.  Such presentation bias can mean ignoring stories that do not advance the partisan interest, and highlighting those stories that do. In the case of the 9/11 Commission report, the partisanship was harder edged: promoting a story that the paper itself knew was false (as Bill Kristol pointed out in the Weekly Standard).

Many American newspapers and other media organs —— especially the network news broadcasts —— get their leads and inspiration from the Times. Another way of saying this is that these other organizations are lazy. They copy, rather than create. Since the major network new shows and their anchors share the editorial sympathies of the New York Times, including of course their Presidential preference, the same patterns of omission and commission  in the Times, are repeated later in the day on television. 

In the case of CBS, which conducts polls with the Times, the network has turned its once—respected 60 Minutes program into a Bush—bashing festival this year, with shows featuring Michael Moore, Richard Clarke, Bob Woodward, Paul O'Neill and Bill Clinton. For other newspapers that copy from the Times, it does not necessarily even matter what sins of omission and commission have been committed by the Times. The Times news stories helps fill the column inches needed to surround the daily advertising that makes the newspapers profitable.

We are but four months from Election Day. Already, significantly more money has been spent on the Presidential campaigns than in any other year, to this point in the race. Everybody in both parties argues that this will be a watershed election, a critically important decision. In addition to the money made available to the two campaigns for the general election ($75 million each) by the federal government, huge amounts of supplemental money will be thrown in by 527 groups.  Most of this will go to support the Democrats, who created and funded these groups early on, betting that the Federal Election Commission would not have the spine to stop them.  

Then there is the 'movie.'  Michael Moore's collection of half truths and smears has passed the $30 million box office level, and will probably easily exceed the $50 million level by Sunday.  That means 6 million Americans will have seen it. That is a big number when compared to the size of the electorate that is expected to be slightly more than 100 million voters. By Election Day, the number who have seen Moore's hit job on the President could be ten or fifteen million people. Moore is nothing if not a master manipulator. Undoubtedly some of the viewers will not be types, and may be undecided voters, or even curious Republicans. The movie certainly won't create more passion for the President in any of them.  Consider this a new kind of soft money contribution to the Kerry campaign.

The President's re—election will depend on two principal factors: the continued strength of the economy, and a situation that does not get any worse overseas in Iraq or elsewhere.   The President was very wise to have set a June 30 date for handover to an Iraqi governing authority, whatever the situation on the ground (better than what you generally read). Americans are now much more likely to begin to view Iraq as they have viewed Afghanistan for the past two years —— as somebody else's problem too, and not exclusively ours. 

We are still fighting in Afghanistan, and there are still casualties, and much of the country is not secure, though in Afghanistan of course, that last aspect is the story of its entire history. In Iraq, the turnover means that somebody else is now also responsible for security. Breakdowns are not just our fault. And Americans will now expect Iraqis to begin to police their own country and fight their own battles with the Baathist remnants and Al Qaeda forces in the country.

This is a very positive development for the President. It explains why the Times editorialized yesteray, demanding that hearings be held immediately on Abu Ghraib. Nothing could be worse for the anti—Bush forces than a strong economy and Iraq fading from the news. Dredging up Abu Ghraib is a way to try to link these ugly events with the President, and keep the story alive. 

A few academics have developed models that predict the share of the popular vote for an incumbent President, based on a collection of economic data. These models today all project very big wins for the President —— on the order of 55% of the popular vote or more. I do not think we will see this result in November. For three years, the media and the Democrats have repeated the mantra about the terrible state of the economy, the worst jobs picture since Hoover, the millions of jobs being outsourced to Mexico and India, the anxiety of American workers and their families, the growing deficits.

This wave of negativism has succeeded in creating a generally gloomy mood in the electorate about the economy. Despite faster GDP growth in the last year than occurred at any time during the Clinton years and rapid jobs growth in recent months, the good news is not breaking through this cloud of gloom very easily. Some pollsters say that it is beginning to, but very slowly. Fewer than 50% of the respondents in every poll believe the economy is doing well, or give Bush credit for it. So whatever the raw data that is fed into the models, the same information has not yet been fed into the minds of most voters, a disconnect which is hurting Bush. And of course that smokescreen will continue the next few months if the New York Times, and the three networks have anything to say about it. 

If the jobs picture looks good, and economic growth continues to be strong, then we will hear about health care inflation and the uninsured instead. When the American death toll in Iraq hits 1,000, probably before the election, it will be a big story in every paper, particularly in the Times, which will demand an accounting for the dead.

Michael Moore believes the last election was stolen, that the Iraq war was fought for big oil and Halliburton, and that the Afghanistan war occurred so as to allow Unocal  to build a pipeline.  The New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott  loved  Fahrenheit 911, and applauded Moore's passion and patriotism (patriot seems an odd description for a man who calls the be—headers of Americans the real patriots). The Times and Moore are not very far apart on the issues. Moore says what the Times and other better—dressed leftists believe. The Times, like Moore, has an apocalyptic vision about the next 4 years if Bush is re—elected. 

If the good news that is out there can seep through enough to get Bush re—elected, the level of traumatic distress in the Bush—hating community will be immense on November 3rd. 

But there are powerful forces that will fight to see that the good news does not get through. Bush will be heavily outspent from now until Election Day. And the free, supposedly neutral media, will deliver many times the value of the paid media in effective support for the Kerry campaign.  Here again, most Americans have been led to believe that Bush raised a record amount of money and has a huge spending advantage. The truth is different. The Kerry spots in the battleground states have far outnumbered the Bush spots so far, when you include the moveon ads, the ACT ads, and all the other Democratic support group ads. But that is also something you will not read about. 

There are advantages to incumbency that Bush will need to use to match the media onslaught he will face. Fortunately for Bush, Kerry appears to lack basic human warmth.  The Kerry campaign has caught on to this, and Kerry has receded to the background for months, as the Democratic attack machine has attempted to make the campaign all about Bush, as if anybody else (even Kerry) will do.  At some point Kerry will be forced to surface; certainly he cannot hide during the debates. Americans then will be able to make a judgment, free of media spin. Watch closely for any move to gin—up a dispute which would derail the now—traditional Presidential debates.

But the Bush—haters do not mean to be denied. They smell blood, and they mean to produce it.  And fairness is not part of their vocabulary. It will be an ugly Fall.