It was Sunday, August 1, 2004, and Senator John Kerry’s presidential prospects appeared healthy. Just days earlier Kerry had accepted his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and now Kerry was making the rounds on the morning talk shows, aggressively issuing his call for change.
At noon Kerry, sitting dead-even in the polls with the incumbent, wartime President, began his fourth and final Sunday morning television interview, appearing on CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. The show opened with a report from Iraq about that day’s multiple bomb attacks against Christian churches: “Absolute mayhem on the streets of Baghdad,” announced the CNN reporter. The dispatch reinforced Kerry’s campaign pitch that President George W. Bush had misled America into a disastrous war.
By 12:30 pm, however, everything had changed, including Kerry’s chances for victory in November. “It was like we were charging down court to score and suddenly a foul was called,” recalls Kerry’s spokesman, David Wade.
Because less than ten minutes after thanking Kerry for appearing on his show, Blitzer pivoted and announced, “We’re getting some breaking news information. CNN has now learned that the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, is about to announce that the nation will go to a higher level of security…”
Two points that afternoon became glaringly obvious: The “war on terror,” Bush’s strong suit politically, had returned to the forefront, thanks to the warnings the President himself had signed into action; and the media, particularly cable television outlets, were going to hype the “chilling” terror scare with endless, excited saturation coverage, and do it at Kerry’s expense.
The sudden turn of events set in motion the disastrous media month of August for Kerry, during which Iraq was pushed aside in favor of terror and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth overtook all other political stories. (The impact of the first Swift Boat ad began to be felt just days after the August 1 terror scare.) In both instances, the Bush re-election team used the free news media–literally–to alter the course of the campaign. And in both cases the press was only too willing to steer the news in Bush’s favor.
Now, two years later, a key question is whether history is about to repeat itself when it comes to the “war on terror.” Surveying the political landscape, veteran prognosticator Charlie Cook recently noted, “Unless something very dramatic happens” in the coming weeks, Democrats will reclaim control of the House of Representatives this November as part of an electoral “rout.” It’s that caveat about something “dramatic” that has Democrats worrying–not because they necessarily fear a terrorist attack on American soil but because they fear another signature terror scare from the Bush Administration.
They also need to worry about the role the media will play if that occurs. Because if one of the enduring legacies of 9/11 has been this Administration’s politicization of terror threats inside the United States, the media’s lapdog hyping of the threats–its tendency to act as a megaphone instead of a filter, even in the wake of the Administration’s clear record of distortion–is another. Too often anxious for access and too nervous about allegations of liberal bias (and, to be fair, somewhat constrained by the fact that the Administration often controls key information and decides how to disseminate it), news organizations remain much more willing to cheerlead terror warnings than seriously question them or put them in proper political context.