Howard Dean's supporters think he has gotten a raw deal from the media. And their candidate does not disagree.
Even before the former frontrunner started to stumble at the polling places in primary and caucus states, Dean says he started taking hits from media insiders who he says feared handing the Democratic presidential nomination to an outsider.
"I think I scared them. I think it goes back to when Al Gore endorsed me, and AFSCME and the SEIU; people in the establishment began to think I could win," Dean says, recalling the heady days last fall when he accumulated endorsements from top Democrats and labor unions. "That scared the hell out of them because they knew I didn't owe anybody. I didn't owe them a dime. Eighty-nine percent of our money comes from small donors. That's certainly not true of anybody else running for president on either side."
The "them" Dean is referring to are the Washington-based political pundits, reporters and commentators who shape so much of the discussion of presidential politics on television and on the pages of America's elite newspapers. "I think the media is part of the established group in Washington. They have a little club there," says Dean. "If you don't go down to kiss the ring, they get upset by that. I don't play the game. I pretty much say what I think. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable."
Initially, Dean says, he felt he could take the hits. After all, media outlets that once dismissed him as the "asterisk" candidate from the small state of Vermont made him a national figure when they featured him on magazine covers and news shows.
But, after what he refers to as a "pep talk" given to backers after his defeat in the Iowa caucuses began airing around-the-clock on cable news programs as the "I Have a Scream" speech, Dean says he began to fully understand how events can be warped by the media. "ABC actually did a fairly sound retraction on that one," Dean says of a report by ABC News that showed the "scream" in Des Moines was dramatically amplified in television and cable reports. "But that's one network, and one report. Most of the networks failed to offer any perspective."
Dean does not suggest that he has run an error-free campaign. He admits to plenty of mistakes. But his complaint that he has not gotten fair coverage is echoed by a report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The center's study of 187 CBS, NBC and ABC evening news reports found that only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of Dean in 2003 were positive. The other Democratic contenders collectively received 78 percent favorable coverage during the same period.
In the week after the Iowa caucuses, the center found that only 39 percent of the coverage of Dean on network evening news programs was positive; in contrast, 86 percent of the coverage of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was positive, as was 71 percent of the coverage of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the new front runner. Even CNN's general manager now admits that the cable networks overplayed the "scream" – which was aired 633 times on national networks in the four days after Iowa voted on January 19.
Yet, even as he tries to resurrect his campaign with a make-or-break push toward Wisconsin's February 17 primary, Dean does not talk much about media coverage of his campaign. Why? "It's not central to the stump speech. If I were leading the polls by 20 percent, I could say anything I wanted about the media," he explains. "But what I've discovered is that, if you complain about the media, they write that you're whiney and complaining. So I don't complain about the media."
That does not mean, however, that Dean does not think about how he would handle media issues if elected. "I figure I'll win, and then I'll really complain about the media," he says.
What does Dean mean by that?
"I think democracy fails under a variety of conditions and one of the conditions occurs when people don't have the ability to get the kind of information they need to make up their mind. Ideologically, I don't care much for Fox News. But the truth is that, as long as there are countervailing points of view available on the spectrum, it doesn't matter," says Dean, who began speaking last year about the need to reduce the power of big media companies.
"Now, the last time I saw a statistic on this, I think that 90 percent of the American people got their news from a handful of corporations," he adds. "That's not very good for democracy, and that's not very good for America. If I become president of the United States, I'm going to appoint a whole lot different people to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) so that we start to make the media more diffuse, more responsible. I'd also like public airwaves devoted to some public services – so that every single station serves the community where it is located."
Dean dismisses the notion that proposals to break the grip of media conglomerates are radical. "That's not radical at all," he says. "That's what we used to have. The right wingers have undone that over the last 15 or 20 years, and we need to go back to what we had to have a sound democracy."
Dean also dismisses the notion that it would be difficult to get the American people to go along with a challenge to big media. "I think the public would love what I was doing," he says of a presidential assault on media monopolies. "The public doesn't particularly like the media, which works in my favor."