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The Media and Howard Dean | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Media and Howard Dean

What if we lived in a parallel universe where Howard Dean was actually treated fairly by the media?

I don't mean some Deaniac bizarro world where the former Vermont governor's "I Have a Scream" speech in Iowa would be treated as world-class oratory, or where it would go unmentioned that his campaign is essentially broke. I mean a place where Dean would be treated like the other candidates--criticized for his mistakes, complimented for his accomplishments and, above all, treated seriously when he discusses issues.

How would a Dean candidacy be fairing today if the press gushed over him as it does John Edwards, or forgave him his trespasses as quickly as it does John Kerry, or overlooked the disorder in his organization as casually as it does the daily disaster that is Joe Lieberman's so-called campaign?

The answer, of course, is "better."

Dean has made mistakes, to be sure. But those mistakes have been amplified by a 24-hour-a-day news cycle, by late-night comics, by an Anybody-But-Dean army of cable television and talk-radio talking heads, and by Washington-centric newspaper columnists who never understood or particularly approved of Dean's decision to show up uninvited at the top of Democratic polls in late 2003.It wasn't just cable commentators and comics that gave Dean a hard time, however. According to the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, Dean was the favorite target of the evening news programs on the nation's broadcast networks. 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.

The battering Dean took from the media actually strengthened him at first. Grassroots Democrats, like most Americans, are angry with media that did not have the courage--or the basic journalistic skills--to expose George Bush's lies about weapons of mass destruction and tax cuts for the rich before Americans started losing their lives in Iraq and their jobs in the heartland. For a time, the jabs he took from the media bounced off Dean as easily as did the attacks from the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council and other fronts for the Republican-lite wing of the party.

But, eventually, the hits began to take their toll. Despite the fact that Dean is actually better on his feet now than at any time since he announced his candidacy, he is greeted with skepticism even by Democrats who admit that they like his message. Traveling with Dean in South Carolina this week, I saw him earn thunderous applause from voters who said they appreciated his antiwar, anti-establishment message. When I asked if they would support him, however, these same Democrats quietly admitted they would probably vote for Kerry or Edwards--candidates who just weeks ago were dismissed as losers but are now regularly referred to as "electable" by the media pack.

It is true that every disintegrating presidential candidacy since that of John Adams in 1800 has blamed the media for its decline. But, in this case, Dean's complaints appear to be more credible than those of most damaged contenders.

How do we know?

Consider one place on the campaign trail where Dean did receive good press--or, at least, fair press--right up to the time when ballots began to be cast. That place is southwest New Hampshire, a region that still gets a lot of its news from a feisty independent daily newspaper called the Keene Sentinel. I know the Sentinel reasonably well because I wrote some for it during the 1984 New Hampshire primary season, and I have always kept up with its coverage of candidates and campaigns.

Since 1799, the Sentinel has been synonymous with news in what is known as the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire. The newspaper has a long history of taking politics seriously, and it still does. All the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination campaigned aggressively in southwest New Hampshire--which borders Dean's Vermont and Kerry's Massachusetts--and all of them earned front-page coverage of their statements and stands in the Sentinel.

So the Monadnock Region was treated to some of the most thorough coverage of the campaign in the country. And that coverage was not filtered through a "news center" in Washington or New York or Atlanta.

Thus, when it came time for the Sentinel to make an endorsement, the editors looked over their own coverage and came to a conclusion: Dean was not the screaming hothead portrayed on cable TV. Rather, they saw a sensible and appealing candidate, and they backed him, writing that, "Dean offers voters a wide range of well-thought-out policy initiatives, foreign and domestic, based on a dramatic--and one might say conservative--theme: I want my country back. That cry, coupled with Dean's direct, energetic style, appeals to a lot of Democrats and independents, and has attracted a large number of people to his campaign who had previously been alienated from politics of any kind. Dean is particularly effective in his open refusal to entice voters with wild promises of expensive new government programs...

"We come to this decision not without some difficulty, given the appeal of the (retired General) Clark and (US Senator John) Edwards candidacies. But we believe on balance that Dean is best-equipped to restore respect for this country abroad while protecting the interests of Americans at home. And we believe Dean, unlike the current occupant of the White House, understands that the two efforts must be linked. All nations reserve the right to act boldly in their own interests, but no nation--even our own exceptional nation--can thrive as a go-it-alone force on virtually every matter of international substance: energy, the environment, trade, war and peace. Dean has reasonable and we believe workable ideas for addressing Americans' needs regarding health care, the federal deficit, homeland security, jobs, civil rights and the economy. And he would reverse the current administration's shameless weakening of environmental laws.

"No one will accuse Howard Dean of being soft on anything--that's hardly his style. But in the long run, tough policies are most effective when they are also smart policies. We observed Dean through a long career as governor of Vermont accomplishing a great deal by combining diligence with intelligence. Along the way, he usually won the respect not only of his allies, but of many of his adversaries as well. If he can bring that vitality and that sensitivity to the national stage, he and we might well get our country back."

The Sentinel wasn't the only thing Dean had going for him in southwest New Hampshire. But the steady and responsible coverage the region's dominant newspaper accorded him, along with its endorsement, appear to have had at least some impact.

Last Tuesday, Kerry won New Hampshire by a margin of 39 percent to 26 percent for Dean. Dean, who had been leading in just about every New Hampshire region, according to polls taken late in 2003, saw his support slip dramatically in most places. But the former Vermont governor carried southwest New Hampshire, winning 6,639 votes to 6,070 for Kerry. Of 31 towns in the Monadnock Region, John Kerry won just 11, while Howard Dean took 20.

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