The New York Times
August 3, 2004
A message to my fellow journalists: check out media watch sites like campaigndesk.org, mediamatters.org and dailyhowler.com. It's good to see ourselves as others see us. I've been finding The Daily Howler's concept of a media "script," a story line that shapes coverage, often in the teeth of the evidence, particularly helpful in understanding cable news.
For example, last summer, when growth briefly broke into a gallop, cable news decided that the economy was booming. The gallop soon slowed to a trot, and then to a walk. But judging from the mail I recently got after writing about the slowing economy, the script never changed; many readers angrily insisted that my numbers disagreed with everything they had seen on TV.
If you really want to see cable news scripts in action, look at the coverage of the Democratic convention.
Commercial broadcast TV covered only one hour a night. We'll see whether the Republicans get equal treatment. C-Span, on the other hand, provided comprehensive, commentary-free coverage. But many people watched the convention on cable news channels - and what they saw was shaped by a script portraying Democrats as angry Bush-haters who disdain the military.
If that sounds like a script written by the Republicans, it is. As the movie "Outfoxed" makes clear, Fox News is for all practical purposes a G.O.P. propaganda agency. A now-famous poll showed that Fox viewers were more likely than those who get their news elsewhere to believe that evidence of Saddam-Qaeda links has been found, that W.M.D. had been located and that most of the world supported the Iraq war.
CNN used to be different, but Campaign Desk,
which is run by The Columbia Journalism Review, concluded after reviewing
convention coverage that CNN "has stooped to slavish imitation of Fox's most
dubious ploys and policies." Seconds after
Commentators worked hard to spin scenes that didn't fit the script. Some simply saw what they wanted to see. On Fox, Michael Barone asserted that conventioneers cheered when Mr. Kerry criticized President Bush but were silent when he called for military strength. Check out the video clips at Media Matters; there was tumultuous cheering when Mr. Kerry talked about a strong America.
Another technique, pervasive on both Fox and CNN, was to echo Republican claims of an "extreme makeover" - the assertion that what viewers were seeing wasn't the true face of the party. (Apparently all those admirals, generals and decorated veterans were ringers.)
It will probably be easier to make a comparable case in New York, where the Republicans are expected to feature an array of moderate, pro-choice speakers and keep Rick Santorum and Tom DeLay under wraps. But in Boston, it took creativity to portray the delegates as being out of the mainstream. For example, Bill Schneider at CNN claimed that according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 75 percent of the delegates favor "abortion on demand" - which exaggerated the poll's real finding, which is that 75 percent opposed stricter limits than we now have.
But the real power of a script is the way it can retroactively change the story about what happened.
On Thursday night, Mr. Kerry's speech was a palpable hit. A focus group organized by Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, found it impressive and persuasive. Even pro-Bush commentators conceded, at first, that it had gone over well.
But a terrorism alert is already blotting out memories of last week. Although there is now a long history of alerts with remarkably convenient political timing, and Tom Ridge politicized the announcement by using the occasion to praise "the president's leadership in the war against terror," this one may be based on real information. Regardless, it gives the usual suspects a breathing space; once calm returns, don't be surprised if some of those same commentators begin describing the ineffective speech they expected (and hoped) to see, not the one they actually saw.
Luckily, in this age of the Internet it's possible to bypass the filter. At c-span.org, you can find transcripts and videos of all the speeches. I'd urge everyone to watch Mr. Kerry and others for yourself, and make your own judgment.