Wednesday, July 20, 2005

How Media Bias Helped Lose the Election for Kerry

In a very interesting editorial, James Taranto claims that the media's liberal bias actually hurt John Kerry's quest for the presidency. Simply, the media bought into the war hero narrative and, because they wanted Kerry to win, failed to adequately question that narrative early on. The result was that Kerry thought Vietnam would be a winning issue when it actually ended up being as much of a negative as a positive.

I've long said that the "liberal bias" meme is way overplayed. I think more-often-than-not what the media has is a conflict bias in that it treats most issues as if they can be boiled down into an A versus B plotline. And conflict-bias makes perfect sense in the Kerry case. During the primaries and lead-up to the conventions, the "conflict" was played out in two directions. 1) Kerry's war-hero merits were in direct contrast to the Democrats’ weak-on-defense image. 2) Kerry’s war-hero status was in direct contrast to Bush’s less glorified service.

The media’s inability to delve past the conflict-driven story resulted in the media ignoring the full breadth of Kerry’s record—namely that his heroism wasn’t his biggest contribution to that era. His big contribution was his work as a protest leader. But the protest leader aspect didn’t fit into the conflict-mentality of the media early on and so it was ignored. And, as Taranto rightly argues, that decision hurt Kerry in the long run. He wasn’t forced to confront the contradictions of his war narrative until too late in the campaign.

And I’d say Kerry was further hurt because once the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth started their attacks, the media was tired of the conflict stories it had been running and was ready for another one. Dan Rather (who truly is liberally biased) tried making that new conflict the contrast between Bush’s image as a war President and his allegedly disgraceful service in the Air National Guard.

But Rather’s story was false. Instead, the lasting story of the fall was the conflict between Kerry’s self-presentation as a Vietnam war hero and his fiercely anti-war activities. Thus, instead of his service bolstering his claim that he could lead us in a time of war, Kerry was painted by his opponents and much of the media as a man who was better suited to opposing war than waging it.

I don’t know if any of this lost the election for Kerry and I’m not saying a conflict-bias was the only thing going on here—only that too often the media is so interested in portraying conflict that they decline to portray reality. Had the media done its job and properly analyzed Kerry’s full Vietnam-era record early in the campaign, Kerry may have avoided the Swift Boat Veteran attacks—or at least have been prepared to deflect them.


At 12:44 PM, Blogger AubreyJ said...

Good read Alan- Hope all went well with your house quest…
I’ll agree with this post fully yet I do so wonder when said- “what the media has is a conflict bias in that it treats most issues as if they can be boiled down into an A versus B plotline,” it still feels so lefty to me. Your 1000% correct when saying the media loves conflict though…

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Robert Rouse said...


I wouldn't go so far as to say Rather's story was false, I think it was the evidence he was using that was false. Had he pursued the story without the fake document, it would have carried a lot more weight.

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


The documents were false. The rest of the story was already known. But you are probably right. If it weren't for the documents, the media may have focused a little more on the true parts of the story. In their eagerness to break a gotcha-story, they killed the story all together.

At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a vietnam vet. Permit me to comment on your analysis. There are three elements of John Kerry's story in this last election which galvanized Vietnam veterans to vote against him.

(1) his posturing. He found out exactly how much he was dispised by his "band of brothers." We rose as one man in outrage when he bagan protraying himself as an American war hero. We aoallesced around numerous web sites and together, united for the first time, fighting with our backs to the wall, snubbed and slandered by the mainstream meadia, we stopped Kerry cold, bulldozing a story of cupidity, careerism, cowardice and betrayal, which should have been red meat to any truly "professional" rfeporte, onto the front pages by ourselves. Those rays of truth from private men, who had suffered silently for 30 years, illumintged Kerry's deceit and led to his defeat. And with that and with our victory we to some extent avenged our lost comrades and redeemed our lost cause.

(2) the idea that Vietnam War was "immoral": This is put out by the very same people who back John Kerry. Was the War "immoral? Look at the results/count backward. The Vietnam war was a conventional war not a "revolutionary War." Saigon fell to a coordinated all-out assault by 19 regular army North Vietnamese Divisions. Millions of South Vietnamese fled in small boats from this catastrophe; hundreds of thousand were imprisoned for years; Laos and Cambodia dominoes. Millions died on the killing fields. No, as Hemingway said, "I have seen war and hate it profoundly, but there are worse things and they all start with defeat." Kerry and the Democratic party and the people who support him unfortunately are still intimately linked to this defeat in the mind of the Vietnam vet.

(3) Finally the Democratic Party, beyond Kerry has a problem with "national defense" that posturing and spin cannot fix. For 35 years the Party has hated the military and Intelligence organizations. the Party and is newspapers (nyt and wp) never met a weapons system in liked, never saw a military deployment it could support, a DOD budget it could justify, never even identified a foe which was a threat. Instead, the Party and its newspapers concentrated on vilifying and lampooning the American soldier. The result? 70% of vetarans and their families and active duty military are now solidly "red campers."

Any search for the reasons for this must inevitably return to the 1972 electyion, to Vietnam yet again. McGovern sowed and the Democratic Party under the control of his activists has reaped the bitter fruit.

No, tactical spin only conceals the depth of feeling Viet Vets have for this Man and his Party, a lifetime altering sea change in politics. Harry Truman, JFK-I, Henry Jackson, where have all you strong men gone? Gone to Red States every one. When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn.


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