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.