January 30, 2006
The Left’s Latest Conspiracy

By Tom Bevan

Apropos my column on Friday describing the problems facing big media - one of which is an assault by the left - it's time to tackle this strange bit of commentary by Peter Daou, John Kerry’s “netroots” strategist in the 2004 campaign. Daou recently wrote:

What's the common thread running through the past half-decade of Bush's presidency? What's the nexus between the Swift-boating of Kerry, the Swift-boating of Murtha, and the guilt-by-association between Democrats and terrorists? Why has a seemingly endless string of administration scandals faded into oblivion? Why do Democrats keep losing elections? It's this: the traditional media, the trusted media, the "neutral" media, have become the chief delivery mechanism of potent anti-Democratic and pro-Bush storylines. And the Democratic establishment appears to be either ignorant of this political quandary or unwilling to fight it.

There's a critical distinction to be made here: individual reporters may lean left, isolated news stories may be slanted against the administration. What I'm describing is the wholesale peddling by the "neutral" press of deep-seated narratives, memes, and soundbites: simple, targeted talking points that paint a picture of reality for the American public that favors the right and tarnishes the left.

Daou blows by a couple of important admissions. First, that “individual reporters may lean to the left” - which is another way of saying they're predisposed to being hostile to Republicans in general and Bush in particular. We know from a number of surveys of voting preference done over the last twenty years that journalists vote overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic Party at the national level. Second, that media coverage of Bush may be critical at times. Again, Daou doesn’t get specific. But, to take just one example showing a relative comparison, according to a study completed in 2004 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs Bush received just 23% positive press coverage in the weeks leading up to the 2004 election while John Kerry received a “record-breaking” 77% positive press coverage over the same period.

Nevertheless, from these two points Daou draws the rather inexplicable conclusion that the reason Democrats keep losing elections is because the mainstream media is unconsciously - or perhaps subconsciously - peddling pro-Republican talking points. This is another way of saying that the GOP has brainwashed the media.

In fact, later Daou says almost exactly that:

But this isn’t about “blaming the media” or excusing other strategic mistakes on the part of Democrats, it’s about understanding what happens when skillfully-crafted pro-GOP storylines are injected into the American bloodstream by the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Paula Zahn, Dana Milbank, Kyra Phillips, Cokie Roberts, Tom Brokaw, Jim VandeHei, Bob Schieffer, Bill Schneider, Tim Russert, Howard Fineman, Norah O'Donnell, Elizabeth Bumiller, Adam Nagourney, Bob Woodward, and their ilk, not to mention rabid partisans like Limbaugh, Coulter, and Hannity.

Look at the names on Daou's list. Absolutely laughable. Those crafty GOP strategists have really been putting one over on Bob Schieffer, Adam Nagourney and Howard Fineman in the last five years.

Daou's essay reads like a postmodernist collegiate thesis that tries to weave together a bunch of disparate assumptions into an elaborate theory explaining why black is white. Sometimes the world isn’t that complicated. It just is what it is.

For example, the reason Democrats keep losing elections is because they either put up awful candidates, run terrible campaigns, or both.

GOP strategists are no more smart or crafty than Democratic ones, they just have an easier time formulating a message because, by and large, conservatism is pretty darn simple and more easily explained than liberalism.

The flip-flop label stuck to John Kerry because he got caught uttering one of the most stupefying phrases in election history ("I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it") which struck the American people as incontrovertible evidence that he was, in fact, a flip-flopper.

The charge that Kerry was somehow treated unfairly by the media because more than a hundred of his fellow veterans came forward to say he was unfit to be Commander in Chief because of his actions both during and after Vietnam also falls flat. The press did just as big of a number on Bush over a few missing records from his days in the Texas Air National Guard. Someone even went so far as to forge documents about the story and the nice folks at CBS were good enough to put them on air for a national audience in the run up to the election. The mind strains to imagine what the press would have done if 100 of Bush's fellow Air National Guardsman had come forward to say he was unfit to serve.

The reason Democrats cannot shake the label they are soft on national security matters is because they do, in fact, constantly say and do things that lead people to believe that they are soft on national security. It's not because of some cunning strategy on the part of GOP strategists, for example, that Democrats gave Michael Moore a seat of honor next to Jimmy Carter at the DNC. Neither the GOP nor members of the media are responsible for electing Howard Dean as the leader of the Democratic Party or embracing the loony-antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. And we have to assume, barring some evidence to the contrary, that Jack Murtha was acting under his own power and not as a GOP agent when he took to the floor of the House and called for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Daou is right: there is a narrative running through all these collective events that Democrats are soft on national security. But that narrative exists not because of some complicated, subconscious tinfoil hat theory about GOP manipulation, but because Democrats put it there - in 1972. The legacy of McGovern is going to continue to haunt Democrats until they come out of denial and deal with it. That isn't going to happen while the base continues to convulse over members expressing the even the most moderately hawkish views (like Hillary Clinton) or running the hawks out of the party altogether (like Joe Lieberman).

Daou's piece is worthy of comment not only because Daou was a member of Kerry’s 2004 team but because Markos Moulitsas, liberal blogger and self-described "netroots” strategist who enjoys a budding influence within the Democratic party, raised a few eyebrows the other day when he said Daou's essay "may be the most important thing I've read in a long time."

This should concern Democrats who are serious about winning elections. The mainstream media has been, and for the most part continues to be very sympathetic to Democratic causes and candidates. Latching on to some harebrained, up-is-down theory of GOP media manipulation to help explain Democrats’ recent failure at the polls is more than a sign of frustration, it’s a signal that some in the party are in deep denial and aren’t willing to face up to certain realities and deal with them accordingly.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics.

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