Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Peer Pressure and the Press

Republicans are amazed by the disparity in the news coverage of Senator Kerry and President Bush. As well they might be. Kerry's triple back-flips on virtually every issue are "explained" in The New York Times and The Washington Post as the products of a "nuanced" mind at work. President Bush's straightforward assertions are portrayed as the lies of an ill-advised moron. What's going on here?

Some of what is going on here is classic honeymoon stuff; you get some free spin after you lock up the Democratic nomination. Another piece is simple front-running; politicians who are ahead in the polls get better coverage than those who are behind. And some of this is simply liberal wish fulfillment thinking; if he's anything like how we describe him then maybe we can learn to like him.

Senator Kerry is, as most everyone who knows anything about politics knows, an insufferably arrogant and self-involved bore. The press know this better than most, since they've had to cover him for what has seemed, to them, like an eternity. Yet something is holding them back.

That something is peer pressure. First of all, understand that Democratic campaign operatives and members of the press see themselves as flip sides of a coin. They share the same values, they're ideologically in tune, they socialize together, they both advance the greater good, each in his or her own way. Occasionally, reporters act badly and go off on unproductive tangents. Democrats are always amazed by this and teach seminars at places like the Kennedy School to remind the media of their higher obligations.

In the main however, the two work hand in glove. Your average New York Times reporter sees a Democratic operative as his or her ally in the world. That same reporter knows a handful of "good Republicans," but assumes confidently that all others are hopeless reactionaries.

The synergy of journalists and Democratic campaign operatives suffered something of a breakdown in 2000. One of the loudest complaints of the Gore campaign was that the vice president's traveling campaign press corps treated him "unfairly." The charge seems almost quaint now, in light of what has been said about President Bush. But the memory of Gore's "unfair" treatment by the press corps is very much alive inside the Kerry campaign (and amongst major Democratic players in general) today.

The message from these aggrieved Democrats to the press is that the press cannot make the "Gore mistake" again. The last time it led to Bush (which almost all of them view as the political equivalent of Three Mile Island). If it happens this time, it will lead to Bush and as many as three new Bush-appointed Supreme Court Justices. A truly catastrophic event, if you're a liberal, which they all are.

Because of this peer pressure, the press coverage of Kerry so far has been remarkably solicitous, especially when one remembers that most reporters basically share Mr. Kaus's view of the man.

Can it hold? Or will the peer pressure spell eventually crack under torturous exposure to the Brooding Botox-ed Brahmin? Eight months is a long time. A very, very, very long time.