Guest commentary

The media become political king-makers

By Robert C. Cuddy
Posted February 13, 2004

The media sabotaged Dean (cartoon by Daryl Cagle,

The primary system for presidential elections came about because people got sick of king-makers deciding for the rest of us who our party’s nominees were going to be. These dealmakers often were caricatured as cigar-chomping plutocrats in smoke-filled rooms.

Today, although voters ostensibly have a voice in selecting nominees, we have in actuality returned to the smoke-filled room. But this time party bosses have passed out cigars to a new breed of insider: the political press, especially those on television.

The media’s dismantling of Republican presidential aspirant John McCain four years ago, in collaboration with George W. Bush and the GOP party hierarchy, was a fine example of how this works. But we have a more current case study, which shows that the practice is bipartisan. This is not a Republican or Democrat thing: It is about the powerful continuing to disenfranchise the powerless.

Exhibit B: The dissing of Howard Dean

Dean was not the choice of party bosses. John Kerry was. But Dean worked the crowds and Internet, amassing a large, enthusiastic following. Dean was bringing in people who had left the system because they were disillusioned, disgusted, hopeless. In a phrase that now seems appallingly naive, he kept telling them "You have the power!"

If there is one thing the people who run this country don’t want, it is average citizens trying to grasp power. The need to fend off that threat is the one thing shared by John Kerry, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliff, President Bush, White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and pundits Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Diane Sawyer, Tim Russert, Judy Woodruff and all the other movers and shakers who traipse hand-in-hand through the corridors of power.

They headed off Dean and his newly hopeful followers with breathtaking thoroughness and unprecedented savagery. In so doing they showed who really had the power.

This is what happened to the pugnacious populist in December and January.

The confederate flag flap

Dean said southern guys who drive pickup trucks with confederate flags need jobs and health care as much as poor people elsewhere. The press clamped its incisors into the "confederate flag" phrase and willfully ignored the larger point -- all poor people need work and health care -- in an apparent attempt to make Dean look like a northern snob.

One news station exhumed (from Canada!) a 4-year-old tape of Dean criticizing the Iowa caucuses.

The Iowa 'screech'

Then came the infamous "Iowa screech," Dean’s concession speech. He praised Kerry and John Edwards for placing ahead of him, then shouted -- rather than spoke -- words of encouragement to his followers because the mikes weren’t working. George Shadroui wrote on that there had not been "such an overreaction to a silly moment since, well, maybe never."

News directors decided that "the yell" was the most important thing the public needed to know about Howard Dean. His health care plan, his jobs plan, his environmental credentials -- they didn’t count. They played the 10-second outtake 24-7 in the week before the New Hampshire primary.

Mark Shields told CNN anchor Aaron Brown the ceaseless use of the Iowa tape was a ‘tragedy" because it was likely to be the only thing most Americans would find out about Dean; they would not learn, as Shields said, that Dean had given the Democrats back their spine, which disintegrated after Sept. 11.

The "screech" replay finished him. A politician can’t overcome ridicule. After that, it was just more piling on.

Diane Sawyer's ambush

Just before the New Hampshire primary, for example, Dean and his wife went on the air with Diane Sawyer to explain that he does not bite the heads off children. However, far from fairly exploring the candidate's personality, the former debutante and GOP operative, in a despicable hit piece, ambushed the Deans, playing the Iowa clip four times and pressing Judy Dean (unsuccessfully) to say her husband has an uncontrollable temper.

Dean finished second in New Hampshire. He demoted campaign manager Joe Trippi. An MSNBC reporter who had covered the Dean campaign for months gushed like a school girl on Deborah Norville’s show about how Trippi, not the candidate, was the heart and soul of the Dean campaign. She said Dean didn‘t ‘deserve’ Trippi. Norville called the demotion a "sucker punch."

Finally, Bill Schneider, the GOP hack who masquerades as an impartial analyst for CNN, predicted Dean would win no states Feb. 9 but stay in the race. There's nothing wrong with that, but as he spoke old film clips of Bela Lugosi flickered in the background. Is it fair to portray Dean as "the undead"?

Oh yeah, the press treatment was even-handed.

Meanwhile, Kerry, one of the most ineffectual politicians in America, was getting the war hero treatment. He cynically exploited a former Vietnam buddy just before the Iowa caucuses. The press, snuffling into their hankies, did not call him on it.

By this time, Schneider, McAuliff and the other power cats were perturbed that all candidates didn’t just rally round Kerry. This after nine states had voted. What about the other 41, including California?The hell with them, McAuliff said: The "goal is to defeat George Bush."

Silly me, I thought the goal was to give Democrats nationwide a chance to express their opinions. But then I never have been able to breathe in smoke-filled rooms.


Cuddy, a Northern California free-lance writer, is former Editorial Pages Director for the Alameda Newspaper Group and a former member of the Contra Costa Newspapers Editorial Board.