Here in this sports-mad town, where passionate fans are used to the heartbreak of losing teams, we can find an appropriate metaphor for the quadrennial clash of network newsies and Republican conventioneers. Having Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw present your alleged "infomercial" to the country is like having an Eagles football game broadcast by the New York Giants booster club. No matter what city the Grand Old Party chooses to inhabit, they are never the home team in the hearts of broadcasters.
In 1984, media scholar William Adams constructed an empirical measuring stick for network convention coverage. That year and in every subsequent political convention, the evidence shows the network news media failed to measure up to their own stated promise of balance and fairness. For example, in every convention from 1984 to 1996, Democrats were presented as the definition of moderation - yes, Mondale, Dukakis, and Clinton. Even Geraldine Ferraro's speech to those San Francisco Democrats was "pretty conservative." The Republicans, on the other hand, are constantly pigeonholed on the fringes of the "far right."
The GOP convention is underway, and here we go again. When George W. Bush tapped Dick Cheney as his running mate, the Democrats immediately went on the war path, wildly accusing Cheney of favoring plastic guns for terrorists and the eternal imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. Would the media step back from these partisan accusations and explore the context of these long-forgotten legislative struggles, or explore the entirety of Cheney's record? No. They carried the attack without a nuance, dutifully announcing that Bush was suddenly "dogged" by Cheney's record as a "very hardline conservative."
It didn't matter that there were no specific plastic guns to ban. It didn't matter that the Mandela bill was opposed by 190 House members (including 32 Democrats) because that resolution called for recognition of Mandela's African National Congress, a then-terrorist organization whose closest pals were progressives like the East Germans and the Libyans.
If Cheney was, as ABC declared, "one of the House's most conservative members," with a 90 percent American Conservative Union average, what about Al Gore, whose ACU rating in the Senate averaged about 10? Have you ever heard one of these reporters describe Gore as "one of the Senate's most liberal members"? ABC's Jim Wooten said it all when he helpfully and ridiculously claimed there was "not a liberal in sight" at the Democrats' 1992 convention.
Even as the Bush team sought to neutralize the venom of previous press convention assaults by watering down the Republican platform and appearing more in favor of ever-increasing government, the media would have none of it, relentlessly attacking its "hard right" planks. Over the weekend, NBC's David Bloom asked the GOP platform chairman, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson that since conservatives opposed special legal protection for homosexuals, "So the Republican Party is against any form or rights for homosexuals and lesbians?"
On Monday morning, CNN's Jeanne Meserve pressured Thompson three times about the Republican sweeping the liberals under the rug. "Some people say the party is not, in fact, so unified, that what the platform does is gloss over differences...Is the party for the moment failing to grapple with some of the serious issues that divided it - abortion, specifically?"
The likelihood that CNN will be fair and pressure Democrats in Los Angeles about excluding pro-life Democrats is on par with the notion that Bush will invite Arianna Huffington over for tea. If any TV reporter were to suggest that Al Gore should make a "bold" play for the independent vote and pick a pro-life running mate, he'd probably be fired without severance pay.
Then there's the quadrennial double standard toward the candidates' wives. While reporters are stuck on Automatic Fawn over Hillary's every move, and chuckle with Tipper Gore as she tries to describe her husband as a tiger in the bedroom, Laura Bush is prodded and pushed to disagree with her husband. ABC's "Good Morning America" began the week with host Charles Gibson pushing Mrs. Bush to explain where her husband was wrong. "But in this day of very independent females as well as males, isn't it important to know where you stand on issues, for instance like abortion, like the death penalty?" Gibson might as well have asked, "Just how much of a doormat are you going to be?"
For all the media distress over right-wing radicalism in the convention hall, they seemed more comfortable in the center of the city, where the radical left held a "shadow convention" for legalized drugs and taxpayer-financed campaigns. The "shadow convention" was utterly redundant, because the left always shadows the Republicans - with their network TV cameras in tow.