The Ten Worst Media Distortions of Campaign 2004

Swooning Over Edwards' Image, Ignoring His Liberalism

When George W. Bush selected Dick Cheney as his running mate in 2000, the networks went into overdrive warning audiences that the man who turned out to be their next Vice President was a “hard right” conservative. But after John Kerry selected John Edwards as his running mate on July 6, those same networks skipped over Edwards’ strict liberal voting record, instead touting the supposedly wonderful image and personality of the ex-trial lawyer.

TextBox5 “John Edwards’ phone rang this morning at 7:30,” NBC’s Carl Quintanilla trumpeted on the July 6 NBC Nightly News, “and on the other end, John Kerry both formalized Edwards’ rock star status and answered Democrats’ demands too loud to ignore.”

Byron Pitts, on the same night’s CBS Evening News, fawned how “with a style as syrupy as Carolina sweet tea, Edwards could also help in the South.” Pitts insisted: “Democrats have what many consider their dream team.”

And over on ABC’s World News Tonight, Dan Harris offered hope: “With his Southern accent and son of a mill worker biography, he may very well appeal to rural voters who the Democrats badly need.” George Stephanopoulos opined, “He may have only two campaigns under his belt, but Democrats say Edwards makes up for his slim political resume with raw political talent. A natural style. He doesn’t speak like he’s been in the Senate his whole life. He’s from the South; that broadens the ticket’s geographic reach and his small town roots should appeal to rural voters in other regions, too. Finally, all those years as a trial lawyer taught Edwards to argue tough cases with a big smile, which Democrats believe is perfect training for a debate with Vice President Cheney.”

But CBS wasn’t done fawning. The next night, Pitts called Edwards and Kerry a “dream team” when he reviewed the ticket’s first joint appearance for the July 7 Evening News: “It was the all important and perfectly choreographed first glimpse of the Democratic Party’s new dream team: The Kerry and Edwards families posing for pictures, a nervous first date with the American public.”

pitts071304Pitts kept up the fawning spin as he showed brief soundbites from the candidates: “Humor from the boss, humanity from his running mate....Team Kerry touched and tickled their way to Ohio, the first stop in a six-state, five-day swing through battleground states, where the Kerry campaign hopes this rope-line honeymoon will help introduce two men many Americans say they still don’t know, but what they do know they seem to like. A CBS News overnight poll shows more than half of all voters are glad Edwards was chosen....Both partners in this political marriage hope it’s a winning formula....At the moment, star-struck Democrats are willing to believe.”

On July 8, two days after Edwards was announced, CBS was still glowing: “The Democrats’ dream team of John Kerry and John Edwards hits the campaign trail today,” Hannah Storm chirped on The Early Show. Reporter Thalia Assuras swooned at the Democratic campaign’s photo-op: “It was a perfect portrait — smiles all around, hugs and hand-holding. A warm family photo of the Kerry/Edwards clans that seemed capable of melting the camera lenses.” Three days later, Lesley Stahl grilled Kerry on 60 Minutes: “You seem so pumped up since you chose Senator Edwards as your running mate. You’re looser. Do you think that his energy is rubbing off on you?”

Four years earlier, CBS and the other networks stressed Cheney’s conservative views. On the day of Cheney’s selection (July 25, 2000) CBS reporter Bill Whitaker managed three different adjectives, tagging Cheney “a bedrock conservative” and “a rock-solid conservative” with “a solidly conservative voting record.” Whitaker also relayed how Democrats are “planning to paint him as too far right and wrong for the country.” Earlier that morning, then-Early Show co-host Bryant Gumbel defined Cheney as outside of the mainstream: “Cheney’s politics are of the hard-right variety.”

But Edwards, selected earlier in the year by the National Journal as the fourth-most liberal Senator (with Kerry ranked as the most liberal), was not tagged as ideological by network reporters. Mentions of his liberalism were portrayed as Republican attacks, as when ABC’s Kate Snow on the July 6 World News Tonight asserted “the Republican rapid response team tore into John Kerry.” What followed was this soundbite from Ken Mehlman, Bush/Cheney campaign manager, talking about Kerry’s selection of Edwards: “He is the most liberal Senator, and he wants someone who’s almost as liberal as he is to run with him on the ticket.”

     Wow, that’s some attack.