The Ten Worst Media Distortions of Campaign 2004

CBS's Byron Pitts Promotional Kerry Coverage

Most reporters adopt a skeptical or even adversarial approach when they are assigned to cover a specific campaign, believing it their job to point out any newsworthy contradictions or gaffes and to ask tough questions of the candidate and his team. But CBS’s Byron Pitts seemed to define his job as transcribing the Kerry campaign’s spin points and supinely passing them off as news. Pitts rarely failed to give the Kerry campaign a positive plug whenever he had a chance to file a story for either the CBS Evening News or The Early Show.

Back on the February 11 CBS Evening News, Pitts obligingly helped the Democrats swat back at criticism of Kerry’s anti-war activities. Over a picture of Kerry getting a medal, Pitts warned that Republicans were trying to undermine Kerry’s image as a hero of the Vietnam War: “Kerry the Vietnam war hero? The GOP is developing their own spin. [Over a picture of Kerry sitting on the ground a few rows behind Jane Fonda at a 1970 anti-war protest in Valley Forge] This picture of John Kerry war protester, sitting near controversial anti-war activist Jane Fonda, now appears on a number of Web sites.”

Pitts then cut to a soundbite from former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile: “Remember Willie Horton? Well Willie Horton has been retired. Jane is taking his place, and they’re going to use that to undermine his credibility.”

On June 15, Pitts narrated a laudatory profile of Teresa Heinz Kerry for the CBS Evening News, touting her as “both rich and reachable” and trumpeting how she even “bakes brownies for the campaign press corps” while “close friends call her ‘Momma T’ for her nurturing ways.” On The Early Show on July 6, as reporters learned that John Edwards would be Kerry’s running mate, Pitts gushed, “When you talk to far the name you hear most often is John Edwards. He’s 51 years old. In 2000, People magazine selected him the sexiest politician in America.”

pitts080304aPitts promotion of Kerry’s campaign climaxed on July 29, the day Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. On The Early Show, Pitts narrated a profile of John Kerry that could easily have passed for a Democratic campaign commercial. The more than three-minute story included quotes only from Kerry, his wife, laudatory soundbites from liberal Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant, and Pitts’ fawning narration: “Tonight’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination is more than merely a day, it’s his destiny.”

Pitts showed Kerry as an anti-Vietnam war protester in 1971 dramatically asking Senators, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” but he gave no hint of how had Kerry alienated a great many Vietnam veterans by making unfounded charges of war crimes.

CBS’s entirely positive review of Kerry’s life ended with some of the Kerry campaign’s preferred “Band of Brothers” imagery: “The day before his speech, Kerry crossed Boston Harbor with some of his crewmates from Vietnam. His band of brothers. They have one battle left. But tonight the loner will stand alone here in his hometown one more time and look to do what John F. Kerry has nearly always done — find a way to win.”

pitts080304bThat night, just before John Kerry emerged into the convention hall to make his speech, Pitts passed along fawning spin points from Kerry operatives about how before every important event Kerry will “make a sign of the cross, then kiss the St. Christopher’s medallion his mother gave him as a child.” Plus, Kerry always keeps with him his “Vietnam dog tags” and “a four-leaf clover that a voter in Iowa gave him in January when he was trailing badly.” After the speech, Pitts relayed how John Kerry had supposedly reminded his sister that on her deathbed their mother told him, “integrity, that’s what matters,” and “tonight,” Pitts truckled, “John Kerry tried to show that integrity.”

After Kerry faced criticism from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in August, Pitts did not seek explanation or documentation from Kerry (as CBS’s John Roberts did with Bush over the National Guard flap in February). Instead, on the August 19 CBS Evening News Pitts framed the issue as one where Kerry was the victim of dirty politics: “Kerry, who’s made his tour of duty in Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign, realized today he could no longer let the ad go unanswered and took aim at President Bush for not condemning it.”

pitts080304cPitts also didn’t hesitate to try to discredit a Kerry detractor by bringing up Richard M. Nixon: “The men behind the Swift Boat Veterans ad refused to back off. Their leader, John O’Neill, was also Richard Nixon’s point man in attacks on John Kerry’s protest of the Vietnam War 30 years ago.” That’s the same smarmy approach Pitts took in May, when he was the only broadcast network reporter to even mention the Swift Boat vets’ charges.