If Howard Dean thought it would be a great idea to heighten his profile by becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), he was making a big mistake. Since he was elected to the top party spot on Feb. 12, Democrats have been hiding him like the Clinton staff hid mistresses.
They've had big help from a national media blackout. As Dr. Dean traveled the country dispensing gaffe after gaffe, the national networks ignored him almost entirely. On Thursday, June 2, he cracked at a left-wing convention that a lot of Republicans "have never made an honest living in their lives." ABC, CBS and NBC ignored him for three days, until the Sunday morning interview programs, which have about one-quarter to one-half the ratings of the evening news.
John Edwards distanced himself from Dean on Saturday, and then Joe Biden did the same on ABC Sunday. Then, on Monday night, "NBC Nightly News" took up Dean's loose lips. Fourteen minutes into the show, with no promotion at the newscast's outset, anchor Brian Williams began: "In Democratic politics, he's hard to miss." Wrong. He's been easy to miss if you're watching network TV news.
But Andrea Mitchell's story was pretty tough, featuring a list of Dean gaffes, and a list of horrified Democratic reactions to Dean, from Biden and Edwards to consultant David Axelrod to former party chairman Bob Strauss. (Sen. Richard Durbin and an online statement from Edwards were brought to Dean's defense.)
But NBC's single story is the exception. The rule has been a pattern of blackout at the Big Three since the weekend Dean was elected. CBS hasn't mentioned the words "Howard Dean" since Feb. 20. ABC and NBC both ignored Dean for two months until they found Dean's critical comments useful during the mid-April controversy over Terri Schiavo's death. But Dean's gaffes were nowhere to be found. They also ignored Dean for the rest of April, and then May.
So when Dean was scheduled for a rare national TV shot on NBC's "Meet the Press" on May 23, they must have been passing around the Advil for the headaches to follow. The truly jaw-dropping moments came when Tim Russert made the obvious comparison that emerged from Howard Dean's mouth. On May 14, Dean said Tom DeLay ought to go back to Houston "where he can serve his jail sentence." But in December of 2003, Dean said we shouldn't prejudge the guilt of Osama bin Laden: "I've resisted pronouncing a sentence before guilt is found." Russert asked him to reconcile the double standard.
"To be honest with you, Tim, I don't think I'm prejudging him," Dean declared about DeLay, arguing that somehow a reprimand from the House Ethics Committee -- which in traffic-cop terms is a warning, not a ticket -- is somehow evidence of criminal guilt. He argued, "I think there's a reasonable chance that this may end up in jail." When Russert followed up by noting that even liberal Democrat Rep. Barney Frank thought the jail talk was out of line, Dean repeated: "As I said before, we're not speculating here." (We're not??) For giggles, he added: "We're not going to stoop to the kind of divisiveness that the Republicans are doing."
Russert also noted that at an ACLU event, Dr. Dean had mocked Rush Limbaugh by joking that Rush snorted cocaine between sentences on his radio show. Russert didn't note that Rush was treated for Vicodin addiction, not cocaine, but did ask if a physician ought to be mocking someone in therapy. Dean unloaded yet another volley, this time about conservative hypocrites, and then said -- get this -- "We ought not to lecture each other about our ethical shortcomings." What was it he'd just been saying about DeLay and jail?
It was a disastrous performance. Guess how many news stories that night and the next day on ABC, CBS, and NBC underlined Dean's meltdown? ABC and CBS offered nothing. NBC's Sunday "Nightly News" used only a bland Dean clip on the filibuster.
With the exception of Andrea Mitchell, the networks are also ignoring how Dean is performing off camera. He's failing to produce the financial windfall DNC members expected from fiery anti-war left-wingers. Federal election reports show the DNC raised $14.1 million in the first quarter of 2005, vs. the RNC's $32.3 million. Dean drew about 20,000 new donors, while the GOP picked up 68,200. Republicans have $26.2 million in the bank vs. $7.2 million for the Dems.
If the liberal media wanted to look like they weren't reporting from inside the press-release shop at the DNC, they aren't helping their image with a Howard Dean blackout. Instead, they sound more like Pepto-Bismol. They're the medicine that coats, soothes, and protects the Democrats from the indigestion caused by their fiery, gassy leader.