Just weeks ago, Howard Dean looked like he was popping corn in Iowa, comfortably on his way to the Democratic nomination. In the end, he was just creamed spinach, and most unmagnanimous in defeat. He was bitter and passing out blame. On CNBC, as the results rolled over him, Dean groused that he had become the front-runner and then "all you in the media had some fun at my expense."
How Clintonesque. In 1992, Clinton regularly whined that he was the most media-slammed and scrutinized candidate in American history. (You never heard that from Ronald Reagan, who perhaps was.) Compared to Dean, however, Clinton would have a point, having had to fake and feint around the career-testing punches of Gennifer Flowers and draft evasion before the New Hampshire primary. What scandal has Dean faced by comparison? Where's the media hostility?
NBC aired a Lisa Myers story suggesting that Dean had demeaned the Iowa caucuses in the mid-1990s on a Canadian public TV show called "The Editors." That's hardly a potential deathblow. Many press people came to Dean's defense on that score. In the next week's editions, those supposed Howard-haters at Time and Newsweek both suggested Dean was right to criticize the caucuses. He was even pitched as a truth-teller.
Most pundits expected a Dean victory in Iowa, not the pasting he received. Most media outlets treated Dean like a Democratic front-runner right up to Caucus Night. Already this year, Dean has received another three news magazine covers, which adds up to six. That's six more than John Kerry or John Edwards gained before Iowa voted. Both Time and Newsweek helpfully surrounded Dean's face with the American flag.
Then there's the easy treatment on TV. On Jan. 11, ABC's George Stephanopoulos repeatedly allowed Dean to claim that the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers received an average of only $304 in tax relief. But the Annenberg Public Policy Center, a liberal establishment organ, has called Dean's claim misleading since Dean arrived at his figure by averaging in the cuts received by the bottom 60 percent of households, "which includes all those who paid no taxes in the first place and thus got no cut." Dean was dishonestly demeaning Bush, and why not? The network fact-checkers were asleep.
On Jan. 9, CNN was still pushing the helpful message that somehow Dean is a political moderate. Reporter Kelly Wallace insisted that putting the Vermonter on the left is a "misperception ... Those who know him well say Governor Howard Dean was no left-wing liberal." Wallace further stated that Dean's biggest critics were "not Republicans, but left-leaning Democrats who sometimes found him too conservative."
On Jan. 6, CBS prepared a really tough "Evening News" story to accompany Bill Bradley's endorsement: "The Dean campaign also, apparently, offers America new love, as CBS's Richard Schlesinger reports." Schlesinger described how young people are finding dates at Dean's Meetup events, as a Brooklyn woman was looking for "Mr. Right," or as they joked in this case, "Mr. Left."
Can't you just feel that boiling media hatred?
Perhaps the funniest claim came from CBS "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer on Dec. 28. To him, Bush is "a polarizing politician" who "seems to have become someone that you either love or you hate." But Schieffer hailed Hostile Howard as a ... uniter? Yes. Even though Dean can't make nice with his fellow Democrats, Schieffer suggested Dean "is a hit" because he supposedly brought so many new people "together" through his Internet campaigning, and "you have to admire him for doing that. And in the long run, I think that's very good for politics."
Even after Dean greeted the results with a raging, growling, campaign-imploding speech, two of the networks tried to be nice, even as the rest of the country was already in stitches over his uncontrolled "YAAAAAAAAAH!"
ABC's Claire Shipman described it only as "aggressively upbeat," and Charles Gibson helpfully summarized "he's still feisty, says he fights on." In his interview, Gibson didn't even ask Dean a question about his meltdown. CBS's Cynthia Bowers described it simply as "brusque." The toughest words interviewer Hannah Storm could muster for Dean were that some found it "decidedly unpresidential." Only NBC's Katie Couric directly hammered the growler: "You were quite fired up, quite passionate, but some people feared you might implode."
Dr. Dean may not be the Democrats' prescription against President Bush. But the blame doesn't lie with the media. Dean needs to look in the mirror. Then he can scream his "YAAAAAAAAAH!"