It's 2004 at last, and another presidential campaign year can be said to have officially begun.
Because most Americans will never have the chance to see, much less personally question, President Bush or any of the Democratic candidates, the media - and especially television - will shape the views most people have of them. And how are the media doing so far? Are they giving the public a "fair and balanced" look at all the candidates so people can make up their minds based on solid, accurate and verifiable information?
To quote a rental car commercial, "Not exactly."
The one thing to remember about the media is that they hate a one-sided race, unless the side in the lead happens to share their political philosophy. Generally, electoral blowouts hurt TV ratings and diminish the sense of importance most journalists have about themselves and their ability to influence events and "save the world."
President Bush's approval ratings are in the low 60s, according to several polls. Like they did with his father when the elder Bush's ratings were even higher, the media will do what they can to reduce his approval.
Remember the phony story about Bush the elder not recognizing a supermarket price scanner at the checkout counter? The media turned that into a story about his "insensitivity" to ordinary folks.
The early media line was unveiled on ABC last Sunday, when correspondent Terry Moran, sitting in on "This Week" for former Clinton administration operative George Stephanopoulos (no ideological difference there) noted that in the 2000 race, George W. Bush campaigned as "a uniter, not a divider." Moran concluded that he had failed and that he has become a "divisive president" and a "divisive figure." To liberals like Moran, one is a divider when one doesn't buy into the liberal line and offends their governmental, economic and cultural sensibilities. It does not matter to most of the media when conservatives are offended and thus "divided" and excluded from consideration by their leaders. To them, one can only unite (even though one divides conservatives) by reflecting a liberal worldview.
On CBS, Bob Schieffer echoed the Moran view, calling the president "a polarizing politician." While acknowledging that Bush, as governor of Texas, did seem to bring people together, now, according to Schieffer, he "seems to have become someone that you either love or hate." Liberal Democrats did not find that a problem with President Clinton. While agreeing that people either loved or hated Clinton, much of the media didn't think that made Clinton "divisive." They treated negatively people who hated Clinton, while they frequently treat Bush haters as noble and virtuous, wanting only the best for all of us.
Back on ABC, Moran was doing his best to set the tone and agenda for the media's campaign approach. In a question to former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, Moran observed: "For many Americans, this is a divisive president. Is he vulnerable in the manner in which he seems to polarize people's opinions?" Panetta answered, "I think that is the case." (Surprise!) No self-respecting media liberal would ask such a question of, say, Sen. Hillary Clinton, about any of the Democratic presidential candidates and why they fail to draw conservative support. Apparently, division is a one-way street.
On CBS, Schieffer claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean is bringing people together. His source? A New York Times writer who believes the evidence comes from Dean's success as an Internet fund-raiser.
Again, if most people form their impressions of political figures by what they see on television and read in their newspapers, would it not be fair to say that the media shape those views by the way they choose to cover the candidates, the questions they ask and the biases they convey? Call someone a "divider" long enough, and at least some people will believe it.
Constantly referring to a candidate as a "uniter" (while ignoring those from whom he is divided) sends a different message.
The media are just getting warmed up. If Bush's approval ratings begin to decline (as they surely will), watch for the media attack to intensify. If his ratings remain high, watch for the media to become apoplectic. Why?
Because the media are the real dividers.