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Campaign Compulsion: How the Media Picks the Candidates

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Last Updated: 06/06/2013 6:43 pm

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In an article entitled “General Clark and Anybody But Dean” (, 9/19/03), author John Ellis says, “The iron rule of media bias was once explained to me years ago by Henry Griggs, a media and political consultant. He described it as an analog of what he called 'Fiji math.' 'In Fiji,' he said, 'they used to count as follows: one, two, and many. There was no 'three' or 'four' or 'five'. There was just one, two, and then that third number; 'many'. That’s how the media cover politics. They can only count to two.”

Ellis goes on to explain: “This bias is exaggerated by the exorbitant cost of covering campaigns. Simply put, the major television networks, newsmagazines, and newspapers can’t afford to cover a 'many' field. It’s a budget buster inside a budget that already requires huge outlays for pre-primary coverage, primary and caucus Election Night broadcasts, party convention coverage, debate coverage, general election campaign coverage, and Election Night broadcasts. As a matter of simple economics, the field must be reduced to two as quickly as possible.”

An early choice of the press was Sen. John Kerry, who, as Bacon points out, was branded as far back as last February by no less prestigious outlets than Time and the Washington Post as the horse to beat. In the February 3 issue of Time, Karen Tumulty wrote, “John Kerry is starting to look like a front runner.” Less than three weeks later, on February 23, Post reporter Paul Waldman declared of Kerry, “Chances are, he’s already won the 2004 Democratic nomination.”

In the long run, the American public did not agree with these assessments. Despite what William Rivers Pitt, in a December 10 article titled “The Trials of John Kerry,” reported as Kerry’s “liberal record in the Senate...remarkable in its depth and consistency,” his history-making “public stand against the Vietnam war, augmented by his status as a decorated veteran of that conflict; his attacks on the Reagan administration, his fight to expose the Iran-Contra/BCCI scandal,” which “are among the main reasons the public became schooled on those travesties; his time on the Foreign Relations Committee places him head and shoulders above the other Democratic candidates in terms of real-world foreign policy experience,” Kerry’s vote for President Bush’s resolution to go to war with Iraq dealt a deadly blow to his campaign—a blow from which it is unlikely he will recover in this race for the presidential nomination.

According to Pitt, Kerry explained to a roomful of all-male (save Al Franken’s wife, Francine) big media journalists rubbing elbows in the Frankens' living room last month, “This was the hardest vote I have ever had to cast in my entire career...I voted for the resolution to get the inspectors in there, period. I believed Bush needed this resolution in order to get the UN to put the inspectors back in there. The only way to get the inspectors back in was to present Bush with the ability to threaten force legitimately. That’s what I voted for...I took the president at his word...Did I think Bush was going to charge unilaterally into war? No. Did I think he would make such an incredible mess of the situation? No. Am I angry about it? You’re God damned right I am. I chose to believe the president of the United States. That was a terrible mistake.”

There are some who fault Kerry with believing what the mainstream media was saying—that those who voted against the resolution would not have a chance in the 2004 election. According to Jeff Cohen, founder and former head of FAIR, “In October 2002, mainstream pundits said that any Democrat seeking the presidency would be committing political suicide by voting ‘No’ on the Iraq war resolution. Sen. Kerry acceded to the conventional wisdom. As usual, it was wrong. If Kerry had opposed the war resolution, he would long ago have sewn up the Democratic nomination, and Howard Dean would be a footnote. That Kerry blew it with that vote is now widely understood. But back then, the punditry—completely out of touch with the Democratic base—had no idea how deep anti-war sentiment was among Democratic activists.”

Indeed, a certain percentage of American public—those who chose not to follow along with the limited views of mainstream media and instead followed alternative sources of information—did not believe the reasons stated in the resolution put forth by the president and his administration. For these folks there will be no forgiving Kerry’s “mistake”. The day that news of the results of the vote on the resolution to go to war with Iraq came over the airwaves, a low growl of disbelief could be heard in living rooms, chat rooms, and coffee shops across the country. This growl, which went unheard in a mainstream media that was too busy airing the presidential war cry and hyping the patriotic “stand by the president in times of war” line, translated into a vow never again to vote for anyone who had signed onto this resolution.

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