- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

The Iowa caucuses were transformed from a heartland curiosity story to a major showcase for political trends and media mettle this year.

An indefatigable press chronicled each vignette of Democrats eager to pass muster in Davenport or Council Bluffs — the pancake breakfasts, the farm visits, the poll surges.

“It’s all bigger this time around. There’s worldwide interest in what turned into a last-minute, neck-and-neck horse race,” said CNN’s Bill Schneider yesterday. “I’m bumping into the BBC, Japanese television — can the Democrats beat Bush? That’s what they want to know.”

Some are annoyed by the coverage, in all its permutations.

“One more shot of some candidate flipping pancakes and I’ll lose it,” talk-radio host Laura Ingraham said yesterday.

“The easiest thing for the press is to camp out in a diner or some small-town meet-and-greet, rather than go for the substantive stuff,” she said. “What about Dean’s spot on the ideological scale or [Wesley] Clark’s flip-flop on Iraq?”

Miss Ingraham continued, “There was a ridiculous amount of time devoted to the Hollywood elites in Iowa. ‘Meathead’ and ‘President Bartlet’ got more play than Dick Cheney’s comments on the presence of WMDs in Iraq last week,” she added, referring to liberal actors Rob Reiner — once the “Meathead” son-in-law on “All in the Family” — and Martin Sheen, star of NBC’s “The West Wing,” as well as the vice president’s remarks on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Saturation coverage got some insiders feisty. When Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Joe Trippi, the campaign manager for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, to explain his boss’ fall in the polls despite intense media exposure, Mr. Trippi dismissed it as “broadcast coverage — that’s just the way the press covers things.”

Partisan favoritism emerged, however, according to a Media Research Center analysis of airtime doled out to Democrats by CBS, NBC and ABC morning news shows in the last six months of 2003.

The Democratic candidates, numbering nine at the time, had a combined 241 minutes on camera in that period, with a fifth of the questions “designed to amplify their condemnations of President Bush,” the study found. In the last half of 1999, Republican candidates got 136 minutes, with questions that primarily “highlighted GOP schisms.”

Journalists in parkas faced their grand finale last night.

“There were only so many hours in a day for the public to take in caucus coverage,” noted University of Iowa political analyst Cary Covington yesterday. “There was not more coverage per se, just more reporters doing it.”

He doesn’t think Iowans were fazed by any of it.

“They paid more attention to the candidate’s public contacts. Four or five election cycles ago, TV ads were all that was needed. Not any more. The hopefuls had to get out there,” Mr. Covington said.

“Iowa media scrutiny this year surpassed the past,” said Susan Ramsey of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce yesterday. “I’ve been through two previous caucuses. This time we had a significantly higher profile. Who would have thought there would be a four-way photo finish? That’s what fascinated the news media.”

• Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected]washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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