- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Howard Dean was once a media darling, painted as the good country doctor come to cure the nation’s ills and lend the Democrats some mettle. Mr. Dean made great political theater as journalists showcased his spunk.

Now they’re not so sure.

The press has gone on patrol, tweaking the former Vermont governor over his rhetoric and his past. Yesterday, for example, the New York Times ran a front-page expose of Mr. Dean’s tenure as governor, revealing Vermont’s largest health insurance contracts had been awarded under a cloud of possible favoritism 10 years ago.

“For candidates in a campaign situation, journalists are either at your throat or at your feet. They’re at Dean’s throat right now,” said Alex Jones, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

“That’s not unique to Democrats, though,” Mr. Jones said. “Unfortunately, journalists find competition more interesting than issues. They tend to frame the tone of their stories as a fight, favoring style over substance.”

The press also has predictable treatment for the favorites.

“They fall in love for a moment with the front-runner, and Dean is the front-runner,” said CNN’s Judy Woodruff by phone from Los Angeles yesterday. “But inevitably reporters start looking for warts, and eventually that soft underbelly. So he’s under some real scrutiny right now.”

Indeed, Mr. Dean has stimulated the descriptive reflex of journalists who now cover his gaffes du jour with relish.

“Why did God give Howard Dean a mouth? So he would have a place to put his foot,” said Wall Street Journal Online’s James Taranto after Mr. Dean insisted the biblical book of Job was part of the New Testament during a press conference Monday.

In recent weeks, his image as emboldened he-man has suffered. Slate called him a “suicide bomber,” while others categorized Mr. Dean as belligerent, combative and shrill, among other things.

“The Democratic Party has an albatross, and his name is Howard Dean,” said a New York Daily News editorial last week. The Washington Post simultaneously declared that the Democratic Party was now searching for “the Anti-Dean.”

It is part of a media evolution of sorts, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

“Candidates who come out of nowhere initially get lots of ‘gee whiz’ stories from the press. Now Dean has gotten to the top of the heap, he’s made mistakes, smart reporters noticed, the stories change,” Mr. Kohut said.

Mr. Dean’s media fate can be charted on the covers of the nation’s newsweeklies.

In cover stories that both ran August 11, Time magazine announced the arrival of “The Dean Factor,” ushered in by a “Park Avenue rebel” with “money, momentum and excitement.” Newsweek anointed Mr. Dean “The Left’s Mr. Right.”

This week, Time asks, “Who is the real Dean?” while Newsweek proclaims, “Doubts about Dean.”

Those doubts, writes Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, are shared by political rivals and “Beltway insiders, especially Clinton loyalists who fear (correctly) that Dean represents a changing of the guard.”

But some believe the press has been “ganging up on Howard Dean” for months.

The candidate was at risk of being “fatally marginalized” by “inside-the-Beltway media” determined to question Mr. Dean’s presidential prowess, wrote Ruth Conniff of the Progressive magazine — on Aug. 8 last year.

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

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