Here’s a thought for downcast Democrats trying to figure out why things went so right for President Bush: Stop listening to your own press. For the past two years every major organ of national communication except talk radio — network TV, New York publishing, major dailies, Hollywood and the music industry — ran with a single, anti-Bush theme. Cloistered in their opulent, heavily liberal urban centers, these outlets provided the Democrats with ready-made talking points from which to attack the president for his “failures,” “lies” and faith.
In an unprecedented campaign to bring down a sitting president, the media long known for its liberal slant outdid itself in the ferocity and magnitude of its intentional partisan assault. The rule of thumb was to give every Bush-basher his due. Discredited partisans, like Richard Clarke and Joseph Wilson earned top billing on the New York Times bestseller list, while their own lies went unreported. Tabloid biographer Kitty Kelley was given a three-day interview on NBC’s “The Today Show” for a book even most newspapers refused to review, while swift-boat veteran John O’Neill was slandered on a nightly basis.
The media awarded special attention to its celebrity clientele, of which no Hollywood temporary celebrity was too ignorant to point a camera at. They rolled out the red carpet for propagandist Michael Moore. They invited Bush-bashing tag-team Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins to join their talk shows, while Sean Penn was given column space in major daily newspapers. The anti-Bush teen-idols of MTV’s “Rock the Vote” and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ “Vote or Die” were dignified as the answer to the younger generation’s low voter turnout. HBO gave Bill Maher an hour for Bush bashing, and Comedy Central gave Jon Stewart a half-hour. Like groupies, reporters followed Moveon.org’s “Vote for Change” tour, which headlined such rock ‘n’ roll legends as Bruce Springsteen.
In their coverage, the elite media pumped stories that would get laughed out of any honest newsroom: The New York Times’ front-page spread of the “web of connections” between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Republicans; Dan Rather’s unapologetic use of forged memos; and the al Qaqaa cache of missing explosives that the NYT dropped one week before the election, and which CBS News planned to air 48 hours before voters went to the polls. And so it goes.
The problem for the Democrats is that none of this, as much as it is, worked — not even on the margin. The president stands astride the biggest electoral victory since 1988, earning more votes than any president in history. Meanwhile, the elite media executives no doubt are as shocked as the Democrats who trusted them. Months before the election, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas had one of the worst predictions in presidential politics: “The media wants [John] Kerry to win … There’s going to be this glow about them that is going to be worth … maybe 15 points.”
By any standard, the elite media’s performance has been shocking. With Mr. Bush back in office, will it now learn from its mistakes? Probably not, but the Democrats should.