The sheer volume of coverage devoted this week to Sen. John Kerry’s “botched joke” has been stunning, even to our jaded eyes.
To maintain our sanity, we’ll break off a small chunk of the problem and focus our complaints for now on cable news — specifically, CNN (you know, the network whose mid-term election coverage has included exploring such critical questions as: “What Would Alex P. Keaton Do?”) and, specifically, on CNN’s “surround the story” coverage of BotchedJokeGate Wednesday afternoon and evening.
In sum, CNN couldn’t get enough of it. There were reports on Kerry’s original comments. Reports on assorted responses to Kerry’s comments. Reports on Kerry’s non-responses and responses to those responses. And reports on various responses to Kerry’s non-responses and responses.
Wolf Blitzer kicked off The Situation Room Wednesday afternoon by informing viewers that “there’s been no let up today in the Republican demands for an apology from Kerry,” before turning to White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux to ask the incisive question, “What precisely are they saying today, Suzanne?” Reported Malveaux: “For the White House, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.” (Thanks in no small part to CNN and its coverage of each cynical twist and turn.) Blitzer interrupted Malveaux’s report to read Sen. Kerry’s “carefully worded statement” of apology.
Moments later, during an interview with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), Blitzer asked, “Is this over with now that [Kerry has] apologized?” and followed that up with, “So this story is over with as far as you’re concerned?” (Er, why was Blitzer looking for cues from Boehner as to when or whether a particular story “is over?” Isn’t that a call for Blitzer and CNN to make?) Boehner’s reply? “It is.”
Actually, it is not —- because, as Blitzer noted after the Boehner interview, “Up next, we’ll have more on the John Kerry controversy. Will the continued war of words have an impact on next week’s election?” In chimed Malveaux with “some reaction to John Kerry’s apology from officials at the White House.” Malveaux then read a statement from a Bush spokesperson (Kerry’s apology was “late, but the right thing to do”) at which point Blitzer commented, “It sounds like the White House is ready to move on as well…”
So, the majority leader says the story is “over.” The White House is “ready to move on.” What about CNN?
Not even close.
Moments later on the Situation Room:
BLITZER: “He’s apologized, but is it too late for John Kerry? Will the controversy hurt his chances in the next race for the White House? Or will it impact this year’s election at all? Jeff Greenfield standing by to weigh in…Jeff, with the apology, story over with now?”
GREENFIELD: Yes. I think — I think you just heard from John Boehner that, what are they going to do now, you know, ask him to go run through the streets and flog himself?”
But no. The story was not “over with now” for Blitzer, who later wondered aloud: “He’s apologized now. Is it enough?”
Not “enough” for CNN. Soon thereafter, Suzanne Malveaux returned to add this: “It’ll be interesting to see just how much legs this story really has. Vice President Cheney, in excerpts released by the White House, is supposed to make a joke, saying that Kerry was for his joke before he was against it, in a campaign rally in a couple of hours. We’ll see whether or not he actually makes those remarks…”
From there, Blitzer and his Situation Room colleagues went on to examine BotchedJokeGate from multiple new angles. To wit:
BLITZER: “John Kerry’s comments in California are being felt on the front lines. We’re seeing instant reaction almost from members of the U.S. military online. Our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner standing by with more on that.”
BLITZER: “Coming up, from the top of the heap to untouchable in only two years. We’ll take a closer look at the declining fortunes of Senator John Kerry. Can he now bounce back, though, for another potential presidential run?”
And, in an exchange with Lou Dobbs teasing Dobbs’ 6 p.m. program, Blitzer said, “I know you’ll be doing more on [BotchedJokeGate] coming up at the top of the hour.” Replied Dobbs, “Not too much. I’m getting kind of tired of it Wolf, to be honest with you.” And so Dobbs delivered two reports on the matter, including the following from Suzanne Malveaux: “I asked Press Secretary Tony Snow, ‘With this apology, does this story go away?’” (Again, has it not occurred to the intrepid newsmen and women at CNN that they do have some ability to determine when this story “goes away?” This had, apparently, occurred to Snow who answered Malveaux’s question thusly: “That’s up to you.”)
And if it’s “up to” Malveaux,” then the story was not to “go away” just yet, considering her next sentence was: “But we can tell you that Vice President Cheney is going to be talking, addressing this Kerry controversy once again in about an hour at a Republican campaign event out of Montana.”
Doing his part, CNN’s Jack Cafferty read some e-mail replies to his “e-mail question of the day” — naturally, “Did Senator John Kerry’s comments hurt the Democrats’ chances in next Tuesday’s elections?” — including the following: “Jack, the only people who make a mountain out of a molehill are you and Wolf running something that was said into the dirt. You guys have gone on and on and will until you get an apology for nothing said in the first place. You won’t read this letter, you only read the ones that you view that suits what you want people to believe.” Cafferty’s retort? “Guilt by association, they blame you, too.”
At this point, it seems Blitzer experienced some sort of paroxysm of guilt. He replied, contritely: “No, they can blame us. I got a lot of e-mail saying enough with this Kerry stuff, let’s move on. There’s a war going on in Iraq right now. There’s a missing American soldier. Other U.S. troops are dying all the time. That’s a pretty important issue we should be looking at very closely.” (No argument from us there.)
And yet, questions that figured prominently on the next hour of the Situation Room included: “Will Kerry’s apology be enough?” followed by, “Will Kerry’s gaffe continue to haunt Democrats?” And Blitzer’s colleague Paula Zahn checked in again with Malveaux at the White House:
ZAHN: “So Suzanne, you have talked to a lot of people about this. What is the expectation then? That they will continue to stoke this right up until the time of the election?” (Apparently, “they” will stoke it and CNN will merely report on the “stoking,” doing, of course, no “stoking” of its own.)
MALVEAUX: “Well I think it’s lost a little bit of its luster here. I mean we’ll see what happens. We know that Cheney is going to be addressing it within the hour or so. Whether or not people are actually going to pick that up and run with it…” (Or better yet, preview it before it happens.)
Zahn went on to query guests Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens on the Kerry controversy — and, like Blitzer, appeared immune to their pleas to move on to more important matters.
ZAHN: “…Will [BotchedJokeGate] sink some Democrats in tight races?”
SULLIVAN: “… I think this is over now. I really do. And I think it’s time to move on to the real issues. We have abandoned an American soldier to the Shiite militias in Baghdad. Where is he? Since when does the commander in chief abandon a U.S. soldier to the enemy? When are we going to hold this man accountable for doing that instead of parsing the words of someone who is not even on the ballot?”
ZAHN: “But, Christopher, at the end of the day, is it meaningful at all what John Kerry said on Election Day? Will it change votes?”
HITCHENS:”…I agree with Andrew. It’s almost degrading to have to discuss it, but since we are doing so, I think that’s what ought to be said. It’s an attempt — it looks like it’s talking about Iraq when it’s not.”
During the 8 p.m. hour of The Situation Room, Blitzer was at it again, asking, “A week from now, will the Republicans have John Kerry to thank for another good election?” To help answer that question, Blitzer turned to “conservative columnist Ann Coulter,” kicking off his interview with this: “So, let’s start off by talking about Senator John Kerry. Was the apology enough?” (And if you actually care about Coulter’s response, we’re going to let you Nexis it yourself.)
Even Larry King Wednesday night managed to squeeze a question about BotchedJokeGate into his 9 p.m. sit-down with Katie Couric, asking Couric at one point, “What do you make of the John Kerry thing?” (And if you actually care about her response, we’re going to let you Nexis it yourself.)
At 10 p.m., Anderson Cooper chimed in: “Round two — Kerry says he’s sorry, but slams the GOP again. With Democrats distancing themselves from him, could this be the surprise the Republicans have been hoping for?” After an update from John King the conscientious Cooper got back to business: “Sadly, as the debate and the finger-pointing continues, so does the death toll. Here’s the sobering ‘Raw Data.’ The Pentagon said an American soldier was killed in Iraq today. Since the war began, 2,819 U.S. troops have died. More than 21,000 American service members have been wounded….”
But just so things didn’t get too sober on CNN, even the fine hosts of the network’s 11 p.m. program, Showbiz Tonight, managed to weave a mention of BotchedJokeGate into their packed lineup of celebrity news Wednesday night — specifically, that two hosts of ABC’s talk showThe View “duke[d] it out” over “the controversy over Senator John Kerry`s comments.” Explained Showbiz Tonight“s Sibilia Vargas, “Now, I don`t know if you`re watching, but things got very heated on The View this morning when the conversation turned to one of the biggest stories out there leading up to the elections.”
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.
However did this become “one of the biggest stories out there leading up to the elections?”