A Day in the Life of CNN’s Political Coverage

Campaign Desk decided to watch an evening of CNN’s convention coverage, and identify where it went astray. It wasn’t hard. The excerpts below are all quotes from CNN reporters or their guests from last night’s coverage, divided into broad themes. Many are not necessarily, in themselves, instances of journalistic mealfeasance. But taken together, they give a sense of the way CNN has been covering the proceedings in Boston.

Defenders of Fox News, CNN’s arch rival, argue that Fox takes a conservative slant to offset CNN’s liberal stance. Critics of both think, by contrast, that CNN, badly bruised in the ratings war, has stooped to slavish imitation of Fox’s most dubious ploys and policies.

After tracking last night’s coverage, we know where we stand.

By Zachary Roth

1) CNN is so desperate for conflict that it’s willing to repeat every possible Republican-generated criticism, without making any attempt to sort through which are valid and which aren’t. This often entails allowing Republicans to recycle charges which have been shown to be untrue or misleading, without correcting them (quotes are excerpts, not continuous):

Anderson Cooper: Dana Bash keeping track tonight of which way the spinners are spinning thing. And there is a lot of spinning going on.

Cooper: Republicans have gone after John Edwards, saying he has no experience in national security.

Cooper: The GOP theme for the Democratic Convention has a bit of a reality show ring to it. They are calling it — quote — “The Democrats extreme makeover.” Republicans today are taking dead aim at candidate Kerry on security issues and what they say are examples of him flip-flopping on his support for the war in Iraq. The chairman of the Bush/Cheney reelection campaign, Marc Racicot, joins me right now.

Cooper: I mean I think you can make the argument, a lot of people — a lot of Democrats or a lot of people who supported Howard Dean early on were mobilized by their opposition to the war. At this convention, I mean the Republicans are saying look, this is a makeover convention. Is there any truth to that?

Cooper: Also tonight, where did he go, Michael Dukakis, a hometown guy, one time a presidential candidate, nearly invisible. Is that intentional? And Republicans are making hey about it. We’ll look at that.

Cooper (to Chris Heinz): I find it hard anytime people criticize my mom, I can only imagine what it is like for you. I mean people call your mom a liability, bossy, outspoken …

Cooper: Viewers may not have noticed Dukakis’ absence but Republicans sure have. They post a daily Dukakis watch on an RNC Web site. Ouch.

Jeff Greenfield: Twelve generals and admirals will testify to John Kerry’s military record and if you don’t think the Bush/Cheney campaign is paying attention, they released counterargument already. Twenty-one Medal of Honor winners have attacked, Kerry, independent so called swift boat veterans have attacked, Kerry, and on The Drudge Report a story apparently (UNINTELLIGIBLE) about John Kerry (UNINTELLIGIBLE) reenacting his things in Vietnam.

Judy Woodruff: He’s been able to overcome a good deal of the traditional argument because of his record in Vietnam, but you know, the Republicans are saying what happened in the intervening 30 some years? Where has he been?

Wolf Blitzer: One of the biggest problems that John Kerry has had is this Republican criticism that he flip-flops, that he votes one way, the next day, he votes another way. That is a serious criticism.

Woodruff: Another argument the Republicans make, the Bush Bush/Cheney campaign John Kerry has voted to cut defense. They have produced reams of documents to back up votes that he made in the United States Senate that they say show compare to practically not only the Republicans, but compared to many other Democrats. He has not voted to support the kind of military spending that would create a strong America.

Greenfield: How hard do you think it will be to talk to the men and women now in the military about John Kerry’s record, given the fact that he even acknowledges when he came back from Vietnam and participated in the anti-war movement, he used language that he called over the top. He talked about war crimes. He described in graphic details events that he now says might not have happened. Does this not create at least a barrier to winning support for men and women in the military?

John King: I want to ask you, you know what the Republicans are saying. They are saying John Kerry follows Michael Dukakis and Ted Kennedy, another liberal from Massachusetts.

Gergen: Seriously, real quickly, a lot of us are having a hard time understanding why Kerry would be different in terms of substantive foreign policy. We can see the tonal difference, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and everything but we can’t tell, what’s the new direction?

J. King: I was just reading an e-mail from the Bush-Cheney campaign. Already, they have sent out a lengthy e-mail saying that one thing John Edwards failed to do tonight was mention anything about John Kerry’s 19 years in the Senate. They also say he distorted the Bush administration’s positions on some things.

But King never details what those distortions are. He allows the GOP to make the charge without having to back it up.

J. King: And what the Bush campaign says most of all is there may be a great deal of excitement in the hall tonight, Senator Edwards may have scored some points with the American people tonight as an able communicator and as a rising star in the Democratic Party, but the Bush campaign would say — and what everyone in this hall would acknowledge — that the election will come down to a choice between George W. Bush and John Kerry, not John Edwards.

GOP Party Chair Mark Racicot: When they are not talking about bashing the president, they are talking about things that are just completely untrue. I mean even the fine presentation given by Mr. Obama last night was not factually correct. He was talking about the fact that we need to take care of the troops. That we need to make certain that reservists receive health care. Those are the things that the bill that John Kerry voted against provided for.

Racicot alleges that Obama lied, but offers no plausible examples. Yet Anderson Cooper, interviewing him, doesn’t call him on it.

Racicot: And quite frankly, I have seen no evidence that they want to be confined by the truth of the matter. They just simply haven’t addressed the issues in a way that’s factually accurate.

Again, Cooper doesn’t press Racicot to give specifics.

Ralph Reed: I think what you have, Wolf, is the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, John Kerry, who picked the fourth most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, John Edwards.

As almost everyone covering the campaign knows, this charge is inaccurate. The ratings Reed refers to are for 2003 only, and because Kerry and Edwards were on the campaign trail, they participated in only a small number of votes. (For more details, see this explanation by Campaign Desk Asst. Managing Editor Bryan Keefer on Spinsanity.) But again, Blitzer doesn’t contradict Reed.

Reed: You can’t serve in the U.S. Senate for 19 years, vote for higher taxes 350 times…and not have your opposition talk about it.

Once again, Blitzer allows Reed to make misleading claims (see FactCheck.org’s explanation) without clarification.

2) An equal obsession Kerry’s vote against the $87 billion to fund the Iraq war, along with a complete inability to report accurately on the issue:

Greenfield: Undecided voters who were thinking about maybe replacing Kerry, will feedback to you unprodded. I was for the 87 billion before and I voted against it, a line the Republicans are use in their campaign. That was probably the most effective shot aimed at John Kerry.

Blitzer: But you know the criticism, general, that we keep hearing, he voted to go to war in Iraq and that after the War, he voted against the $87 billion to pay for the body armor, to pay for the support of the troops in Iraq.

Aaron Brown: Does he at some point have to explain — Senator Kerry sometimes is all about nuance and President Bush sometimes is all about black and white. It’s good and evil. It’s just — Senator Kerry at some point have to explain in ways that most people in the country understand, his thinking on that $87 billion vote.

Joe Klein: this $87 billion vote not to vote for the $87 billion to continue the action in Iraq, is a very difficult vote to explain.

3) The need for conflict is also forcing CNN to find instances of intra-party disagreement and make them out to be controversial — hence an obsessive focus with the fact that Kerry’s unwillingness to bring the troops home from Iraq immediately conflicts with the views of what CNN has decided is a majority of delegates:

Cooper: The war in Iraq flares as Democrats convene, but will anyone say the I-word, Iraq, here tonight?

Cooper: And welcome back. As we have seen here this week, the Democrats are making a big show of unity, celebrating togetherness, trying to project an optimistic view of the future. But some days the reality of the outside world intrudes. Today is one of those days.

Cooper: Iraq, however, is not a word you hear mentioned much here in Boston.

Cooper: you said it is time to bring the troops home. John Kerry is not talking about bringing the troops home.

Cooper: Why aren’t we hearing the word Iraq used on the speech? We did a little count — of 108 speeches, only 13 speeches have used actually the word Iraq.

J. King: When Jesse Jackson was speaking, he talked about bringing troops home as soon as possible. Dennis Kucinich just speaking, saying bring the troops home as soon as possible. A great applause down here (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a great number of the delegates are wearing these green stickers that say, “end the occupation of Iraq.” So this is a very difficult balance the Democrats are trying to strike in this hall, trying to make the case it is imperative to their chances that John Kerry is ready to be commander in chief before an audience in this hall that is very much anti-war.

Blitzer: Are the delegates, in your estimation, more anti-war? They just want to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, which is a different position than Senator Kerry has, which is don’t cut and run.

Candy Crowley: Obviously, it is against what John Kerry is now proposing in Iraq, but this is something that Kerry has been wrestling with since the very beginning of his campaign, and that is he has a very anti-war party and he does not necessarily have anti-war votes.

Woodruff: Obama was one of the earliest people out in the country to come out against the war. He told me today, I happened to talk to him. He said, “I disagreed with John Kerry on that vote.” And I said, well, what about the Democratic Party platform? It sort of fudges the issue of Iraq and says people of good will can disagree.

Kelly Wallace (to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.): Finally, you endorsed, obviously, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Strong opponent to the war in Iraq. Does John Kerry need to do more to articulate a plan to get U.S. troops out of Iraq? That’s what you hear from Democratic delegates, but you’re not hearing it on this stage.

J. King: One of the key themes of this campaign is that John Kerry is ready to be commander in chief. They will have some generals out tonight, some speeches about that, his Navy service, and yet on the floor, the anti-war sentiment here is dramatic. How delicate of a balance is that for Senator Kerry to walk?

4) There’s also a fixation on the Kerry campaign’s stated desire to avoid attacking the president. To judge from reporters’ tones, CNN seems to view it as a moral failing that an opposition party would criticize a sitting president. They were particularly distressed by a speech given by Al Sharpton:

Cooper (to Mark Racicot) : So, you give the Democrats absolutely no credit for not being vitriolic against the president?

Blitzer: (to Sharpton): There’s still plenty — millions of Americans are watching this convention. And Judy, I’m not sure that this was necessarily the kind of speech the Kerry campaign wanted to see.

Blitzer: But Donna, to the public watching on television, the Kerry people are very sensitive to this, they wanted to try to project the sort of toned down image emerging from the Democratic Party this week, and Al Sharpton, as you and I and all of our viewers now know, certainly didn’t tone down anything.

Wallace: The Kerry campaign wanted this to be a positive message, no bashing of President Bush. Did Reverend Sharpton cross the line here?

Crowley: (to Sharpton) I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your speech and tell you that you were a little off message, I think.

Crowley: (to Sharpton) This has been a very upbeat, positive, no Bush bashing, at least those were the instructions. Do you feel like you crossed over that line?

L. King: Bob Dole, everyone here seems to be saying that Al Sharpton went over the top, did he?

Gergen: After a couple of nights of moderation, both in political tone and the orator, they’re starting to take the gloves off tonight. We saw it with Sharpton, we’re going to see it with John Edwards too. The early release of some of his comments, pretty tough. The headline on it, Edwards attacked Bush very strongly.

Gergen: The early read on it is, people have looked some aspects of the speech of what they released, taking some hard swipes at the president. Is he going to go down that road instead of being the (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

5) There was also near-constant repetition from CNN of the assumption that voters see Democrats as weaker on national security:

Woodruff: Historically, Democrats have had trouble with that issue. Ever since Vietnam and George McGovern who we talked to in this hall today. Democrats have to time and again prove they’re as strong as building up the military, building up the Pentagon, the defenses of this country. John Kerry has that trouble this year.

J. King: Senator Kerry’s big challenge, and this is our subject for tomorrow night, is to prove that he can be the commander in chief, to convince the American people to change commanders in chief in the middle of a war.

J. King: They do — right now, President Bush has an 18-point lead over the Democratic ticket when it comes to the question of: Who do you want to lead the war on terrorism?

6) And of course, a slew of miscellaneous instances of nonsensical reporting:

Crowley: So mostly, John Edwards will talk about John Kerry, who finally made it to town aboard a slow boat to Charleston named the “Lulu E,” a teensy bit outside the muscular image the Kerry campaign is hoping to conjure up to show voters he’s tough too.

Cooper: That brings us to today’s buzz. What do you think at home? In his speech tonight, John Edwards, what he should he do, make the case for Kerry, or take on President Bush? Log on to CNN.com/360, cast your vote. Results at the end of the program.

Cooper: You don’t hear a lot of the candidates talking backwards. I mean Al Gore, you know he sort of jokingly referenced it, but he made a point I’m not dwelling on the past. Is there a danger of you bringing this up dwelling on the past?

Schneider: John Kerry doesn’t want to be Michael Dukakis. He wants to be Teddy Kennedy. Michael Dukakis has disappeared. He has the image of loser to the Democratic Party.

Greenfield: One quick point. There is an interesting debate we’ve set up between Barack Obama who talked all last night about one America, and John Edwards, who talked in this whole campaign about two Americas. They might want to figure out how many Americas there are and get a united party.

Wallace: What about, though — you’ve heard from African- Americans who say John Kerry hasn’t done enough to include enough African-Americans within his campaign, to reach out enough to African- Americans. What about that criticism for those who say he’s not doing enough.

Crowley: When you talk about why African-Americans have been loyal to the Democratic Party, as you did tonight, there are, of course — you’ve got — you know, three very prominent members of the Bush administration are African-Americans. They do believe in him. You know, what makes for the fact that there are African-Americans that do believe the Republicans are on the right track?

Brown: [Ohio is] a classic state where the party has to be careful of being seen as too liberal, correct?

Brown: More now with how the convention is being covered and how it’s being seen. We’re joined from the Fleet Center in Boston tonight by Jonah Goldberg, who’s the editor at large or an editor at large for National Review online, which is a terrific read and a contributing editor of National Review.

Note that Brown never identifies Goldberg as a conservative.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.