ABC Falls for a Ploy

Thanks to a reader for this one. Last night on ABC’s “World News Tonight,” anchor Peter Jennings introduced a report from the campaign trail by telling viewers that President Bush “started out today wanting to talk very specifically to Democrats.”

Reporter Terry Moran took over:

He sure did, Peter. This is a campaign that is still on the offensive. The president, as you pointed out, going after Democrats, in the belief, or, or perhaps hope, that John Kerry’s staunchly liberal positions on what’s called partial-birth abortion, gay marriage, and other cultural issues, as well as his somewhat antiwar stance, has alienated some members of his own party.

There are two major problems here. First, by characterizing Bush’s campaign as “on the offensive,” Moran plays right into the Bush campaign’s strategy. In the conventions of the political press, a late appeal to independents and members of the opposing party is seen as a sign of confidence, since it suggests that the campaign sees its base as secure. By appealing to Democrats, the Bush campaign clearly hopes to create a storyline in the press that the president is feeling bullish — a storyline that could create a momentum of its own.

It’s not a difficult strategy to parse (the Kerry campaign seems to be doing something similar), but it’s clearly sophisticated enough to pass right over the head of Moran, who never gives viewers any inkling that Bush’s rhetoric has two purposes — to attract a few votes from outside his base by attacking John Kerry’s stance on select issues, but also to create the appearance of a candidate confident enough to venture into enemy territory to pick up votes of disgruntled Democrats.

More seriously, Moran characterizes Kerry’s positions on partial birth abortion, gay marriage, and other cultural issues as “staunchly liberal.” That’s flat wrong. Kerry opposes partial birth abortion, but voted against the ban passed last year because it didn’t include provisions to protect the life and health of the mother. And he’s also against gay marriage, though he favors civil unions — which the president himself recently said he could live with, too, if individual states chose to legalize them.

As our reader puts it: “I know this as an interested voter. This is Terry Moran’s job — why doesn’t he know where the candidates stand on the issues?” Our question exactly.

Zachary Roth

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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.