And Now, Our Story About the Story About the Story About the Scream

Building on Diane Sawyer’s story last week on how the media had both overplayed Dean’s now-infamous post-Iowa address and taken it out of context, David Bauder of the Associated Press manages to squeeze a sheepish admission out of the heads of two networks: that the media, by replaying the Dean speech so often, inserted itself into the race. In doing so, they turned the story about the scream into a story about the story about the scream. (Which in turn, we suppose, makes this item a story about the story about the story about the scream … and readers wonder why we keep a handy supply of headache remedies in our desk drawers.)

Bauder quotes Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News: “The amount of attention [the speech] was receiving necessitated more attention.” Slavin went on: “If he made the very same speech three days before Iowa, it wouldn’t have resonated. It wouldn’t have resonated because he was the leader there and it did not in any way, shape or form epitomize the campaign in everybody’s mind.”

Bauder also gets CBS News president Andrew Heyward to admit much the same thing. He writes: “Heyward said he believed the event helped accelerate Dean’s decline — ‘not so much showing the speech again and again, as the kind of collective wisdom that suggested that it was extremely damaging and, to a degree, became a self-fulfilling prophecy.’”

Bauder continues, “The lesson for the media in cases like this is to be aware of its own impact, [Heyward] said.”

Other networks were less willing to admit fault. Bauder quotes Princell Hair, CNN’s general manager, offering a sort of non-apology apology, citing the challenge of “keep[ing] all of your different viewers throughout the day informed without overdoing it.” Nor did the executive producer in charge of political coverage at NBC News cop to overplaying the clip.

If regrets are few and far between, have any lessons been learned? Apparently, no. Bauder notes that “whatever hand-wringing there may be in retrospect — and there’s only a little — comes with a sense that repeats are inevitable.”

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.