Dr. Dean, Meet the Press

By Zachary Roth

Does the political press have a vested interest in slowing down the Howard Dean juggernaut? After all, if Dean records comfortable victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, the battle for the Democratic nomination could essentially be over by late January, leaving little left to cover until the summer. That’s the provocative question raised by Eric Boehlert, writing for Salon, in a piece that appeared Tuesday.

Boehlert notes that the various critiques of the former Vermont governor being generated by the Republican National Committee and Dean’s primary opponents he’s angry, he’s gaffe-prone, he’s unelectable have been obligingly picked up by the press and regurgitated as truth. Boehlert suggests that mainstream reporters have bought the Dean-in-trouble spin because in addition to the need to avoid a one-horse race their eagerness to “play the role of hard-headed analyst” predisposes them to treat any insurgent candidate with skepticism.

And sure enough, as if on cue, both the New York Times and the Washington Post supported Boehlert’s point that same day, chiming in with stories that highlight Dean’s alleged troubles. The Times headlines its overview story, by Adam Nagourney and Jodi Wilgoren, “Surges by Rivals Put Dean on the Defensive”. The piece leads with the assessment that Dean has “slipped into turbulent territory”, then goes on to tell us that, “his supporters expressed distress at what many described as his faltering performance in a televised debate Sunday”, without quoting any of them. The Times even takes the rare step of quoting another paper, breaking the news that the Des Moines Register, which last week endorsed John Edwards, “described Dean in a front-page article as, ‘again on the defensive.’”

Meanwhile in New Hampshire, we’re told, “[Wesley] Clark’s rise is threatening Dean’s once-dominant position in the state.” Nagourney and Wilgoren omit the fact that Dean still holds a 14-point lead over Clark in New Hampshire, according to an American Research Group poll that came out Monday. The Times characterizes these developments as a “suddenly stormy climate” for Dean.

A separate piece by Wilgoren could essentially be summed up as, “isn’t it a little weird that Dean’s wife never campaigns with him and has her own career?”

In the Post, John Harris and Dan Balz take a similar “Dean-is-faltering” tack, opining, almost hopefully, that “a loss by Dean (in Iowa) could change the dynamics of the race”. They also echo the Times in referring to “concerns among his advisers and supporters that he has spent too much time on the defensive in recent weeks, and that he has sometimes appeared rattled by rivals attacks and lackluster in debates.” Again no names or quotes from supporters or advisers are provided.

Watch out for the “Dean-is-slipping” theme it’s likely to be with us at least through New Hampshire.

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.