Gristle for the Beast

On Sunday, the Boston Globe gave us a little counterintuitive news: contrary to the conventional wisdom that John Kerry was struggling to connect with voters, the Democratic candidate’s message was starting to “break through.” “In recent days,” wrote the Globe’s Glen Johnson, “there has been evidence that Kerry is not only finding a message, but also an audience.”

What a difference a few days makes: On last night’s NBC “Evening News,” Tom Brokaw told us that “the prisoner abuse story has made it difficult for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to define his message …” The Abu Ghraib story is more than two weeks old, which means, of course, that both Johnson and Brokaw are talking about the same news environment.

So who’s right?

Well, nobody, really: If you look closely, you’ll see that neither the Globe nor NBC provide much evidence to support their contentions. But the contradictory stories ran regardless — the proverbial beast must be fed, after all, even if it’s got nothing to eat but gristle and stale crackers.

Johnson cites Kerry’s “stinging indictment of the administration’s leadership” in a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council as evidence that his message is reaching voters. But Kerry has been delivering similar speeches for months - in December, to cite one of many examples, he called the president’s foreign policy “arrogant, inept, and reckless,” a statement that certainly did not fall below the radar. Johnson also cites Kerry’s recent $25 million advertising campaign, and his “media blitz,” to suggest that the candidate is cutting through the daily headlines. But considering that Kerry has remained relatively stagnant in the polls, it’s difficult to believe that he’s really connecting more successfully than he has in the past.

NBC’s brief statement, which deals more with Kerry’s strategy in discussing Abu Ghraib than his message, is more compelling than the Globe’s — after all, the prison scandal’s dominance of the headlines has inevitably averted attention from other news. But why would two news organizations come to such disparate conclusions?

Perhaps the answer is that Kerry is breaking through (or not, depending on who who you believe) because the press says so.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.