By Bryan Keefer

Gov. Howard Dean’s passionate post-caucus speech to his supporters last Monday may become a turning point in his political career — not only because of the speech itself, but also because of the way in which the news media has shaped the coverage of the speech. While at first the campaign press generally reported the speech fairly, over the last few days several members of the media have indulged in cheap shots at Dean disguised as hard news reporting. In the process, the coverage, even amongst the same reporters, has gotten notably nastier, giving a negative cast to the speech — and, as we have noted before, even going to so far as to question the candidate’s mental health.

We have all seen this phenomenon before; this is the stage in the process at which the tale itself begins to wag the newshounds. So, sure enough, we now have some reporters writing pieces devoted solely to the storyline that they have helped to create.

Without a doubt, Dean’s speech was emotional, and most reporters described it as such the morning after. Patricia Wilson of Reuters was perhaps the fairest in her Tuesday article: “His voice raspy, Dean, who finished a stunning third in the first contest of the 2004 White House race after once being one of the favorites in Iowa, shouted to supporters, ‘We are not only going to New Hampshire,’ then hoarsely listed at least a dozen states that hold contests in the next few months.”

John F. Harris, writing in Tuesday’s Washington Post, also reported Dean’s address in relatively neutral terms, stating that the candidate “roared to his supporters, in an arm-waving, voice-booming appearance that seemed like a victory address.” Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press portrayed Dean as more excited than overwrought in her Tuesday morning story: “‘We have not begun to fight,’ Dean shouted to supporters Monday night after a startling and distant third-place finish … Dean bounded onto stage, high-fiving supporters with a wide grin and waving an American flag. He looked determined not to appear disappointed.”

Perhaps the most interesting observation came from Matea Gold and John M. Glionna, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Dean’s “gravelly voice [was] barely audible over the din of applause inside the ’70s-style disco hall.” [italics mine]

The fact that the reporters, who were in the room with Dean, felt that he was raising the volume of his voice to be heard over his supporters is a key detail missing from most other coverage of the speech (including Gold’s own follow-up). (Others, including Garance Franke-Ruta of the liberal opinion magazine The American Prospect and Chris Suellentrop of Slate have also noted that Dean was struggling to make himself heard over the noise of the crowd.)

Yet subsequent news articles have outdone themselves in the race to describe Dean’s performance with as many pejorative adjectives as possible. On Wednesday, Jim Rutenberg wrote about Dean’s “guttural concession-speech battle cry” and “throaty howl,” in The New York Times asking “whether the speech would prove to be a defining political moment for Dr. Dean.” In a news analysis piece the same day, the Washington Post’s David Broder described Dean as “almost frenzied,” contending he had “shrieked his determination to win coming contests, while the TV cameras rolled.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Gold deleted any mention of Dean shouting over the crowd in her Wednesday article, writing that at both the Iowa rally and an airport rally later that night in New Hampshire, “His face beet-red, [Dean] punched his fists in the air and spoke in a near-guttoral roar. The frenetic response to his poor showing struck many as inappropriate.” And USA Today’s Andrea Stone called Dean’s address a “tirade,” an “angry, defiant speech” that included a “screeching ‘Yeeeeeeah!’” and noted that “the conservative ‘Drudge Report’ Internet site displayed photos from the scene with the caption ‘Dean Goes Nuts’” - all within the first two paragraphs. (USA Today’s web site also linked to audio of the speech with the words, “Hear Dean’s tirade”.)

Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.