In A Hall of Mirrors, the Pundits Ponder Their Own Creation

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”.)

Thursday’s coverage was, if anything, even worse. In The New York Times, Adam Nagourney and Jodi Wilgoren described “a roaring, raucous concession speech that many opponents have held up as evidence that Dr. Dean is unfit to be president.” (They provided no details on who those unnamed “opponents” might be). The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Z. Barabak and Faye Fiore went even further, characterizing Dean’s speech as “overheated,” trotting out their now notorious line that “some likened [it] to an emotional meltdown,” and concluding that “the price could be one of those frozen-in-time moments that forever defines his campaign.” (Barabek and Fiore included a comment from a “website supporter” suggesting Dean was shouting to be heard over the crowd, rather than stating it as fact as Gold had in her initial report in the same paper).

The New York Times also ran a Reuters report on its web site Thursday which characterized the speech as a “primal scream,” and then got positively metaphysical, asserting that “For many viewers, including some who had previously supported Dean, the moment seemed to offer a glimpse into the candidate’s soul — and most did not like what they saw. It seemed to portray a man full of rage and lacking in self-restraint.”

The Boston Globe got into the act on Friday, with Glen Johnson reporting that Dean’s “finger-jabbing concession speech, punctuated by a surprising scream, has turned him into fodder for the late-night comics and raised questions about his emotional stability even among some of his own supporters.” Johnson’s report on Monday had described the same speech in less pejorative terms, stating that Dean had “shouted into the microphone and flailed his arms, triggering questions about his temperament from voters and ridicule from some radio and TV talk show hosts.” And in an otherwise relatively fair article in the Washington Post, Hanna Rosin couldn’t resist taking a swipe, reporting that Dean’s standing “plunged after his barbaric yawp in Iowa”.

Thus the conventional wisdom itself has, in part, become the story. In Friday’s USA Today, for example, Blake Morrison devoted an entire article to how late-night talk show hosts and internet sites have mocked the former Vermont Governor.

In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz observed that “For the media, the story now is not so much about pitting Dean against John Kerry, John Edwards or Wesley Clark as exploring the psychodrama of Dean vs. Dean.” In the hermetically sealed world of campaign coverage, Dean’s post-caucus speech is no longer just a speech — it’s a symptom.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.