In the War Room

Two reporters from big-shot newspapers were, to the certain envy of their peers everywhere, granted one-day backstage passes to the Bush campaign war room in Arlington, Virginia earlier this week. Today, the chosen two — The Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold and The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg — share with readers the fruits of their access (and flatter the Bush camp with front-page treatment).

Gold and Rutenberg offer similar behind-the-scenes snapshots, having picked up on many of the same colorful details — such as the fifteen television monitors and the team of Slurpee-fueled interns working around-the-clock. (Apparently, reports Rutenbeg, the Kerry campaign turned down the “requests from two news organizations” to be flies-on-the-walls of the Kerry war room). Both Gold and Rutenberg were impressed that the Bush camp wangled a live audio feed — the Bushies wouldn’t say how — of a Kerry speech supposedly only open to invitees and journalists.

Both reporters demonstrate how the Bush crew seizes on a sound bite from Kerry’s Boston speech, and feeds it (out of context) to a list of political reporters. (The sound bite in question is Kerry saying he is “proud” of his vote against the $87 billion to fund military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kerry actually said he is “proud” that John Edwards joined him in voting against the $87 billion “when we knew the policy had to be changed”.) Gold provides an effective chronological tracking of just how the Bush camp gets its selected Kerry sound bite — complete with spin (Kerry is “reckless”) — into the media’s bloodstream.

Among the more telling moments in either piece, to Campaign Desk’s mind, was the confession (old news though it is) that Rutenberg wrested from a few nameless Kerry campaign reporters. “Several journalists who cover Mr. Kerry later said they were too embarrassed to say publicly that it took the Bush operatives to spot what was notable in Mr. Kerry’s remarks,” Rutenberg writes, referring to Kerry’s “proud” comment.

In other words, these reporters sheepishly acknowledged to Rutenberg, though not to their readers, that they are open to — even rely on — helpful hints from a campaign as to what is newsworthy in an opponent’s speech.

Both Gold and Rutenberg list the major media outlets that reported both Kerry’s “proud” comment and the Bush camp’s reaction: The New York Times (specifically, Richard Stevenson and Jodi Wilgoren), USA Today (Jill Lawrence), Fox News (Carl Cameron), The Boston Globe (Patrick Healy), The Washington Post (Jonathan Finer) and the Associated Press (Michael Rubinkam).

This wasn’t the first time Kerry has said — in so many words — that he does not regret his vote, so it hardly qualifies as news, though it certainly made news, courtesy of the aggressive Bush war room and a passively receptive campaign press.

And that’s both instructive and depressing to learn.

Liz Cox Barrett

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.