Reporters, Like Bees and Dogs, Can Smell Fear

Democrats are afraid. We know … because the Associated Press’s Ron Fournier told us so on Friday, in a “newsview” piece headlined, “Dems Fear Kerry Looks Like Gore.” And Adam Nagourney told us once again on Sunday in a New York Times piece titled, “Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme, Democrats Fear.”

According to Fournier, “Democratic leaders” fear that Kerry is “getting ‘Gored,’” that Republicans are successfully painting Kerry as a flip-flopper in the same way they painted Al Gore a “serial exaggerator” in 2000. For Nagourney, it is Kerry’s “trouble in settling on a defining theme” that has “Democratic party officials” living in fear, along with the “pace of his advertising and his progress in setting up field organizations in battleground states.”

But, it turns out, what many of these Democrats fear the most is … going on the record with AP or the New York Times.

Donna Brazile, Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, is an exception. Both Fournier and Nagourney quote her more or less supporting their respective theses. Fournier also got Tony Coehlo — a former Gore campaign official who “clashed” with Bob Shrum, now a Kerry advisor — on the record worrying about the Goring and about Kerry campaign’s “structure.” But after that, Fournier resorts to sources such as “Democratic leaders,” “scores of Kerry supporters,” and “Kerry supporters.” And, of course, those old standards, the “several other Democrats [who] expressed similar views, but only on the condition of anonymity” — including a “senior official at the Democratic National Committee” who called the Kerry campaign “rudderless.”

Nagourney’s piece relies on an eerily similar cast of characters. After telling readers in his lede that “… party officials say [Kerry’s] campaign is being regularly outmaneuvered by the White House as it struggles to find a focus,” he turns first to Donna Brazile who frets about this “crucial moment in the campaign.”

Which other “party officials” are similarly concerned? Well, anonymous aides of Sen. John Edwards who assert that Edwards himself is worried about flaws in Kerry’s campaign. But in the next sentence, Nagourney notes that Edwards disputes this, and in fact asserts that Kerry is “running a strong campaign.”

Next, Nagourney turns to a Fournier-like litany of sources — “Democrats outside the campaign,” “many Democrats,” “other Democrats,” “some aides,” and, simply, “Democrats” — who detect “internal bickering” and “growing pains” in the Kerry campaign, as well as a general “mismatch” with the Bush camp (favoring Bush).

Getting more specific — slightly — Nagourney quotes “one senior Democratic official, who refused to speak by name about the campaign” agonizing over the Kerry camp’s lack of “message discipline,” and “one Democratic member of Congress, who spoke on condition of anonymity” expressing his incredulity over “this Vietnam thing” and worrying that Kerry managed to “lose” on that issue in recent weeks.

These pieces fall into a pattern that has become almost predictable lately — present the reader with a legion of anonymous Democrats “worried” about one aspect or another of the Kerry campaign, along with quotes from actual named Democrats disputing the premise. Nagourney’s article follows the script to a “T”.

In fact, many of the people Nagourney quotes by name are the ones disputing his lead. Exceptions are Rep. Harold E. Ford of Tennessee, a Kerry campaign co-manager, Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Carter Eskew, a onetime senior advisor to Gore, all of whose quotes, at best, imply some vague concurrence with Nagourney’s premise. (Ford admits that Kerry isn’t good at the 30-second sound bite, Rendell asserts that Kerry can beat Bush, but he better start soon hammering his case home to the American people, and Eskew notes that Bush has a very clear message.)

Ironically, Nagourney actually provided some examples of why Democrats perhaps should be afraid, sourced to no one at all: unlike the Bush campaign, Kerry’s “has yet to open its own full-fledged war room … to deal with Republican attacks and systematically marshal surrogates to make Mr. Kerry’s case,” and while the Bush camp three months ago set up and staffed an Ohio campaign headquarters, “Mr. Kerry has yet to hire a state director or open a campaign office” in that battleground state.

All the more reason Nagourney didn’t have to rely so heavily on all those fearful anonymous Democrats.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.