High Stakes and Scare Tactics

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

By now, most of us are tired of the election. All we want to do is get it over with.

Looking at the incessant ads, the accusations, the dirt, the pompous pundits, the false modesty of deperate politicians, you have to wonder: Who has time for this stuff?

Mercifully, by the end of today, we'll have a pretty good idea whether any of the prognosticators who predicted this result or the other were anywhere close to the mark.

In general, the media seems to have done "a pretty good job" covering the campaigns, says Paul Janensch, a professor and former newspaper editor.

Even so, he wrote in a column in The Connecticut Post, there are some things news consumers should beware of, particularly in the area of bias.

"Some commentators who support the Bush administration accuse the news media of trying to suppress Republican turnout by emphasizing negative news about the Republican side."

The fact is, he said, there is a lot of negative news to report. Obvious examples are the low approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican-run Congress; the rising death toll in Iraq; the conviction of two Republican House members on corruption charges; the indictment of former Republican House leader Tom DeLay; and the tawdry messages that Mark Foley sent to Congressional pages when he was a GOP House member.

If you had the stomach for it, the drumbeat of commercials touting the talents of political candidates, or, more often, the alleged corruption of their opponents, were a spectacle all by themselves.

A story on the National Public Radio website says the campaigns were "doing whatever it takes to get their message across," including putting an ailing Michael J. Fox on the air to support stem-cell research, or a bare-shouldered blonde who suggests she had a good time with a candidate at a Playboy party.

That ad, from the Republican National Committee, was against Democrat Harold Ford, an African American running in Tennessee for the U.S. Senate. The ad was was so loaded with innuendo that even Ford's Republican opponent denounced it, the NPR story says.

The Democratic National Committee wondered in an ad whether the Bush administration was using Osama Bin Laden's face as a "scare tactic" before the elections.

In an ad from the Republican National Committee, bin Laden was shown with exploding bombs flashing across the screen. The ad says: "These are the stakes. Vote November 7," clearly implying that a vote for Democrats means you can expect another terrorist attack.

On Sunday's Reliable Sources on CNN, Howard Kurtz asked why, with no shortage of serious issues to discuss, there has been so much media attention lavished on "personal charges, distorted attack ads, meaningless controversies, and plain old sleaze?"

In one ad, Congresswoman Barbara Cubin, a Wyoming Republican, was shown debating a wheelchair-bound opponent, to whom she said, "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you across the face."

And there was George Allen, the Republican senator from Virginia, describing a dark-skinned member of his opponent's camp as "macaca."

So, Kurtz asked, why are the media endessly replaying the negative?

CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod said, "Our job… is to take everything that's coming in" and to look at "what's out of the ordinary."

Take Democrat John Kerry's flub of a joke about Bush that ended up insulting the troops in Iraq. He got nailed by a gleeful White House and Republicans across the board.

But Rachel Maddow, a radio host on Air America, told Kurtz that nobody believes that Kerry was "legitimately trying to insult the troops."

Maddow said she spent the whole week "replaying Bush's clip from the White House Correspondents Dinner where he jokes about looking for the weapons of mass destruction, while troops are dying looking for them."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan