Burying the lead

By Edward W. Lempinen
Published March 18, 2004 9:32PM (EST)

Between now and November's election, we'll hear a fierce but familiar debate between critics who believe the press has a liberal bias and those sure the slant is conservative. Consider another possibility, though: Two pieces Thursday in a couple of influential publications show that bias can result not from ideology but from myopia. You know -- the vision thing.

The context: With the anniversary of the Iraq War approaching, terrorists bomb a Baghdad hotel, levelling the building. Seven are killed; dozens are wounded. The bombing came on a day in which Vice President Dick Cheney and John Kerry both made some of their most ambitious comments to date about Iraq and terrorism. The New York Times, in a front-page, top-of-the-fold story by Nick Madigan and Katharine Q. Seelye, gave the lead strictly to Cheney. The headline: "Cheney Attacks Kerry's Record on the Military." The lead: "In a blistering critique of Senator John Kerry's record on military issues, Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday portrayed the Democratic presidential candidate as weak, inconsistent and a threat to the security of the nation."

The souped-up lead is followed by two withering quotes from Cheney, by which time some strong impressions have been created in a reader's mind. Only in the fourth graf does Kerry get to respond that Bush policy had left the nation "bogged down in Iraq" and its troops "with the target squarely on their backs." Structured as it is, the story gives Cheney a nice little propaganda win. But why use that structure? If there's a good reason, it's not evident in the story. In the parlance of newsrooms, why not use a double-barreled lead that features both men attacking each other, even as terrorists strike in Baghdad? That would be fair, accurate, efficient -- and much more dramatic.

At ABC News, meanwhile, political director Mark Halperin and his crew at The Note showed a different sort of impaired vision. They might've questioned how Cheney could credibly attack Kerry as soft on security on the same day that Baghdad, under Bush's watch, was in flames. But no -- here's The Note's lead: "As John Kerry begins his own (semi-)private Idaho vacation, here are the mistakes his campaign has made of late, allowing an aggressive Bush-Cheney operation to win a series of news cycles, during this (ALL TOGETHER NOW!!!) critical period in defining John Kerry for America."

The Note's piece is a good read; the analysis is strong. Yes, Kerry bumbled through a bad week. But hey -- on a day when Bush's Iraq and terrorism campaigns seems to be approaching meltdown, are news-cycle victories or Kerry's vacation really more significant?

Edward W. Lempinen

Edward W. Lempinen is a senior news editor at Salon.

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