Republicans send New York Times spinning

Published September 3, 2004 4:38PM (EDT)

Sometimes the best way to put today's political press coverage in perspective is to contrast it with how an identical event was covered in the very near past. Take the New York Times' coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. The morning after the Democratic Convention concluded, the Times published two Page One stories: a straight news piece about Sen. John Kerry's address, and a separate analysis of the themes of the speech. Today, following the Republican Convention, the Times does the same: a news piece on President Bush's address, as well as an analysis. But for the Republicans, there's a bonus dispatch, a valentine of a report ("Buoyed G.O.P. Says It Has Framed Agenda for Fall") on how "confident" and "optimistic" Republican strategists were celebrating their convention, convinced they had "framed the debate for the fall" and "had succeeded in raising significant doubts" about their opponent.

If you're guessing that upon the conclusion of their convention, Democratic strategists were convinced they had framed the debate, ended on a confident note, raised doubts about their opponent, and were willing to share their spin with New York Times reporters, you're right. But for some reason, in July the Times didn't consider that dog-bites-man angle an A1 story. Today, when Republicans state the obvious, the Times senses major news at hand.

The piece plays into the media's favorite new narrative that there's been a major shift toward Bush in the last week or two. (Last night MSNBC's Chris Matthews suggested Bush might have "sealed the deal" -- i.e., the race is over.) Yet, not once in its story did the New York Times point to a single poll backing up that notion. That's because there are no polls showing Bush leading Kerry beyond the margin of error. That may change in the coming days, with the usual convention bounce. But surely the Times wouldn't go with a Page One story based on the expected convention bounce. Surely the story's prominent placement had to reflect real facts on the campaign trail, and not simply Republican wishful thinking, right? Wrong.

At one point, the Times actually quotes Bush strategist Matthew Dowd saying it was "a distinct possibility" the president would emerge from Labor Day with a lead in the polls. This is news? This is front-page news? Given the obvious fact that the race remains so close and Republicans held their convention second, which meant they'd likely enjoy a bump in the polls on the eve of Labor Day, any serious election analyst had to assume Bush might enjoy a lead come Labor Day.

So the question remains, why did the Times run a Page One story speculating about the effects of the Republican Convention, while quoting optimistic Republican strategists, if that same story wasn't worth covering coming out of Boston?

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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