The U.S. presidential election, 2004 is, without question, a media event. Writing for the February 17, 2004, issue of Newsday, James P. Pinkerton addresses the darker side -- perhaps in shades of gray -- of political media coverage: mucky media.
- "More than ever, 'the media' is a tale of cities. One city is the establishment media - lots of editors, image-conscious advertisers and libel-suit-averse lawyers. Call that Tidy City. The other city is the non-establishment media - tabloidy, even fly-by-night-y, operated by scruffy types who might not know grammar, let alone Journalistic Ethics. Call that Mucky City, as in muckraker. Neither is going away. Indeed, in the Internet era, news consumers have their choice.
- "But, of course, the two media cities, Tidy and Mucky, aren't as separate as one might think. Occasionally, Tidy City reporters go slumming and, also, occasionally, Mucky City folks get the story first - and sometimes even get it right."
For example, Pinkerton points to the February 12, 2004, Drudge Report web headline "Campaign Drama Rocks Democrats: Kerry Fights Off Media Probe of Recent Alleged Infidelity." See Bush administration smear campaigns: John Forbes Kerry.
Although the Drudge Report, which "will be forever remembered as the site that broke the true story of another married politician and his affair with a much younger woman ... the tainted love of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky," got the story right "back in 1998," it has since scored a number of "blunders." Drudge "wrongly accused a Clinton White House aide of beating his wife - but he is arguably the Mayor of Mucky City. He claims 15 million 'hits' on his site a day, and few would dispute that his 'buzz' quotient is far greater than that."
At the same time, the media was also giving coverage to George W. Bush's military service. The Washington Post alone published "29 mostly critical articles about President George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard."
"But," Pinkerton adds, "over in Mucky City it was a different story - a much different story. The British media, always free-wheeling, staged their own Kerry feeding frenzy. The London-based Sun, which puts mostly nude women on page three of every edition, threw a piece of bloody meat into the water when it quoted the father of the woman in question as labeling Kerry as a 'sleazeball' - which was taken by many to be the irate words of a man who felt his daughter had been wronged. Other papers, too, joined in, from all around the world. And all are available, via the Internet, to any curious American. Walking on the even wilder side, an online news outfit, Talon News, asserted that the woman had 'taped an interview with one of the major television networks at Christmas substantiating the alleged affair.'
"But something had to give," Pinkerton says, "as the gap between Tidy and Mucky City grew into a chasm. After all, Tidy City could see that a lot of action was going on, over on the wrong side of the tracks. A few Tidy publications tried to bridge the gap in a nice way; The Charlotte Observer headlined a piece, 'Political campaigns confront the new reality of the Internet.' And at the same time, a whole lot of digging was going on; the Philadelphia Daily News reported that 'a global media scrum' - including some Tidy reporters - had descended on the young woman's hometown of Malvern, Pa. But then on Monday came Mucky City's rendezvous with reality. The woman, Alexandra Polier, said that all the allegations were false. And her parents issued a statement supporting not only their daughter, but also Kerry's candidacy for president. To be sure, all these denials won't stop the accusations, but the judgment of Tidy City - that the Kerry allegations were not a legitimate news story - seems to have been completely vindicated.
"Not that Mucky City cares one bit," Pinkerton concludes.
- James P. Pinkerton, Newsday, February 17, 2004.