US news giants tread carefully

The Bush-Kerry race for the White House could hardly be tighter. So where are all the scoops and scandals, asks Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online

This may indeed be an exciting US election campaign but it is not one in which American journalists have covered themselves with glory. Take the two highlights of the past month: CBS's blunder over the fake documents about George Bush's service in the Texas National Guard, and, last weekend, Fox News's embarrassment after it shamefacedly withdrew an intended in-house satire of John Kerry under the byline of its chief political correspondent. The piece quoted the Democratic candidate referring to himself as a metrosexual, and adding for good measure that "women should like me, I do manicure". Not exactly hilarious, but it somehow caught the spirit of a campaign that is,perhaps mercifully, 23 days from its end.

The fact is that for all their self-importance, the mainstream American media have far less effect on proceedings than they would like. Their importance lies not in being opinion formers, but as echo chambers. Take the candidates' debate on 30 September. Instant opinion polls showed viewers believed John Kerry won. This, in turn, gave the media the chance to proclaim him the victor, which promptly reinforced the judgement the public had made by itself in the first place.

Nothing shakes up a campaign like an old-fashioned scoop. But this year has not produced a newspaper or TV story that remotely matches The Wall Street Journal's revelations in 1992 about Bill Clinton's manoeuvrings to avoid the Vietnam draft, which nearly finished his candidacy even before the New Hampshire primary. But now, just as then, the biggest story has not come from the mainstream media at all. In 1992, The Star, a tabloid, brought the world the tale of Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers. This year, the organisation that has most influenced the election contest has been Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose $50,000 TV ad campaign in August cast doubt on John Kerry's war record.

The larger media organisations have come up with little. Indeed, their best-known effort proved to be a spectacular own goal. It concerned CBS's use of faked documents for a story alleging that Bush had shirked his duties as a pilot in the Texas Guard. The "scoop" was quickly disproved, and Dan Rather, CBS's anchorman, came close to losing his job.

And who first exposed the fraud? Not a major newspaper or rival TV network, nor even the ubiquitous Drudge Report (whose main contribution in 2004 has been a dud story about an alleged Kerry affair), but humble internet bloggers. Almost instantly, they smelt a rat with the documents' format, and forced CBS into its humiliating retraction.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media plod on, prisoners of their own well-meaning doctrine of balance. What could be fairer than to give each side an equal airing? Not, however, if fairness means giving as much air time or column inches to charlatans as to truth-tellers. Precisely that happened, Kerry supporters say, with the Swift Boat ads, which were largely discredited by other veterans.

This year, as in campaigns past, the media are a known quantity. Endorsements do wonders for the egos of US editors, but they have less impact than those of their British counterparts. There is no equivalent of The Sun, courted by both sides as the presumed key to millions of votes - and certainly no longer a Walter Cronkite, once voted the most trusted man in America. "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country," Lyndon Johnson remarked after a 1968 report by the CBS anchor, saying the Vietnam war was unwinnable. And he had.

What matters is not the hostility of foes, but wavering by presumed friends. Bush knows he will never be supported by The New York Times. By the same token, Kerry expects no sympathy from The Wall Street Journal. But if the Times grew critical of Kerry, or the Journal's comment pages cooled on Bush, something important would be happening. Thus far, it hasn't.

In general, views are predict- able. Conservatives rail against the media's supposed liberal bias, while liberals blame all on "right-wing conspiracies". But the battle lines are well drawn. Usually, the big general interest US papers back the Democrats. Fox is the TV trumpet of the Republicans. CNN and the traditional networks are more even- handed, though branded by the right as irredeemably liberal.

In talk radio, conservatives hold an edge. Air America, the ballyhooed new liberal network, has vanished almost without trace (proof again that for entertainment value, salty prejudice beats worthy earnestness). But what difference do the radio and TV blowhards make? By and large, both left and right are preaching to the converted.

The same goes for the politicised movie documentary - one innovation of this campaign. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 has been a box-office smash, but how many Republican minds has it changed? The real truth is that, with three weeks to go, the big media have yet to leave their mark on the election.