TERENCE SMITH: How does the public shape its perceptions of the presidential candidates, and what are the dominant images of thosecandidates at this point in the campaign? A new study addresses those questions.
Joining us is Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Tom, welcome to the broadcast.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: You did this study with the Pew Research Center and with the University of Missouri Journalism School. And it's unusual in that you looked at the news coverage of the campaign, the candidates' ads themselves, and also the input from late-night comedy shows. What did you find?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, Terry, there are these dominant themes, or master narratives, that take hold over the media, that are seized on by journalists in story after story, that are reinforced in the ads that the candidates are projecting, and that even -- when they really solidify -- make it to the late-night comedy shows and sort of become emblazoned in satire.
TERENCE SMITH: You have some examples in your report here, in the study, of occasions when that sort of mythology makes its way into the reporting.
Here's one, for example, that we can look at, that is John Roberts reporting on the CBS Evening News on April 13. Let's take a look.
JOHN ROBERTS: At stake tonight is the president's credibility, chipped away at in recent weeks by the twin issues of Iraq and the 9/11 investigation.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. "Chipped away at by the twin ..." what's that based on?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: It becomes the conventional wisdom or the pack journalism of the moment that the 9/11 Commission and that the events in Iraq are going to erode President Bush's credibility, and this is the theme that sort of interlaces the coverage of these events.
As the press has become more interpretive, it needs a kind of frame to relay the facts, because just giving the facts isn't quite enough in the journalism world anymore.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. There's another example that you cite, this one from Tim Russert on Meet the Press, and this one deals with John Kerry and the accepted wisdom about John Kerry. Let's look at that.
TIM RUSSERT: The Republicans pounding away on the flip-flops of John Kerry, day after day after day.
TERENCE SMITH: The "flip-flops" of John Kerry. He's accepting that.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Right. It's interesting when you look at the phrasing there, that he's not saying that they're accusing him of "flip-flops" day after day; they are hitting him on the "flip-flops."
The notion that John Kerry is a "flip-flopper" becomes accepted. And it's interesting: In the coverage that we saw, 44 percent of the time that these assertions are proffered, there is no actual evidence cited of them, by anyone. And this is one case.
TERENCE SMITH: So sloppy journalism?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, it's just ... it's an accepted idea: "Bush is dim" or "Gore is a liar" were two of the master narratives that we were able to identify four years ago.
TERENCE SMITH: And of course you have examples that you cite from print as well.
One is from a page-one news analysis in the New York Times. It was published after a presidential press conference on April 14. And the author writes: "With those words, Mr. Bush drove home the single-mindedness that has become the hallmark of his presidency, his greatest strength in the eyes of his admirers, and a dangerous never-change-course stubbornness in the eyes of his detractors."
TOM ROSENSTIEL: These master narratives, in a way, are a way of organizing how we see someone. And so with President Bush, we know that there's these characteristics about him; now what do they mean? Well, to some people, in the looking glass, they're strong ... they're strength; and to others, they're stubbornness. But they become sort of vessels by which you then organize all the facts and try and give them meaning.
TERENCE SMITH: Right, now, that was a news analysis so, that's somewhat different than a straight news story.
But here's another example that you cite in the study, from The Philadelphia Inquirer, on May 17. "Kerry's public standing has been damaged by a Bush onslaught of critical ads, and many swing voters either don't know him or consider him a vacillating politician."
Where does that last phrase come from?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, there's no way that the reporters of The Philadelphia Inquirer could tell with any proof...
TERENCE SMITH: What many swing voters think...
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Because many swing voters haven't made up their minds, which was what makes them swing voters, and the effect of the ads -- we know that a lot of ads have been spent -- but they didn't know what the effect of these ads were. They didn't have any social science to back that up because we're just beginning to get that data now.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet your study found -- and the poll backed it up -- that if it gets out there enough, it becomes, as you say, part of the accepted wisdom about these candidates.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, in the category of the late-night comedy shows, which other polls have shown are, for better or for worse, the source of political information, particularly for a lot of younger people, you cite Jon Stewart's Daily Show. And we have a clip of that from April 8 of his making a joke.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, clip aired on Jon Stewart's Daily Show: I do not believe that there was a lack of high-level attention. The president was paying attention to this. How much higher level can you get?
JON STEWART: Well, I suppose it could have gone to Cheney. (Laughter)
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, what's the subtext there?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, the notion that it is a holdover from 2000 that Bush is really sort of not up to the job and that Cheney is the puppeteer. The thing about the late night comedy shows is that this is the place where old ideas never die. I mean, we're still seeing that Bush is a dimwit here.
If something gets to the point where it's fodder for satire, it becomes I think very difficult to shake. We're still seeing ... I mean, Dan Quayle is still the brunt ... Joey Buttafuoco is still on the late-night comedy shows.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, and we have one other, one last one from David Letterman's show March 30, and this is, of course, a spoof of Kerry.
DAVID LETTERMAN: You know, there's a lot of talk about John Kerry, who's running for president, and a lot of people say that he takes one side of an issue, and then a couple of weeks later, if it's politically beneficial, he'll take the other side of the issue. They're accusing him of flipping and flopping, and I think that that's just part of life, but in politics there is no greater sin to commit than flip-flopping on the issues.
PAUL SHAFFER, Late Show with David Letterman: Flip-flopping away.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Especially when they're important issues. As a matter of fact, did you see the C-Span? They were voting ... the Senate was voting today on an issue. Watch this. I think you'll find it fascinating.
COMEDY SKETCH, Late Show with David Letterman: Mr. Kennedy? Mr. Kennedy votes no. Mr. Kerry? Mr. Kerry votes no. Wait, now, Mr. Kerry votes yes. ( Laughter ) Okay, now he says no. Back to yes. Now back to no. ( Laughter )
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, all right. So there's the Letterman tape. But again it's the flip-flopping. That's the ... now it's out there, now it's part of the joke.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Right, and I mean, I imagine if people are getting political information from these comedy shows, somebody might think that that was actual C-Span tape. You know, and the thing is, that you can't not laugh.
This stuff is very funny, and when you laugh, what it ... you know, this stuff then becomes not just an allegation, it's really how you feel about somebody.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, well, here's the bottom line. If from your studies, did you find that this influences voters' attitudes about the candidate? Does it influence the way they might vote?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, we know from the analysis that over time the press coverage is having an impact, that people who watch a lot of news or follow the news closely are more likely to agree with these master narratives.
The ads, however, are having a much more limited impact at this point, which is remarkable given that they've spent almost $200 million already on ads. Kerry's ads are not ... didn't have any impact, and Bush's only a very limited.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Tom Rosenstiel, thanks so much.