Saturday | July 26, 2003
Dean on the offense
By Steve Gilliard
By Howard Kurtz
When Dotty Lynch, CBS's senior political editor, wrote a column criticizing Howard Dean on foreign policy, she was deluged with e-mails defending the Democratic presidential candidate, often in similar language.
"They were all rather insulting: 'Why don't you do your research?' " Lynch says. "When anything's orchestrated, you sort of smell a rat."
The letters were indeed generated by Dean Defense Forces, a volunteer outfit affiliated with the doctor's campaign. Day after day, the DDF Web log, which is linked to Dean's official site, hammers reporters deemed critical of Dean and urges its followers to flood the in-boxes of offending journalists.
Howie calls it defense, but I think he's wrong. No matter how nonchalantly the reporters may seem here, they don't like letters criticizing their reporting. They don't like the idea of organized groups watching their stories and looking fro any error. It makes reporters cautious in how they write. The last thing they want is an editor or board member asking if there is an anti-Dean bias.
Journalists affect a tough skin, but are in reality among the most sensitive people you will ever want to meet. Write a story about one and you will get the most vociferous complaints. They certainly don't want the tactics they use on others applied to them, in any way, shape or form.
I consider it an offensive move, because it means they're taking the war to the press early. What I mean by that is they ensure that anti-Dean stories are going to be harder to not only write, but sell to their editors. People just don't want the hassle of dealing with the complaints.
When the NY Daily News did a series on dirty supermarkets with WCBS, the newspaper lost mearly $50K in ads. The following year, WCBS did it on their own. You can bet selling a dirty supermarket story at the Daily News is hard sledding these days.
Every publication has a red button story, at NetSlaves it was Apple. Here and on other liberal blogs, it's the Green Party. Anytime you write about those subjects, you get hammered on both sides. Well, you can bet critical stories about Dean will get an extra helping of editing and checking before running.
It's an offensive move, because it allows Dean to set the agenda for his coverage. Between e-mail and blogs, any press error is going to see the light of day and be discussed. Reporters are going to pick their words with care when talking about him, if only to avoid a hassle.
It also protects Dean from the kind of distortions that so harmed Gore. For some reason, the press made him out ot be a serial liar, despite a record of non-daddy assissted distinction. Bush's failures as a businessman and indifference to the death penalty, despite Texas's sloppy judicial system, was passed over. Gore, who's personal character should have been without reproach, was instead treated as the rich kid who told tall tales.
The DDF is already on the ground, working the reporters to prevent that. Tagging Dean with an "invented the internet" type line isn't going to happen. Reporters who try it, will find themselves and their editors hammered with e-mails. Enough of those questioning your reporting, in this post-Blair era, and you could lose a promotion, even a job.
As a writer, the effort makes me uncomfortable. Reporters have enough to do without making things up about Howard Dean. But politically, it is absolutely brilliant and indicates a true fighting spirit. Candidates who want to win fight hard and fight early and it sounds like that is what this is.