January 30, 2004,
As a general rule, the media despise the thought of examining themselves. Corrections on TV news in particular are so rare that they are generally dragged out only by lawyers threatening expensive litigation. So how does ABC explain Diane Sawyer going to the jaw-dropping length of reexamining the Howard Dean "Scream" speech and apologizing for the frenzy of coverage over it?
It began Tuesday night at the end of World News Tonight. Peter Jennings clucked: "The governor has been the butt of jokes. His adversaries have tried to take advantage of the moment to suggest that he's an angry man. We thought it might be a good idea to try putting ourselves in the room."
Is Dean's record of anger in any doubt? Even Diane Sawyer's interview last week with Dr. Dean and Dr. Mrs. Dean showed several examples of the candidate boiling over. But the Deaniac pressure on ABC is obviously intense enough for them to suggest that black is white and up is down and the anger is a cruel myth.
Sawyer explained that directional mikes, like the one they use around crowds on Good Morning America, drown out the crowd noise. She laid out their attempt to collect other tapes of the "Scream" speech to see how it came across inside the room, as opposed to on television. ABC Dean "embed" Reena Singh said the crowd noise was much louder. American Prospect writer Garance Franke-Ruta claimed the crowd made it difficult to hear Dean yell. Sawyer played alternate tapes to demonstrate that Dean couldn't be heard over the crowd in the room itself.
Then, Sawyer made another unprecedented step of extreme servitude to the Dean camp. She called the heads of the other networks for on-the-record quotes responding to the question if the networks had overplayed the Dean gaffe. "With the exception of NBC, they all said collectively the media did overplay it. CNN said 'If we had to do it again, we'd pull ourselves back.' And the chairman of Fox News? 'We overplayed it a bit and the public clearly thought so, too, and kept Dean alive for another round.' Diane Sawyer, ABC News, New York."
Thursday morning on Good Morning America, Sawyer picked up where she left off the night before: "First, we want to do something we think you don't see a lot in television news...It's a kind of mea culpa, and I'm as guilty as anybody else." She replayed the taped segment from the previous night explaining the perception difference, and then news anchor Robin Roberts asked the audience: "Let's have a show of our hands from our audience. Do you feel that the 'Dean Scream' was showed too much. Show of hands? Wow." Sawyer added: "Yeah, well, we heard that, and certainly the Dean campaign heard it from everybody, and so we thought we should address it and take a look at ourselves." Yes, Dean felt he was so mistreated by Guilty Diane that his campaign mailed 50,000 copies of the Sawyer interview to New Hampshire voters.
Nearly everyone can agree that the Dean scream was overplayed because it was unforgettably funny and people couldn't seem to get enough of it. But can you remember Diane Sawyer going back and asking everyone if they overplayed "You're No Jack Kennedy" on Dan Quayle, or the earth-shattering "potatoe" frenzy? Would she like to repent now about asking Steve Forbes if he was an undemocratic "crackpot" in 1999? Can anyone remember Diane Sawyer apologizing for pounding Ken Starr about the "demented" Starr Report: "I think there were 62 mentions of the word 'breast,' 23 of 'cigar,' 19 of 'semen.' This has been called demented pornography, pornography for Puritans. Were there mistakes made in including some of this?"
The answer is "no." After the 1992 campaign was over, ABC did take the noteworthy step of investigating letters written to the network about media bias, but only after Bill Clinton was safely elected. In September of 1994, Dateline NBC devoted a segment to apologizing for coverage of Bill Clinton's airport runway haircut by Cristophe. Networks are not in the habit of apologizing for demonizing and mischaracterizing conservatives. Diane's apology demonstrates that the Mickey Mouse network is much more sensitive to complaints about damaging an ultraliberal candidate with an anger-management problem than it is about presenting an appearance of objectivity.
Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.