Ethics Corner: Did Critical Media Send Dean Packing?

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By: Allan Wolper

It was August, 2002. Howard Dean, then the Governor of Vermont, sat in his statehouse office in Montpelier, and wondered aloud how long his honeymoon with the national press would last. “It’s the expectation game,”” he told me and my wife, Joanna, in an interview that was part of a profile we later wrote for E&P. “”The press builds you up, and then they cut you down right at the knees. It happens to everyone. And it will happen to me.””

And so it did, with a suddenness that shocked most of the media that witnessed it. One moment Dean was on the cover of Time and

Newsweek, the next he was being ridiculed by Jay Leno and David Letterman.

The media at first loved Dean’s anti-Beltway, anti-war message. He was a physician who went into politics and solved his state’s health care problem. He was a candidate who would reload his rhetoric at every stop on the campaign trail. He was the only Democrat willing to take on George Bush after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq ? because he had nothing to lose.

The news media made an inspection of his Vermont record and turned up balanced budgets, a scandal-free administration, and an impeccable personal life.

But the fawning press missed one character flaw in his political life: a New York City know-it-all attitude. The Vermont reporters who covered him ignored his shoot-from-the-lip remarks. It was just Howard being Howard.

Dean also got used to being treated fairly. Vermont reporters are aggressive, but polite. So Dean was hardly ruffled when Chris Graff, the soft-spoken Associated Press bureau chief in Vermont, asked him in 2002 why he was sealing his government records until 2013. “”Well, there are future considerations,”” Dean responded with a laugh. “”We don’t want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor.””

A joke by a small-state governor with impossible White House dreams. How could a crack like that come back to haunt him?

“”He was smiling when he said that,”” recalled Graff, whose sole purpose of asking the question, he told me last month, was to get Dean on the record. “”Anyone who saw the tape on public television knew he was laughing. But that kind of comment doesn’t look funny in print.””

It certainly didn’t. Newsweek, for one, made much of it one month before the Iowa caucus ? giving the impression that Dean had squirreled away state secrets that echoed Watergate.

“”The political writers built him up and then turned on him viciously,”” said Jon Margolis, a former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, who wrote two chapters of Howard Dean: A Citizen’s Guide to the Man Who Would Be President. “”So much of it was petty.””

The attacks were so concentrated that Dean ? who in December seemed destined for the Democratic nomination ? was left on political life support after the Iowa caucus. He was no longer in Vermont, dealing with its leisurely news cycle. Now he was on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, with a chorus of sound bites poised to sink his bid for the presidency.

Dean’s prophecy had been fulfilled: The national media had built him up, and now they were bringing him down.

On Jan. 6, The New York Times published a front-page investigation about a Vermont state contract granted to a former Dean aide, a report later described by Daniel Okrent, the paper’s ombudsman, as tenuous and overplayed.

On Jan. 8, NBC News aired a 4-year-old tape of a Dean interview on Canadian television, in which he criticized the Iowa caucus as elitist and undemocratic.

On Jan. 14, ABC’s “”World News Tonight”” broadcast a dated, flimsy story about Dean’s decision to support a Vermont state trooper in a nasty divorce case.

On Jan. 19, John Kerry won the Iowa caucus. When it was over, Dean made his infamous “”screech speech,”” which was intended to perk up his supporters.

“”He seemed so out of control,”” said Kathy Abradovich, the political editor of The Des Moines Register, who watched it from the newsroom. But she said the reporters covering the speech saw it differently. “”It was like a rock concert,”” said Register reporter Tim Higgins. “”People were jumping around. People were crying. It didn’t seem out of place at all.””

Cable and broadcast news networks aired Dean’s Iowa speech 633 times in the four days after it was made, according to The Hotline, a Washington-based political newsletter. Some networks and newspapers admitted they had overplayed it. But by then the damage had been done.

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