“IT’S WAR,” the New York
Post declared last Friday, over a front-page photo of a beaming John Kerry.
The message worked nicely in two senses: The candidate had just called out his
opponent in bold terms-”Kerry bashes Bush in prez race kickoff”-and he had done
it while wrapping himself in the bullet-shredded flag of his Vietnam swift
But there was the third sense: the Post ‘s own war, waged during the Democratic National Convention as
at no other time yet in the campaign. It was a noisy conflict, but a subtle and
indirect one-the target was John Kerry, but the real foe was the rest of the
Mr. Kerry’s faults have been openly denounced in the pages of the
Post : He flip-flops, he’s
hoity-toity, he acts French. The sins of the Fourth Estate, though, the Post seeks to attack by example. Other
papers don’t tell the story straight. Politeness and self-importance prevent
them from having the obvious, visceral, personal reaction that the Post believes the Democratic leadership
deserves. They don’t write what they see; They write what they think they’re
supposed to see, what they’re told to see, what the Kerry folks want them to
By Friday, though the newspaper reeked of gun smoke and hot iron,
the nominee stood in his Mary Beth Cahill armor, showing barely a chink. On
television, even the Post ‘s frequent
sympathizers couldn’t muster any horror at Bush bashing
The clatter had cleared off, the battle was over, and wan
affirmations that Mr. Kerry had seemed to stay on message had been the main
report from the field, the one America saw on television.
The Post had poured its
150-proof outrage into the punchbowl at the media party that was the Democratic
National Convention, but nobody else seemed to feel it.
Plenty of dangers had lurked for Mr. Kerry, and the Post had helpfully (or hopefully) noted
them all: The candidate could have seen Bill Clinton upstage him with a reprise
of his “endless scene-stealing Elvis Presley entry at the 2000 convention.” He
could have been undermined by Hillary Clinton, who was secretly “looking ahead
to 2008.” He could have been dragged into a divisive discussion of “gay nups”
or humiliated by his “wacky wife” and “party-hearty daughters.”
But he wasn’t. Party discipline held, as most other media outlets
had predicted it would. Mr. Kerry’s perils bounced harmlessly off him like so
many red, white, and blue balloons. By week’s end, the Post was running a two-page headline to trumpet the news that Rudy
Giuliani doesn’t agree with Michael Moore.
In Tuesday’s early editions, the Post had devoted the front page to an image of Mr. Kerry looking
goofy in a hooded, pale-blue NASA clean suit. “BOSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM,” the
headline gloated. And while the rest of the press struggled to come up with a
proper analogy for Mr. Kerry’s getup, the Post
found the precise reference: a photo of Woody Allen in his sperm costume from Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but
Were Afraid to Ask .
But before the night was over, the convention’s planned agenda
had won out. By the final edition, the Post
yanked the silly-Kerry picture off the front to make room for a photo of Mr.
Clinton taken at his speech. “IT’S MY PARTY,” the new headline said.
It took some courage for the Post
to have made fun of anyone at all. Around the press tent in Boston, there were
more opportunities to laugh at the paper than to laugh with it-thanks to last
month’s ill-fated vice-presidential exclusive.
“[T]he Democrats will formally nominate their official 2004
ticket: John ‘John’ Kerry and John ‘John’ Edwards,” syndicated humor columnist
Dave Barry wrote in his first convention coverage piece. “(Or, for you readers
of the New York Post , Dick ‘Dick’
The Miami-based Mr. Barry, who said he generally doesn’t keep up
with the Post , returned to variations
on the punch line all week: “Teresa Heinz Kerry (or, for you readers of the New York Post , Dick Gephardt)”; “The New York Post is predicting Walter
Mondale [will be the nominee].”
“People kept saying, ‘Boy, I really like the New York Post joke,’” Mr. Barry said. “So I kept making it.”
Mocking the Post , Mr. Barry said, was
“kind of like a Leno joke” the first time he did it, but with repetition “it
becomes more like a Letterman joke”-an in-joke with readers about how far he
could drag the cliché. Like Ted Kennedy’s weight or Dan Quayle’s spelling, the Post ‘s failure was something that Mr.
Barry’s readers in Biloxi, Miss., or Tulsa, Okla., could recognize. Mr. Barry
could have been describing the M.O. of the New
York Post .
But somehow, the tin can the Post
tied to Kerry’s tail-”Boston, We Have a Problem”-didn’t seem to be clanging
very loudly by Tuesday.
The banner on the convention package, previously “DEMS’ BIG
WEEK,” became “DEMS’ LOVE-IN,” accompanied by repeating photos of Mr. Kerry’s
and Mr. Edwards’ heads pressed close together, with Mr. Edwards puckering up.
“SHHH! KEEP IT IN THE CLOSET,” the headline on the gay-nups story below said,
in case the subtlety had been lost on anyone.
The rest of the section was a grab-bag of outrages by the
Democrats: a “Bush-Bashing Meter” (set at a tepid 4 out of 10); a follow-up
piece about Teresa Heinz Kerry’s “shove it” remark (accompanied by eye-rolling,
slack-mouthed photo); a bulletin noting that Ms. Heinz Kerry had once called
Ted Kennedy worse than Nixon (“[i]n a 1971 interview with The Washington Post “).
The feistiest entry came from columnist Andrea Peyser, under the
headline “Bill ‘n’ Hill out of lip synch as the party’s odd couple.” Having
observed Mr. Clinton’s failed attempt to kiss his wife at a party, Ms. Peyser
concluded that the couple is completely and awkwardly estranged.
Ms. Peyser came away with the impression that Mr. Clinton would
rather have been, well, making time with a New
York Post columnist: “At one point, he placed his hand on my bare
In a brief phone conversation, Ms. Peyser announced that her
reporting had no agenda, personal or institutional, behind it. She declined to
discuss her approach to convention coverage in any detail. “I only write what I
see, the way I see it,” Ms. Peyser said. That’s become a sort of war cry for
the Post .
Through a spokesperson, Post
editor Col Allan and president Lachlan Murdoch declined to comment on any
aspect of the paper’s convention coverage. But as the days of anodyne events
trickled by, reporters found less and less to complain about. Wednesday, Mr.
Morris and Kenneth Lovett reported that the G.O.P.’s reaction team had found
Mr. Clinton’s speech “clever-but often wrong on facts” and Washington bureau
chief Deborah Orin quoted an anonymous Republican operative as saying Ms. Heinz
Kerry’s subdued convention address had been “bizarre.”
By Thursday, describing Mr. Kerry’s arrival in Boston,
correspondent Stefan C. Friedman was seeing much what the rest of the media
saw, to judge from the coverage: “Like a conquering hero, John Kerry returned
home yesterday standing at the bow of a harbor cruise boat surrounded by more
than a dozen of his Vietnam War crew mates.” But as if to remind readers that
not all is well in Democrat-land, Post
editors tucked a completely unrelated story, about the Democratic National
Committee’s entanglement with “disgraced developer” Charles Kushner, in the
middle of the boat story.
And confronted with a well-behaved Ms. Heinz Kerry, Ms. Peyser
had to criticize her for not being out of control-for being “a sonorous,
facially expressionless, peace-sign-flashing, purposefully maternal zombie.”
The Bush meter hovered in the mild middle of the scale.
So when the war came Friday, the Post ‘s troops were spent. Mr. Kerry “touched all the right bases in
a well-received speech,” David Seifman wrote in an analysis piece. Ms. Orin
wrote that Mr. Kerry “gave what some analysts rated the speech of his
life”-though she also noted that the candidate “ignored virtually his entire
19-year Senate record, which got him the rating as its No. 1 most liberal
member.” (In fact, National Journal ,
which issued Mr. Kerry’s No. 1 liberal rating for 2003, had only rated him No.
11 for his entire career.)
It remains to be seen whether the Post ‘s coverage of the D.N.C. will seep into the bloodstream:
Already, People magazine’s profile of
the extended Kerry campaign, a favorable treatment with a posed photograph,
bore the headline “Trail Mix,” suggesting an assortment of nuts. By the time of
the Republican convention at the end of the month, it will perhaps be clear who
else follows the lead.
Ms. Peyser, like the last Japanese soldier in the jungle, refused
to give out at the end of the week, accusing Mr. Kerry of saying “absolutely
zilch of substance.”
Even the clever layout items took it easy on the nominee. Lou
Lumenick gave Mr. Kerry’s campaign film short, A Remarkable Promise , three stars. A report card graded Mr. Kerry’s
speech out at a B-plus.
And the Bush-Bashing Meter, redubbed the Bush-O-Meter, rose to a
modest “8 out of 10.”
In drawing the needle, though, someone had pinned it clear to the
top of the scale.
New York Times has a new czar, and he hails from the provinces. Tuesday
afternoon, editor Bill Keller announced that the paper will be elevating
Washington editor Richard L. Berke to a newly created position, tentatively
called associate managing editor for news.
Mr. Keller’s memo describes the job as being to “propel the daily
news coverage, the way Jon Landman (before detouring to Culture) was driving
enterprise, or Adam Moss (before defecting) was driving features.” That means
duties ranging from “harvesting ideas” to focusing coverage of “big breaking or
running stories,” according to the memo.
Mr. Berke, currently the No. 2 person in the Washington bureau,
said that he had been talking with Times
brass about moving to some other job for a while, but the czarship offer
“happened pretty quickly.”
One thing Mr. Berke won’t bring to the position is much firsthand
experience of life on West 43rd Street. “There’s a lot I need to learn about
the New York operations,” he said. His last prolonged exposure to New York, he
said, came when he went to journalism school at Columbia. “I haven’t lived
there since ’81,” he said.
The Times has not yet
chosen a replacement for Mr. Berke, who will be moving to New York in
January-assuming that the election is over by then. And if this contest spills
over into 2005? “If that were to happen, I’m sure we’d have to adjust,” Mr.
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