After repeatedly reporting Democrats lacked plan, CNN ignored party's new national security strategy

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Over the past year, CNN hosts, anchors, and reporters have repeatedly commented on the Democratic Party's purported lack of a clear plan or concrete set of alternatives on issues ranging from Social Security to the war in Iraq. When a large coalition of Democrats stood together on March 29 to unveil a unified national security platform, CNN largely ignored the news.

Over the past year, CNN hosts, anchors, and reporters have repeatedly commented on the Democratic Party's purported lack of a clear plan or concrete set of alternatives on issues ranging from Social Security to the war in Iraq. But on the day that Democratic leaders announced a broad national security strategy, CNN barely covered this development, instead devoting an hour and a half of uninterrupted coverage to a speech by President Bush on Iraq, his third in two weeks. Moreover, when CNN finally reported on the Democrats' national security plan, it omitted any details about the proposals put forth by the congressional leaders.

The following are examples from the past year of CNN personalities addressing the Democrats' purported lack of ideas on a variety of issues, national security chief among them:

  • CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux asked Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile, "Why aren't the Democrats coming up with concrete ideas here ... when it comes to the Social Security plan or energy?" [Inside Politics, 6/15/05]
  • In an interview with Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), CNN congressional correspondent Ed Henry said, "There's been a lot of talk about how there's not a Democratic plan on the table." [Inside Politics, 6/29/05]
  • In a discussion with CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider and Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund, CNN host Lou Dobbs commented, "Democrats haven't come up with a single message, a straightforward proposal or plan." [Lou Dobbs Tonight, 10/13/05]
  • CNN host Wolf Blitzer has repeatedly referenced a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll which found that 70 percent of Americans believe Democrats have no clear plan for Iraq. "The Democrats seem to be all over the place," he said on one occasion after reading the poll numbers. [Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, 3/12/06]
  • CNN host Anderson Cooper asserted that Democrats "really are not unified. They don't really have a plan for Iraq." [Anderson Cooper 360, 3/20/06]

But despite repeatedly highlighting the Democrats' purported lack of such plans, when a large coalition of Democrats stood together on March 29 to unveil a unified national security platform, CNN largely ignored the news.

In the early afternoon on March 29, the Democrats held a 40-minute press conference announcing the release of their new national security agenda, "Real Security: Protecting America and Restoring Our Leadership in the World." The proposals in this set of policy papers include screening 100 percent of containers and cargo entering the United States, boosting the size of the U.S. Special Forces and National Guard, ensuring that troops have better body armor, providing more resources to first-responders, and allotting greater funding for veterans benefits.

A Media Matters for America survey of CNN's programming on March 29 between 6 a.m. ET and 4 p.m. ET found only one mention of the Democratic plan. It came at 2:23 p.m. when CNN's Live From ... aired a brief clip of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid [NV] speaking at the Democrats' press conference. The two-minute clip came directly after CNN had provided uninterrupted coverage of Bush's speech at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., an event that spanned an hour and a half and largely mirrored the multiple foreign policy addresses Bush has given in recent weeks.

CNN ran its first full-length segment on the Democrats' plan during the 5 p.m. edition of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. But in the report, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash offered viewers no information regarding the specific proposals put forth by the Democrats during the press conference, instead she speculated on the Democrats' motives in releasing the plan at this specific time. As for the document itself, Bash held it up for the camera and merely noted that it included "some of the ideas that, frankly, we've heard before" and did not include a "clear plan for Iraq."

Shortly after Bash concluded her report, Blitzer turned to CNN senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield for more information on the Democrats' unveiling of their national security plan. But Greenfield's report -- like Bash's -- included no specifics about what party leaders had proposed. Moreover, not only did Greenfield fail to inform viewers of the substance of the Democrats' proposals, he uncritically aired a clip of Bush in a March 21 press conference misleadingly suggesting that Democrats want to put a stop to the government's surveillance of terrorism suspects.

Beyond its extensive coverage of Bush's speech and its two-minute segment on the Democratic national security plan, CNN found time between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. to air a report on the different helmets available for child athletes, a story about "a family whose reality turned into a nightmare" after appearing on a reality television show, a discussion of a recent poll on the use of profanity among Americans, and a review of the racy new TV show, The WB's The Bedford Diaries (The WB Television Network, 2006).

From the June 15, 2005, edition of Inside Politics:

MALVEAUX: Why aren't the Democrats coming up with concrete ideas here, though, when it comes to the Social Security plan or energy? We've heard a lot of people say, look, we don't support what the president's doing or the Republicans, but they keep asking the Democrats, give us a better plan here, and we're not hearing it.

From the June 29, 2005, edition of Inside Politics:

HENRY: OK, well, then, since you don't feel the president laid out that plan, lay out what you think Democrats would do differently. There's been a lot of talk about how there's not a Democratic plan on the table. And, in fact, today in the Los Angeles Times, Ron Brownstein wrote that one of the reasons why there is a public appetite to continue this troop deployment is not necessarily that the president has made the case, but that there's not a reasonable alternative out there. What would Democrats do differently?

From the October 13, 2005, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: And at this point, there is the other party, the Democrats, and they haven't come up with a single message, a straightforward proposal, or plan. They seem, [CNN senior political analyst] Bill Schneider, absolutely rudderless in all of this, as well.

From the March 12 edition of Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer:

BLITZER: You just heard the [U.S.] Ambassador [to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad say that this has been a good day in trying to form a new government of national unity in Iraq. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll asked if Democrats in Congress have a clear plan for Iraq. Seventy percent said they do not have a clear plan. Only 24 percent said they have a plan. The Democrats seem to be all over the place.

From the March 20 edition of Anderson Cooper 360:

COOPER: [CNN senior political correspondent] Candy [Crowley], it's interesting that the Democrats have raised so much in the polls on this issue, and yet they really are not unified. They don't really have a plan for Iraq.

CROWLEY: Well, and in fact, when you ask Americans, "Do the Democrats have a plan?" something like 68 percent say no, they don't, which is about the same number as say that President Bush doesn't have a plan.

From the March 29 edition of CNN's Live From ... :

KYRA PHILIPS (CNN news anchor and correspondent): Well, war, national security, the military: Are the Republicans tougher on those fronts? No way, say the Democrats. They say the Bush administration's still on the wrong path.

REID [clip]: The president can give all the speeches that he wants, but nothing will change the fact that his Iraq policy is wrong.

Two weeks ago, he told the American people that Iraqis would control their country by the end of the year. But last week, he told us that troops would be there until at least 2009. These mixed messages from President Bush are taking America in the wrong direction and jeopardizing Iraq's chance for success.

PHILLIPS: Now, Reid's counterpart in the house, Representative Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], says, "Democrats are providing a fresh strategy, one that is strong and smart, which understands the challenges America faces in a post-9-11 world, and one that demonstrates that Democrats are the party of real national security."

From the March 29 edition of CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer:

BLITZER: Who's tougher? Republicans have long draped themselves in the mantle of national security. But ahead of the midterm elections this year, Democrats are trying very hard to persuade the American public they can do a better job keeping Americans safe. CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash once again joining us from Capitol Hill. Dana?

BASH: Hi, Wolf. Democrats here on Capitol Hill are very candid about why they are trying to step up their talk about national security right now. They see that the public is souring on President Bush and his signature issue, which is national security and especially Iraq, and they are essentially trying to take advantage of that for this election year. Let's listen to the Democratic leader, Harry Reid.

REID [clip]: The president can give all of the speeches that he wants, but nothing will change the fact that his Iraq policy is wrong.

Two weeks ago, he told the American people that Iraqis would control their country by the end of the year. But last week, he told us the troops would be there until at least 2009. These mixed messages from President Bush are taking America in the wrong direction and jeopardizing Iraq's chance for success.

BASH: Now, there you hear Harry Reid talking about President Bush in a very familiar way, essentially slamming him on his Iraq policy, but he was also standing with about 100 Democratic lawmakers. And the point the Democrats are trying to make today are a couplefold.

First of all, that, yes, they are against the president, but they're trying to move away from that and towards the fact that they say they do have a plan, a broad plan. They put out this document, Wolf, which has some of the ideas, frankly that we've heard before, but it's also about trying to show unity. You saw, as I said, about 100 Democratic lawmakers standing together.

One of the big issues has been and actually still is that Democrats, especially on Iraq, do not necessarily speak with one voice. But here's one example of why Democrats are trying to take advantage right now. Look at this -- these poll numbers. When asked whether -- who would do a better job on Iraq specifically, leading up to the last election in July of '03, Republicans really had a huge advantage: 51 to 40 percent. But in the latest poll just -- this month, that has flipped. Democrats, 36 percent -- they were at 36 percent, now 48 percent. So, the issue has definitely flips -- flipped.

Democrats feel that they have an advantage, but look at this number. The question of whether or not Americans think Democrats have -- in Congress have a clear plan in Iraq -- almost seven in 10 Americans say the answer to that is no. And frankly, that is still the issue that is vexing Democrats that they don't necessarily have a clear plan on Iraq.

They didn't try to come up with one in this plan that they put out today, but they are banking on the fact that this is President Bush's war and that the American people see that issue and nothing else, and that perhaps the anger at him will be so great that they will elect Democrats. Republicans are banking on that not happening, and they are certainly gearing up their campaign to make sure people say, well, you're -- you don't like us, well look at Democrats. They would be worse. Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, thank you very much. Dana Bash on Capitol Hill.

[...]

BLITZER: Republicans won't be easily nudged aside when it does come to national security. Let's bring in our senior analyst Jeff Greenfield. He's joining us from New York with more on this sensitive matter. Jeff?

GREENFIELD: Wolf, today's efforts by congressional Democrats to stake out that claim on the national security issue can be traced back to the last two elections, where doubts about the party and its candidates cost them. But widen the focus, and you see that the weak-on-defense charge has been hurting the Democratic Party for a much longer time.

[begin video clip]

REID: The president can give all of the speeches that he wants, but nothing will change the fact that his Iraq policy is wrong.

GREENFIELD (voice-over): It's not hard to understand why Democratic Party leaders want to take a-take-no-prisoner stand on national security matters.

BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

GREENFIELD: After the attacks of September 11, 2001, with President Bush donning the mantle of a wartime president, his political guru Karl Rove told Republicans that we can go to the country on the issue of being strong on defending America.

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R-NH): I'm John Sununu, senator-elect from New Hampshire.

GREENFIELD: They did. The issue was a key to the Republican re-capture of the U.S. Senate in 2002.

And in 2004, President Bush's approval ratings on the terror issue, combined with a relentless campaign to paint [Sen.] John Kerry [D-MA] as an indecisive waffler was a key to the president's narrow re-election.

BUSH: Thank you, all. We had a long night. And a great night.

GREENFIELD: But the Democrats dilemma on the security issue really began decades ago. In fact, the last time Democrats won a national election where that issue mattered was in 1964, when [former Sen.] Barry Goldwater [R-AZ] seemed too hawkish for many voters.

Then Vietnam split the party. President Carter seemed weak on the Iranian hostage crisis issue. President Reagan redefined Republicans as the party of stronger defense. Only when the Cold War's end took that issue off the table, did Democrats win back the White House.

Now, Democrats believe that they can use the bungled federal response to Katrina, the Dubai ports deal, and the difficulties in Iraq to reclaim the security issue on competence grounds. Republicans unsurprisingly have a different notion -- that they can continue to paint the Democratic opposition as soft on terror. Here, for instance, is how President Bush described the Democrats' objections to warrantless wiretaps.

BUSH: They ought to take their message to the people, and say vote for me, I promise we're not going to have a terror surveillance program.

[end video clip]

GREENFIELD: It is a measure of just how much Democrats have been hurt by the security issue that at a time when the president's approval ratings are low and polls say voters would prefer that Democrats control the Congress, they are looking to define themselves on the security issue more than seven months before the midterms. Apparently believing that if voters don't trust them on the security issue, the others won't matter all that much. Wolf?

BLITZER: They are probably right on that. Thanks very much, Jeff, for that.

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