Why did the press ignore Ted Kennedy in 2002?

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The sad news last week that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor triggered an extraordinary amount of news coverage, making the front pages of newspapers across the country and producing more than 2,000 television mentions, according to TVeyes.com.

The sad news last week that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor triggered an extraordinary amount of news coverage, making the front pages of newspapers across the country and producing more than 2,000 television mentions, according to TVeyes.com.

Aside from sitting presidents, there aren't many politicians who can generate that kind of play with a health-related bulletin. The avalanche of interest in Kennedy's cancer battle stems not only from his famous family and his last-of-a-generation, living-legend status, but also because Kennedy symbolizes -- and serves as a de facto spokesman for -- an entire political leaning in America: liberals.

That's why what Kennedy does and says is important, and it's usually treated that way by the media.

Indeed, this is the second time this year the illustrious lawmaker has made big headlines. The first came in January when Kennedy endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for president. That was also front-page news across the country and completely dominated television's political coverage for days. In fact, news of Kennedy's endorsement, made on the morning of January 28, nearly eclipsed President Bush's State of the Union address, which was delivered later that evening.

This year, the press has treated Kennedy as a singularly powerful figure in the Democratic Party and a commanding spokesman for the American left.

Unfortunately, that hasn't always been the case. Just a few years ago, when Republicans were riding high on Iraq war fever and Democrats were seen as on the retreat politically, the press cavalierly snubbed Kennedy.

Specifically, back in September 2002, with the Bush administration and much of the Beltway media rushing to embrace war with Iraq, Kennedy delivered a passionate, provocative, and newsworthy speech raising all sorts of doubts about a possible invasion. Unlike today, the political press wasn't very interested in Kennedy or what he had to say about the most pressing issue facing the nation. Back in that media environment, being the voice of American liberals didn't mean much.

I've been thinking about Kennedy's speech a lot lately. Not just because the senator has been in the news, but also because of the Pentagon's still-unfolding propaganda scandal involving retired U.S. generals who, at times, were used as puppets on network and cable television during the war, where they repeated administration talking points while presenting themselves as independent analysts. That outlets eagerly embraced the Pentagon's pro-war generals while mostly dismissing Kennedy's warnings perfectly captured the media's mindset during the run-up to the war.

To really get a sense of the damage done by that propaganda initiative and to appreciate just how badly the press fell down as professional skeptics who are supposed to hold people in power accountable, it's instructive to revisit the media environment of late 2002 and early 2003.

And looking back, a key turning point during that public rush to war was Kennedy's fervent and thoughtful speech. It was a turning point because it highlighted, months before the invasion even took place, how the press was going to deal with high-profile, articulate critics of Bush's war policy. The press was going to downplay them, marginalize them, and ignore them. Even if those critics included high-wattage political stars like Ted Kennedy.

In retrospect, I can't help thinking that if the media treated Kennedy in 2002 the way they treat him today (and the way the press treated him before 2002), as somebody whose actions command respect and attention, that the doomed public debate about the war would have, or at least could have, been much different. It could have been more critical, more thoughtful, and more illuminating.

Instead, much of the political press in 2002 treated Kennedy as a bystander in the passing Bush parade, and specifically, they treated Kennedy's September 27 speech as little more than a political maneuver that deserved only passing mention -- literally.

That night on NBC's Nightly News, just 32 words from the Kennedy address were excerpted. On ABC's World News Tonight, it was 31 words. And on the CBS Evening News, 40 words. In all three instances, the brief mention of the Kennedy speech was part of a larger report on the looming possibility of war. Meaning, on none of the networks did Kennedy's speech qualify as a stand-alone news event.

The address was given on a Friday. Two days later on the Sunday talk shows, where Iraq was discussed in detail, Kennedy's name never came up on NBC's Meet the Press, on CBS' Face the Nation, or on ABC's This Week.

For the network pundits, Kennedy's anti-war speech did not exist. It was irrelevant to the around-the-clock media chatter about a looming war.

The Kennedy coverage in the major newspapers wasn't much better. At The Washington Post, Kennedy's newsworthy speech, a clarion call against Bush's pre-emptive war, garnered exactly one sentence -- 36 words total in coverage. Keep in mind, during 2002, the Post published more than 1,000 articles and columns about Iraq, nearly 1 million words. But the Post set aside just 36 words for Kennedy's farsighted war speech.

What was so remarkable was that Kennedy delivered his address at the time when there was already a media narrative unfolding about how Democrats, anxious about the political ramifications of not supporting a then-popular president, were not voicing stiff opposition to the planned invasion.

Two days before Kennedy gave his speech, the Post detailed in an A1 article how "[d]ozens of congressional Democrats are frustrated with their leadership for rushing to embrace President Bush's Iraqi war resolution and fostering an impression the party overwhelmingly backs a unilateral strike against Saddam Hussein."

When Kennedy stepped forward and answered the specific issue raised by the Post, what did the newspaper do? It devoted 36 words to Kennedy's address.

What was lacking from the limited coverage that did exist was even the slightest attempt to relay the key points of Kennedy's address, which represented the same central points that White House critics had been raising for months and continued to raise after Kennedy's speech.

Some key passages from the Kennedy speech:

  • "[T]he Administration has not made a convincing case that we face such an imminent threat to our national security that a unilateral, pre-emptive American strike and an immediate war are necessary."
  • "[T]he Administration has not explicitly acknowledged, let alone explained to the American people, the immense post-war commitment that will be required to create a stable Iraq."
  • "A largely unilateral American war that is widely perceived in the Muslim world as untimely or unjust could worsen not lessen the threat of terrorism."
  • "War with Iraq before a genuine attempt at inspection and disarmament, or without genuine international support -- could swell the ranks of Al Qaeda sympathizers and trigger an escalation in terrorist acts."
  • "[I]nformation from the intelligence community over the past six months does not point to Iraq as an imminent threat to the United States or a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction."
  • "[T]here is no clear and convincing pattern of Iraqi relations with either Al Qaeda or the Taliban."

Talk about a greatest-hits performance. Kennedy nailed virtually every major problem and shortfall that emerged in the wake of the invasion. Yet in real time, the press, which was producing voluminous reports and commentary about the possible war, showed only superficial interest in Kennedy's prophetic comments.

For instance, Kennedy's hometown paper, The Boston Globe, ran a Page One story about the senator's war speech. But the article itself contained just three quotes from the address and did not include most of his most stinging assessments.

The New York Times did the same thing in a September 28, 2002, article, leading with a reference to Kennedy's address. But the Times included just two Kennedy quotes in the entire article, an article that mostly focused on upcoming war-related votes in Congress and the United Nations.

Also, both the Globe and the Times set aside nearly as much space for Republican hit man Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) to attack Kennedy's speech as the papers did to explain what Kennedy actually said about waging war.

Note: I mentioned earlier that it's instructive to go back and actually read the articles and transcripts from 2002 and 2003 to get a sense of just how dreadful the prewar coverage was. But that kind of research is not for the faint of heart, because what you'll find is often just gruesome.

That's my way of prefacing how MSNBC's Hardball dealt with Kennedy's speech on September 27, 2002. I kid you not, host Chris Matthews took the news of Kennedy's smart, provocative speech, which represented the most sweeping and prominent indictment of Bush's war plan delivered by an in-office Democrat, and the MSNBC host packaged it with war pronouncements made that same week by Hollywood stars:

MATTHEWS: Tonight on Hardball, Barbra Streisand, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Tom Cruise speak out as debate picks up in Washington and in Hollywood over whether this country should attack Iraq.

Don't you love how Babs got top billing over Kennedy? And yes, the program's guests spent nearly as much time discussing (in a serious manner) what celebrities thought about the war as they did debating Kennedy's thoughts about launching an unprecedented pre-emptive war against Iraq. (FYI: Cruise supported the war; Streisand, not so much.)

Not gruesome enough? Note this teaser that Matthews read at the top of the program that night, which perfectly captured the tone and tenor of the times: "Tonight, do the radical protesters shutting down Washington have a legitimate cause or do they simply hate America?"

Incredibly, Hardball was not alone in grouping Kennedy together with the Hollywood actor and singer in terms of the day's top political news. From CNN's Inside Politics on September 27, 2002:

Senator Ted Kennedy joins the ranks of Democrats raising red flags about war with Iraq, but is his take on Iraq that different from the president's? Then, Barbra Streisand is emerging from partial retirement Sunday, lending her voice to a star-studded event in Los Angeles, expected to bring in $4 million for House Democrats.

And yes, you read that correctly. The pros at CNN suggested that Kennedy's laundry list of reservations about a war with Iraq wasn't all that different from what Bush was saying publicly at the time. As CNN's Candy Crowley reported that day, "What was remarkable was the extent to which they [Kennedy and Bush] seemed to be saying the same thing."

Just amazing.

As we hope for the best regarding Kennedy's health condition and await the latest update, which will likely spark a flurry of press reports, let's not forget that it wasn't that long ago that the media did their best to ignore what Kennedy had to say. And when it ignored Kennedy, and when it ignored the voice of liberals, the press -- and the country -- paid a dear price.

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