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Spin or Damage Control?

Reported by Judy - October 1, 2004 -

Fox News today (Oct. 1) stuck to spinning last night's presidential debate to show George Bush outperformed John Kerry, but at times the spin was panicky damage control.

Fox and Friends and Fox News Live with Jon Scott in the following hour had several pairs of Democrats and Republicans each declaring their guy did better. Since they said generally what you might expect (and Democrats did a respectable job presenting their case, for a change), let's focus on what Fox personalities themselves were saying.

On Fox and Friends, co-host E.D. Hill turned Bush's halting speech and long pauses during his answers into a virtue, saying Bush really connects to people because he's not perfect. And she said lots of people who live in big cities like speakers who are smoother and slicker, referring to Kerry's performance. Hill was making a cheap appeal to rural voters, relying on hackneyed stereotypes that juxtapose their alleged plain-spokenness against city slickers who can't be trusted.

Hill also focused on a post-debate quickie poll that showed viewers thought Kerry won the debate, but they still trusted Bush more on the wars and that the undecideds broke towards him. Hill also faulted Kerry for not saying enough about how he would handle the war in Iraq better.

Co-host Brian Kilmeade tried to make moderator Jim Lehrer into an issue, complaining that Lehrer didn't ask Kerry questions that would make him defend his record in the Senate, while Bush had to defend his record as president. Jeez, Brian, does Lehrer have to do Bush's work for him? Why didn't Bush bring it up if it was so all-fired important?

As he often does, co-host Steve Doocy tried to ridicule Kerry as a sissy in an attempt to offset Kerry's appearance as a capable commander-in-chief. He mentioned that Kerry got a manicure before the debate and that he had a "man tan."

When Chris Wallace appeared on Fox and Friends to promote his Sunday show, he seemed like the adult who was trying to calm down a bunch of hyper-active fifth graders. Wallace agreed that there was no knock-out punch but both candidates "bloodied each other." When Kilmeade again complained about the moderator, saying he didn't ask Kerry about his changes in position, Wallace declined to fault Lehrer and said the issue got covered, even if not in a direct question.

Wallace also reassured Hill, who was so confused about how viewers could say Kerry won the debate, but undecideds still broke slightly toward Bush. Wallace explained that a 90-minute debate will not erase the opinions people have developed over several weeks or months.

He even went to far as to use the word "failed" in the same sentence as "the president," when he said that the "president clearly fairled" to deliver a knock-out blow that his campaign had expected. He predicted the race will be fought with increasing intensity over the next four weeks. Overall, Wallace's performance was one of his more balanced efforts.

Jonathan Hoenig, from Capitalist Pig Asset Management Co., reverted to true Fox form in discussing the debate's effect on the market. He claimed that the market has a "weird tendency" to rise when Bush is doing well and that the markets are opening higher today. He said it looks like Wall Street is giving its votes to George Bush because the debate was a draw. Hoenig has no way of knowing that. The market might just as well be saying, thank God Kerry did so well, we might get rid of Bush after all.

During Fox News Live, Steve Brown, reporting from Tampa, Florida, tried to cast a shadow over Kerry's performance by noting that Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said Kerry did not reach out to everyone in Florida. I thought, geez, what's he talking about, did he slight the Cubans or what? Brown only wanted to make the point that some 300,000 homes in Florida were still without power so they didn't get to see the debate. Fox likes to introduce some question about Kerry, a suggestion that there is not something quite right with everything he does. He did well, but he didn't reach everybody he needed to. Sneaky.

Jon Scott was his old sneaky self while introducing the panels on his show. He introduced Sen. Jon Corzine, D-New Jersey, and Sen. Pete Dominici, R-New Mexico, by flatly saying that Bush's "own best asset is strength." The statement was unnecessary. He did not need to make an editorial statement before asking the guests what they thought.

Scott also let Republican analyst Brad Blakeman get away with a misstatement about Bush when he said that Kerry didn't testify at the 9/11 commission, implying that Bush did. Bush did not testify. He was not under oath. It was an interview, and he had to bring his big brother along to help him out in case they started to bully him.

One thing that Fox did that appeared fairly balanced was its use of brief sound bites from the candidates. This tended actually to favor Bush, even though they always ran one clip from each candidate. The reason is that by editing Bush down to a few seconds, viewers see only his best statements and not the pauses, hemming and hawing that detracted from his performance last night. Fox likely will play as many Bush sound bites as it can, creating a different impression of Bush's performance through the magic of editing.

In general, Fox News was trying to buck up the Bush supporters, giving them reasons to believe that their guy was not a flop. They have their work cut out for them today.