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The Democratic Party is in a rut, according to a panel of distinguished journalists who spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Friday.
The panel, which was moderated by Director of the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy Alex S. Jones, also discussed bias in the media’s political coverage and what they described as President Bush’s ignorance of public opinion.
Jones, explaining the Democrats’ slump, presented data from a recent New York Times column that said voters identifying themselves as members of the Democratic Party were down from 49 percent during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, to about 32 percent today.
Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News, said the Democrats’ congressional leaders had failed to offer an alternative to Bush.
“Republicans have a clearer sense of what they’re about,” said Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today.
The Democratic presidential candidates have also been hurt by a lack of the “sunny personality” that former President Bill Clinton exuded, according to Halperin.
“People pick those they feel more comfortable with,” he said.
Allison King, a political reporter for New England Cable News, said that the Democrats need a candidate who is liberal enough to win the primaries and moderate enough to win the general election. She said the most centrist candidate so far, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., is “floundering,” while the more liberal former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been gaining momentum.
“He’s on a roll,” King said, adding that part of Dean’s success has come from his use of the Internet to spread his platform and raise funds.
“There is no question that this is a huge force behind his campaign,” she said.
However, Matt Bai, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, warned that the Internet will not work for all the candidates, and that it will be four to five years before the Internet becomes more important to campaigns.
Bai also discussed the recent rise of the conservative Fox News Network and similarly conservative radio shows. These programs offer a varying viewpoint, he said, for people who feel they cannot connect with the issues dominating mainstream media. Bai criticized the assumption that those who watch Fox News are “dumb” or “under-educated,” and said that although Fox News might only present one side, other news outlets have the same problem.
According to Halperin, news organizations have the responsibility to cover all sides fairly, but he said that a “liberal bias” does exist.
The media has also increasingly boiled issues down to either liberal or conservative, according to Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and former chief of CNN.
“I think talk radio tends to simplify and make things more partisan,” he said, adding that as a result some of the more “nuanced” detail are lost. He said that shows with heavily politically polarized commentators, such as CNN’s “Crossfire,” are too eager to jump on candidates who have more complex and centrist views.
“I think after two years of TV,” he said, “I’ve become more partial to print.”
The panelists also expressed concerns over the degree to which President Bush is aware of public opinion about the U.S. around the world. A recent New York Times article described him as surprised by global negative perceptions of the U.S.
“Bush gets his news unfiltered through his aides,” Page said, adding that the President does not read newspapers and could potentially be receiving very biased information. She said that Bush subscribes to the Dallas Morning News, but only for the sports section.
King wondered whether Bush’s surprise at negative perceptions of the U.S. abroad was feigned and meant to be humorous, but Jones said, “I don’t think he has that sense of humor.”
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