Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The media and the Dean scream

As Howard Dean barrels through the South, in his new guise as Democratic Party chair, showing the red states he's not a crazy nut after all, it's interesting to recollect the amazing coup de grace executed by the media on his character during last year's primary season. There's a fascinating piece to this end by Ed Wasserman in the Miami Herald, that questions the media's role in the famous "Dean Scream" episode at the end of the Iowa Caucuses in January 2004. Wasserman makes the fair point that the "scream" was completely and systematically taken out of context. What sounded to us in fakey TV-land like a crazed rebel yell was, in the actual context of a packed, very noisy hall, simply normal cheerleading by a candidate keeping the troops' spirits up. All you have to do is set the sound levels to something resembling the actual noise levels in that Iowa hall, rather than the very selective version we heard over and over (with the heavy background noise artifically reduced to a whisper). In the "truer" context, displaying greater verisimilitude - which TV news never let us hear - the incident is transformed. "Dean was no longer scary, unhinged, volcanic, over the top. He was like the coach of a would-be championship NCAA football team at a pre-game rally, trying to be heard over a gym full of determined, wildly enthusiastic fans. I saw energy, not lunacy."
Wasserman concludes:
    True, some network news executives commented afterward that perhaps the footage was overplayed and offered the bureaucrat's favorite bromide, that hindsight is 20/20. But the media establishment has never acknowledged this as a burning matter of ethical harm. That's because the Dean Scream incriminates the entire professional mission of television news, which is built around the primacy of the picture. TV producers don't profess to offer meaning and context; they get you the visuals, unless they're gory or obscene. The notion that great footage would be not shown just because it's profoundly misleading - that's a possibility few TV news executives would entertain. That's why they're not eager to see the Dean Scream enter the canon of journalistic sin. And if that leaves Howard Dean's political future hobbled by a lie, so be it.

Every time I've seen Dean on TV or heard him on radio since that time, I've seen a very collected, calm, rational individual - not the mythic madman of the campaign trail - and that just reinforces the gnawing sense I've long had that the electorate were fed an instant myth by a TV news system primed and waiting to take out Dean at the perfect opportunity and the right time for their purposes. I'm not saying that I'm the world's biggest Dean fan; but I do think that one of the American political system's brightest stars - someone who dared to be a litttle different, thereby energizing this atrophied federal political system - was brought down by the equivalent of a single, carefully aimed news media sniper shot (a sniper who, btw, had been waiting in the long grass for Dean for many months). It's a singular indignity that Bush, Kerry, Gore et al never had to endure, perhaps because they consistently played it safe. It's an indignity that probably destroyed Dean's chances of being elected president forever, and will further limit the range of electable Democratic candidates for high public office to a bunch of Mark Warner clones. And it's an indignity that will always hang on Dean's public persona, like a bad smell - but it will never hang on the TV news media, which can throw their collective hands up, say "hey, not our problem!" and then forget they ever had any complicity in the matter. Nobody deserves such a lowdown dirty mediated fate - except maybe certain cable TV news "personalities" who dish it out but can't take it - but certainly not Howard Dean.


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