Monday, October 15, 2007

A tale of two routs

Look closely at the two Star Tribune covers above; one is from the day after the so-called "Republican Revolution" election of November 1994, and the second is from the day after the 2006 rout of the Republicans, both in the State of Minnesota and around the nation.

The 1994 cover defines a narrative of the overall election with the top headline on the page: "REPUBLICANS WIN ACROSS U.S." The 2006 front page didn't define any narrative; instead, it is a collection of shorter headlines reporting the results of each race, without any summing-up of the drubbing suffered by Republicans across the nation. The top headline is a double-decker blaring "IT'S PAWLENTY AGAIN; KLOBUCHAR WINS BIG." Underneath in much smaller type and not in bold it says "Democrats take control of U.S. House; Senate hangs in balance."

While technically true, the headlines nonetheless avoid characterizing the election as a Democratic sweep as the 1994 headline had done. And it was a comparable sweep for the Dems. In Minnesota they won many more House and Senate seats than the Republicans had won in 1994. Nationally the Republican wins in the U.S. House and Senate in 1994 were bigger than the Democrats' wins in 2006, but in both cases the U.S. House changed hands.

One interesting fact is that in 2006, for the first time in the history of the United States, no Republican captured any House, Senate, or Gubernatorial seat previously held by a Democrat. The Democrats even won a majority of state governorships. The election was an historic repudiation of Republican governance, both at home and across the country. Why didn't the Trib lead with a headline such as "DEMOCRATS WIN ACROSS U.S."?

Now look at the lead pictures on the two front pages. The 1994 front page had two large photos of winners from the victorious Republicans - one of Rod Grams who won a U.S. Senate seat and one of Arne Carlson who won reelection as governor. On the 2006 front page there was only one lede photo - and it was of the Republican Governor Pawlenty, who won reelection by one percentage point in a three way race. He was virtually the only top Republican to win reelection. Republicans lost every other constitutional elective state wide office. The photo shows Republican Pawlenty, messiah-like, receiving adoration from his supporters. So in 1994 you have two photos of winners from the winning party, but in 2006 you have one photo of basically the only winner from the losing party.

Why was the photo of Pawlenty chosen to lead the front page when there was a truly historic victory in the fifth congressional district where Keith Ellison won election to congress as the first Black and first Muslim from Minnesota ever elected, and the first Muslim elected to Congress in the nation's history! Ellison won despite a dishonest and unethical campaign against him by the Trib's own news columnist, conservative movement ideologue and Center of the American Experiment product Katherine Kersten. Now Ellison is a national and international political and media figure.

David Brock famously wrote in his book The Republican Noise Machine that the right, above almost all else, wants to prevent its ideological enemies outright victories. Even on issues where Republicans are the big losers partisans of the right spin them one way or another to achieve at least a tie. The goal is always to define the narrative, and when losing, at least muddy the waters so as to fool some of the people. As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. Or, at least the electorate's perception of success or failure.

Here in Minnesota, where, despite the Blog Chihuahua's protestations, the Minneapolis Star Tribune has made an intentional rightward turn. The placing of Doug Tice, a movement conservative ideologue, as political editor and Katherine Kersten, another movement conservative, as a news columnist have given the paper a rightward list, and sometimes an out-and-out racist tilt.

The 1994 front page, from a time prior to the Tice/Kersten era defined a narrative: Republicans kicked butt, all over. The 2006 Democratic victories, similar in scale to the Republicans' wins of 1994, with Tice as political editor, were reported on the front page as isolated wins, with no overall narrative. Yes, there were "teaser" pictures from Ellison, Walz and Bachmann's wins, and about an eight point teaser that the Democrats had taken the state house, that a Democrat had won the state Attorney General position, and five or six other news bits.

I'm not alleging that Doug Tice alone, or Doug Tice with others, somehow conspired to take some of the sting out of coverage of Democratic victories in 2006, although that is the end effect. I don't even know for sure whether he participated in the makeup of the front page on the night of Tuesday, November 7, 2006, although it would be highly unusual to not have the political editor lead or help makeup the front page for the day after a major election.

But whoever designed the front page for the day after the Democratic victories in 2006 made radically different decisions than the people who made it up the day after Republican wins in 1994. The main decision they made was to minimize the systemic losses suffered by the Republicans (which, by the way, extended other recent losses) and deny that the Democrats had dealt them a severe blow.

Readers may reasonably think I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill; however there is a history over the past few years of the Trib going easy on Republicans, spinning their losses as ties or questions still open to interpretation.

Given recent polling and Republican retirements and indictments, the 2008 elections may be as bad for them as 2006. How will the Trib cover it this time? Don't hold your breath for narratives showing voters sick and tired of the GOP.

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