Dean and the media

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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore reflects on how perceptions of Howard Dean in the media appear to be changing.

(Dunsmore) Only five months ago, Howard Dean was the darling of the national news media. He was on the covers of both Newsweek and Time on the same week in late August. And while the reports weren’t total puff pieces, he was treated very kindly.

After all, Dean was a great story. He had come from obscure insurgent to frontrunner. He was toasted as the “near genius” who tapped into grass roots disgust with the party leadership for its capitulation on tax cuts and the war in Iraq, and he was described as “brilliant” for the way he turned the Internet into an enormously effective organizing and fundraising instrument.

But as surely as night follows day, Dean’s romance with the national news media was not destined to last.

In these final few days before voters actually have their say in Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean is no longer a near genius or brilliant. Instead he is an accident waiting to happen.

In the words of the highly respected columnist David Broder of the Washington Post, “Howard Dean is now racing the clock to see what comes first — nomination or detonation.” Broder was one of the first major columnists to suggest Dean could be a credible candidate. But a few days ago he wrote, “It is clear the doctor has an instinct for the political jugular — other people’s and his own.”

Last week Dean was once again on the covers of both Time and Newsweek but this time there were no paeans of praise. Newsweek was particularly tough under its cover story title “Doubts About Dean.”

The dominant theme of the latest reporting on Dean is that he is gaffe prone — that he speaks before he thinks and often gets it wrong, and that he is insincere or disingenuous when he makes corrections or in that rare case when he apologizes.

Newsweek has Dean shrugging off such criticism by saying, “The definition of a gaffe in Washington is somebody who tells the truth but shouldn’t have.”

If the doctor said that, he is wrong. Based on my days of covering Presidential politics, a gaffe is saying something that seriously undermines your credibility and/or your judgment, and it could be career ending.

The two most notable examples during my time: in 1968 when Michigan Governor George Romney, a Republican Presidential candidate, claimed that he had been “brainwashed” by the U.S. military during an official visit to Vietnam. He dropped out of the campaign two weeks before the New Hampshire primary.

And in 1976, when President Gerald Ford said in a debate with Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter that Eastern Europe wasn’t under the domination of the Soviet Union. Ford, you may recall, lost that election.

Dean has yet to commit a gaffe of that magnitude, but the pundits seem to think it’s just a matter of time. That may not be fair, but that’s the way media-candidate romances go. By the way, watch out for Wesley Clark. There are definite signs that he may be the next media darling.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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