Media’s ‘Botched Joke’ Double-Standard: Remember Trent Lott?
The firestorm ignited on Tuesday concerning Sen. John Kerry’s insensitive remarks in front of a group of students in Pasadena, California, once again demonstrates the media’s double-standard regarding jokes made by politicians: if you’re a Democrat, the press get it; if you’re a Republican, fuggetaboutit!
Whether you buy into Kerry’s explanation that this was all a botched joke is irrelevant. The reality is the media have, and they’re out in force pushing this line of thinking to douse water on this firestorm as quickly as possible. The much larger issue is how this compares to previous events when the press weren’t as forgiving of a joke that went awry, in particular, what occurred in December 2002 when Trent Lott made an innocent comment at the 100th birthday party of Strom Thurmond. If you recall, that forced him to resign his position as de facto Senate Majority Leader. These were Lott’s comments on that fateful day (video here):
I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.
Fifteen days later, as a result of unbelievable media attention on this issue, along with calls for his resignation, Lott resigned as Senate Republican Leader, and ceded his opportunity to return as Majority Leader in 2003 when the new Congress was sworn in.
But, the media’s response to Kerry’s comments, especially coming just a week before a major midterm election, was, to say the least, much more forgiving. As NewsBusters reported Tuesday, ABC’s Charles Gibson referred to this comment as an “idle political remark” on “World News Tonight.” CNN was out in force supporting the “botched joke” concept, while hoping this issue goes away as quickly as possible as cited here, here, and here. CBS’s Katie Couric on the "Evening News" mockingly impersonated a possible Republican ad about this issue to make light of the seriousness of these comments. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews dismissed the issue calling the incident a “distraction” while concluding “I think he meant to go after the President.”
Yet, the media were not as forgiving of Lott’s remarks almost four years ago. Chris Matthews said on the December 9, 2002, “Hardball,” “When he said my state, he meant the whites of my state is what he meant,” and: “That was a serious moment there when he made that statement. That wasn't a joke.” Matthews continued: "Isn't this an exposure, Donna, to the fact that a lot of people call themselves Republicans today are basically guys hiding in Republican cloth and they're, in fact, Dixiecrats to the heart of it and that's why they're in politics, to slow things down?” He concluded: “This guy has got to do a little further clarifying.”
On the December 8, 2002 “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert said: “John Lewis, a congressman, former civil rights leader, said that Strom Thurmond ran a segregationist campaign in 1948 and that Trent Lott is just dead wrong. Jesse Jackson called NBC News this morning and said Trent Lott is a Confederate and he should resign as majority leader.” The Washington Post’s David Broder said on the same program: “As long as that racial divide continues, any kind of comment like this on Senator Lott's part is going to be--have all kinds of bad resonance.” Joe Klein of Time magazine chimed in:
I think that if a Democrat had made an analogous statement, like if Henry Wallace had been elected in 1948, we would have had a much easier road with the Soviet Union because we would have just given them everything and there wouldn't have been a Cold War. You would have been jumping up and down. And I think that this kind of statement in this country at this time is outrageous, and it should be called that.
As the days wore on, the focus got more intense. CBS’s Dan Rather began a segment on the “Evening News” December 11: “Senate Republican leader Trent Lott stepped up his efforts at political damage control today over recent comments about race and segregation that have prompted calls for him to resign his leadership post. CBS' Bob Schieffer reports that so far Lott's attempts have only intensified the calls for him to go.” Schieffer took the baton beginning: “Well, Dan, the problems for the Senate Republican leader just piled up higher today.”
On the same day, CNN’s Judy Woodruff began a segment on this issue: “The public criticism of Senator Trent Lott continued today, fed in part by revelations that last week's comments about Strom Thurmond's presidential campaign were almost identical to statements that Lott made back in 1980.”
This is just a snippet of the reporting back then. In reality, I could cite article after article, news report after news report demanding more serious action and/or Lott’s resignation as a result of his "botched joke."
Looking at the huge disparity in media reaction to these events, what else can be concluded other than that America’s media are much more receptive and tolerant of Democrat jokes and/or mistatements than those from Republicans. Why is that?