George W. Bush's campaign designed its convention to match its site's slogan as the City of Brotherly Love. Republicans are still wincing at the media reaction eight years ago to the GOP convention in Houston: "A Feast of Hate and Fear," declared one headline in Newsweek that year.
So this year the Republicans announced in advance that there would be no night devoted to partisan attacks on the Democrats. But even more surprising was the absolute disappearance of months of platform spats on social issues like abortion and homosexuality that usually incited liberal media outlets into denouncing the "hardline" stands won by the "religious right."
Reporters are clearly frustrated by the lack of party fratricide, especially since the GOP platform stayed largely the same on those issues. CNN's Jeanne Meserve protested the absence of a fight with platform chairman Tommy Thompson: "Is the party, for the moment, failing to grapple with some of the serious issues that divided it-abortion, specifically?" Hours later, her colleague Candy Crowley tried to incite New York Gov. George Pataki: "You and others who are for abortion rights in the Republican Party were frozen out of the platform.... What does that say, if anything, about compassionate conservatism and the broad tent?"
On CBS, Dan Rather underlined that while other platform planks on education and immigration were softened, "the Republican platform's hard stand against abortion rights and a woman's right to choose" remains unchanged. NBC's David Bloom also questioned Mr. Thompson about the "big tent," and then moved on to homosexuality. "Conservatives reinserted the following language, which would say, 'We do not believe that sexual preference should be given special legal protection or standing in the law.' So the Republican Party is also against any form of rights for homosexuals or lesbians?"
On Tuesday night, NBC's Maria Shriver pressed homosexual Rep. Jim Kolbe about the platform: "So many gays and lesbians in this country find a better home, they say, in the Democratic Party.... The Republican Party only views marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, and they say that is not a home for me, that is not an inclusive party. Why do you feel differently?" Later, Tom Brokaw scolded Jerry Falwell: "But ultimately isn't it about intolerance, not about homosexuality?"
Reporters also presented the Bush campaign's attempts to appeal to minority voters as a smokescreen. On CBS, reporter Bill Whitaker warned viewers, "When you see the faces on the stage and hear the rhetoric, you get the message of a party of inclusion, but turn the camera and the sea of faces sends a different message. It's the rare crowd with more than a handful of faces of color and most of those seem strategically placed within camera range."
What makes this parade of skepticism shocking is the usual pattern of coverage of Democratic conventions, where reporters offered no sense of balance. While reporters question the "hardline" GOP platform and its "intolerance" of liberal views of abortion and homosexuality, the Democrats have not seen their unconditionally pro-abortion and pro-gay platforms presented as "hardline."
In 1992, the networks never even referred to the Clinton-Gore platform as "liberal." Reporters have not pleaded the case of excluded pro-life Democrats or Democrats who even mildly disagree with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force agenda, either in the Democratic platform discussions or on the convention stage. Democrats excluded pro-life Gov. Bob Casey from both the 1992 and 1996 conventions with barely a whisper of network coverage. The media didn't demand that Democrats put up a "big tent" for dissent. And reporters have not pressed Democrats on whether their aggressive pandering to liberal minority advocacy groups might hurt with white voters who may lose out on employment opportunities due to "affirmative action" programs.
Most importantly, as George W. Bush drains his convention of harsh comments against the Clintons and the Gores, the media never question or criticize Democratic negativity. In 1992, network reporters questioned the Republicans in Houston on 70 occasions in prime time about being too negative toward the Democrats, but they never questioned Democrats in New York once, despite many hostile speeches, like Jesse Jackson's comparing Dan Quayle to King Herod.
As the media streamed out of their large white tents here, the question already hangs over their performance with the Democrats in Los Angeles. On Aug. 2, Barbara Bush challenged ABC to question Democrats about their rigidity on abortion. ABC's Charles Gibson replied, "Sure, sure, we'll ask that question." Now that's a campaign promise that merits some skepticism.