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Tom DeLay vs. Media Lite

For years now, liberals have snidely suggested that watching Fox News Channel makes dumb conservatives even dumber. They've even produced trumped-up studies trying to prove it. This is in marked contrast to the enlightened viewers of the fusty old news networks, the ones upholding the standards of seriously weighty journalism, you see.

How vague and uninformative can these tired Old Media types be? Take the issue of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. From the vantage point of these news networks, it's unimportant to debate the substance of liberal attacks on DeLay. The charges don't even have to be explained. No, the only thing that's important is to build a vague impression of staggering momentum: DeLay has to go. On Monday morning, April 18, CBS and NBC morning shows picked up the story. Let's look at the basic elements used to sing the "Hallelujah, Republicans In Trouble" chorus:

1. Set a dark and spooky tone. NBC's Matt Lauer introduced the story: "Storm clouds are gathering on Capitol Hill and at the center of the storm is the House Majority Leader, Texas Congressman Tom DeLay." Lauer overlooked the nettlesome point: It is the media themselves who are taping the dark clouds into the metaphorical sky, and then "reporting" on that storm. CBS's Julie Chen armed herself with other cliches: "Under fire for possible ethics violations," DeLay went to Houston "for some much needed support."

2. Empower the protesters. Then came the chants and obligatory signs of the left-wing DeLay-haters standing outside the NRA convention in Houston as DeLay spoke. Some signs read "Un-American Radical," and "Indict Delay now," and mocking DeLay's old exterminating business, "The Constitution is not a cockroach." Why does this little crowd outside, estimated by reporters as at best 150 people, suddenly get anointed as the voice of the people, while thousands cheering DeLay inside are ignored? Because they help the networks build their DeLay-the-crook storyline. CBS added the ridiculous line that some people in the protesters claimed to be conservative Republicans. Yes, and I suppose Dan Rather is a conservative Republican, too.

3. Run the clip of DeLay making gun joke at the NRA convention. DeLay cracked: "When a man's in trouble or in a good fight you want all your friends around them, preferably armed." It's fair to wonder if the networks aired this because they thought this joke was sick, not funny. From his Sunday perch on "Face the Nation," CBS anchor Bob Schieffer demanded that Rep. David Dreier denounce the line as "inflammatory" and asked him to disassociate himself "from these kinds of remarks." Should Schieffer disassociate himself from CBS's Julie Chen reporting DeLay was "under fire," too?

4. Run outraged soundbite from a Democrat denouncing DeLay and ignore that Democrat's documented unethical behavior. In NBC's case, we were treated to Rep. Barney Frank disparaging DeLay: "We're not talking about peccadilloes here. We're talking about a serious corruption of the public policy process." NBC knows Barney Frank didn't care about corruption when the Clintons were in power, and NBC knows Barney Frank is a rich pick to accuse DeLay of corruption, given the revelation in August 1989 that Barney Frank had a male lover running a male prostitution ring out of his house - which NBC thought merited some 30 seconds of anchor dismissal at the time.

5. Speculate like crazy, for the Death Watch is on. NBC highlighted how "some Republicans" are wondering if DeLay is harming the party, and maybe he'll have a tougher re-election fight. This isn't the reporting of today's news. It's an attempt to influence the next day's news. On this count, at least CBS noted that even Democrats assume he's not going anywhere soon. But too much political news is trying to set the stage for what's next, and too little is based on what's already established.

What was missing in these "storm cloud" reports was any substance, not even much of a description of what the charges entailed. CBS only cited "three congressional rebukes for alleged ethical lapses...amid reports he took luxury trips set up by big money lobbyists." NBC said "DeLay is under scrutiny for his political fundraising, for his overseas trips and for his connections to lobbyists under federal investigation. All that comes on top of three admonishments by the House Ethics committee last year."

Are those few seconds really offering enough - for that matter, any information? Does it really explain what happened before the Ethics Committee? Why not compare the charges against DeLay to what Democrats do? Or to what Bill Clinton did to please donors, foreign and domestic? In the final analysis, TV news looks shallow and uninformative. Maybe it's because it's the only way to keep the storm brewing.