To A Whisper From A Scream
Now that Howard Dean is the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the highlights of his recent past are dredged up as if they are a precursor to his next performance. Or as an ominous omen. But is there more to this 'public service' than is supposed to meet the eye?
It's no secret that the media is the James Guckert of the White House, and with this revival of Howard Dean's Iowa moment, they are attempting to serve the purpose of derailing the only Democrat who honestly poses a threat to GOP hegemony:
It's never clear why some media wrongs are made into a big deal while others slip by. Take the CBS 60 Minutes report on Bush's military nonservice: The story itself was old, the dubious evidence was of dubious importance, and the broadcast had no discernible effect. It became a major scandal anyway. On the other end of the scale is an instance of clear-cut media wrongdoing that involved unquestionably fraudulent evidence and had dramatic consequences. It is the famous incident involving Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean that is known as The Dean Scream. This one, however, has gone largely unremarked.
In fact the Dean Scream was a fraud, probably the clearest instance of media assassination in recent U.S. political history. And with Dean's recent appointment as Democratic Party chairman it's being hauled out as constituting the ceiling on whatever political ambitions he might still have, proof that he's shaky, unstable, unfit to serve - Howard Dean's Chappaquiddick.
That's why they're not eager to see the Dean Scream enter the canon of journalistic sin. And if that leaves Howard Dean's political future hobbled by a lie, so be it.
That clip was aired an estimated 700 times on various cable and broadcast channels in the week after the Iowa caucus. True, some network news executives commented afterward that perhaps the footage was overplayed and offered the bureaucrat's favorite bromide, that hindsight is 20/20. But the media establishment has never acknowledged this as a burning matter of ethical harm.
That's because the Dean Scream incriminates the entire professional mission of television news, which is built around the primacy of the picture. TV producers don't profess to offer meaning and context; they get you the visuals, unless they're gory or obscene. The notion that great footage would be not shown just because it's profoundly misleading - that's a possibility few TV news executives would entertain.
You've seen the clip. After Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl, it's the most famous news video of 2004. Dean is addressing campaign supporters after he lost the Iowa party caucuses in January. He's screaming for no apparent reason, practically shrieking, ticking off the states where he's vowing to continue the race. His face is red, his voice breaking. He looks deranged. It's a portrait of a man out of control. It's documentary evidence that Dean lacks the temperament for high office.
The people who showed that clip are far more technically sophisticated than I and had to understand how tight visual framing and noise-suppression hardware can distort reality. Last year, a young cable news producer attended one of our twice-yearly Ethics Institutes at Washington and Lee University, in which students and journalists gather to discuss newsroom wrongdoing. He brought two clips. The first was the familiar pool footage of Dean in Iowa. The candidate filled the screen, no supporters were visible. Crowd noise was silenced by the microphone he held, which deadened ambient sounds. You saw only him and heard only his inexplicable screaming.
The second clip was the same speech taped by a supporter on the floor of the hall. The difference was stunning. The place was packed. The noise was deafening. Dean was on the podium, but you couldn't hear him. The roar from his supporters was drowning him out. Dean was no longer scary, unhinged, volcanic, over the top. He was like the coach of a would-be championship NCAA football team at a pre-game rally, trying to be heard over a gym full of determined, wildly enthusiastic fans. I saw energy, not lunacy.
The difference was context. As psychiatrist R.D. Laing once wrote: We see a woman on her knees, eyes closed, muttering to someone who isn't there. Of course, she's praying. But if we deny her that context, we naturally conclude she's insane. The Dean Scream footage that was repeatedly aired rests on a similar falsehood. It takes a man who in context was acting reasonably, and by stripping away that context transforms him into a lunatic.
But that intended impression may not be gaining good ground, even in the Red States, as this next article demonstrates:
Dean Gets Warm Reception at Kansas Rally
February 25, 2005
National Democratic Committee Chairman Howard Dean received a raucous welcome Friday from fellow Democrats for his message against the war in Iraq and his portrayal of Republicans as fiscally irresponsible. About 900 people crowded into a downtown theater waving signs and cheering loudly during a 40-minute rally. The $5-a-ticket event raised money for the state Democratic Party.
"We got in the wrong war at the wrong time," he said. That message resonated with Genie Sullivan, a 43-year-old Lawrence resident. She registered as a Democrat this year, she said, because of Dean and would have left the party had he not been selected chairman. She said people knew that Bush wasn't telling the truth about the need to go to war in Iraq. "A lot of us knew and Dean was one of them," she said.
Dean has promised to build the party even in the nation's most conservative areas, and Kansas would seem to be a reliably Republican state, giving President Bush 62 percent of the vote last year. However, Democrat John Kerry actually carried Lawrence's Douglas County, the home of the University of Kansas and a place known for its tolerance of liberal politics.
"I don't care how far west you go, there is not one county in this state where there are not Democrats," Dean said.
Tony Carpino, a retired postmaster who drove up from Pittsburg, Kan., said he admires Dean as chairman. "I think he's going to bring energy to this party," said Carpino, 60. "Howard Dean has a lot of enthusiasm."
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who had breakfast Friday morning with Dean, told reporters at the Statehouse that the former Vermont governor was a good choice for party leadership. She particularly likes his energy and desire to build the party from the ground up. Sebelius supported Kerry in his failed presidential bid.
That's a good start, Howard, but there's a long and winding road leading to the White House door. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and let's see where you end up!
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