In his Monday “Media Notes” column, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz addressed Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democrats and explored whether the media has a double standard in covering party-switchers: “little attention was devoted to this question: Was this a betrayal of the voters who elected Specter?”
Correspondent Carl Cannon, on AOL's new PoliticsDaily site, says conservatives are right in complaining that much of the media have "a double standard regarding party-switchers....When Republicans morph into Democrats, we tend to act like they finally saw the light, and quote them ad nauseam about how the Republican Party has gotten too narrow, etc., etc." But when a Democrat joins the GOP, "we concentrate on the tactical advantage to the party switcher."
Cannon recalled conservative disgust over the media celebration of departing Republican Jim Jeffords in 2001. Kurtz’s review of media coverage found a real lack of questioning Specter’s disloyalty to his party:
Most journalists assumed the role of handicappers, accepting as a given that this is the way the game is played. So what if Specter had promised to serve six years as a Republican? So what if Specter had told Newsweek less than three weeks earlier that "I'm a Republican and I'm going to run in the Republican primary and on the Republican ticket"? He was acting to save his skin; no further explanation necessary.
This value-neutral reporting was reflected in the headlines: "Specter Switches Parties; More Heft for Democrats" (New York Times). "Specter Gives Dems a Boost in Stifling Dissent" (USA Today). "Specter Leaves GOP, Shifting Senate Balance" (Washington Post). Not a hint that he had done anything untoward.
Kurtz expanded on his review of the news on his Monday online chat:
I went over the news stories and network reports and in no case was the propriety of Specter's decision to abandon his party of 35 years the focus of the story. In fact, it usually got a paragraph or so; the unspoken assumption was that politicians act in their own self-interest; and the coverage was concerned mainly with the impact on the Senate and the Obama administration. Certainly, pundits on the left or right have beaten up or praised Specter's move, but the reporters have, with few exceptions, not even pointed out that Specter told Newsweek he would remain a Republican as recently as three weeks ago.
In his newspaper piece, Kurtz displayed a contrast with the editorialists at The New York Times, who certainly help set the tone of the national debate:
When it comes to commentators, their analysis often turns on the direction of the defection. In 1994, when Democratic Sen. Richard Shelby switched parties days after the Republicans won control of Congress, a New York Times editorial said: "Talk about slipping out of the hills to bayonet the wounded! . . . His desertion to the victorious Republicans this week was hardly a huge surprise." But when Jim Jeffords flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats by leaving the GOP in 2001, the Times said approvingly that the Vermont lawmaker had given George W. Bush "an embarrassing lesson" for having pulled a "conservative bait-and-switch" on the country.
Kurtz acknowledged that some were willing to concede Specter's cynicism, if not so much his disloyalty:
There were some exceptions among mainstream journalists. Doyle McManus wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Specter was "cheerfully open about the cynicism of his move." Time's Michael Grunwald said the move highlighted his "desperate opportunism." The question surfaced only briefly yesterday on two Sunday shows: CBS's Bob Schieffer asked Specter about Republicans who voted for him and whether "you let them down," while NBC's David Gregory asked about David Broder's criticism, in The Washington Post, of the senator's "willingness to do whatever will best protect and advance the career of Arlen Specter."