Moral Values and the Next 'Big Story'

You can always get an argument over media bias. Some say we carry water for the corporate chieftains, others say we're lackeys of the liberal elite. But one media prejudice is beyond dispute: We are suckers for a storyline.

Throughout the election cycle now mercifully passing into history, political news has been dominated by a sequence of Big Stories. These are the events and themes that virtually every reporter covering the campaign jumps on and nearly every editor agrees must be covered. They fill the airwaves and front pages for a matter of days or weeks and then subside, superseded by the next Big Story.

The latest in this series has been the Moral Values Story, discovered on Election Night, when 22 percent of the voters told exit pollsters that the most important issue in their presidential choice was "moral values."

This hit the newsrooms of America with gale force and was reported with breathless amazement. Could people really think "moral values" — whatever that vague phrase might mean — were more important matters for the president to deal with than terrorism, the war in Iraq, the economy, health care, taxes, education and all the rest of it? Well, yes, indeed they could. Better than one voter in five said so, making that the most popular answer among those the questionnaire provided.

It seemed not to matter for the moment that 78 percent of the respondents found something else more important. Moral values were suddenly Number One. To read the new consensus, moral values had made George W. Bush a two-term president and strategist Karl Rove a two-term genius. It was the Moral Values Election.

Perhaps this 22 percent statistic impressed many in the media because they had not anticipated it. Perhaps they did not know anyone personally who would have responded in this fashion. Anything that surprises editors, anything we seem to have missed in the past, gets featured treatment. It's how we do penance for underplaying a story one day that seems to block out the sun the next.

In one sense, at least, this particular bit of penance is overdue. American journalism remains loath to confront the interplay of religion and politics. We'd rather invoke "separation of church and state" and move on to topics we're more comfortable with.

So when gay marriage emerged as a story a year ago, we hit it hard for a while and then moved on. When 11 states put initiatives on the ballot banning gay marriage, we reported that fact and moved on. By Election Day, we had half-forgotten those initiatives and we had not explored how they might move the electorate in key states. So when we thought we saw them making more of a difference than we expected, we reversed our engines at full throttle.

We also came down heavily on the Moral Values Story because it seemed to explain how a nation dyspeptic about the economy and the war in Iraq could vote for an incumbent president responsible for both. We latched onto the "moral values" explanation because it came readily to hand, and it was simpler than the panoply of alternative explanations.

Among those with alternatives, Democratic pollster Mark Penn has questioned the moral values line, noting that nationwide the participation of evangelicals in the 2004 election was no higher than in 2000. We have long had a sizable fraction of the voters saying issues like abortion or school prayer mattered to them.

Penn argued in The Washington Post that President Bush held office by increasing his share of the vote not with weekly churchgoers but among Hispanics and married women with kids at home. He makes a good case, at least as regards the 50-state popular vote, if not necessarily the critical votes of Ohio and Florida, the pivot states for the Electoral College.

In the days ahead, the Moral Values Story will lose some altitude as competing perspectives vie. That has been the pattern with previous instances of the Big Story phenomenon in the 2004 election cycle.

We began the cycle fixated on George W. Bush's apparent invincibility. He had not only topped 90 percent in the polls after the terror attacks of 9/11, he had remained above 70 percent in the polls for a record number of months thereafter. His party was united behind him (not even the whisper of a primary challenge), no third party or independent conservative was in the field (when did you last hear someone mention Ross Perot?) and his campaign was raising twice the (record) amount it had in 2000. The president would cruise to re-election, right? Well, not exactly.

The next Big Story was the turnaround on the Iraq war in the fall and winter of 2003. The weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, the Iraqi insurgency grew and questions were raised about the Bush administration's handling of intelligence before 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq. The war was going to be the end of Bush.

More Big Story Mania: Democrat Howard Dean emerged as a focal point for anti-war energy and enraptured much of the media from the summer of 2003 until December. His fundraising on the Internet was billed as a breakthrough like the invention of plastic credit cards. But in January, the Dean balloon was burst in Iowa and New Hampshire. The candidate was reduced to a caricature by The Scream, his endlessly replayed performance before a crowd of supporters after the Iowa caucuses.

There emerged a post-Dean Big Story in the electability of John Kerry. It helped him overshadow all remaining rivals and subsume John Edwards' upstart campaign into his own. The nomination fight was over as of March 2, the earliest the Democrats have ever decided a non-incumbent nominee. It was supposed to make a difference. Kerry was a war hero and that was supposed to make him invulnerable to a certain kind of attack. That was before we all met the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The summer brought new story lines. Some polls showed Bush falling below 50% approval, and in the wake of the Democratic convention some pundits wrote that the race was Kerry's to lose. That was the Big Story for a week. But by September, thanks to the Swifties and the GOP convention, Kerry was looking more like Dukakis than even Rove could have hoped. The new story line had Bush winning big. Polls would come out showing him leading by double digits, and many would declare the race to be over.

But it wasn't.

The next irresistible story line put all the marbles on the series of three debates between the two candidates. The debates came, and the consensus had Kerry doing better in all three (especially the first). So the new story line said Bush would fold and the Kerry candidacy would catch fire in the waning hours. "I'm a good closer," Kerry told crowds. His turnout operations were better than any in history, and the president would be turned out of office. On Election Day, the first wave of exit polls seemed to confirm this story line.

Instead, that Big Story went where it's predecessors had gone.

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