Murder by media: The Dean Scream

February 21, 2005

The news media got an unusual bashing during last year’s bitter electoral campaigns. They got slapped around from all sides, and everybody argued about how the media tried either to undermine Bush or discredit Kerry or both.

Still, 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 non-service: 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. This one, however, has gone largely unremarked. It is the famous incident involving Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean that is known as The Dean Scream.

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.

You’ve seen the clip. After Janet Jackson 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.

In fact the Dean Scream was a fraud, probably the clearest instance of media assassination in recent U.S. political history.

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 clip was aired an estimated 700 times on various cable and broadcast channels in the week after the Iowa caucus. 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.

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.

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.

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