Two days after the election and nine days after John Kerry's "stuck in Iraq" remarks, the conventional wisdom in Washington was already firm: The American people are tired of rabid partisan politics. We'd prefer, to quote a former president, a "kinder, gentler" culture.
That was the line ABC News took Thursday night in covering the White House summit between President George W. Bush and new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The reporter framed their meeting with some "very nasty" comments each supposedly made about the other during the campaign.
The only problem with the assertion is that ABC couldn't back it up with facts. While two clips aired of Ms. Pelosi making ugly personal attacks on the president's character and abilities, the only evidence against Bush was his disagreement with her comment that finding Osama bin Laden wouldn't make America any safer.
Similarly, the worst an Associated Press story could find to demonstrate the president's meanness was his quip that Pelosi is a "secret admirer" of tax cuts.
As disappointed as conservatives are with some of this president's policies, we rarely have reason to question his public civility. I'm pretty sure that ABC and the AP didn't intend to prove that.
ABC's feigning of even-handedness -- and the nearly complete absence of even feigning it everywhere else -- makes it more remarkable that Sen. Kerry's "botched joke" received any mainstream coverage at all.
There has been plenty of meanness at both ends of the political spectrum the past few years, much of it fueled by the unfettered, often uncivilized nature of the blogosphere and the strident tone of conservative talk radio. Both parties hit low notes recently with ads appealing to ugly racist cliches.
But whenever this nastiness has gotten bad enough to penetrate mainstream news sources, only the right-wing perpetrators have gotten pasted.
ABC News political director Mark Halperin stated last month on two different Fox News shows that his network wanted "to prove to conservatives that we understand their grievances, ... to help rebuild our reputation with half the country." ABC would do this by explaining, for instance "what Nancy Pelosi's liberal views are like."
But ABC covered Rush Limbaugh's attack on Michael J. Fox's political ads without providing any relevant details on the so-called "stem cell" referendum at issue in Missouri. Their coverage, like CBS's, focused on Mr. Limbaugh's lack of kindness. They neither relayed his substantive criticism of Mr. Fox's misleading ads nor examined the issue themselves.
When conservative commentator Ann Coulter's latest book mocked some 9/11 widows for "enjoying their husband's deaths," the outcry was bipartisan, and news broadcasts explored political nastiness in-depth.
In both instances, the conservatives' targets were not politicians, but private citizens lending their unfortunate circumstances to promote political policies.
In the Post-Gazette, Ms. Coulter's remarks inspired an opinion column questioning her claim to be a Christian, two pieces in the Magazine section and numerous letters to the editor. The Limbaugh-Fox face-off made the front page.
But when Democratic Party head Howard Dean said, "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for," where was the scrutiny? Or when he said "a lot of [Republicans] have never made an honest living in their lives"?
Or when he mocked Rush Limbaugh by pretending to snort cocaine, complete with sound effects? This paper's editorial praised his "tough talk as an asset."
When Ms. Pelosi called the president "mentally unstable"? Not a word of reproof.
As unfortunate as the occasional meanness of conservative commentators is, the fact remains that they are businesspeople looking to make money, and they've been roundly rebuked for their excesses. The left-wingers spewing nastiness and not being criticized for it -- in fact, being praised for it -- are supposed to be public servants.
That includes Sen. Kerry. His explanation of his "botched joke" meant that instead of saying our military personnel are stupid, he meant to lob this stink-bomb at Mr. Bush.
The broadcast media examined only this story's possible impact on the midterm elections. There was no anguished discussion of epidemic incivility, no reporting on the two men's academic records. But talk radio and the blogosphere were happy to revisit what the "legitimate" broadcast media overlooked -- namely, that at Yale University, Mr. Kerry got worse grades than Mr. Bush.
Yes, Americans are weary of how malicious some people can be. Tired as we are, however, we'd have to be stupider than Mr. Kerry thinks the president is not to have figured out which side is getting away with it.
Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1733.