Elsewhere in the letters to the Times Magazine, Nicole Boyd of New York writes this about an article on Howard Dean:
I am curious about why you decided to go with a cartoon image to illustrate this article. Perhaps Dean's long-shot status would change if you gave him a full-page photo. It seems to me that the press has a responsibility to increase face recognition of presidential candidates to facilitate a true democratic process at election time.
Obviously, Dean wouldn't suddenly find himself neck-and-neck with Bush if the Times ran a photo of him rather than a cartoon, but the point she's trying to make is correct: The nine Democrats who want to run against Bush look silly and insignificant in large part because the press is portraying them as silly and insignificant.
Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler regularly talks about the way the press settles on "a story it likes" and persists in telling that story regardless of whether the facts support it. In the 2000 presidential campaign, the press settled on a story that Al Gore would do anything to win, especially lie, while Bush was what he said he was, a "compassionate conservative" (as opposed to a nasty far-rightist), and was a bit dim but essentially honest.
That storyline took a while to evolve. This year, however, I'm afraid the Beltway press has decided on a story it likes already -- more than a year before the election and many months before the first primary. The story is: Bush has become something more than human; 9/11 did for him what Excalibur did for King Arthur, what radiation did for Spider-Man, and now he is a breathtakingly strong leader, an amazingly popular politician, and simply too great for any mere Democrat to beat.
Consider the lead story in the Sunday New York Times, "Fund-Raising Push by Bush Will Put Rivals Far Behind" by Richard Stevenson and Adam Nagourney. It's bad enough that the article, apart from a grumbling Howard Dean quote near the end, presents Bush's fund-raising as a wholly innocent activity (which is certainly not the way fund-raising was depicted during the Clinton presidency). What's worse is that Bush is depicted as nearly godlike -- even in the process of grubbing for campaign cash:
...Mr. Bush seems well on his way to shattering the fund-raising record he himself set in the 2000 race, when he took in $100 million in his fight for the Republican nomination, redefining standards for modern-day presidential fund-raising.
Even coming close would confirm what many strategists consider to be among Mr. Bush's biggest advantages over the field of Democrats: his ability to command huge sums of money with a minimal investment of time and energy. As Mr. Bush breezes in and out of fund-raisers packed with donors whom aides describe as falling over one another to write checks, the nine Democrats have been largely forced off the campaign trail to deal with fund-raising demands that have emerged as a tremendous drain on their time and resources....
"No one is turning down any of the calls or saying, `I don't want to contribute,' " said one of Mr. Bush's most active fund-raisers, reporting on the responses to the solicitations that began two weeks after the president declared major combat operations in Iraq to be complete. "It's just a matter of finding someone who hasn't already gotten calls from other people making calls."...
Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri typically spends eight hours a day trying to round up money, an aide said, making the kind of personal telephone solicitations that would be unthinkable for Mr. Bush, who will probably spend 25 minutes or so on stage at the Hilton before his motorcade whisks him back home.
"The fundamental difference is that Bush himself spends no time on it," said Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to Mr. Gephardt. "He gets on a plane, shows up for 15 minutes and leaves. And each of these candidates spends volumes of time on the phone asking for money."...
Watch for this Bush-as-god stuff -- you'll see a lot more of it in the next seventeen months, which is why I don't hold out much hope for the Democrats in '04.