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On Notice

Jim Lehrer and the rest of the old media should know that they have to play it straight tonight.

12:00 AM, Sep 30, 2004 • By HUGH HEWITT
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IT STARTED on the Late, Late Show Monday night. Drudge posted a link to a picture of John Kerry's suddenly orange face on Tuesday, and Blogs for Bush, Blogs of War, and Best of the Web started an Oompa Loompa meme Tuesday afternoon. I played the Oompa Loompa song a few times during the afternoon drive in scores of cities across the United States. Then Jay Leno opened his monologue with a combo botox/tan-in-a-can joke. Tens of millions of Americans kicked it around, and went to bed.

And the morning papers--except the New York Post-- said not a word. The Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other old media found space to cover the decision of the Crawford, Texas' Lone Star Iconoclast--circulation 425--to endorse John Kerry, but refused to acknowledge a genuine, though bizarre, story that is actually having an impact on the race--because they collectively don't think it should be having an impact on the race.

This is doubly indefensible because candidate appearance stories have mattered in presidential debates from Nixon's sweat in 1960 to Gore's pancake in 2000. If Kerry's sudden play for the Great Pumpkin vote isn't gone or made over by tonight, millions of viewers won't get past his appearance to hear what he has to say about his many positions on Iraq because they won't be able to stop laughing.

Old media's refusal to note what ordinary Americans are talking about is the latest in a series of stubborn refusals that began with elitist indifference and ideological bent and which are ending in irrelevance. There have been others (Rathergate and Christmas-not-in-Cambodia) and there will be more.

We may have another moment tonight. Jim Lehrer takes his seat as debate moderator with the PBS brand as firmly affixed to his back as CBS is to Dan Rather's. Moderating a presidential debate never carried much of a risk for the mother ship in the past, but in this era of new media, any detectable bias on Lehrer's part will result in a cyber-tsunami headed towards PBS affiliates across the country.

The key is "detectable," and the arbitrators of that won't be the folks who ignored the Agent of Orange story on Wednesday morning. It will be the viewers themselves, working through the blogosphere, posting on FreeRepublic.com, calling into talk radio, and canceling their pledges to local PBS affiliates if their verdict on Lehrer's performance is negative. If Lehrer goes in the tank for Kerry, expect an enormous blowback--as predictable as the one which followed CBS's foisting of forgeries on the public. Only PBS is much more vulnerable to viewer dismay than the Boss Tweeds at Black Rock.

The powers at old media may think of themselves as Rome and the bloggers as the Cimbri, but they are much more like the Red Hats of the Vatican in 1517 when Luther started hammering. At first indifferent, then angry, then threatening, and then bested and thrown into crisis. The counter-reformation within the old media cannot arrive too soon.



Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends Upon It. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.