Mark’s Morning Message

By Liz Cox Barrett

Editor’s note: For two days, Campaign Desk’s Liz Cox Barrett joined Senator John Edwards’ traveling press corps as they accompanied the vice presidential candidate by plane and bus from New York City to Pittsburgh to New Jersey to West Virginia to Washington, D.C. Here is her third report.

Record high oil prices and a lack of FBI translators. Mark Kornblau, head of John Edwards’ traveling press staff, made his way back to the press section of the Edwards campaign plane last Tuesday to direct reporters’ attention to these two topics which, he explained, Senator Edwards would emphasize on the campaign trail that day.

Sure enough, during a morning rally in Pittsburgh not two hours later, Edwards slid these topics in to his otherwise routine stump speech, managing to repeat the oil prices message in a wandering response to an audience member’s question about recycling. The obvious subtext? The Bush administration is to blame for both problems. During two campaign stops in New Jersey on Tuesday, the candidate again mentioned oil prices and translators. And, not surprisingly, oil prices and translators made it into at least one story reported by the traveling press that day.

The following morning, Kornblau stopped by each of the two press buses idling in the parking lot of the Sheraton Newark Airport Hotel to again focus reporters on the messages of the day. This time, the daily talking points came with an extra dose of spin, er, interpretation.

“Two points to watch for today,” Kornblau said, projecting over the din of the overworked windshield wipers, and carefully making eye contact with reporters in the front of the bus. “The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is reporting today that Vice President Cheney was against getting bogged down in Iraq before he was for it.” This was Kornblau’s pithy paraphrase of a comment Cheney made after the 1992 Gulf War defending the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power (specifically, that going after Saddam could get the United States “bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”) Point two, Kornblau explained, was that Edwards would be “setting the table for the debate on Thursday night, [talking about] how George Bush has to come clean with the American people about the mess in Iraq.”

Out rang the exasperated voice of a female network news reporter: “Didn’t [Edwards] say that yesterday?”

“Yeah,” Kornblau conceded, visibly annoyed. After a few seconds he added: “They call John Kerry a flip-flopper every day and you guys still repeat it.” With that, he turned and exited the bus as reporters exchanged knowing grins and one or two scribbled on their notepads.

En route to a rally in Weirton, West Virginia — the first stop on Wednesday and, as the advance staff informed reporters as the motorcade rolled into town, where the 1978 movie “The Deer Hunter” was filmed — MSNBC’s Tom Llamas got on his cell phone to tell an editor about Cheney’s 1992 quote and Edwards’ plan to quote that quote. The Senator did not disappoint, dropping Cheney’s comments in to his spiel at a Weirton social hall in a deliberately “by the way” way. And Cheney’s quote provided an ideal segue into talking point two: that the Bush/Cheney duo was not leveling with the American people about the mess they have created in Iraq.

Both messages made the lead in the New York Timesstory about Edwards’ Weirton event, reported by Randal Archibold, who was among the dozen reporters in the Edwards traveling press that day. Archibold wrote: “Seizing on a published report that Vice President Dick Cheney had warned of getting ‘bogged down’ in Iraq 12 years ago, Senator John Edwards today accused the Bush administration of botching plans for occupying Iraq and made clear it would be a topic during presidential debates” — just as Kornblau had previewed it on the bus that morning. Others in the traveling press corps also wove both points into their reports from Weirton — including the Washington Post’s Matthew Mosk, and MSNBC’s Tom Llamas.

Of course, reporters on the campaign trail constantly look for anything “new” — and, preferably, accusatory/aggressive — in a candidate’s stump speech, and so both of Kornblau’s messages would have in all likelihood made the news even without his early morning prompting. “Was that new?” is a familiar query as reporters share notes in the filing rooms set up for the traveling press. While the local media in Weirton on Wednesday jotted down nearly everything Edwards said, the traveling press — having heard most of it before ad nauseum — held their pens for anything new and/or confrontational.

When asked whether he feels his “morning message” press prompts are successful, Kornblau told Campaign Desk that reporters “use their own editorial judgment” but that “bring[ing] things to their attention sometimes” is “sometimes” successful.

Does the traveling press feel spun? Tim Funk, who reports on the Edwards campaign for the Charlotte Observer and Knight Ridder, told Campaign Desk: “It’s hard to truth-squad this stuff. You just hope that over the course of a week you can fact-check some of these things.” The difficulty, Funk said, is that “one hour to file often becomes twenty minutes because the candidate is always running late. We try. We don’t want to spread bad information.” Funk described his desire to not just “be part of the herd” in his from-the-trail reporting. He added, “But then again, you don’t want your editor to call you and say, ‘AP reported this, how come it’s not in your story?’”

Said the New York Times’ Randal Archibold: “Their rhetoric is very hard to fact-check.” He noted that the Times recently appointed Washington D.C.-based David Rosenbaum to fact-check campaign claims — an “outgrowth of frustration from reporters and editors.” (We share their frustration.) While Archibold said he keeps his “BS detector on high,” and looks mostly for “enterprise stories,” he noted that “it’s easy to go day to day and be a stenographer” and that “sometimes that’s all [editors] want.”

According to Archibold, candidate Edwards is “very disciplined” and sticks to the script. “I can’t remember the last time he made an out and out gaffe,” he said. “You can catch him off guard with the right question but he recovers well.” Looking toward Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, Archibold mused that it “wouldn’t surprise me if [Edwards] won the debate, whatever that means.” Weren’t Archibold and his peers in the press, Campaign Desk asked, among the key arbiters of who “wins” debates and on what points — style or substance — a “winner” is determined? (After all, commentator Richard Brookhiser has even dubbed the campaign press part of “The Expectorate” — that body of reporters, pundits, and spin masters who first create an arbitrary set of expectations for a candidate, then decide if said candidate meets them or falls short.) Archibold did not answer — it was noisy on the campaign plane — and continued instead to share his thoughts on Edwards’ debate preparations.

If a CNN report Saturday is any indication, Mark Kornblau, too, has his eye on Tuesday’s debate — and his morning messages continue to get the ear of the press. CNN quoted Kornblau brushing off the notion that Edwards’ experience in the courtroom will help him in the debates (“This is a political debate, not a trial”) and pumping up Cheney’s debate credentials (unlike Edwards, Cheney is “an experienced one-on-one debater”). Managing debate expectations — sure to be part of Mark’s morning message through Tuesday.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.