Messengers of the Message

There are things that are important, and then there are things that are on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Time, in its best attempt at imitating an Abercrombie and Fitch ad, marks its Olympic Preview issue by flaunting a Speedo-clad swimmer. U.S. News fronts its own Olympic issue, taking a look back at the first Olympics. And Newsweek takes a hard look at one of Freud’s favorite subjects — dreams, answering the pressing question of “What dreams are made of.”

Campaign Desk has nothing against optimism, but over the course of the summer we’ve seen “Spiderman 2” (Newsweek), Makeover Nation (U.S. News), and Las Vegas (Time) receive top billing from these news weeklies, and it’s about time we blew the whistle. News magazines are supposed to draw the public’s attention to pressing issues of the day, which is exactly what the conservative British Economist accomplishes with its tear-evoking cover depicting Sudanese refugee children huddled around a leafless tree shrub in the desert accompanied by giant black block letters declaring, “Sudan can’t wait.” In the last couple weeks the U.S. House of Representatives declared the acts in Sudan “genocide” in need of urgent attention by a vote of 422-0, and the Senate passed similar legislation by a unanimous voice vote. Yet nary a mention in the leader of the free world’s three newsweeklies.

On to campaign coverage. Time features a piece on Bush’s strategy to pop Kerry’s balloons leading up to his own convention at the end of the month. Time paints a picture of a Bush team increasingly negative about both its opponent John Kerry and its own prospects of winning in private, but increasingly positive in public. The article focuses on Bush’s attempts to move to the middle, partly by brushing the dust off moderate proposals such as flex-time for workers. A big question remains, the article says, about whether Bush has the time to sell this to the American people.

The effectiveness of Kerry’s campaign strategy is on the minds of many of the newsweeklies. This week’s Economist asks, “How risky is the [Kerry campaign’s] stress on national security?” Newsweek’s lengthy campaign feature suggests that this strategy is “an attempt to ‘inoculate’ Kerry on the issue of militant patriotism” before he shifts gears to attracting voters more akin to a traditional democratic candidate.

U.S. News hits the same national security subject with a look at Kerry’s reliance on his Vietnam experience, writing, “Often last week, the convention seemed a mere excuse to revisit the war,” characterizing Kerry’s focus on that turbulent period of history as a “gamble.” The New Yorker compares the strategy to that of the last Catholic elected to office: “The greatest similarity between the first J.F.K. and the current one lies not in their Ivy privilege or clambake geography but, rather, in the fact that both built a Presidential campaign narrative from acts of Navy heroism.”

The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza has an insightful look into Kerry’s message-management operation. Lizza details the work of the Kerry speechwriters (dubbed “scrubbers”) as they polished the presentations of each convention speaker to muffle critiques of the Bush administration and embolden the rhetoric to push Kerry’s message of strength. The award for those speeches most in need of scrubbing went, not surprisingly, to the outspoken Terry McAuliffe and Ted Kennedy. Jimmy Carter took the honors for speaker least willing to accept the scrubber’s scrubs. The Dem’s message-management was overwhelmingly successful, but so much so, writes Lizza, that it created a press increasingly driven to search out off-message stories, which contributed to the “phalanx of news-starved reporters” chronicling the adventures of Michael Moore in Boston. (Campaign Desk’s Brian Montopoli reported on this phenomenon last week from the DNC.)

From all of these takes we learn that this campaign is all about message — who has the best message and who can sell it most effectively. But, as the Atlantic’s Michael Barone points out, the election is about more than the message. Barone considers the stakes “very high” in the upcoming election, writing “[o]ne cannot say with certainty where the Bush or the Kerry road would take us, but the divergence is not just rhetorical but real — and very wide indeed.”

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.