A Look Back at the Foibles and Fumblings of a Campaign Press at Sea

Given that voters see and hear about election campaigns mainly through the press, and given that the press is acutely aware of this, it’s not surprising that after every national election there ensues a bout of hand-wringing, self-assessments and post mortems from the press itself. And this year the identity crisis has begun early, with Dan Froomkin, Washington Post online columnist and deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog project, and our colleague Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor of journalism and sociology, both weighing in with withering assessments of a campaign press not up to the task at hand. (More from them a little later.)

We’ve been singing this song all year, of course. If you’ll recall, part of the original rationale for Campaign Desk was the conviction that press performance could be monitored daily, during the campaign itself — not just after the voting public had already acted on the basis of what the press had told it. We’ve tried to do that. And having done it, we’ve found there’s an added bonus to being in the trenches. Track campaign coverage day in and day out and it’s inevitable that you gather a string of particulars that eventually illuminate the patterns by which a campaign press with the best of intentions goes awry — and sometimes badly awry. So it seems to us that we owe you an overview.

We deconstruct, you decide.

But first, some scene-setting. Froomkin this week declared that one “lesson of this campaign is that the impartial, unemotional postwar model of mainstream journalism simply may not be up to covering the current political climate.” He described a press that, out of fear of appearing partisan or adversarial, consistently holds back from the instructive role of guiding readers through a sea of charges, countercharges and outright falsehoods to the solid ground of known fact, a press that fails, as he puts it, to “pierce the facade of cynically stage-managed events” and one that consequently fails in its most essential function — “to demand accountability from our leaders.”

Gitlin, writing for the November/December issue of Mother Jones magazine, hits the ground running: “All governments lie, the muckraker I.F. Stone used to say,” he writes. “They fudge and omit. They bury and muffle inconvenient facts. They do this repeatedly, relentlessly, shamelessly.” And complicit in those lies, he notes, are members of the press who respond by acting as obedient transcribers [think WMD]. Gitlin’s litany of press shortcomings wasn’t written with the campaign press specifically in mind, but it rings true.

“Many are the reasons for deference,” he writes, describing a press “[t]imid about getting out ahead of the public” and bending over backward “to accommodate spin doctors,” a press that “fears risking independent judgment, which they have defined as occupational hubris,” a press afraid that “detailing the anatomy of official distortion” will anger partisans already suspicious of bias.

“The machinery of truth-telling has broken down,” Gitlin declares, replaced by an “obsequious stenography” that “plays into the hands of liars, self-deluders, and obfuscators of all stripes.”

Thus do reporters turn themselves into parrots of the talking points of the day, unwilling to “undo the folded lie,” as W.H. Auden put it, rendered impotent by the outmoded tradition of journalism-as-transcription to confront what Walt Whitman called “the never-ending audacity of elected persons.”

And it is the readers and the viewers who pay the price.

With that, we introduce a six-part series that we’ll be unspooling over the next few days. There is campaign coverage to praise, of course, and where we found it, we’ll praise it. But we’ll be concentrating on the flaws, the ingrained habits and the institutional mandates that drive unwitting reporters on daily deadline to frame issues unfairly and to construct narratives that do not reflect reality.

Steve Lovelady

Still Ambivalent After All These Years

By Thomas Lang

In a perfect world, the press would facilitate the spread of fact and block the proliferation of falsehoods. Alas, the American political system is plagued by a political media obsessed with strategy, attracted to the trivial, essentially too distracted to bother with the mundane details of fact and fiction. This year was no exception.

From day one, the campaign press showed a maddening unwillingness to brush up on the basic facts most important to Americans. Instead of bookmarking the slightly intimidating Bureau of Labor Statistics webpage, reporters hung on to and transcribed verbatim many of the loaded partisan talking points delivered by the candidates via email.

A Tom Raum-penned Associated Press story from way back in March helped pass along misinformation from both campaigns, evidence early on of a campaign press whose members proved to be equal opportunity stenographers.

Picking up a Republican talking point wholesale, Raum wrote:

Cheney claimed that Kerry had voted for higher taxes some 350 times in his Senate career …

And from the Kerry campaign Raum wrote:

The Kerry campaign responded that the Bush-Cheney economic plan ‘has lost 3 million jobs …’

Nowhere did Raum think it necessary to point out that, in fact, the “350 times” statistic represented a distorted look at Kerry’s record, or that only 2.3 million jobs had been lost under President Bush as of the end of March, 2004.

This automatic pilot approach to reporting — due to either laziness or ineptness, or both — continued throughout the campaign season on an endless number of topics from the war in Iraq to the politics of the flu. The framework remained the same no matter what: a quote from a candidate or campaign surrogate reprinted without question by the reporter or editor, followed by (if available) a quote from the candidate’s opponent, also printed without question.

This at a time when the data-rich Internet is available to any reporter at the touch of a keyboard. (To be fair, that same Internet permits campaigns and party committees to pelt reporters all day — and night — with an endless stream of new talking points, just as distorted as the old ones.)

Campaign coverage is a living animal fed on a daily diet of campaign events, spiced up by the occasional scandal with the potential to consume the candidacy of one or both of the men running for office. Fact-checking failures were not just confined to undistinguished accounts of the daily campaign grind. Consider the press’ attempt, or lack thereof, to provide voters an accurate account of President Bush’s and (later in the campaign) Sen. Kerry’s military records.

The Bush National Guard story resurfaced (after being originally reported by the Boston Globe in 2000) in late winter 2004 during the Democratic primary. And with the story’s reemergence, Campaign Desk saw a momentarily rejuvenated White House press corps, demanding that the president be held accountable for his promise to release all his records. Unfortunately, that exuberance failed to motivate the reporters to take the time to familiarize themselves with the simple timeline of the president’s National Guard service. As the story dominated the news cycle in February, the campaign press struggled to learn easily obtainable facts, such as the number of months early that Bush left the national guard (eight) or the number of transfer requests Bush submitted before receiving approval to fulfill his duties in Alabama (two).

The same ineptness carried over to coverage of Kerry’s military service after the senator promised to release all of his military records in April, and again when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unleashed its factually questionable campaign against the Democratic nominee. Most of the charges leveled by the SBVFT were unfounded and could be dismissed with an afternoon’s read of available Navy documents. Yet, for months, until the end of August, campaign reporters unquestioningly passed along falsehoods, including the charge that Kerry’s wounds were not severe enough to warrant a Purple Heart (severity of injury is not a consideration in the awarding of Purple Hearts).

In late August, thanks in no small part to Sen. Kerry’s own belated offensive against the SBVFT, the press did its best to insert fact back into the record, but as poll after poll showed, it was too late. And soon enough the story turned to the Republican National Convention when, for the first time, fact-check stories became part of the weekly routine. These stories and television snippets truth-squadding the candidates, which continued through the debates, were a welcome respite from a campaign overrun with lies.

While the fact-check trend was a marked improvement, its effectiveness was often limited.

First off, many of the fact-checks focused on dubious claims that had already influenced the decision-making process of the voters, such as the revised Bush campaign talking point that Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes (another inflated number) or the Kerry campaign talking point that the Iraq war had cost $200 billion (also exaggerated). While it’s never too late to ensure that readers receive the truth, polling showed that in these cases, many of them had already made up their minds. The horse was out of the barn — months before a negligent press suddenly got busy shutting barn doors and windows.

Second, the fact checking, in both print and television, was ghettoized — denoted, for instance, by a “for the record” heading in the Washington Post and a “fact check” banner on ABC News. While this technique can grab the reader’s or viewer’s attention, it also reveals the news media’s reluctance to acknowledge that the candidates’ deliberate attempts to mislead the public is the story that should be making front page news, not the latest musical chairs game shuffling various campaign personnel.

Third, evenhanded-to-a-fault notions of “objectivity” obscured more than one real truth. Thus, fact-checks often suffered from a bending-over-backward attempt to present an equal number of misleading claims from each candidate. This did not represent reality, and is approximately as realistic as expecting each candidate to weigh the same as the other, or dress the same, or behave the same. Furthermore, the fact-checks would have been more effective with stronger language and less-tempered headlines. At times, asserting the newspaper’s voice is the most powerful way to convey a message, yet it’s something reporters and editors fear to this day. In the face of well-funded political operations that exist to deceive, news organizations should not be hesitant to say so.

Over the course of the campaign, the press did improve its function in the charade, from mere transcribers for the campaigns to independent actors, with the ability to sort fact from fiction. By September, most of the press corps could anticipate how Kerry would distort the latest job numbers in his next appearance or how the Bush campaign would carefully pick through Kerry’s Senate years for votes that could be construed only loosely as an endorsement of higher taxes or appropriations.

But in other ways the campaign press never lived up to its billing as a shield against propaganda. Most of the failing came in an utter inability to knock down the numerous Bush campaign talking points — in part due to the fact that the president’s campaign was more aggressive on this front than Kerry’s was. (For example, all campaign season, President Bush slyly got away with citing a statistic saying that three-fourths of al Qaeda “known leadership” had been captured, when this number only applied to a list of pre-9/11 al Qaeda leadership.)

Here’s hoping that over the next four years the press can cultivate the voice it found all too late in 2004, and make facts the story in 2008.

Grapefruits and Grapes

By Zachary Roth

As the election year accelerated and campaign rhetoric grew more heated, reporters found themselves in a bind. Clinging to a constrictive notion of objectivity, and looking apprehensively over their shoulders for angry charges of bias from partisan readers, they often resorted to a technique known in journalistic circles as “false equivalence.”

Along with failing to fact-check competing claims, false equivalence belongs in the trash heap of discredited journalistic shortcuts, but in the final weeks of the election campaign reporters began relying on the practice as a protective shield. In its most common form, it amounts to a reporter holding up actions on both sides as equally blameworthy, when it’s clear that no such equivalence exists. The classic parody of false equivalence:

To be sure, Candidate X is a mass murderer, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Candidate Y is a serial jaywalker.

To save you further pain, we’ll give you just two real-life examples.

Just days before the election, in an October 27 story headlined “As a Final Gambit, Parties are Trying to Damp Turnout,” John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “Both camps are doing what they can, in ways both overt and subtle, to convince the other side’s supporters that they shouldn’t bother voting in the first place.”

For example, says Harwood, “Democrats say they see suppression efforts in Republicans’ well-advertised plans to vigorously check the registrations of those who show up to vote. In their eyes, such efforts are designed to convince voters that trying to cast a ballot will be too much of a hassle. ‘They’re trying to scare decided voters away from going to the polls,’ former President Bill Clinton declared this week.”

On the other side, Harwood writes, “Republicans see suppression efforts in Democrats’ attempts to sow doubts about Mr. Bush’s character and his fealty to social conservatives. They believe Democrats will use the Internet to spread fresh rumors about Mr. Bush’s youthful behavior among conservative Christians. Bush strategists saw a similar effort when both John Edwards and John Kerry went out of their way in the recent debate series to mention the fact that Mary Cheney, the vice president’s daughter, is gay.”

Huh? The first example is a case of what Democrats would argue is unlawful voter suppression. In Florida in 2000, thousands of African-Americans were wrongly denied the chance to cast ballots. Even Republican operatives would define their intention less as “to convince the other side’s supporters that they shouldn’t bother voting in the first place,” as Harwood had put it, than as actively preventing them from doing so.

Harwood’s second example, by contrast, is simply negative campaigning. Harwood may find it dismaying that campaigns sometimes design messages that are intended to reduce turnout among the opponents’ supporters, rather than to increase it among their backers. But that’s hardly the same thing as actively, and perhaps illegally, working to prevent people from voting.

Harwood’s equation of voter suppression with negative campaigning is bad enough. But the first paragraph off a September 25 story by Ron Edmonds of the Associated Press, is perhaps the best illustration of the paralyzing state of insecurity under which the political press currently labors, and the torturous knots into which it twists itself to avoid the appearance of bias. Under the even-handed headline, “Bush, Kerry, Twisting Each Other’s Words,” Edmonds wrote:

President Bush opened several new scathing lines of attack against Democrat John Kerry, charges that twisted his rival’s words on Iraq and made Kerry seem supportive of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. It was not unlike the spin that Kerry and his forces sometimes place on Bush’s words.

Let’s look at what the AP found. Most of the story focuses on Bush’s distortions, for example that he said Kerry “would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today.” As the AP notes, Kerry never said that. Instead, he called Saddam “a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell,” and added, “the satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.”

According to the AP, Bush also attacked Kerry for referring in stump speeches to countries allied with the U.S. in Iraq as “the alliance of the coerced and the bribed.” The president added: “You can’t build alliances if you criticize the efforts of those who are working side by side with you.” But as the AP rightly points out, the gist of “Kerry’s criticism … has not been aimed at the countries that have contributed a relatively small number of troops and resources, but at the administration for not gaining more participation from other nations.”

What did AP find on the other side of the ledger? Here’s its one example:

Just Friday, the Kerry campaign sent an e-mail to supporters entitled “He said what?” citing Bush’s remark that he had seen “a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America.”

The e-mail from campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill accused the president of having “no plan to get us out of Iraq” and thinking “the future of Iraq is brighter than the future of America.”

Bush has a plan for Iraq — Kerry just disagrees that it is working. And the president wasn’t comparing Iraq’s future to that of the United States, only accurately reflecting one recent survey in Iraq and the latest trends in America that asked participants for their assessment of the direction their countries are going.

But is this comparable to the distortions on the other side? Accusing the president of having “no plan to get us out of Iraq” is not a case of twisting anyone’s words. In fact, Bush has explicitly avoided laying out any sort of exit timetable or plan, choosing instead the assertive, albeit vague, “We will stay the course.” Cahill was simply spinning a piece of campaign rhetoric of the type both camps used countless times each day.

Accusing Bush of thinking that “the future of Iraq is brighter than the future of America,” is indeed a distortion of the president’s meaning. Bush wasn’t referring to his own feelings, but to those attributed to the Iraqi populace by a pollster. He was trying to make the case that Iraqis are more optimistic about Iraq’s future than Americans are. But as the AP notes, the twist came not from Kerry, but from a Kerry campaign aide, in an email to supporters. That’s simply not as significant as a statement made by a candidate himself as a linchpin a campaign speech that he knows is being covered by local and national news media. Context matters, and it’s clear in this case that the intent to publicly deceive voters about the other candidate was more egregious in Bush’s case than in Kerry’s.

Both of these cases of false balance exemplify the same basic problem. In each case, the reporter may have set out to write a legitimate news story that covered an important development (Democratic accusations of unlawful voter suppression, and President Bush’s distortions of his opponent’s meaning). But both reporters, or perhaps their editors, appear to have been so gun-shy about accusations of bias that they ended up stretching to come up with equivalent examples of bad behavior from the other side. They then frame their stories to imply that both sides are equally culpable, even though the facts don’t support that conclusion.

This search for the elusive quality called “balance” also leaves many a reporter at sea when faced with this situation: Candidate Y is caught out in a lie five times a week, whereas Candidate X publicly commits an untruth twice a week. The reporter who dutifully notes each of the seven misstatements over the course of the week risks leaving the impression that he is gunning for Y — or taking it easy on X. So we end up with stories equating grapefruits with grapes.

In the end, this reflexive need to “balance” each and every observation, even if there is no equivalent sin being committed by the other side, makes it impossible for the press to hold campaigns accountable or to present readers and viewers with a coherent roadmap as to what exactly is going on.

David Shaw, press critic for the Los Angeles Times, observed (in a column about Campaign Desk, as it happens) that 50 years ago, in the aftermath of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts, many in the news media belatedly lamented their failure to uncover McCarthy for just what he was. By simply printing McCarthy’s fervid charges, no matter how farfetched or unsubstantiated, and then tacking alongside the denials of the accused — without any attempt to evaluate either — the equivalence-seeking press unwittingly gave life to McCarthy’s ugly campaign.

Fifty years later, we saw the campaign press lapse into the same defensive practice. As long as each side in the political contest knows that the refs will bend over backward to give the appearance of being evenhanded by calling offsetting penalties all the game long, there’s no reason for either team to play fair.

The Horse Race Mentality

By Brian Montopoli

A month ago, we ran a satirical piece about the political implications of a giant meteor crashing into Kansas. Some of our readers didn’t get the joke — one e-mailer demanded this reporter be fired in part for his “unprofessional contempt for … the Asteroid Belt” — but most saw in the piece an effort to mock the phenomenon that the “-ism”-happy staff here at Campaign Desk likes to call “horseracism.” Horseracism is the practice of reporters and their editors obsessing over polls and process instead of substance, and it’s propagated by reporters whose hunger for inside information causes them to focus on the ceaseless torrent of minutia and meaningless numbers that pop up during a campaign.

Horseracism gave us a five-column banner headline in USA Today screaming that “Bush Leads By 8 Points!”; it led political junkies who hadn’t bothered to become versed in the candidates’ health care proposals to refresh regularly for the latest returns at NowChannel and Electorial-Vote.com; it fueled endless speculation about the existence of post-convention and post-debate bounces; and it allowed the carnival barkers who inhabit cable television’s daily shoutfests to fill airtime debating the likely impact of John Kerry’s mention of the sexual orientation of Dick Cheney’s daughter on “Sex in the City” Voters. With horseracism a media obsession in 2004, it wasn’t much of a stretch for us to imagine pundits butting heads over the potential bump in Kerry’s approval rating resulting from the obliteration by meteor of the sunflower state.

Matt Tiabbi nailed the problem in a pre-election rumination on the coverage of that most-obsessed-over swing state of Ohio:

In the thousands of “key battleground of Ohio” stories that have appeared in the press in the last few weeks, this is almost always the key angle. Who’s winning? And why? Did John Kerry’s goose-hunting gambit work? Is Teresa Heinz Kerry’s big f—king mouth a liability in Cuyahoga territory? Who, goshdarnit, is going to win Ohio?

Very occasionally in these stories, you will see references to enormous job losses in Ohio’s manufacturing sector, but these are always placed within a certain context: If the job-loss numbers are up, this is momentum for Kerry; if they’re not so bad, that’s momentum for Bush.

What is so amazing is that because of Ohio’s significance in the electoral college, we now have the whole country staring right at the very face of our vanishing manufacturing economy, and yet what we’re talking about is goose hunting, the widow of Chris Reeve and the “likability gap.”

Editors and news directors, of course, might simply reply with the old standby, We’re Just Giving The People What They Want. And there’s some truth to that. People like contests, after all — that’s why some newspapers devote as much coverage to sports as they do to politics. But that doesn’t excuse the manufactured horseracism that dominated political coverage during the campaign, which led to the continual hyping of numbers that were unreliable, misinterpreted, or just plain not that interesting. On July 12, for example, CNN’s Carlos Watson cited a Newsweek poll showing the Kerry/Edwards ticket ahead of Bush/Cheney 51 percent to 45 percent. Edwards had been named to the ticket a week before, and Watson argued that the poll showed “a real Edwards bounce” outside the margin of error, since there was a six-point gap. The poll’s stated margin of error was just four points.

The problem? Margins of error play off both the high number and the low number, so Watson had misinterpreted the poll; subtract four points from the Kerry number and add four to the Bush number, and you had a two-point Bush lead. (For more details — and a rundown of other culprits — see Tom Lang’s excellent post from August.)

It’s not just mathematical errors that lead horserace-happy reporters and editors to deceive readers. Many media outlets focus solely on the polls that they themselves commission, structuring analyses based almost exclusively on the information returned by their own pollsters. The defense for this practice is that consistent methodology produces more reliable returns. But while it’s true that all polls aren’t created equal, it’s absurd, with the avalanche of polls that came down daily during a campaign, for a prestige-hungry media outlet to operate as if its own poll exists in a vacuum.

One of the most-often-repeated phrases on television during the campaign was, “Now it should be noted that the difference is within the margin of error.” Horserace-obsessed talking heads constantly brought polls to our attention, but the information they offered was often so insignificant — Bush gained a point on Kerry in a three-day tracking poll with a margin of error of five percent! — that they had to include a disclaimer. Consequently, despite the fact that a deluge of polls dominated our campaign coverage, all the polls ever really told us was that the race was close, an insight about as perfunctory as they come.

And even when the press did depart from its poll obsession, talking heads offered up formulaic coverage that fit within constructed narratives. They pounced on mini-scandals that evaporated within a few days (or, sometimes, a few hours) instead of initiating discussion of real issues.

We realize that calling for more issue-oriented coverage might seem to some as another quixotic effort to “prop up the decaying cathedral” of traditional journalism, as Al Giordano put it in the Village Voice.

But we’re not ready to throw in the towel. Even if you subscribe to the notion that ratings and readers should be the sole motivator for news outlets — an ethos that has given us ceaseless Scott Peterson coverage and pious debates about Janet Jackson’s right breast — you’ve got to admit that all this horserace stuff just isn’t all that interesting. The polls never really told us anything, and there’s no way to figure out if those much-discussed bounces ever even existed. And at times the horserace coverage seemed like a ploy, a cynical effort to give a veneer of respectability to topics viewers might otherwise deem salacious, like Mary Cheney’s sexuality.

The sad truth is that the daily horserace mania that afflicts the political press — the poll obsession, the theories about bounces, the inside baseball — reduces campaign coverage to just one more form of entertainment. The fourth estate still too often seems content to couch the election of the leader of the free world in the language of SportsCenter.

The Undisputed Champion of the 2004 Campaign: The Talking Point

By Chris Bodenner

The life cycle of a talking point begins with its conception deep within the minds of campaign strategists. The likes of Karen Hughes, James Carville, Bob Shrum, and Matthew Dowd work diligently day and night to craft specific points that they hope will come to frame both the media presentation and the national debate. These men and women are not stupid; they know that if the point in question does not contain a seed of truth, it’s going to be a hard sell indeed. But if it does, then the spin doctors go to work. Market-testing ensues, and labels such as “flip-flopper” and “steadfast leader” are reinforced (or countered) with carefully selected quote fragments, statistics and factoids. The seed of truth is thus both nurtured and refashioned, bolstered with rhetoric, even distorted and skewed if need be; it has become an egg, waiting to hatch.

The bright shining egg is next presented to the candidate for briefing, approval, and clarification. If the candidate approves, focus groups group. Speechwriters prep and polish. Campaign trails are mapped out. Neckties are chosen.

The new talking point now added to his arsenal, the candidate steps to the stump, and, one after another, TP’s begin to fly: “my opponent voted to raise your taxes 350 times”; “three million jobs have been lost under the Bush administration”; “National Journal named Senator Kerry the most liberal senator of all.” Research and gut instinct notwithstanding, the fledgling talking point is cast forth with more hope than confidence, for at this point it is still unproven and vulnerable to prey. This is the crucial point. The fickle press can either ignore the fresh talking point, which may then fall ingloriously by the rhetorical wayside — or it can decide it looks like a live one and deserves feeding. This nurturing process is carried out in myriad ways: the execution of classic he said/she said journalism, failure to fact check, reliance on the technique of false equivalence or simply neglecting to provide broader context. (If you’re a fan of Campaign Desk, you should be well-versed in these by now.) As we’ve documented again and again, some journalists, afraid of being branded with the dreaded “bias” stigma, and worried about appearing to be anything more than a battalion of stenographers, are frozen at the thought of aggressively scrutinizing the veracity of candidate claims and loathe to assume reportorial authority. Thus by simply passing the unexamined talking point along to the public, they actually bolster its credibility.

Next comes Friend of Talking Point — the attack ad which magnifies the talking point, often buttressing it with dubious evidence. The attack ad is a double-barreled weapon, in that it attracts media coverage not just for the talking point, but also for itself.

But advertising’s expensive, so candidates vastly prefer the free airtime and ink that press coverage provides to distribute, nourish and replicate the adolescent talking point. Campaign operatives know that if the talking point is in fact adopted by the Big Feet in the campaign press corps, it will be rapidly transmitted by dozens of copycat reporters, throughout the airways, across cyberspace, and into print. Often this coverage is mere duplication, as sound bite after sound bite bounces throughout the vast echo chamber of the mainstream press — but with duplication grows strength. Indeed, cable news shoutfests like “Crossfire,” “Hardball,” and “Hannity and Colmes,” are veritable spitball fights of competing talking points, each burnished to a clarity seldom found in the reality-based community. (As an aside, let us note that it is precisely because the carnival barkers of the cable verbal mudfights, along with the earnest newscasters and breathless field reporters of traditional news, are so easily mocked and mimicked that fake news has taken off as a major source for young voters.)

Next, one more step in the lifestyle of a talking point takes place, the one most valuable of all to campaign spin doctors. Voters interrogated by the very reporters who introduced them to talking points, begin dutifully regurgitating those same talking points back to the reporters! And the press promptly portrays these utterances as the common-sense observations of the “little people” (found most often, apparently, hanging around shuttered factories, gathered alongside dusty cornfields, or clustered in bars or beauty parlors on the town square.)

As Campaign Desk’s own Liz Cox Barrett pointed out last August, we were treated to the works of reporters far and wide who brought us the authentic voices of a half-dozen citizens who seemed to have internalized Karl Rove’s Biggest Hits. This may represent the ultimate irony of campaign coverage as we know it. In an attempt to escape spinners and represent a pure and authentic voter sentiment, the press ends up quoting the same old talking points that were first fed to it by campaign operatives and spin wizards. Presto, squinty old Farmer Jones begins to sound eerily like Karen Hughes, or Joe Lockhart morphs into the wise old town barber who hasn’t missed a day of work for 46 years. The point here is not that voters have no substantial grounds to decide that one candidate is a flip-flopper, or that the other is steadfast only in leading us into blind alleys. No, the point is that the calculated use of rhetoric does indeed alter one’s perception. As George Orwell, the great sage of political language, once wrote:

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning … [I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

So. What is to be done?

Unlike some suspicious partisans, we recognize that “the campaign press” is hardly a unified force moving in lockstep, but rather a motley collection of strivers and slackers, each with his own fears and aspirations, and each reporting to editors often trying to maintain their own uneasy stance on shifting ground.

Nonetheless, we suggest that members of the campaign press — and their bosses — need to take a deep breath and a long step back. It’s more than past time for them to question their previously accepted role as simple transmitters, helping to send talking points one and all aloft, with no effort to inspect their provenance or their authenticity.

For if a reluctant press refuses to move beyond transcription and to start accurately diagnosing rhetoric disguised as reality as soon as it takes flight, then who will? There are nascent forces waiting in the wings, ready to shoulder that burden should the traditional press remain reticent.

And they don’t seem to need printing presses, or payrolls, or pomposity to get it done.

Trivial Pursuits

By Liz Cox Barrett

Time and again this election season, the campaign press pursued controversy and trivia over substance. Ironically, it was national news outlets, supposedly staffed with the cream of the journalistic crop, that frequently clung to the dust-up du jour — while local reporters, flying closer to the ground, often concentrated on the issues that actually concerned voters in their area.

For example, in April, as the Big Feet were still chewing over what John Kerry did or did not do with his Vietnam combat medals (or maybe just his combat ribbons) 30 years ago, reporters based in the states where Kerry was stumping were busy writing about jobs and steel tariffs and the candidate’s plans for both. In October, the New York Times served up a gossipy front-page exploration of candidate Kerry’s (and his wife’s and relatives’) real estate holdings — a topic that Matt Drudge effortlessly injected into the press’ bloodstream last spring. (We’re still waiting for the comparable A1 Times story on the Bush clan’s real estate empire.) Meanwhile, on the same day, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel provided its readers a page one breakdown of each candidate’s position on nuclear proliferation. More recently, countless reporters treated readers to speculative stories about BulgeGate (what was that lump or wrinkle in the back of George Bush’s suit jacket during the debates?) The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller devoted more than one “White House Letter” to the bulge, including a piece six days after the election on her interview with Bush’s French-born tailor. And news consumers are hardly to blame if the one thing that they can recall happening during the Democratic National Convention in July is that Teresa Heinz Kerry told a reporter for a conservative Pittsburgh newspaper to “shove it.”

In fact, the candidates’ wives were fodder for frivolous reporting all campaign season long. During the Democratic primaries, more than one reporter resuscitated the archaic term “Stepford Wife,” and several puzzled over whether Judith Steinberg Dean or Teresa Heinz Kerry strayed further from the accepted First Lady model. (Why was Dean’s wife, a practicing physician, actually taking care of patients instead of getting out on the campaign trail? And what was with Teresa Heinz Kerry’s accent, anyway?) Indeed, once John Kerry became the Democratic nominee, Campaign Desk lost count of how many news organizations weighed in on the critical question, Teresa Heinz Kerry: Help or Hindrance? (Or, as Newsweek memorably put it on its May 3 cover, “Is John Kerry’s Heiress Wife a Loose Cannon or Crazy Like a Fox?”)

Among the most persistent of press pursuits (of the trivial kind) was the hunt for the next “new” swing voter (that bloc of voters who because they share a single trait in common, reporters reasoned, might therefore vote monolithically and collectively swing the election). Among the various groups the press deemed “key” to winning the White House at some point this year: “Sex and the City” voters (single women), the “hook and bullet crowd” (hunting and fishing enthusiasts), Howard Stern listeners, security moms, and Strip Club dads. Seven days after the election, the New York Times informed readers that the “real” swing voters “may” have actually been Hispanics (although, as one source quoted late in the piece pointedly reminded the reporter, “[P]erhaps the real message of the election is that Hispanic voters can not be pigeonholed.”)

Rivaling the chase for the elusive swing voter in sheer pointlessness was the campaign press’ fixation with the “veepstakes,” the endless and aimless speculation — often anonymously sourced — over whom Kerry might select as his running mate (culminating in the New York Post’s wrong call the day Kerry announced his pick). In June, for example, one quarter of the New York Times’ stories on Kerry were about or specifically mentioned the “veepstakes.”

Campaign Desk does not contend that there is no room at all for juicy, if inconsequential, detail in campaign reporting, but it should be the salt and pepper, not the main course, of any given day’s election coverage — and sparingly used, at that. Which reminds us of that other frequent hang-up of the political press this year: food. Broadcast journalists were particularly fond of the Laura Bush v. Teresa Heinz Kerry cookie recipe contest and its supposed predictive powers. Then there was the Cheese Whiz controversy, the crucial revelation in the autumn of 2003 that Kerry had gone entirely against South Philadelphia tradition by ordering a Philadelphia cheese steak with Swiss cheese rather than the traditional squirt of Cheez Whiz. That bit of ephemera fit deliciously into the storyline — a favorite of the Bush campaign and the press alike — that Kerry lacked the common touch. Cheez WhizGate re-emerged again this summer, when everyone from CNN to the New York Times to Fox News Channel reported that man-of-the-people Bush (unlike out-of-touch Kerry) claimed in a Pennsylvania stump speech that he knew enough to order his Philly cheese steaks “Whiz with.” (The next day, a lone reporter from the [Delaware County, Pa.] Daily Times fact-checked the president’s assertion and discovered that the Bush camp had actually ordered their cheese steaks with American cheese).

And so, as news outlets filled airtime and column inches with kibbles and bits, and campaign reporters filled up on (and reported on) campaign event buffets, it was only the readers and viewers who were left feeling … strangely unsated.

Enterprise: Going the Extra Mile

Editor’s Note: The owner of her own Pulitzer Prize, Susan Q. Stranahan knows a little bit about enterprise reporting.

By Susan Stranahan

Campaign coverage in 2004 was a bit like a ten-month-long cocktail party — lots of little edibles to nosh on, but woe to the poor sap hoping to snag a real meal. As with any generalization, however, there were a few exceptions to this rule, some of them notable. And often those gems came from unexpected sources, proving that it doesn’t take a newsroom the size of Monaco to turn out first-rate enterprise stories. More often, all it takes is one reporter looking for the story behind the story, and one editor receptive to that idea.

Campaign Desk repeatedly has directed its readers to a year-long series by Bill Bishop in the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman examining national voting trends over four decades. With the emergence of the “moral values” issue as decisive in the election, Bishop’s careful and thoroughly-researched work in identifying the nation as two culturally opposed camps utterly out of touch with each other now seems especially prescient. There wasn’t anything even remotely like it at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Big Three networks, cable TV, or even influential magazines like The New Republic or The Atlantic.

In April, Ohio was put under the microscope (as it turned out, with good reason), by Matt Bai, who devoted almost 8,000 words in The New York Times Magazine to the “multilevel marketing” of President Bush. Bai described with eerie accuracy the grass-roots effort to mobilize the Buckeye State for Bush. The Cleveland Plain Dealer also produced a multi-part series that it called “Five Ohios,” painting vivid portraits of a state divided by region, economics and outlooks. In all likelihood, every member of the national media carried copies as they, too, crisscrossed this battleground state.

First-rate enterprise stories didn’t necessarily come in the form of major projects; often, they appeared untouted, as part of routine coverage. (That made them even more welcome.) In August, Jeff Plungis of the Detroit News’ Washington bureau produced an excellent look at the health care costs of the nation’s Big Three automakers. The story represented a thorough examination of an under-the-radar campaign issue for the national media, but one of tremendous interest to Plungis’ readers in Michigan.

As Campaign Desk noted in April, a reporter’s best tool was a sharp eye — and a willingness to actually pound the pavement to find something to focus on, instead of parroting punditry from Washington or New York. In her profile of the mood of Ohio (which rivaled New Hampshire this year for one-on-one contacts between residents and the media), USA Today’s Judy Keen neatly wove together people and numbers to capture the hopes and despair of voters. It was an excellent read.

Throughout the campaign season, writers from The New Yorker, notably Philip Gourevitch and Hendrik Hertzberg, produced extraordinary commentary and analysis, which can be found in the magazine’s compilation of its election coverage.

But perhaps the most consistent performer was Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times. Given the luxury of wearing two hats — reporter and columnist — which he studiously kept separate, Brownstein often delivered to his readers breaking news as well as thoughtful insights.

Here’s an example of a story he wrote back in May:

Headline writers understandably reached for the jumbo-sized type last week when Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft warned that al Qaeda might be planning an attack in the U.S. this year.

But hardly anyone noticed when researchers from the Urgent Matters program at the George Washington University School of Public Health released a study documenting a more insidious threat to the nation’s health and safety: the growing strain on the thin line of public hospitals and clinics that provide healthcare for millions of low-income and uninsured Americans.

Brownstein was equally adept at the breaking story, as Campaign Desk noted in March.

Brownstein’s closest counterpart on the East Coast is Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who usually could be counted on to deliver to his readers the straight skinny, even when his editors elected to bury his stories among the lingerie ads. Milbank’s ability to tell a great story — and outshine his competition — shown through often.

This is by no means a complete compendium of good enterprise reporting that stood out this election season. But these stories carry similar threads: They are original. They are thoroughly reported. They provide information and insight that — with any luck — leave the reader thinking: “Now I know something I didn’t know before. My time was well-spent.”

That’s enterprise reporting in a nutshell. It is not easy, and often it is not quick. But it is what distinguishes great reporters from good ones. We only wish that there had been more examples of it during this election season.

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.