Policy? Nah, Let’s Talk About Real Estate

Dan Okrent, the New York Times’ public editor, surely saw his mailbox flooded yesterday by Campaign Desk imitators after publicizing his intent to run “measured and reasonable” email critiques from readers of the Times’ campaign coverage in his next column. And no doubt a good number of yesterday’s rants came from Democrats complaining that the Times’ Sunday front page piece, “Wealth of Others Helped to Shape Kerry’s Life,” played perfectly into the Republican storyline that Kerry is out of touch with voters. (We’re waiting for a similar Times article on President Bush’s fortunate upbringing.)

As Campaign Desk outlined last July, the campaign press is more apt to characterize Kerry and Edwards as wealthy than they are Bush and Cheney. But such bickering overshadows what to our mind is a greater journalistic sin: running non-news summer filler pieces on page one of the Sunday paper three weeks away from election day. As with a couple of exceedingly wordy stories revisiting President Bush’s national guard experience that have run in the national press in the past few weeks, any reasonably informed reader came away from the Times’ Kerry article knowing nothing more about the candidate than he or she already did — namely that Kerry, although not wealthy himself, has, through family, friends, and marriage, managed to surround himself with wealth as he has climbed to the pinnacle of American politics. Also, Kerry likes sports. Fascinating.

In contrast to the Times’ fluffery, readers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel were treated to Craig Gilbert’s in-depth breakdown of Bush and Kerry’s positions on nuclear proliferation. Paired with an eye-catching and educational graphic, the piece ran through each candidate’s stances on North Korea, Iran, and “loose nukes.” The front-page piece kicked off an eleven-part series “exploring where President Bush and Sen. John Kerry stand on key issues.” Today’s article focuses on Social Security and upcoming pieces will cover health care, jobs and taxes, education, social issues, urban challenges, the Supreme Court, environment, energy, and foreign policy.

While the Times’ gossipy exploration of the real estate in John Kerry’s life (from Boston to Nantucket, from Washington D.C. to Fox Chapel, Pa., from Sun Valley, Idaho, to, yes, a small village in France) might have piqued the interest of voyeurs, the Journal Sentinel’s sketch of his proposed policy on weapons of mass destruction offered important information for the voters of Wisconsin.

Kerry must be breathing a sigh of relief that it’s Wisconsin that’s the swing state, not New York.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.