Policy? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Policy!

We know that many in the press prefer to focus first on the fray — most recently, who’s no longer above it and why (no one needs Nexis to know that the word “fray” has been overused already this election season). But if a candidate breaks from his “blistering” “broadside” (two other press favs) and shifts from insults to ideas — even if only fleetingly and with maddeningly thin detail — readers (at least some of whom are also voters) deserve to know.

The coverage of Sen. John Kerry’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s overlapping Wednesday speeches was first and foremost about the skirmishing (of which, admittedly, there was plenty). But, as we learn eight paragraphs into the New York Times story on the speeches, “while Kerry opened with criticism of Mr. Bush’s conduct of the war, he focused on what he called ‘a military family bill of rights,’ his plan to upgrade the armed services and improve conditions for military dependents and veterans.” In other words, there was some substance amid all the scrapping.

The Times’ Nick Madigan and Katharine Q. Seeyle give readers several sentences’ worth of detail about Kerry’s plan — after leading with Cheney’s “blistering critique” of Kerry’s record on military issues and how Kerry “denounced” Bush’s foreign policy. Then it’s back to how Cheney “derided” and “skewered” Kerry, prompting swift rebuttals from the Kerry camp.

Likewise, the fray leads the way in Washington Post’s coverage of the two speeches (headline: “Cheney Enters Campaign Fray”). The Post’s John F. Harris and Mike Allen variously describe Cheney as having “assailed, “mocked,” “taunted” and “ridiculed” Kerry’s words and votes. We read that Kerry gave a “multi-count indictment” of Bush’s military record. In the seventeenth paragraph, Post readers finally find out that Kerry also “presented” a “program” that he called “a ‘bill of rights’ for military families.” Paragraphs 17 and 18 provide some details on Kerry’s proposal, then it’s back to the brawl.

The Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson writes about the “harsh exchange” of Kerry’s and Cheney’s “dueling speeches” in a piece headlined “Kerry, Cheney Trade Charges on Leadership.” Two hundred forty-five words into the piece readers are informed that Kerry had — and shared in his speech — an “idea.” Johnson writes: “One Kerry idea is to temporarily budget for 40,000 extra soldiers in the Army so that the Pentagon does not, as it is currently doing, maintain an expanded wartime force by stopping personnel from leaving at the end of their planned tours.”

Baltimore Sun readers got a different take. The headline on Julie Hirschfeld Davis’s Sun story yesterday read: “Kerry Outlines His Military Plan.” Was Hirschfeld Davis watching different speeches than everyone else? Judging by her subhead — “Bruising Political Volley between Senator, Bush’s Campaign Heats Up” — no. But she tells readers in the first paragraph what newspaper readers in other cities had to dig to find.

There’s always the temptation to write about the presidential race as if it were a soap opera. But really, when the candidates present actual ideas, don’t they deserve more coverage than the latest plotline on “The OC”?

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.