Pumping Up the Process

In this morning’s USA Today, Judy Keen clues us in to a dirty little political secret:

The maneuvering that made the politics of rising gas prices a hot story Tuesday began over doughnuts and coffee Saturday morning at Sen. John Kerry’s campaign headquarters.

Officials of Kerry’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) mapped out a plan to pin blame on President Bush for the soaring prices. The average price of regular topped $2 a gallon Monday.

There’s little doubt that the Kerry campaign set out to shape the coverage, hoping to see headlines decrying Bush’s inaction on escalating gas prices. However, unsurprisingly, the Kerry campaign has not received full cooperation from the political press corps.

So far, the coverage, like Keen’s behind-the-scenes look, has focused on Kerry’s attempts to hype the gas prices into a story rather than on gas prices themselves.

As the lede in an article in today’s New York Times put it, “Seizing on record-high gas prices averaging more than $2 a gallon, Senator John Kerry and other Democrats on Tuesday made their most coordinated attack yet on President Bush’s energy policy, saying he should immediately push OPEC to expand oil production.” (Emphasis added.)

NBC reporter Carl Quintanilla also concentrated on the “coordinated attack” in his report for the “Nightly News” yesterday evening, stating that “Gas prices went from being a widespread economic concern to political red meat as Democrats launched a campaign blaming President Bush for skyrocketing fuel costs.”

Back in late March when the topic of gas prices surfaced for the first time this election cycle, the campaign coverage was framed in a similar manner. It appears that gas prices are forever destined to be stories of political process.

But why have gas prices become a story about process, rather than a story about, well, gas prices?

One explanation for this phenomenon is that the political press is attempting to avoid making judgments about the candidate’s policies in order to retain the appearance of objectivity. However, a more plausible explanation is the obvious one: Campaign reporters are political reporters. And political reporters cover politics, not daily fluctuations in the price of crude oil.

Of course, the political press does not report on every campaign maneuver in this manner. For instance, Kerry’s health care proposal was framed as a proposal to solve a problem, rather than a political attack. The press corps generally stuck to the substance of Kerry’s proposal instead of the political calculation of proposing it. The decision was that the specifics of Kerry’s health care proposal justified the space of a front-section article.

Perhaps the press corps sees health care as a problem in America that can be influenced by the Oval Office. And, perhaps, the press corps sees gas prices as a problem, as The New York Times editorial board indicated today, not solvable by the chief executive.

This is a distinction that many members of the press have taken it upon themselves to make implicitly, simply in the way they write their stories. What plays as politics, and what plays as policy, depends on subjective judgments by reporters.

So for those readers that are truly interested in the ins-and-outs of gas price policy, they best turn to the business page.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.