The Undisputed Champion of the 2004 Campaign: The Talking Point

Part four of a series evaluating the media’s performance during the 2004 campaign.

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.

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Chris Bodenner is a CJR intern.