Trivial Pursuits

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

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.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.