I think one of the big changes this year, which has been pushed in my opinion mainly by The Note and also by you guys, is this whole idea of false equivalence. There used to be this sort of sense, you just need to be fair, and so you take 50 percent from one and 50 percent from the other, and I think people came into this campaign doing that. I know we got knocked a couple of times for doing that but we moved away from that, because if you impose false equivalence where it doesn’t exist you’ve made a false story.
So, for example, we wrote a story, me and Dick Stevenson, raising questions or actually criticizing a stump speech that President Bush was doing that we thought really pushed the envelope on facts. And we didn’t sit there and go, “well, to be sure, Senator Kerry is doing the same thing” because at that point he wasn’t doing the same thing. So I think that has changed, but that’s an evolving thing. I think that’s one of the biggest and best things that’s happened in the evolution of political journalism this year.
Hopefully, in a serious newspaper there should not be unsupported leads.
LCB: I remember one example where you and, I think, an AP reporter wrote a similar story along the lines of, “Democrats are afraid,” and then never cited anyone by name. We’ve definitely seen poorly supported and unsupported leads from serious news organizations.
AN: Do I think every now and then a story slips through where that happens? Sometimes, but it should not. I should not be writing stories like that. If I do, for whatever reason, because I was fatigued, laziness, whatever, some editor should be stopping it. But generally speaking I don’t write stories without doing tons and tons of reporting. I don’t know that I always get it right but I certainly try to get it right, and I hope any lead I write is completely substantiated. … I know all of my main competitors very well — Dan Balz, Ron Brownstein, Ron Fournier — they all strike me the same way, as really solid people. So that happens every now and then, but it shouldn’t, and it’s not systematic. It just shouldn’t happen.
LCB: Howard Kurtz recently quoted you saying that there’s no point in going to debates because they’re television events, that you opt to cover them from home. So what’s the larger point of being on the trail? With instant transcripts and such, and virtually no access, why bother to go out on the trail at all?
AN: … When you cover a debate, you’re in a big room with 1,000 reporters watching television screens. I mean the odds are, you’re never going to see candidate at all. When you’re on the trail, you’re in the room with the candidate, the voters, so I don’t think there’s any equivalence there at all. My point on the debates, my main point is that I think “spin rooms” are a waste of time.
LCB: But you and most campaign reporters still quote those spinners outside of the debate, outside of the spin room. What’s the difference?
AN: It’s not like they’re idiots, it’s not that you won’t quote those people. I don’t really care what some senior aide to John Kerry or George Bush says after the debate about how John Kerry or George Bush did or said in the debate. Do I care to talk to them before or afterwards about what’s going on in the campaign or their perception of what’s going on in the country? Yes.
LCB: So that wouldn’t be spinning? Aren’t they still spinning no matter what “room” they’re in?
AN: Not necessarily. Sometimes. Have you ever been in the spin rooms? They all come down after the debate and they tell you how well the candidate does. It’s a whole different thing to talk on the phone with Matthew Dowd and hear him say, “we think we’re strong” — that’s part of the whole negotiation of reporting. But the spin room is essentially a disingenuous exercise. The campaign aides know what they’re going to say before they walk down there. But more importantly, debates are really a big deal in my opinion. … And there’s only a certain amount of words in the newspaper, so the words should be devoted to the candidates. I don’t really care what someone’s saying about what the candidate said. …