Adam Nagourney on False Equivalence, Spin Beyond Spin Rooms, and Fake Online Diaries

Adam Nagourney

Adam Nagourney has been chief national political reporter at the New York Times for the past two years. He joined the Times in 1996 as a political reporter covering Bob Dole and later became the Times political reporter covering metropolitan New York. Prior to joining the Times, he covered the White House and the 1992 presidential campaign for USA Today, and the Dukakis campaign for the New York Daily News. Nagourney discussed the campaign with us as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators covering the election.

Liz Cox Barrett: On October 19 you and Janet Elder wrote a page-one piece featuring a New York Times/CBS poll, headlined: “Poll Shows Tie …” Why does the Times poll deserve any more play than any other poll? Isn’t your piece more like a New York Times press release, more self-promotion than it is helpful for readers?

Adam Nagourney: I don’t buy that argument at all. I don’t know whether I saw it on Campaign Desk or where. The reason why the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal invest a lot of money and personnel in their own poll is to have a poll that they trust. And we have a whole unit of people, polling people, that help us develop our questions and do samples and figure out how to write and report the poll. … If the Times wants to get publicity for itself, it can buy an ad in the subway, but this is not what this is about at all. …

I think if you believe in polls and you’re going to report on polls, I think a serious newspaper, if it can afford to, should do its own polling. The level of vetting and question formulation and historical trends and hopefully the reputation of the poll mean that we’re writing about a poll that’s known as reliable and serious.

LCB: Shouldn’t such a story also mention or consider other polls?

AN: We do do that. Especially this year more than ever. I am not inclined to write about other people’s polls generally except in passing, like, for example this year when polling has been so wacky. I think pretty much in all of our stories we’ve made a point of putting it in the context of what other people are finding, and on a couple of occasions we have written sidebars describing various polls, trying to explain why that is. It’s not self-promotion. I’ve worked for papers that are about self-promotion. I worked for the Daily News, I love the Daily News and papers do do self-promotion — I don’t think the Times does that.

LCB: Campaign Desk has pointed to assorted shortcomings of the political press — including you and some of your colleagues — this election season, from unsupported leads to anonymous sources to something that you decried in recent interview with Howard Kurtz: “false equivalence.” Why do these same shortcomings continue to plague campaign journalists?

AN: I think they’ve all improved markedly over the years. Certainly at the New York Times there’s been a drop in the use of anonymous sources. I’ve tried to cut down on my use. When I used to work at USA Today there was a strict rule against using any quotes from anonymous sources — and I thought that was great policy — so it’s always made me averse to it.

At the New York Times when you’re covering a campaign and when you inevitably have to use an anonymous source quote, a) I will not use an anonymous quote that is critical of someone, and b) I try to explain why the person doesn’t want to be identified. … [At this point in the election] I can pretty much tell you, if any Republican is upset with the way Bush is running his campaign or any Democrat is upset with the way Kerry is running his campaign, they’re not going to say that to you on the record or for attribution. So in that situation … that would be a case where I might have to use anonymous quotes.

…. We’re trying — and I think everyone is trying — I’ve seen the Washington Post and here at the Times, when they quote people anonymously, explain why that is.

LCB: And some of the explanations are sort of … hilarious.

AN: They’re great. Elisabeth Bumiller, her explanations are incredible. But they’re true. I saw one that was, “because I didn’t want to get woken up at 8:00 in the morning by an angry phone call from Karl Rove.” I mean, they’re true. So I do think there’s been improvement there in the political press.

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. …

LCB: Going back to one thing you said a minute ago, that you don’t want to sit in the spin room and hear an aide’s take on what Bush and Kerry just said, because they’re going to already have planned that out before the debate happens. Isn’t that also true when you pick up the phone and call them? Aren’t they always going to be on some kind of talking point or script?

AN: Some of them are, some of them aren’t. The ones that are, I tend not to call. Generally, reporting is a transactional business. You try to get as much information as you can. Sometimes in the course of a conversation they’ll give you some spin and some information. If you have good relations with them and you’ve been doing this long enough to filter out — I don’t want to use the word bullshit, [but] that’s the way it works.

LCB: In Thursday’s Times, Jim Rutenberg had a piece about “an ever-growing army of Internet writers” who try to “bully [journalists] into caving to a particular point of view.” While “most political reporters” Rutenberg interviewed “insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way,” some “worry the criticism could eventually have a chilling effect” and “admitted they could not rule out having pulled punches in small and even subconscious ways.” How have said “Internet writers” affected you and how you do your job?

AN: Listen, here’s the problem. I think a lot of these people are really good, are really smart about politics and are trying to raise legitimate concerns about what we’re writing and what we’re covering. But a lot of them are just so intense and so personal. I read these blogs where they insult the way reporters look — not most, but some — instead of writing, for example, “I think this story is wrong because this reporter ignored this bit of information or this reporter forgot this historical thing” or whatever, it’s always like, “this story is wrong because this reporter is dishonest or partisan or stupid.” That sort of stuff really has corrupted the atmosphere this year.

That’s not the majority of bloggers at all, some are really good, really valuable. I try to keep an eye on them. … I know reporters who refuse to read that because it’s so upsetting, so personally distressing. But the problem is you want to keep track of what people are saying either to get information for a story you’re trying to cover or because you want, you need criticism. We’re not perfect. … So you want to get feedback, but some of this is so toxic it’s impossible to pay attention to it.

LCB: As Rutenberg also mentioned in his piece, you, like the Associated Press’ Nedra Pickler and your colleague Jodi Wilgoren, now have a web site dedicated to you —, which actually bills itself as “Adam Nagourney’s Personal Diary.” Does this mean you’ve arrived?

AN: Does this mean I’ve arrived? Um. I guess so. Someone said to me, why didn’t I buy my name out to avoid this? Not in a million years did I think anyone would do this, but I guess more power to them. Have you looked at [the site]?

LCB: Yeah. Have you?

AN: Yes! It’s so dirty! That’s the thing about it. First of all, it’s turned into this big chamber for dissatisfaction [with] a whole bunch of reporters. But it’s also dirty and a lot of it is really mean — that’s what I was talking about. It’s like, wow, where is this coming from?

LCB: If someone who knows you well stumbled upon the site, they’d know it wasn’t the real Adam Nagourney writing because of _______. Fill in the blank.

AN: You would be amazed how many people think it’s me. I’ve gotten phone calls from gossip columnists, some of whom were going to write items about how I’ve started my own web page … I think one of our public relations people was saying, do we need to put out a statement saying it’s not me?

I’m not a blogging kind of person.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.