Dan Kennedy and his daughter Becky
Dan Kennedy is a senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix, New England’s largest weekly newspaper, where he has worked since 1991. Since October 2002, he also has written a weblog, Medialog, on BostonPhoenix.com. He has also written for The New Republic, Slate, and Salon, and is the author of Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes, a book about dwarfism.
Zachary Roth: You recently wrote on Medialog: “[The media’s] coverage of the Gore campaign amounted to a wilding. That can’t happen again.” Do you think that’s been happening again?
Dan Kennedy: I think there have been moments that were troublesome, but no, I don’t think we’ve seen anything remotely like what happened with Gore four years ago. I think that we were kind of on the brink of it during Kerry’s first go-round as the frontrunner last summer, when we had the crap about his haircut, his taste in cheese on his hoagies — there were some really ridiculous, absurd stories. But since he disappeared and then came back and won the nomination, I think that the attempts to “do a Gore” on Kerry have pretty much fizzled out. There was the intern-scandal-that-wasn’t, and there was “Medalgate,” which I think ended up hurting the Republicans more than it hurt Kerry.
Of course we know that there are some journalists who are just obsessed with Kerry in a very negative way, like Mickey Kaus. But I haven’t really seen it breaking through to the mainstream the way some of the fake stories about Gore did four years ago.
ZR: You mean about Gore’s propensity to exaggerate, about the Internet and stuff like that?
DK: Yeah exactly, the Internet, the “Love Story” thing, all of that stuff, I just don’t think that’s broken through. I think I subscribe to the Bob Somerby theory which is that the media were in just a complete state of outrage four years ago over Clinton, and they took it out on Gore. And that dynamic just isn’t at work here, even though there are some similarities between the two situations.
I think the main similarity is — we always have this debate over “liberal media bias” — well, I think that most political reporters are liberals and I think the way they earn their bones is by taking down liberal politicians.
ZR: More generally, what do you see as the media’s biggest shortcoming, systematically, in the way it does its job, in terms of campaign coverage?
DK: I guess the biggest ongoing problem is, the media take kind of an “in-box” approach to covering politics: Whatever comes [along] on that particular day they kind of run with it, and then they move on to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And you don’t see an awful lot of stepping back and looking at it in a broader narrative, in terms of what is Kerry up to and what does he stand for, and what is Bush up to and what does he stand for.
I also think, you know, the Washington Post did that story recently that really documented the remarkable extent to which Bush has run a negative campaign. Well, I do think that there’s a tendency to reward candidates who are negative, because the media cover charges. You know, if the Bush campaign [makes an accusation] well, the media are all over that. And if Kerry is taking on balance a more positive tone, then that results in Bush getting somewhat less scrutiny.
ZR: So you’d like to see more stories like the Post story, pointing out who’s being negative …
DK: Well yeah, I mean I thought that was a very valuable story. And they put it on page one … but at the same time, it ran on Memorial Day, so it might have been on page A13 on a Saturday. So I’m not sure that people really picked up on that.
That’s another thing: I mean, any point of view or any type of story you want gets covered at some point. The question is, what gets the emphasis. I think [Washington Post ombudsman] Michael Getler did a … column recently in which he reviewed the Post’s pre-war coverage, and he said he found all kinds of skeptical and muck-raking stories that really called into question the White House’s case for war, but he said it was a matter of emphasis — there weren’t as many, they were played inside the paper. I mean that always ends up being a fairly significant part of how the media cover these things … and then never mind what makes it onto the evening newscast.