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.
ZR: Being in Boston, what’s your take on how the Boston press has treated Kerry?
DK: Well, lets look mainly at the Globe … In 1988, the Globe gave remarkably positive coverage to Michael Dukakis. There was kind of this joke that all the reporters who were covering Dukakis were trying to figure out what their jobs in the Dukakis administration were going to be. And mind you, since then, the Globe has been moving toward much straighter coverage of politics than they used to have. I think that the whole regime of [former editor] Matt Storin was marked by a real effort to stop kissing the rear ends of liberal and Democratic politicians the way they historically had. And of course now you’ve got an outsider as editor who is kind of looking at everything with a completely new eye — Marty Baron. And I think that what they’ve determined to do more than anything is to make sure that they don’t get caught off-guard by any negative story about Kerry, no matter how small.
So I think that their [news] coverage for the most part has been fair, but it’s been very tough and skeptical at the same time, and I think that some of this has [knocked] Kerry a little bit off-stride. Now you add to that the fact that some of their columnists, and some of the other opinion-mongers in Boston, at the Herald and elsewhere, really don’t like Kerry, and you have a situation where … it certainly hasn’t been the type of friendly, hometown coverage that [the Kerry campaign] might have been hoping for.
ZR: But is there a sense with some of the Boston reporters that really don’t like Kerry that … they’ve known Kerry for a long time, and that’s just kind of the way he comes across to people?
DK: Well, I mean, Kerry’s not a lovable figure. He is what he is. He’s kind of this formal, distant guy. I think that Ted Kennedy’s assessment of him — that he’s actually rather shy — is probably right on the mark. And reporters like candidates who schmooze, who pal around with them. And Kerry has paid the price for that.
And although the Republicans are trying to exaggerate this beyond all recognition, he is somebody that tries to take every possible side on an issue at times. And, you know, the media always love a simple storyline, black and white, and Kerry doesn’t play to that, so I think that he suffers for that as well.
I think if you look at Kerry’s history among the electorate, he’s not a beloved figure here, and never has been. I think he’s respected for the most part, but he’s not somebody that the public here has ever been wildly enthusiastic about.
ZR: What does writing for an alternative weekly allow you to do, as a media critic, that you couldn’t if you wrote for, say, the Boston Globe?
DK: Well, we have not been out on the campaign trail, I have to say. I did get to go to New Hampshire a few times and cover that. What I’m able to do at an alternative weekly is: I’ve got the space and the time and the freedom to kind of mix political coverage with media criticism with opinion journalism, all kind of jumbled up together, and just try to make sense of the whole thing, in the way that I judge makes the most sense. And at the same time try to bring a fair amount of reporting and observation to it.
Now because I had not been covering the presidential campaign all along, when I kind of got thrown into New Hampshire, I said, well you know what, I don’t have any sources, so I’m going to … look at this as a classic outsider. And I drove around the state, went to events, and just kind of watched what happened. And I think that sometimes the daily reporters get so wrapped up in the fact that they have access to insiders — which is a great thing, but it does make it difficult for them sometimes to step back and look at the bigger picture of what’s going on.
Now I have to say, I was as blinded as everyone by the Dean phenomenon. In early January, we ran a long piece I wrote that was essentially my Kerry obit, and then two weeks later I was writing another long piece on him being on the brink of winning the nomination. So we were all wrong …
ZR: Has that made you less inclined to prognosticate?
DK: Yeah, you know it really does, because I think that when we look back at that Dean moment, I think everyone forgot what polls are for. Polls are to show you where you’re at, at any given time. And you can’t say that the polls were wrong — I think Kerry took the polls very seriously, he got rid of his team, he brought in a new team, he got rid of his New Hampshire campaign, and moved out to Iowa. I mean he certainly reacted to the polls. But everyone was wrong in taking those polls as a prediction of what was going to happen, and I think we all ought to be much more wary of that. I mean my God, we were all claiming Dean to be the nominee before anyone had ever voted.
ZR: If the Red Sox play the Texas Rangers [who are currently in first place] in the October playoffs, how will that affect the race?
DK: After the last three games [against the Yankees], it doesn’t seem possible that the Red Sox will be playing anybody in the playoffs.Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.