LCB: You covered the candidates’ advertisements during the 1988 presidential election. What do you think of this year’s campaign ads — their tone, truthfulness, quantity? When reporting on ads, should journalists attempt to clarify claims made, fill in missing context, etc.?
JL: Certainly there are a lot more [ads] a lot earlier. I do actually remember a specific ad from ‘88 from one of the Democratic primary candidates accusing Gephardt of being a flip-flopper. It showed a man on a trampoline doing flips. In a way that seems like such an innocent time compared to now. On the other hand that was also the year of Willie Horton, so it wasn’t all innocent.
This year, obviously, the strategic implications and demands on both campaigns are different. The president really has his work cut out for him because of his approval ratings so it’s understandable that he’s running a lot of negative ads on Kerry. Kerry actually has had more ads on his behalf from outside groups. The other thing that’s new [this year] is this focus on the 18 states, battlegrounds, the targeted approach. Some states like Kansas where I just was haven’t seen any advertising at all unless they live near the Missouri border. It’s like there are two countries, one where they are bombarded by these ads, and another where all is very quiet for now.
I do think it’s very important for [journalists] to try to vet the claims made in these ads when so much context is missing on both sides. This year it’s been a bit of problem in that there are so many ads from so many sources and the ads have been in specific states, not nationally. I think that as much as we can we should try to [add context], particularly in negative or comparison ads when one side is trying to make a point and often leaves out information that would support the other side. Even if the point they’re making is valid it’s important to put it in context and let people understand where everyone’s coming from — not so it develops into another he-said/she-said story, but in an attempt to set things in as much of a factual context as possible. I think otherwise it can be very confusing for voters.
LCB: In addition to writing for USA Today, you appeared on CNN a few times during the Democratic primaries analyzing the various candidates’ chances. How do you approach each of these jobs differently? How do you draw those lines for readers or listeners?
JL: I do a lot of analysis for the paper also. I don’t really see it as that different. It’s all fact-based impressions based on what I’ve seen and how it’s struck me. The funniest thing about CNN, I really rarely do TV commentary, but my son called when I was driving across Iowa to tell me that the CNN segment I was on was on “The Daily Show,” [in a segment] about how stupid pundits are. I never saw it.
I just look at [TV commentary] as an extension of what I do on paper. A lot of times it gives me a chance to say things I didn’t have room to write in the paper. Also these shows are junkie fodder so you can get deeper into the weeds about what’s going on…You do get to talk about some of the details of the strategy and speculate on the horse race.
LCB: You’ve covered the last five presidential elections. What’s your favorite campaign memento or most treasured piece of swag you’ve received over the years?
JL: Actually it might be something I got during this campaign while I was up in Vermont doing research on [Howard] Dean. One of the legislators he tangled with gave me a picture of [Dean] as governor screaming at him with his finger pushed into the guy’s chest. We used it in our paper. I have the picture up on my wall at work.
While I was up in Vermont, in October, at the end of every interview I’d ask, “So have you ever seen [Dean] lose his temper? Everyone always said he had a temper, and we’d seen some evidence of it. My question was whether it was refreshing or a sign of something more serious. What I was trying to do was see if it was temper or temperament. I wrote a story in November that looked at that whole issue. People who knew [Dean] in Vermont thought he was fine, but they understood how he was coming across and that how in a national race people wouldn’t get to know him as they had. They were a little worried.