Jill Lawrence (Courtesy USA Today)

Jill Lawrence has covered politics for USA Today since 1996. She has reported on the past five presidential elections, working for the Associated Press, as a magazine and newspaper freelancer, and as a reporter for UPI prior to joining USA Today. Lawrence spoke to Campaign Desk from her Washington office as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about the election.

Liz Cox Barrett: Last month you wrote from Youngstown, Ohio: “In depressed cities like this one, whether John Kerry threw medals or ribbons in a war protest 33 years ago seems less important than what he says he’ll do about people’s daily struggle to find and keep jobs and health insurance.” Many national media outlets, as Campaign Desk noted, focused that day and that week on the ribbons/medals controversy. In general, how good (or bad) do you think the media is at covering what voters really care about in an election year?

Jill Lawrence: That was an interesting trip because there was such a striking disconnect between what [Kerry] was talking about, what people really wanted to hear about, and then this sort of meta-narrative in the national press corps about protests 30 years ago. Part of that was because of where [Kerry] was going—it was a jobs tour through the rust belt where there have been tough times, so those people really were interested in what he had to say about jobs. So there was even more of a disconnect than usual on that trip.

I don’t want to mislead you, I wrote for two days about medals and ribbons, but by the end of the trip I thought I really ought to write about what’s going on out here. If you looked at the local papers and TV newscasts, they weren’t talking about ribbons or medals, all they were talking about was steel companies that shut down or how [Kerry] intends to try to reduce outsourcing, all those points [Kerry] wanted to emphasize and they also wanted to emphasize.

I was also very interested in the little sliver of exposure I had on [Kerry’s] bus to how he tries to keep in touch with what is going on. There were a few people on his bus who had had a lot of misfortune [who were] telling stories, and Kerry was asking them questions and he said, “Thank you, this helps me stay in touch, to know what’s really happening.” It was interesting.

I think probably the medals and ribbons story was less important for the medals/ribbons aspect than for how [Kerry] reacted. He had a combative appearance on “Good Morning America.” He didn’t pivot off it and get back into jobs. He engaged directly for the whole time and seemed irritated and irritable. Some campaigns might have put a surrogate out to deal with this, but Kerry did it directly and in doing so elevated it so that [the media] almost couldn’t ignore it. He turned it into something you had to write about.

LCB: Writing for USA Today you don’t have nearly as much space for your from-the-campaign-trail stories as, say, a New York Times reporter. How do these space limitations affect your approach to covering a story?

JL: Well, there are really no requirements to have a daily story off the campaign trail. We have a brief column which we try to use to cover more routine aspects. What we try to do is have occasional stories that are complete and have an interesting angle — for example that jobs story you’re talking about, that was an angled way of summing up what happened that week. It was not that long, but it was long enough to get the point across. The kinds of things I had to cut out were all the headlines I cut from local papers, but the point was made and frankly most people don’t have a lot of tolerance for reading extremely long pieces on politics this early in the campaign.

[The space limitation] is frustrating but it forces you to really think about what matters to you and ultimately to your readers. I was in Topeka this week, and I would’ve liked twice as much space to write about what happened with Bush and Kerry in Topeka, but you have to ask yourself how much do readers really care? Sometimes I want to get the little details across, I think it’s a better read that way, and sometimes I have a chance to be expansive. But it does force you in to real, zero-based budgeting, you start from nothing and have to decide what’s really important here.

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.

Liz Cox Barrett

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.