Stephen Elliott at the 2004
Democratic National Convention
Stephen Elliott is the author of the new book Looking Forward to It, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process, an account of his year on the campaign trail. He is also the author of four novels, and the editor of the anthology Politically Inspired. He has written for GQ, Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Believer, among others.
Zachary Roth: As a novelist, what do you bring to covering the campaign?
Stephen Elliott: Well, I’m not tied down by a lot of these journalistic conventions. One thing you see in a lot of the media — you see it in the New York Times, and you see it much more so in USA Today — the idea that if you quote somebody telling the truth, you now have to give equal time to somebody who’s lying. And I don’t have to do that. So if I’m getting a quote from a spokesperson, which is really just another word for paid liar, I’m gonna point that out: This person lies all the time, they get paid to lie, and here’s another example of them lying. Or, why should I trust this person? And they never do that in the regular media. They do it on Fox News, they connect the dots for you, but then they claim that they’re non-partisan, so it’s worse, but it’s in a totally different way.
ZR: That convention of even-handedness is something we write about all the time. Why do you think they have to keep to that?
SE: I don’t think they do have to keep to it.
ZR: So why do you think they do it?
SE: I think it’s just tradition. The problem is, it makes sense when you have differences of opinion, and you have an equal number of people feeling both ways. But it hinders you if one side is lying. If one side is lying — especially if they’re telling a big lie — then it really moves the whole thing over. The idea of journalists quoting people that they know are lying — that’s really problematic. I read the New York Times when the [Swift Boat Veterans for Truth] thing first came out. And in the one article, they had the Vietnam Veterans making these accusations, and they had the counter-accusations and it was just treated as equal. And … in the same newspaper, they had a full article on how the Vietnam Veterans’ positions were just riddled with lies. So why were they quoting them as if they were somebody who deserved to be quoted? …
CNN ran this thing about Jim Rassmann, who was pulled out the river [by John Kerry] — well, now it’s “allegedly pulled out of the river.” Why? Because this one group that had like three members was saying that it wasn’t true, despite all the military records. And that is really, ultimately, just lazy journalism.
ZR: It seems like the campaigns, and especially the Bush campaign, has sort of figured out that that’s how the news media operates.
SE: Well Hitler figured it out back in the ‘30’s: The big lie goes further. I know people don’t like to compare Bush to Hitler … but in terms of media savvy, he’s very similar.
ZR: I was going to ask you how good a job you think the regular media has done covering the campaign, but it sounds like we’ve covered that.
SE: You know, I’m not as negative as all that. Those are problems in the media. I think that, in truth, the New York Times overall does a pretty good job. And it ultimately is an imperfect medium. It’ll never be perfect, and I think that the Washington Post and the New York Times do strive for something resembling objectivity.
And so … to expect that sort of perfection from the media is not really fair. You gotta be realistic … Everybody hates the media. Both sides hate the media. I’m not counting Fox News in any of this. That’s a whole other beast.
ZR: Are there any particular reporters, from being on the trail, that you especially admired, or that you didn’t?