the water cooler

Deborah Orin on Snobby Broadsheets, a Non-Palsy White House, and Stories that Write Themselves

June 18, 2004
Deborah Orin

Deborah Orin has been The New York Post‘s Washington, D.C. bureau chief since 1988, and has covered every presidential campaign since 1980. She worked briefly for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News while at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, then spent three years at the Long Island Press covering local government.

Today, Orin discusses snobby broadsheets, a non-palsy White House, and stories that write themselves as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about the election.

Liz Cox Barrett: Your stories are typically in the 300-500 word range. How do you approach political coverage, knowing you have a relatively small amount of space to work with? How does writing for a tabloid affect your approach?

Deborah Orin: Writing short means you have to focus fast on what really matters and never worry about duplicating the wires or the nightly news. Sometimes it will be the same story but often it won’t. In fact, you’d rather it wasn’t. A good guideline is to make sure you tell your readers the very first thing that you’d tell your own best beloved or colleagues if you were calling home to chew over the news of the day. Or standing around the water cooler gossiping.

It’s fascinating how often broadsheets snobbily refuse to share that kind of water-cooler stuff with their readers. A classic example came in Thursday’s New York papers when The Post and the Daily News front-paged Bill Clinton’s belated admission on Monica Lewinsky: “I did something for the worst possible reason, just because I could.”

By contrast, The New York Times buried that story as a tiny little piece way back in the paper as if to haughtily say, this is beneath our notice because it’s too tabloid. That’s ridiculous. Bill Clinton is one of the major figures of our era and this was a central issue in his presidency. Besides, the Times, just like all the rest of us, has been busily speculating on how Clinton’s autobiography, interviews and book tour will impact the 2004 presidential race — the Times even had a front-page story this week on the subject. Now we get the first interview from that book tour — the first real taste of what the impact might be, with real news from Clinton, via Dan Rather and CBS — and the Times chooses to bury it. That’s a classic example of the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet.

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LCB: You’ve been covering the White House since 1988. What’s your take on Ken Auletta’s assessment — as presented in his January 2004 New Yorker piece titled “Fortress Bush” — that the Bush White House is unusually skilled at “keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda?” How does this administration’s dealings with the press compare to administrations past?

DO: Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t see that much difference. Every White House tries to manage the news and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Bush’s press people make less effort than Clinton’s did to be palsy with reporters — I think because they believe (rightly) that the White House press corps tilts distinctly Democratic and generally doesn’t like Bush or his policies, so Bush’s team can’t expect to get cut much slack no matter what they do. Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry was the best I’ve ever seen at using his friendship with reporters to benefit his boss — and himself.

I do think the Bush White House makes a big mistake by minimizing full-scale press conferences and interviews, especially since [Bush] does well in those forums. Earlier this year you saw the price that Bush paid for avoiding the press for months — he looked rusty and ill at ease. Now that he’s more accessible, he also seems more relaxed.

LCB: In addition to reporting for the Post, you’ve done some talking head work, appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hardball,” and other cable shows analyzing the campaigns. How do you approach each of these jobs differently? How do you draw those lines for readers or listeners?

DO: It’s a different way of talking about the same issues — I don’t say anything different on cable than I would in print, but you get to do it in a more immediate and personal way. The back-and-forth can also help get you to the heart of the issue. The TV stuff that I love best is C-SPAN — it’s always fascinating to do their shows and gauge from the phone calls what people are really thinking and talking about. You get some of the very best questions — sometimes very tough — on C-SPAN.

LCB: Campaign Desk recently wrote a story about how some political journalists rely on opposition research to do their work — reporters from the Los Angeles Times to Time magazine said as much. Several stories you have written are similar to documents put out by the Republican National Committee and/or the Bush-Cheney camp (you wrote multiple pieces on Kerry’s SUV ownership, you wrote a piece about the RNC’s Kerry-morphing-into-a-cicada ad, variations on the word “flip-flopper” — in reference to John Kerry — have appeared in seven of your stories’ headlines this spring). How do you use opposition research in your work? Or does opposition research use you?

DO: We all get opposition research from both sides on a daily basis and sometimes we use it as a kind of tip sheet (you have to be very careful about checking every single original source). But oppo research had zero to do with my SUV stories. The first SUV story was inspired by an AP story that ran late one evening about an Earth Day-related conference call that Kerry held with Pennsylvania reporters. Someone on the call quizzed him on whether or not he owned an SUV and he initially denied it — and then blamed the gas-guzzler on his wife. I checked Nexis (with the help of the wonderful New York Post library staff) and discovered that he’d given a very different account in talking to Detroit reporters back in February when he boasted of owning SUVs, which of course are much more popular in Motor City than with Earth Day fans. The story wrote itself. It wasn’t until the next day, after my story was already in the paper, that I saw any oppo stuff from the RNC, or maybe it was Bush-Cheney. But they weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

The AP story also reported Kerry’s statement about the need for his family to buy American cars. That inspired me to ask The Post library to help check what cars were registered to the Kerry family — we discovered, as I’d half-expected, that they owned foreign cars like a German Audi that he’d conveniently omitted from the list of family cars that he ticked off for reporters. Initially the Kerry campaign tried to claim they had no idea whether or not Teresa Heinz Kerry owned an Audi. But that didn’t work because I’d already confirmed with two separate people at the Massachusetts motor vehicle department that she did indeed own this particular German-made car with this license plate and vehicle identification number with a current registration at her Beacon Hill address.

Incidentally, the person who first taught me the importance of checking whether a candidate owns a foreign car was none other than Kerry’s political guru — Bob Shrum. In the 1988 presidential campaign when Shrum was working for Dick Gephardt, his team ran a tough anti-foreign car TV ad in Iowa that arguably won the caucuses for Gephardt — it attacked the Japanese-made* Hyundai as a threat to American jobs. No reporters (me included) caught onto the little secret that made Shrum’s ad especially potent but also safe for Gephardt — at the time, Iowa had no Hyundai dealers so it was easy to attack Hyundais without offending many Iowans.

In the fallout from the Hyundai ad, I learned that most political strategists warn their candidates to drive only American cars in case reporters or rivals ask (Pat Buchanan once got clobbered in Michigan for owning a Mercedes). In fact, many political consultants also drive only American themselves for the same reason. A few years ago James Carville told The New York Times that it would be dumb for any candidate claiming to be an environmentalist (like Kerry) to get caught owning a gas guzzling SUV. As usual, he was right.

The car question, incidentally, is another instance of the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet. Car ownership is something that everyone understands so it’s a natural for tabloid stories. It’s a way of getting at who a candidate really is.

The Cicada story was just a fun story about a webmercial on those yucky insects. The funniest line in it wasn’t from the Bush folks — it was the pushback from Democratic National Committee spokesman Jano Cabrera, one of the funniest and smartest operatives in the business. One of the under-reported stories of this campaign could well be all the stuff that both sides (and the 527s) are doing on the web, a lot of it under the radar. As for flip-flops, that’s a central theme in every political reporter’s coverage of Kerry. If Kerry loses, we’ll all be going back to his infamous line about how he voted for $87 billion before he voted against it.

LCB: If you had to write a New York Post-style headline (you know, in the spirit of “WACKO JACKO ON HIS BACKO”) that summed up this campaign season so far— or better still for our purposes, summed up the media coverage of the campaigns thus far— what would it be?

DO: Alas, I lack headline-writing skills. But the Post certainly had the best front-page headline on the Dean Scream: “AARGH.” The readout, as I recall, was: “Experts say scream could be Howard’s End.” As indeed it was. Incidentally, that headline ran the same day as reports on Bush’s State of the Union speech. Only a tabloid would have concluded — correctly in my view — that Howard’s End was the bigger and hotter story. In hindsight I think most political reporters would agree.

*Note: Hyundais are Korean-made

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.