Are Members of the Press Bored By Issues?
Ron Faucheux, Editor in Chief, Campaigns & Elections: “[Politicians] are not really complaining about the questions the press is asking. What they’re complaining about is that nobody’s covering their answers. And candidates who try to talk about relevant, connected issues are finding it very, very difficult to get that out in the course of a political campaign.
“We have now gone beyond the information age to an entertainment age in which the competitive pressures to entertain people are so great that it’s difficult to do anything else…. When candidates talk about real issues, when there is an encouragement on the part of the media and the civic community for candidates to talk about real issues, when there’s a minimum amount of negativity and when there’s a minimum amount of name-calling, everybody [in the press] sort of throws their hands up and says, ‘This is boring.’ And until the axes start swinging we’re not going to cover it any more….
“At the congressional level, in particular, there is a tremendous amount of frustration in terms of candidates being able to talk about issues, to get across their point of view and to respond with contrary information that is covered outside of a short sound bite or a 30-second ad. Political campaigns in this country are particularly bad forums for the discussions of real issues. And it is no wonder that the connection between that and what happens in government seems to be less and less.”
David Broder, columnist, The Washington Post: “In my experience, every time a reporter comes back from a trip, wherever it may be, the first question that anybody asks in the newsroom is ‘How’s it going? Who’s ahead?’ This is a contest and it’s a race and I think we’d be blinding ourselves to reality if we didn’t recognize this. That doesn’t mean we can’t do other things. But I think we ought to acknowledge that horse-race journalism is going to be part, and ought to be part, of what we do.
“There’s room for doing other things. There are questions people legitimately have about the things that government can do that affect their lives directly. Examples at the moment: We know that the boomers are going to be retiring in 10 years. We also know that our retirement and health care system for seniors at this point is a non-functional system. It’s legitimate to ask and push hard for answers from the candidates about what will you do because that issue is going to be on your desk.
“We know that there are unanswered questions on the world scene about what are the ground rules for when the United States intervenes or doesn’t intervene. Legitimate and important to ask the candidates, ‘Do you have some rules that you would apply or would you just deal with every instance on an ad hoc basis as we’ve mostly been doing up to now?’ Those concerns you hear from voters are important cues for us as to what we ought to be asking the candidates about.”
Susan Page, White House Bureau Chief, USA Today: “If you talk about what the role of the media is in a presidential campaign or other campaigns, it’s to raise the issues that the candidates mostly don’t want to talk about. There was an election cycle in which neither candidate in either party wanted to discuss the savings and loan scandal even though that was going to be this huge issue as soon as one or the other of them won the White House. That was a case in which the press did a disservice by not forcing that issue to the forefront.
“One of the ways that you put in their proper context things like these character questions that we talk about so much, or the horse-race questions that we get criticized for, is to also cover the policy and substantive questions on which we do the weakest job. The fact is we’re much more delighted to cover the horse race. It’s easier and it’s more fun than covering education policy or what somebody will do about Medicare.
“One problem we have is that once a candidate gives a speech and we cover it on the day when he gives that speech, then it no longer seems like news to us, even though six months will pass before the public is paying the slightest bit of attention. It’ll be news to them up until election day. So if there’s one mission that it seems to me that we ought to really address ourselves to, it’s not to not covering character issues or not covering the horse race but to do a better job on the issues that actually have an impact on people’s lives.”
At one point, Michael Kelly, Judy Woodruff, David Broder and Susan Page engaged in a discussion about how and whether issues get properly covered in the midst of reporting on a campaign.
Michael Kelly, Editor in Chief, National Journal: “Writing a column, I notice all the time that when you set out to learn something about a subject, you go to the clips to get a wide array covering the whole range of the public discussion of the issue. Read through them all and you find at the end of it that you have no mastery whatsoever of the substance of the issue. All you know is the strategy and tactics politically. You know what reporters think. You know the reason the President or the White House did such and such and the reason the Republicans did such and such. And you know that over and over again….
“There have probably been 500 stories on the senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Ninety percent of these stories you will find in the mainstream press are strategy and tactics stories and a reader, even a dedicated, intelligent reader, could be forgiven for believing that this entire debate was utterly non-serious on both sides and involved nothing of substance. That it involved on one hand a Republican Congress that wished to give the President a black eye and humiliate him for reasons solely of personal animus. On the other hand, there was a President who was calculating to receive a black eye so that he could gain a campaign issue for his vice president.
“I think that is a message that we are communicating to voters. And one thing we could do is fairly simple: to at least start running some stories in the newspaper about paying attention to the substance of the thing. There’s a real substantive argument about that treaty. There’s a real argument for signing, and there’s a strong, real argument against signing it. That alone would be a step, it seems to me.”
Judy Woodruff, Anchor and senior correspondent, CNN: “David Broder, you’re a close observer of the way we do things in the journalism business. Why don’t we do more of the kind of reporting that Michael is describing? I mean, is somebody telling us not to?”
David Broder: “It’s hard. You have to actually know something to write about what the controversy over the test ban treaty was about. You don’t have to know a hell of a lot about Jesse Helms having one agenda and Bill Clinton having a different agenda. The most useful point about this that I’ve ever come across was in a book written by Jeff Bell, who turns out to have an important part in American political history. By knocking off Clifford Case in a Republican Senate primary in New Jersey he gave us Bill Bradley. And he’s now working for Gary Bauer. But he wrote this little book a few years ago about the elite and the masses. And what he said in that book that I try to remember, not as often as I should, is that the mass of our readers care about what comes out of an election. The elites care about who comes out and how they manage to do it.
“If we could manage to focus ourselves more on what’s at stake in an election, what’s going to come out, rather than the who and the how, then we could probably be of a lot more use to the public.”
Judy Woodruff: “But why don’t we do that, Susan Page? Why aren’t we doing that? Are our editors saying don’t do it, don’t make it serious? Don’t make it substantive?”
Susan Page: “I think it’s just the whole way the system is set up. It’s the way that we’ve traditionally covered campaigns, which is being on the road with candidates. This doesn’t encourage you to do reporting that requires you to know other things or talk to experts. It’s our concept of what news is. We think the story that leads the newspaper needs to have a ‘yesterday’ in it. It needs to be something that has happened, and it needs to have some element of conflict. So and so said yesterday, this was announced yesterday, this train crash happened yesterday.
“But I do think we’re in the process to some degree of redefining that and of having more respect for stories that are substantive and stories that are trend stories as opposed to ‘this happened yesterday’ stories…. If you look in the Pew Center poll, you see what issues are ordinary people versus the elites interested in. You see that ordinary people, whoever they are, I mean, I guess I would put myself in that category, they care first of all about flexibility for working parents. I’ve got to say that’s a big factor in my life. Providing health insurance for all. Medicare reforms. The elites, by the way, are not all interested in those subjects. Those are things that really matter in people’s lives.
“And I know that in my paper we make this very conscious effort to try to figure out what matters in people’s lives and cover that. We may not do it so well, but we’re making an effort to do that. And I guess I do think there’s a trend in mainstream journalism toward addressing that and getting away a little bit from some of the ‘Who shot John yesterday?’ stuff.”
Former senator Alan Simpson, Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, addressed some of the journalists’ observations.
Alan Simpson: “I think what Michael Kelly said had a lot of heads nodding out in the real world of ‘Just tell us about these things.’ Who, what, when, how, where, why was what I learned in journalism in Cody [Wyoming] High School. That has to be the guts of journalism. If it’s not, then take your damned opinions and put them on the inside of the paper. And take your anonymous sources and stick them somewhere else. Anonymous sources will destroy journalism. And what will destroy politicians is guys who run around saying I want to go off-the-record. No responsible journalist should ever listen to a politician who says ‘I want to go off-the-record.’”
Michael Kelly: “There was a small book I read a few years ago called ‘News and the Culture of Lying.’ It’s a quirky, interesting book. And it argued that the fundamental thing that we do, the way that we shape the news as defined by the who, what, when, where, why formula, the ordering of things, is in the best of cases, with the best of intentions, a kind of lie. Because what happens in life really is that every day there is not order but there is chaos. All of this stuff is going on all around the place and a lot of it conflicts with each other and a lot of it doesn’t make any real kind of sense.
“The reporter, more than anybody else, knows this, because the reporter gets out of bed and goes out into that chaos and by 5:00 p.m. or earlier has to try to impose some sort of order on it. And there isn’t really an order. But there’s no other way to do it. You can’t call your editor and say, ‘You know, it’s just a mess out there and it’s frankly confusing to me. I don’t know what to make of it.’ And you can’t call your editor and say, ‘I know you sent me to the biggest hearing on the Hill today and everybody else is covering it but I have to tell you, the entire thing is a sort of stage show, it’s a kind of fraud. It’s not real at all and we shouldn’t pay that much attention to it.’
“At the time I was reading this book, I was talking to a young reporter who had been sent out to cover a church burning. This was during the spate of stories, the big run of stories, about the burning of African-American churches. And she had been to cover a church that was burned and it was an African-American church. I asked her what she had discovered in her first day going out there, and she said the fire chief said they didn’t really know what had happened and they didn’t know the cause of the fire and it might be lightning and it might be this, might be that. So he wasn’t really sure but there was a lot of emotion there and there were people weeping and there were a lot of people saying that this was part of the sort of national hate spree that we were on, supposedly. And that was what she knew.
“So I said, you have two options. You can call up your editor and say, ‘There’s a two-paragraph story here saying that there was a fire but we don’t know anything about it really.’ Or you can lead with a story about people weeping amid the charred ruins of yet another African-American church and say in passing that we don’t know that this was a hate crime but tie it into the whole national scene. Which one did she file? It was option B, as it turned out. And this is the nature of our business. And I think this treatise I read had some real truth in it. We see a very complicated world every day. We go to the university, cover a demonstration, and on some level we know that the truth is that there’s 200 people demonstrating and they’re demonstrating because we’re there. There are 10,800 people who are going to class. But we don’t file the second story. We file the first story because that’s how we define news.”
A while later Susan Page returned to this topic.
Susan Page: “The best places to cover a campaign are places where we are increasingly covering campaigns. [At USA Today] we now have a reporter who does nothing but cover campaign money and so do other newspapers. That’s not a beat that ever existed before at my newspaper. Now it consumes a person full time. If you’re on a campaign, then you tend to go to the rallies and think they matter. You start to think it matters who a candidate’s pollster is when frankly I think it matters not at all. And if you’re not on a campaign maybe you focus on who is giving money, which is an important issue, or what’s happening with the economy and what prescriptions cost. These things are impossible to do if you’re on the road. So maybe the way to cover a campaign is to stay as far away as possible from the campaign.”
Judy Woodruff: “David Broder, is that feasible? I mean for news organizations not to send somebody?”
David Broder: “We’ve got now two polar positions here. Alan Simpson says, ‘Just follow the candidate and tell us what he or she is saying.’ And Susan Page says, ‘Get the hell away from the candidate and find out what’s going on.’ I think it’s useful to do both. I mean, I think we have some obligation to be a transmission belt for these people who are seeking the most important office in the country. But I have to respectfully disagree with my friend, Alan Simpson. Because if you cover the candidates by and large you will hear them saying the same things day after day which they need to do for the sake of repetition and to drive the message home. But it becomes pretty quickly a fairly empty exercise journalistically and I think a not very useful exercise from the public’s point of view.
“The missing piece, and the one that I think the Pew survey touches on, the most important players in any election are not the candidates, not the consultants, not even the glorious press. It’s the voters. You never make a mistake spending a lot of time listening to what the voters are bringing to the table. They will tell you what the election is about. And they will, most of the time, tell you if you really listen to them, how the election is going to come out.”
David Broder revisited whether the press is in any way responsible for why voters do not participate in elections.
David Broder: “I’ve made this argument other places. Let me just do it very shorthand. I think we may have contributed to it. I’m not sure. I don’t understand entirely why voting has gone down. But the great influence on my generation, the old geezer reporters, was, of course, Theodore White. He showed us with the first ‘The Making of the President’ book what a compelling story you could tell if you really got inside a campaign. I think for several cycles after that we tried to the best of our ability, which was not great, to get as far inside the campaign as we could. This coincided with the rise of the political consultants. So as we got further and further inside, we got more and more captivated by the evil genius of these people who were managing the campaigns. And I think without intending to we sent the message to the voters, Joe McGinniss’s book being the classic example of this, ‘You may think you’re making a choice, but folks, they’re manipulating you.’ People don’t like to be manipulated. And when they said, ‘Hey, politics is all about manipulating us,’ the one way you can get yourself free of that manipulation is to get out of voting.”
Judy Woodruff: “Can we turn the clock back? I mean, are we too far?”
David Broder: “No, we can’t. Again, I keep coming back to the same point. We will not make a mistake for any hour that we spend out talking to voters. We will be in one way or another improving our coverage of what’s going on in politics.”