September 12, 2008
The novelist Russell Banks, in his first book of non-fiction, just published, explains the Sarah Palin phenomenon even before it happened. In "Dreaming Up America," he writes that we choose our presidents not on the basis of their experience or even their political views, but on how well they tap into our basic beliefs, our deepest communal desires, including our religious or spiritual beliefs. Our presidents, he writes, represent in some very personal way the imagination and the mythology of the people who elect them.
This helps us understand why the facts about Sarah Palin meant nothing when she suddenly materialized on the public stage, like Cinderella at the ball. You could see the convention delegates awed by the magical moment when the small-town girl, church-going hockey mom, mentored by her pastor to think upon the story of the biblical Queen Esther, became an overnight star. Leaping past "go" to the pinnacle of politics and the ultimate goal the cover of "People" magazine.
No wonder reality-based journalists are having a hard time with this story. Mythology is not their beat. But in the imagination of her tribe, Sarah Palin achieved an almost immaculate conception. Her lack of experience matters not to them. Nor do they care that her past is filled with contradictions, and nothing the press reports, no matter how grounded in fact, can shake their faith.
Furthermore, news cycles once measured in hours, are now measured in minutes and second. We live inside a media hurricane, an unrelenting force of attacks and counterattacks hatched in partisan quarters and hurled into cyberspace with such velocity the poor little truth is blown away like signposts on the gulf coast. Try getting a false or misleading charge retracted once it's made. You cannot un-ring a bell. Try and you'll find yourself an "enemy of the people." One Republican official told journalists in St. Paul, "We will get with you if you keep messing with us." And as John McCain and Sarah Palin barnstormed the nation this week, crowds that came out to see them booed members of the press.
What's a journalist to do? With me are two journalists of the old school who make reality, not mythology, their beat.
Brooke Gladstone is managing editor and co-host of the National Public Radio Weekly series "On the Media." Previously, she was senior editor of NPR's "All Things Considered" as well as NPR's media correspondent.
Les Payne won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, and went on to become a top editor at the New York newspaper "Newsday". He's the founder and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Welcome to both of you.
LES PAYNE:Thank you.
BILL MOYERS:So do facts matter, Les? Or is the truth getting through all this fog and smog of the campaign?
LES PAYNE:The truth does matter without question. I think I'm struck by your point. You can't un-ring the bell. But I think that what we must now do in the press is to ring the bell and which is to say to gather that number of facts that bear on the case of who the next president's going to be. And I think with the clutter out there now, it is something of a problem. But I think that I'm confident that we'll begin to burn through it in due course. And we only have two weeks, two months.
BILL MOYERS:Fifty some odd days, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Right. You know, it's funny. The journalistic profession is seen as so atheistic. But I think that they have to take a leap of faith here, as they always do, and fact check. Fact check incessantly. Whenever a false assertion is asserted, it has to be corrected in the same paragraph, not in a box of analysis on the side. It has to be done even though there are a number of studies now that show, as you say, that bell can't be un-rung, that an idea first fixed is almost impossible to move. I mean, we know this from the whole weapons of mass destruction notice. As Sarah Palin said the other day when sending her son off, that he was going against the enemy that caused devastation here on 9/11. He's going to Iraq. We know that didn't have anything to do with 9/11. It's stated again. It doesn't seem to matter what the facts were, but it has to matter to us as journalists.
BILL MOYERS:When you say "us," though, who are we talking about? I mean, we have 24/7 cable channels. We have talk radio all the time, night and day. We have the newspaper, periodicals, magazines, and journals. We have the blogosphere now. We have national television. We have PBS. We have local stations. And a lot of those people are caught up in actually promoting a partisan line or defending it. So who are we talking about when we're talking about "the press"?
LES PAYNE:The press when I refer to it, and I'm a newspaper person. And I think of the reporters. And I think that reporters as distinguished from the columnists, who has quite a different bill of particulars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I have to say, though, some of the best journalism is being done online. So it isn't so much about the medium as it is about the intention. It's a different way to provide information. But let me just say, and I think I know where you're going with this, the responsibility is now on the news consumer. This is a caveat emptor world. And you need to-
BILL MOYERS:Let the buyer beware.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let the buyer beware. Trust but verify.
LES PAYNE:I think that in this political campaign, for instance, I think we need to use the military term "boots on the ground." We need reporters on the ground to go sit, observe, listen, watch body language, and to being to use the BS detector to know when someone is spinning them, when someone is telling them an untruth, or when someone is lying. I think that the further you get away from the source with people who kind of filter out the information, I think the further you get away from credible collection of the facts.
BILL MOYERS:This week when Sarah Palin went back to Alaska for the first time since the convention, CNN and Fox News were there live on the tarmac as the plane arrived. Now, we can understand why Fox wants to give that kind of coverage to a Republican candidate, but CNN? I mean, where was the journalism in that? Let me show you a piece of this footage, and listen to David Gergen and some of his colleagues.
DAVID GERGEN: "Anderson, I'm rubbing my eyes in disbelief that we are all sitting here awaiting to watch the arrival of a vice presidential candidate. I mean, we don't do this for presidential candidates. But there is an enormous public interest and yes we are all sort of curious how she is going to handle it. I think the most interesting is she got a teleprompter up there. That says to all of us that once again, she's coming in with a script."
ANDERSON COOPER: "John King, do we know much about what she's going to say or I mean how this event is going to go?"
JOHN KING:"No. We just know mostly this is a welcome home rally for her and we do know the McCain campaign is proud of the fact that two weeks ago, Alaska was considered a bit of a battleground state. The Obama campaign was thinking about competing there. But we do know she's traveling home not only to this big rally and not only to say farewell to her son, which is a big deal for the family obviously."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This is about celebrity. This is about putting your finger in the air and following the public mood. Is it news? No. Is it an audience generator? Yes. And as anybody will tell you who's been following, boots on the ground, the campaign, McCain still isn't drawing crowds unless Palin is there. The idea in a standard campaign is you have, you get to be in two places at once because you get to put the VP nominee one place, presidential nominee in another. You can multiply your forces. They have talked about, as far as I know from local reporters there, not doing that. Keeping these guys together. Letting them travel as a road show because she's drawing crowds of thousands, even 10,000 people whereas McCain prior to that could only gather a couple of hundred.
BILL MOYERS:The journalistic question to me out of that, you know, we see that, it's celebrity. It's impressive. But what are your lonely boots-on-the-ground journalists in Alaska digging through archives and records and old newspapers, how can they compete with that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:They don't have to. They're in a different medium.
LES PAYNE:I think they must. I think they must compete with the images. Because in a way those photos are digested, I mean, we will be a half a step away from the "Survivor" show. I think that they need to go and to dig into for not just tax records but what is her management style from the very beginning? Not so much her family matter. What is her management, what is her temperament? I think that we need to know everything there is to know about every iota of information bearing on her ability to be vice president. And I think that what the reporters need to do is not simply to go for the visuals, they have to go behind the scenes.
Even if reporters got a significant number of facts and to have a great story bearing on her ability either on her temperament, on her management style, on her views, then how do you get that story to burn through the chatter?
LES PAYNE:That is the question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's the real problem because you know, I don't think there's any question that there, I don't think it's a miniscule number of reporters that are up there. It's true there are just fewer reporters at newspapers now. But the fact of the matter is, is that information is out there. And it's been used for fact-checking purposes. The whole she was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it is now, you know, a standard rejoinder from, the fact checkers in the press whenever she makes that assertion. And she continues to make that assertion on the campaign trail. That stuff is happening. In terms of whether or not it can affect or compete with people's first impressions and how television news, keeps reinforcing those impressions even as they profess to examine them is just sort of the conundrum of this media market.
BILL MOYERS:Your own network, NPR, this morning on "Morning Edition" had a fine piece of reporting from the field in which they interviewed people who were listening to Palin this week at the rallies. And one person after another said, "We've made up our minds. You know, she's one of us. And don't show me that, in effect. I don't care about what you folks do," right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Right. Well, and, you know, there's always going to be a number of, a large section of the public that feels that way. But as you know, if we want to talk about something that's happening in this campaign that bears heavily on the media, it's the role of polls. And the fact of the matter is because every poll asks the question "Who would you vote for if the election were today?" instead of "Who are you going to vote for in November?" the number of genuine undecideds is hugely reduced.
Because if there were 30 percent undecided as there may well be even in the electorate today, nobody would be interested in the polls. So they ask this other question, forcing them to present their slight lean as a decision, so, therefore, the undecideds go into the single digits because the question is "Who would you vote for now?" instead of "Who will you be voting for in November?"
There are a lot of people out there that can be affected by this information.
LES PAYNE:I think that media, and I use that term advisedly, too often go to ask the polling question as opposed to doing the reporting. We have to inform our readers first, as opposed to asking them what they think about something we have not told them about. So, to the question of if the election was held today, I mean, the answer is, 'I would be very surprised because I thought it was in November.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I agree. I mean, I think we completely agree on this, Les. But the fact is, is that people are influenced about.
LES PAYNE:And I have two months to inform myself...
LES PAYNE:And into that vacuum has to move an aggressive amount of our Jeffersonian calling. And we can get away from this. And, sure, there are fewer reporters. And there are geometrically more, obstructions, both, internet and supermarket tabloids. But I think still the basic, if this republic is to stand almost, you know, I think, you know, we have to burn through this. And I think we can.
BILL MOYERS:"Burning through this." But, you know, the McCain campaign made an early preemptive strike in this campaign. It clearly intended to send you reporters a message. It happened because CNN's Campbell Brown...
BILL MOYERS:Pushed very hard against the Republican flak. Take a look at this.
TUCKER BOUNDS: "She's been in executive office longer and in a more effective sense than Barack Obama's been in the United States Senate. She's been the Commander of the National Guard of the Alaska National Guard that's been deployed overseas. That's foreign policy experience."
CAMPBELL BROWN: "If I can interrupt for one second because I've heard you guys say this a lot. Can you tell me one decision that she made as Commander in Chief of the Alaska National Guard, just one?"
TUCKER BOUNDS: "Yeah. She's made, any decision she has made as the Commander of the National Guard that's deployed overseas is more of a decision than Barack Obama's been making as he's been running for the president for the last two years."
CAMPBELL BROWN:"So tell me. Tell me. Give me an example of one of those decisions. I'm curious, just one decision she made in her capacity as Commander in Chief of the National Guard."
TUCKER BOUNDS: "Campbell, certainly you don't mean to belittle, every experience, every judgment she makes as Commander of the National Guard..."
CAMPBELL BROWN:"I'm belittling nothing. I want to know one judgment or one decision. I want to know what one decision was. I'm not belittling anything, I am curious."
BILL MOYERS:Because Campbell Brown was tough on a partisan spin master, the McCain campaign canceled an interview that John McCain was to do with CNN's Larry King. Do you think the press got the message, "You mess around with us and you're in trouble?"
LES PAYNE:They cut off their nose to spite their face on that one. I mean, Larry King. That campaign should have been stampeding to Larry King's show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Frankly, I don't think it really worked. And they, you know, during the RNC, we saw the, you know, "How Dare You?" campaign step up. And it still didn't work. I think that the kind of sad thing about this Campbell Brown interview is it's been played so much. We've all seen it. And it's just so rare on television these days to interrupt somebody in live television. In live television, if you don't stop people when they're just filling in a lot of time with a lot of hot air then you've missed your opportunity. You have to interrupt.
BILL MOYERS:There was an interview that Chris Wallace did with John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, in which Davis comes out and says, you know, they're not going let Sarah Palin be interviewed until the media learn to afford her some respect and deference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Deference is the word.
BILL MOYERS:Don't you think we've had a lot of trouble because we journalists on the air pay politician too much deference? Look at the build up to the war? Weapons of mass destruction, all of that.
LES PAYNE:But I think we have to be immune to the kind of counterattack that the McCain campaign staged with CNN saying that we will not allow our candidate to go on your show unless you treat her with deference.
BILL MOYERS:Ah, but I have long thought that every American candidate for president, vice-president, all candidates, should be interviewed by the BBC.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:They interrupt.
BILL MOYERS:Because they interrupt. They think it's bull "s," you know? And they keep after them. But you can't get away with that in this country however, some reporters keep trying. And some local television reporters. Let me show you something I came across last evening of a local reporter in Portland, Maine, questioning John McCain. Look at this.
ROB CALDWELL:"Let's move on to what you say is the number one issue facing the United States in our time, and that is the challenge of addressing Islamist extremism. What credentials does Governor Palin have in national security, diplomacy, foreign policy that qualify her to be your partner on that issue, the fight against Islamist extremism?"
JOHN MCCAIN:"Well obviously, the economy is also a major challenge facing America, but –"
ROB CALDWELL:"I'm using your words, Senator McCain, you said this summer that the number one challenge of our time is Islamist extremism."
JOHN MCCAIN:"I said the greatest challenge of our time is national security threats and I've also said jobs and economy is the number one issue facing America so, but the point is that Governor Palin is right on the issues."
ROB CALDWELL: "You say you're sure she has the experience, but again I'm just asking for an example. What experience does she have in the field of national security?"
JOHN MCCAIN:"Energy. She knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America. She is a governor of a state that 20 percent of America's energy supply comes from there. And we all know that energy is a critical and vital national security issue we've got to stop sending 700 billon dollars of American money to countries that don't like us very much."
BILL MOYERS:What did you think watching that?
LES PAYNE:Well. I thought that is the question he did not want to answer, and he kept wanting to switch the subject. I think it's a part of the cocoon in which they want to put her. I think they should just let her face the press, face the media and answer questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Once again, it isn't that the questions were so good, the questions were what they ought to have been. But, the answers are so bad. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is if all you have to say is, "Give me an example," to play stump the candidate, then the problem isn't with the questioner, it's with the candidate.
BILL MOYERS:When the McCain people talk about a media pile-on as they did, about what the media would do to Sarah Palin, aren't they talking about a relatively small number of news outlets that ask tough questions and dig for the truth? The very thing that the partisans on either side don't want you journalists, we journalists, to report?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Not just that. That's just part, the good part, of a much larger campaign. I mean, the chain e-mails that have branded Obama a Muslim extremist, the ones that keep coming back no matter how often they are disproved, similar e-mails have been sent out about Sarah Palin. There's enough information without the waters being muddied by accusations that she cut the special needs budget there. I mean, I repeated that to a friend, I saw it in what I thought was a responsible e-mail, turns out, not true. She did inquire about banning books, but, there was this long chain e-mail about books she supposedly asked to have banned, which is a complete fake. I mean, and there's several of them hadn't even been published when apparently she made this request. So, you know, the problem is, is that it's easy for the McCain campaign to conflate legitimate journalism, questions about real issues that pertain to her ability to lead, but they all, the rest the fog of nonsense that engulfs, you know, both candidates, more Obama than McCain certainly. But, Palin, once you become a celebrity, you get what celebrities get, and that's good and bad.
BILL MOYERS:What's a citizen to do? A viewer, a reader, a listener, you know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Don't believe what comes into your e-mails, number one, just don't. Whenever you see an insertion made, "They are now available online," really reputable groups that are non-partisan that check these facts, you know, PolitiFact is one, FactCheck.org is another. You need to check everything you're told these days.
LES PAYNE:There's some good journalism, and some good reporting that is going on. I think they need to read newspapers and never give them up, for now, or read the online version, which is fine, and just as well, I think that we have to, I agree with you, that we should stay away from the rumor chasing and that's going on, on the internet. But, I think that reporters need to disregard these things as well. I think they need to look for datelines. For instance, to see if this person is in Wasilla, if this person is in Juneau, or if this person is in some bar in New York making a phone call to this supposed negative source in Alaska. And I think too much of that is going on. And I think that the real reporting that is going on, and there has to find a way to burn through this clutter.
BILL MOYERS:What does the press do, your end of the press, do if the campaign, as they always do, keep promoting distortion, lies, smears, attacks, counter attacks. What do you do?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I think the answer there is pretty clear. You have to continue for those viewers, those listeners, those readers who care, you have to give them information that they can rely on, so that they can cut through the muck. The fact of the matter is, these tools are available, they're in the hands of journalists, they have the forum, use it to sort of propagate real information.
Obviously, the problem with a lot of these situations, like, the recent "lipstick on a pig," kafuffle is that they are generated because they're outrageous. These are ads that like, that one was a web ad, that was, that the McCain ad, that the McCain campaign asked people to help distribute. I don't know how much money went into that, I don't think any I don't think it was paid for, that they had to buy any time for it.
BILL MOYERS:Well, the media picked it up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But, how much time did they get? The same thing happened with an earlier ad after an Obama trip to Berlin. There was maybe the ten ads, ten placements were paid for that ad, it got millions of dollars of television coverage. We shouldn't fall into the trap of propagating stuff in order to dispel it, but, that just is a judgment call every single time. Has this reached the level in which it needs to be addressed, and not just pick up everything.
BILL MOYERS:Brooke Gladstone and Les Payne, thank you very much for being with me on the Journal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Thank you.
LES PAYNE:Thank you.
BILL MOYERS:Speaking of good journalism, check out the front page story in the NEW YORK TIMES by Jackie Calmes. We'll post it on our website at pbs.org. Calmes joined the TIMES after 18 years at the WALL STREET JOURNAL covering politics, economics and public policy.
In the TIMES this week, she tells an important back story to the government's takeover of the mortgage banks Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This is a move that could drive up the national debt by as much as $200 billion. To come up with the cash, the Bush Administration is reaching deep into your and your kids' pockets. With the help of the Center for Responsive Politics, Jackie Calmes came up with facts to help us try to understand how, over so many years, such wild mismanagement of both corporations was allowed to happen. Why weren't the watchdogs barking? Where were the people's representatives? The answer? Follow the money.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain say the Fannie and Freddie mess is the result of the cozy ties between lobbyists and politicians, the very thing they will "change" if elected. But guess what? Neither one of them has ever had, quote, "A record of directly challenging the companies."
To the contrary, Obama is second among members of Congress in donations from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's employees and political action committees, even though he's only been in the Senate since 2005. The former chairman of Fannie Mae originally led Obama's vice presidential search committee but had to step down in a controversy over favorable loans he received, while at Fannie, from a company doing business with Fannie.
Among Obama's contributors are three directors and one senior vice president of the two companies. Furthermore, Obama's fellow Democrats in Congress have long been enablers of both corporations.
And what about John McCain? His entire campaign team stepped right out of a predator's ball. His confidante and top adviser lobbied several years for Freddie Mac. His deputy fundraiser lobbied Fannie Mae, and his campaign manager lobbied for both of them, leading a coalition of beltway insiders whose goal was to "stave off regulations" that might have short circuited this nightmare.
One wealthy member of Freddie Mac's board has contributed more than $70,000 to McCain and Republican Party members working for McCain's election.
Even the guy who vetted John McCain's vice presidential options is a former lobbyist for Fannie Mae.
This week, both Obama and McCain are speaking up for taxpayers, like you and me, who have to foot the bill. But locking the beltway barn door after the horse is gone leaves the stable smelling like you know what.
Now, Senator Obama denounces "golden parachutes" for the deposed execs of the two institutions. Now, John McCain blames Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's troubles on "cronyism" and "special interest lobbyists." Beg pardon? Does McCain know that if he really intends to throw the bums out he'll have to start with his own inner circle. As we've heard, you can rewrite the myth but you can't rewrite the facts.
And that's it for the JOURNAL. Remember, read Jackie Calmes' story on our website at pbs.org. And we'll also link you to the Center for Responsive Politics and some more delicious treats on the money trail.
I'm Bill Moyers, goodnight.