Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

October 3, 2008

BILL MOYERS:Welcome to the Journal. We're covering the two big stories this week, the financial bailout and the vice presidential debate. First, it's been 24 hours since Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin met in their first and only encounter, described by pundits as their one championship game. To help us cut through all the post-game spin, I've asked for some help from one of our top scholars of democracy and one of our finest independent journalists. You've seen both of them here before.

Brooke Gladstone was a senior editor for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and the network's media correspondent. She now wields her fine scalpel as managing editor and co-host, with Bob Garfield, of NPR's indispensable "On The Media."Kathleen Hall Jamieson directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Among her 15 books is this one: UNSPUN: FINDING FACTS IN A WORLD OF DISINFORMATION.Welcome back to both of you.



BILL MOYERS:We can't second guess the public on this. Voters will decide for themselves. But I'm curious as to what each of you found to be the most revealing moment last night. Kathleen?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:When Gwen Ifill reframed the question asked by Jim Lehrer in the first debate: What would you change in your plans, given current economic circumstances? These candidates, like the heads of the ticket in the last debate, punted. You had Joe Biden saying, "Well, we were going to double foreign aid, but maybe we won't do that as quickly as possible. And we won't do all those bad things John McCain is proposing. Well, of course not. If you're elected, you're not going to react to the other person's agenda.

And Governor Palin basically said we're not going to change anything. So we've now had two debates in which candidates have been asked a significant question. And Jim Lehrer followed up repeatedly in the first debate. That in changed financial circumstances, with an unprecedented deficit and debt, with the public debt that is foreign-held, now about to increase over the huge level that it's already at, these four candidates, two presidential, two vice-presidential, don't have the courage to tell us that if elected, they will change their spending and taxing plans.

Even though I believe that if either is elected, he will. As a result, they're campaigning in a way that makes it harder for them to govern responsibility. And they're ensuring that when elected, the electorate's going to feel betrayed by being promised things that they're not going to deliver. And if they keep their promises, they're going to be financially irresponsible and drive this country further into an economic mess.

BILL MOYERS:What was the most revealing to you, Brooke?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:What surprised me, actually, was not a big, cosmic you know, an important moment, a substantive moment like the one that you just outlined, but really, a small one. It was a — it was a kind of a strange switcheroo that actually took me by surprise. And it was when Biden chided Palin for suggesting that because she's a mom and she's a woman, that she understands better what it takes to raise a family.

And then, he talked about his own biography, and his experiences as a single parent, choked up. But what struck me about that wasn't just that, oh, here is an emotional moment, but that in a campaign where gender is so important, he played what I call the "Tootsie" card. Not only am I as good a woman as you, but with my defense, with my Violence Against Women Act and outrage against Alaskans having to pay for rape kits, maybe I'm better.

BILL MOYERS:One critic I read this morning said that this debate was not won and lost on what was said, but on how it was said. That on nonverbal communication, Sarah Palin won. You know, she walks in, blows a kiss to the audience, says to Biden, "I'm so pleased to meet you. Can I call you Joe?" She talks about soccer moms. And I mean, David Brooks last night on "The News Hour" sort of referred to her as the queen of colloquialism. And he sounded sort of very impressed with that."

BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know, I don't know who it was that said it. Maybe it was Queen Victoria. For people who like that sort of thing, that's just the sort of thing they like. In terms of Sarah Palin's persona, it seems time after time and election after election, we're not voting for a policy; we're voting for a person, somebody we can project our hopes and dreams on to, kind of an aspirational figure. You know, as we do when we flip through "Vogue Magazine". You know, it's what we want to see when we look in the mirror. If that's what you want to see, somebody who's kind of like you, only better, then that's then that's what Sarah Palin did for you.

But we don't know we can't trust those snap polls that happen after the event. I know. But the Obama polls, the Obama-McCain debate earlier, also featured those same polls, those same wacky perception meters on CNN. And it seemed that at least on CNN, when she got all folksy and said "doggone it" and stuff like that, the independents dialed down.

So we can't predict what's going to connect. We know that she tried to connect. We know she connected to some people. I guess the question is how many. And that's the mystery, because if policy doesn't matter and persona is all, it's still you know, we can't plumb those depths.

BILL MOYERS:When do you get credible data that enables you as a scholar to say, "This event last night had this impact on this campaign and on the election"?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:It takes days. And the problem with last night for me, as one assess the so-called winning and losing, is first, there's no way to win or lose 90 minutes of discourse. You can win an argument. You can win a chess game. You can win a football game. You can't win 90 minutes of discourse.

And so, when people then find ways to assess win-loss, they're essentially demeaning the experience, and they're making it harder for people to remember what they did learn about the similarities and differences on issue positions. And when you see one of the channels last night running a meter on undecideds on the screen as the debate is taking place, that's inviting you to see those moments through that measurement device, rather than see it yourself.

And you saw another network that was asking to call in to vote to see who won and lost. It was Fox, so you're not surprised to hear that Palin won. You have the most illegitimate form of evidence gathering you can have taking place. Because you now have a poll of the people who are disposed to watch that channel, voting, with the other side presumably try to run their own numbers up as well.

So what you see essentially are measurement devices to answer your question, that make it harder to answer the question long term, because they may actually affect how people perceive the event, and how its impact carries out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:That stark contrast I couldn't agree with you more. But on the larger question of being distracted from the substance by being asked to participate in the win-lose aspect of it, I think we've already lost that war. The fact is, is that just as every member of the public today is a media critic, they're also a political quarterback. Everybody, not just us who are paid to do it everybody is sitting there watching that, saying, "I wonder what the American public thinks about that."

That great mass, undifferentiated mass out there we're all trying to plumb its depths. When we're watching television, we're all aware that this is an event. It's so meta by now, that I don't think we can roll back to the substance any more.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:But first, we do now that even with all of that and it does hurt the ability to learn. People who watch debates do learn from them. And so, there is learning that takes place. The question and it's accurate learning. The question is: How do we increase the likelihood that that happens? And this all distracts from that.

Focus groups can't be generalized to anything. They have no business being there, creating a frame for interpreting a debate. What would you like to see after a debate? A discussion of where they showed similarities, where they showed differences. And where, in the big picture, they deceived the public about what they would do, or what they had said, on either side and where they were communicating something that was relevant to governance and where they weren't.

And we don't need to see after the debate is that somebody got the name of something wrong, or they got one number wrong by some increment. The question is if there's a lack of fact underlying what they said, when is it consequential? When does it matter in your vote?

BILL MOYERS:So, did it matter that to the public at large did it matter to you that say, Governor Palin not only got the name of our commander in Afghanistan wrong, but she misquoted what he said? Does the public care about that?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:But first, the person who's being quoted offered a very complex and nuance statement. And neither Senator Biden nor Governor Palin got it completely correct. And people would be well advised to go back and read the whole thing. But does it matter.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Read the entire statement by the General. What was at issue there is whether the McCain strategy, the strategy McCain advanced, telegraphed as the surge, but better described as a counterinsurgency strategy, which has a lot of elements under it, is the appropriate strategy to pursue in Afghanistan or not. And what are the additional elements that the General who is being cited, thinks need to be in place?

BILL MOYERS:So, Brooke, are these really debates, or are they glorified press conferences?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:I think they're kabuki. Everybody is completely constrained by the rules. Gwen Ifill, who couldn't, who stuck went right down the middle, stuck to the rules, never asked any follow up questions. Any follow ups were done by the candidates themselves. And maybe that's okay.

BILL MOYERS:Well, that because the Debate Commission, which is controlled by the two parties, sets the rules the moderator, the journalists have to follow. So are the journalists handcuffed by the rules set by the parties for the benefit of the candidate?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:I think to some degree, they are. And it's always been that way. There really hasn't been it's not like there's, you know, a 200-year tradition of debates. They had-

BILL MOYERS:Let me go back to 1960.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:And then there was-

BILL MOYERS:Lincoln-Douglas.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:And then, after Nixon, there was a long period when there were no debates at all. These have been entirely at the pleasure of the candidates themselves.

BILL MOYERS:So are they valuable?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well, I think so. I mean, I'm totally convinced by what you said. People do learn from these debates. I think the problem is, is that you have to peer very, very hard through the fog to learn anything. The example of the surge. We have to understand what, how the surge strategy worked or didn't work, or what was wrong the surge in Iraq, before you can talk about transporting that strategy.

And what the General said, the General said, they would need a quick infusion of troops. That doesn't necessarily mean that's all they need. So when she talks about the surge strategy, she's talking about that exclusively. When the General talked about it, he was talking about surging, along with a whole complex range of other activities.

So Biden picked up one thing, she picked up the other. The there, nobody learned anything. And similarly, when the question of do you think global warming is manmade came up, I think this is quite a similar issue. She says, it really doesn't matter how it happened. We have to deal with it. And Biden says, well, it does matter, because if we know what caused it, then we can go to those activities and reduce them.

Again, the specifics weren't there. You have to sort of know the story before you can decode a lot of those comments. And that's the problem, is you have to bring so much information to these debates to get any information out of them.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:The reason that the format matters is that in a format in which you have a short answer, no follow up, no exchange between candidates if a candidate has one layer of information and doesn't have the ability to follow up and follow up and follow up with depth, you don't know that. That's the format that was not the format that was problematic for Governor Palin when she was interviewed by Katie Couric. Katie Couric's questions and then Governor Palin's problematic answers came largely in the second and third follow ups. And so, the format matters, because it let Governor Palin feature a strength without testing what is a potential weakness.

But there's another reason that I'm concerned about the format. You asked about the journalists and their constraints. A journalist is now on live television. And when a question isn't answered, could say, "For my next question, could you please answer the last question?" "For my next question, could you please answer the question that I asked earlier?"

And what you saw with Jim Lehrer in the first debate was he went back to the concerns about how you would change your plans again and again. When a question isn't answered in this format, and the moderator feels constrained by those rules, you get a shot gunning of information. And you get the phenomenon that you're talking about, when you say, "This happens and this happens and this happens." You have to bring an enormous amount in to make sense.

When a moderator can follow up and when candidates have time to exchange views, you get more depth on information. You get more clarity. You find out more not only about what they know, but about where they stand. This was a very impoverished format.

If you wanted to ask not who won and who lost, but who was qualified to be the next president of the United States in unanticipated circumstances for that question to be answered, you need a more open format with more follow ups and more direct exchange.

BILL MOYERS:Speaking of the Katie Couric and Gibson interviews, Palin took a parting shot last night when she blamed her problems in those interviews on "gotcha journalism". What did you think about that?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well, it's so easy these days. It's the most popular target there is, the media, as a great monolith. No matter who it is that's doing the attacking, the entire media gets whacked for it. And when it isn't an attack, you still get whacked. It's very, very easy to do that. As a matter of fact, the public's opinion of the media is a record low.

BILL MOYERS:So is of Congress and the presidency. I mean, we're in a trough here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:And yes. And, you know, the same lack of trust across a wide range of institutions is reflected in what transpired over the bailout. But in the in the case of this, when you have and the main and brand new, actually, over the last ten years, criticism of the media is that is regarded as partisan. And if you watch television, and if you watched the post-debate quarterbacking, you would see that that is absolutely true. Depending on where you tuned in, you had a completely different assessment of how the debaters did. So if Americans feel this way about their media, that they can't trust them to get the straight facts, then an attack like that of Palin's falls on very receptive years.

BILL MOYERS:Were there deceptions last night that have consequences for us?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:I think that's the way to ask the question. Because there are little factual slips that really aren't consequential. There are things that do make a difference, that if you voted on that information, you might vote against your own self-interest, or against what you think is best for the country. Is Governor Palin accurate when she called Senator Obama's health care plan government-run? Not by any reasonable stretch of the imagination.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:The word mandate is when she really went off track there.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Well, when she uses the word mandate, she's evoking the Hillary Clinton plan. And if you'll remember, Hillary Clinton's big point was you can't get to universal coverage without a mandate. And Barack Obama didn't have one. He only has a mandate for covering children. Now, here's another deception. If you take him at his word, it is not a government-run health care plan. And hence, he probably isn't going to get to universal coverage.

But she's being unfair in that attack against what the proposal actually says it will do. And so, when you have those kinds of exchanges, if you're voting on those matters, you want to know what they said, what is accurate. Because it's consequential to your vote.

BILL MOYERS:Brooke, you mentioned the bailout a moment ago. Why is that on your mind this morning after this debate?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Gee, let's see.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:You know, how's your 401K doing today?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:I'm afraid to look. But the fact of the matter is, is that we got into I can't, we didn't get into the financial situation because of a lack of trust in American institutions. But we certainly hit paralysis in the early part of this week because of it. With again, belief in, trust in the government at record lows. Trust in the President scraping the bottom. Trust in the main conduit of information, the media, also way down there. The public felt that they couldn't believe what they were hearing from anybody. Hence, this tremendous rush from people who didn't believe in the bill to inundate their legislators' office with e-mails and phone calls, and shutting down the switchboard.

BILL MOYERS:A Vesuvius of...


BILL MOYERS:Of popular anger.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:It ran nine to one against the bill when the mail came into the legislators' office. So what we have here with the collapse of trust in these institutions is a kind of government by e-mail and phone call referendum.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:Rather than trusting the leaders to make the decisions that we elected them to make.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Language does our thinking for us. When the public doesn't have any sense about what's really going on, this is very confusing and very complicated. Framing matters. If this is described as a taxpayer bailout of Wall Street, it's not popular. If it's described as taxpayer investing in the well-being of the economy, it's far more a more positive. Now.

BILL MOYERS:Was that done?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:The first frame that was offered by the Bush Administration was not strong enough in favor of the bill. And as a result, the press picked up the language that you used, the language of bailout.

BILL MOYERS:Of Wall Street?


BILL MOYERS:The greedy.


BILL MOYERS:All right.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:So, my money to Wall Street in a bailout. What is benefiting me there? Where's the positive? When President Bush came forward with his second speech, he's beginning to frame it as a rescue plan. But we're not that clear that the rescue plan is for the economy and consumers. The rescue plan is still being cast as Wall Street. You still don't see a lot of reason that you'd want to rescue Wall Street.

The person who ultimately cast this most effectively as something the public ought to support, and the difference in polling is largely of framing, is Warren Buffet, who finds a way to say that this really is going to affect everyone. This is an economic Pearl Harbor.

WARREN BUFFETT:We have a terrific economy. It's like a great athlete that's having a cardiac arrest, you know. And it's flat on the floor and the paramedics have arrived and they shouldn't argue about whether they put the resuscitation a quarter of an inch this way or a quarter of an inch that way or they shouldn't start criticizing the patient because he didn't have blood pressure tests or something like that. They should do what's needed night now. And I think they will. I think Congress will do the right thing.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:If you had to look around and say who's got the credibility? Who has very wide trust, and who can talk in the English language that's intelligible? Warren Buffet is the answer. And he was putting money into a rescue effort of his own, in the interests, I believe, of making large amounts of money.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Hence you're reassured by it. This-

BILL MOYERS:Reassured because?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Because this billionaire is putting his money in, saying, "I don't put money into things that I'm not going to make money at. I'm not in the business of a bailout," essentially, is what he's saying. "I'm investing. This economy is going to turn around, and I see these as a good investment." And he's standing behind the plan. He's and he's personable, he's friendly, his examples are concrete. He's speaking the English language. And he's got money in the game. The best communicator for this plan was Warren Buffet.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:And he's from Nebraska, for crying out loud, isn't he? And he did what in all the debates, whether it's Obama, McCain or Palin, I think Biden is the only one who didn't use the expression "walk the walk". But that's exactly what Buffet did.

BILL MOYERS:Are you both saying that a multi-billionaire, one of the richest men in the world, if not the richest man in the world, came to the aid of the establishment, political and economic class this week, to save what would have gone down in the face of this populist revolt?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Depends on what you think about the bill. Whether what he did was good for us all or bad for us all, depends on whether or not you believe that this was a necessary step.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Framing matters. If you buy the frame of rescue plan for the economy, for Main Street. And necessary, because this is an economic Pearl Harbor. And we, the country, are the economy is like that patient in cardiac arrest. This is Warren Buffet then we have to act not because we're acting for Wall Street, but because we're acting for us. Framing matters. And you come back to the question, what about that $150 billion.

BILL MOYERS:Added this week.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:That's tacked on? One frame of that is that this is pork. One is these are necessarily tax investments. Another is, this is bribery, in order to get those people to support that bill. And we, again, have a contest over framing. But the cost just went up $150 billion in an economy that didn't have the money to afford the $700 billion to start with, but is being told it has to spend it, or things are going to get a lot worse.And then, you have these candidates come in, all four of them, and they won't answer the questions. Does this change your plans at all? And they essentially say, "Oh, no. Everything's fine. We're gonna cut taxes. We're gonna increase spending." Of course, not as much as they will. "We're actually revenue neutral."

Well, no, they're not. And nobody who's looked at their plans for taxing and spending believes it. It's a real disconnect between what's happening in the real world and what these four candidates have said. Two more debates. I hope they get those questions again. I hope somebody tells us the truth. And the danger is, if somebody does, it will be, you know, the kind of circumstance that, you know, Walter Mondale faced in 1984. You say, "I'm gonna raise taxes," and people say not "I'm not gonna vote for you."

Or you may have a circumstance in which they don't tell the truth. That's "Read my lips: No new taxes." George Herbert Walker Bush did increase taxes. That's Bill Clinton saying "tax cut for the middle class." He never delivered that. Neither one of them thought they responsibility could. Both of them, or their parties, were penalized.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:What I found curious was that at the beginning of this, Paulson's apocalyptic statements before Congress were not only repeated by the leaders in Congress, but also by the press. Even as they reported on this, and even as they used the unpleasant word "bailout", as opposed to "rescue", which was, I guess, the principal framing device.

They nevertheless, in mainstream respectable for and there's nothing wrong with that communicated the degree of urgency that seemed to be necessary, that you know, to take this action. And so, why is it that with Congress and the President and the media all working from the same assumption many compared it to in the run up to war, except in that case it was wrong, and in this case, I wouldn't venture to say.

Why is it that they couldn't sell it? And I'm not saying the media were actively advocating for it. But they did accept the assumptions of the President and Paulson and of Congress, in initially laying this thing out. And yet, despite that, it couldn't be sold. That's why I come down to the trust issue again.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:I think it's remarkable that as many people voted for it as quickly as they did. This is a huge amount of money. And this is very quick action for the House and Senate. And it's happening in a context in which the people who are coming forward have said, "Well, we had a problem in the past. Do this, it will fix it. We had a problem in the past. Do this; it will fix it." And those things didn't fix it.

BILL MOYERS:One domino fell after another.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Yeah. And so, now the person comes and says, "We need this because it's not gonna fix it." But I disagree with you that there was not a rhetoric of crisis. There was actually extremely tight coding of language. The while they were talking about crisis, they were also be very, very careful to signal the prospect of depression without saying it. If you listen to the media and you listen to the politicians, they walked right — the worst crisis since World War II. The worst crisis that we've had since the 1930s. But they're not using the depression word. But they're implying it strongly.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:I'm saying that they accepted the media accepted all the assumptions of urgency in their initial presentation. And yet, it couldn't be sold. I think we're in total agreement. I'm just puzzled that nobody bit this time. And I think it's just a big difference from now and many years ago. It may because well be true, those assumptions. I'm certainly not qualified to say. But either way, they were accepted, at least in the initial reporting. They weren't seriously challenged. The discussion of alternatives came after.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Let me give you an alternative hypothetical. A president at 60 percent in the approval ratings, who has not gotten us into a war under very problematic argument, comes forward and says exactly what George Bush said. I think the rhetoric changes dramatically. This was a test of the credibility of this administration at its core, and the willingness of individuals to follow an administration that, in the past, had not been fully disclosive, and have used a rhetoric of crisis inappropriately, in order to push the country into precipitous action in Iraq.

BILL MOYERS:Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooke Gladstone, thank you for being with me tonight.


Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ