Bad News: Media Coverage of the 2000 Elections
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TERENCE SMITH: Robert Shogan has reported on the politics of nine Presidential campaigns; first for Newsweek, and then the Los Angeles Times. In his new book, Bad News: Where the Press Goes Wrong in the Making of the President, he reflects on three decades of political coverage and offers criticism of both the media and the political system. It is his ninth book.
Today, he’s joined by author, filmmaker and syndicated columnist Richard Reeves, who is currently working on a book about Richard Nixon. A former chief political correspondent of the New York Times, he is now a professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Bob Shogan, your book traces the fortunes of campaigns back 30 and…
ROBERT SHOGAN: Thirty-some odd years.
TERENCE SMITH: …Thirty-some years, but there’s one quote that caught my eye and I want to read it to you: “The new reality of the campaign trail boils down to this: The media all too often have been reduced to filling the role of enablers. Without fully realizing it or intending it, they allow and sometimes abet the abuse of the political process by the candidates and their handlers.” That’s a pretty tough accusation. What do you mean by it?
ROBERT SHOGAN: Well, it’s an attempt to describe what the problems that we really had to deal with as journalists and as citizens. And on one hand, the temptation is to try and blame, condemn the media, or on the other hand, to condemn the politicians. But it turns out to be sort of a symbiotic situation, no less insidious for that in which they both cooperate out of what they perceive to be their self interest. I think, mistakenly, so on the part of the media.
TERENCE SMITH: Cooperate, give me an illustration.
ROBERT SHOGAN: Well, the illustration is maybe it’s sort of… One way to talk about it is an analogy with Willie Sutton. They asked him why he robbed banks and he said because that’s where the money was and is. And the reason that the press gets involved with the handlers and the candidates is because that’s where the information is, or so they think. And the politicians are shrewd enough to do that and by controlling information, they … tempt the media into their den, so to speak. Of course, by going there and going along with this, the media strengthens their control. What people sometimes forget– myself included when I do it — is that there are other ways to get information.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Reeves, is that the way you see it as far as the role of the handlers and the press?
RICHARD REEVES: Yeah, I think… I think that Bob is onto something. I think that we’ve been marginalized with the professionalization of politics, that the consultants moved in effectively with television, and pollsters moved in at the same time, and took the agenda away from us, by they don’t want to deal with reporters. They want to run commercials. They don’t want to deal with citizens and volunteers. They want to employ their own employees. They have organizations, and I think that they… They have created a new campaign based on their economic needs. And I think we’ve accepted that in a way with things like truth boxes on commercials. We’ve covered the commercials rather than the campaigns, which allows the consultants to control the agenda, which is something I think we pretty much used to do.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Shogan, in your book, you… You look at this last campaign — Campaign 2000 — and describe it as, and the media performance, as perhaps one of the worst in the last 40 years. Why?
ROBERT SHOGAN: Well, I think, maybe one of the reasons for it is that this campaign was so close, so that you could really tell that the media could make a difference. Most of the other campaigns, it would be hard to judge. But in this campaign, it seemed to be so even that it was important and unavoidable, the focus on what the press was doing. And I think both campaigns worked harder than ever to manipulate the press.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you think this was one of the worst performances in 40 years?
RICHARD REEVES: Well, i don’t think it was a great performance, but i… If you spent the last five years writing a book on Nixon, and if you judged the press by how close… Particularly with an incumbent, how close they come to revealing what the person is really about, I would say in my lifetime, which is shorter than yours, that 1972 was the worst campaign in terms of what the public… If we’re the vehicle to the public, in terms of what the public really found out about the incumbent president.
TERENCE SMITH: You’re talking about Watergate had occurred…
RICHARD REEVES: And also all the things that led up to Watergate and the almost total, willful isolation of a president. And as we now know, and I guess I’ll add to that, you know, there were strange goings on in the White House and we didn’t… If we had a clue, we didn’t pass it along to the American people.
TERENCE SMITH: You cast a critical eye, Bob, on 1972.
ROBERT SHOGAN: Oh, yeah, I think that Dick is right on the money and i talk in the book about that. There was Watergate and the acceptance… There was the failure to pursue that more rigorously and there was also the demonization of McGovern, who was… Who for a while had emerged as sort of a fresh face and then he was perceived as having fallen by the wayside and who was just about devoured when he nominated Eagleton. It turned out to be an error.
The people who condemned McGovern and his judgment for nominating Eagleton didn’t stop and think about the guy who had been… The incumbent vice president had been selected by Richard Nixon, what criteria… His name happened to be Spiro Agnew. No one asked that, but it was during that time the frenzy of the press, going after Eagleton and McGovern for picking Eagleton, was brought home to me by a friend of mine who was then with Agnew. And I was traveling with him during the height of the frenzy. And he said to me, “you know, I used to think you guys were out for our blood,” he said, “I can see you’re just out for blood,” and that’s…
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Reeves, is there some truth to that?
RICHARD REEVES: There is a lot of truth…
TERENCE SMITH: Is the media, are the media, news organizations out for blood in the political sense of the word?
RICHARD REEVES : Yes. I mean, I think… We were… Particularly, in these campaigns, we were looking for what was… For inconsistencies, for… We figured these guys could say everything good there was to say about themselves and their wives and their dogs, and it was our job to yell, “the emperor has no clothes.” I think that led then to some of what Bob is talking about. I mean, the politicians and their handlers adapted to that and they just pushed us farther and farther away. And for a lot of reasons, we haven’t reacted. And one of those reasons, I think, is that there was a triumph of economics over politics. That more and more journalistic energy went into covering the economy rather than into covering politics. I mean, our largest news organization, American news organization, overseas now is Bloomberg, because they’re counting those numbers in 180 bureaus. In the time when you and I worked at the “New York Times” that was considered… Business reporting was kind of an outback.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Shogan, in the book you also take the press to task for the approach they took in covering the debates in campaign 2000. What was the problem?
ROBERT SHOGAN: Well, they covered it… Well, there were a couple of problems. They covered it like they were all a bunch of drama critics, like they all want to work on Broadway. And there was this tremendous emphasis and stress on the performance of the candidates and Gore…
TERENCE SMITH: Debates as entertainment?
ROBERT SHOGAN: Pardon me?
TERENCE SMITH: Debates as entertainment?
ROBERT SHOGAN: Yeah, well, it was more than entertainment, the debates as drama or entertainment or farce, maybe, if you will. But Gore was graded on whether he sighed or stammered or shrugged or smirked. Bush … there was a very arbitrary level of grading Bush, which was on expectations. Since he had lived up or exceeded his expectations, then that meant he had done well on a debate. Well, the average citizen or people that I know, cab driver that brought me over here tonight, they don’t have any expectations except, you know, whether the country’s going to be at war or at peace. It doesn’t make him a better president if he’s wasn’t quite as bad as some journalist thought he was going to be. And there were also… much too much was read into things that happened. There was a tendency to add all these pretentious significance into things that really didn’t matter that much.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Bob Shogan, Dick Reeves, thank you both very much.