Interview with Paul Taylor
Interviewed May 1996
STEVE TALBOT: What's the nature of the campaign you're involved in?
PAUL TAYLOR: Well, I'm trying to persuade the television networks, the whole television universe, from commercial to PBS to all the cable stations, to give up a few minutes a night for the last month of the presidential campaign to the candidates for direct, unmediated access to the American public.
This is something that almost every country in the world does in a similar format. So is it any wonder that we have the lowest voter turnout in any major democracy in the world and the highest levels of voter cynicism?
This is a small effort to try to break in to that cycle, offer a more nourishing form of political communication.
When the networks offer the time, and I believe they will offer the time this year, there's one basic format restriction - candidate on-screen all the time. You want to hear directly from the candidate to the citizen.
In these 30 second attack ads, you don't see the candidate who's paying for the ad. He doesn't want to get his fingernails dirty. So you have a typical 30 second attack ad. You've got the unseen narrator, sometimes some ominous music, some stupid thing that the opponent said, or stupid vote he cast twelve years ago that's now taken out of context or some personal peccadillo.
Now if you get attacked that way, you don't respond by going on the air, defending your integrity because you look weakened. You look defensive. You launch your own counter-attack with the same stupid thing that your opponent may have done. And back and forth it goes.
The unfortunate thing is, these things work. You know, the candidates wouldn't put them on the air unless they worked. The saying goes, "they move the needle."
But how do they work? They don't work by getting voters to vote for you. They work by persuading voters who may have been inclined to vote for your opponent, physically not to vote. That's the easiest way to move people. So, I believe that holding the conversation this way actually does shrink the electorate. And I think there is a lot of scholarship that does support that.
Let's try to hold the conversation a different way. And that's what I'm up to this year.
STEVE TALBOT: There are a lot of things I want to follow-up on. First of all, these attack ads...I think of the Willie Horton commercial. It's still a little mysterious who funded that. There's a whole industry, primarily here in Washington, that does this all the time. Guys who are very, very good at these ads.
PAUL TAYLOR: Absolutely. They are good and they almost become self-fulfilling, because the more you carry the conversation, cycle after cycle after cycle... the public sees these attack ads and it becomes more and more cynical. Is it any wonder that we have these deep rates, levels of cynicism, where you can't pay enough for the campaign? You're not only campaigning against Washington, you're campaigning against government... pointing out all of the ugliest things about each other.
I'm not against a political conversation in which there's a lot of back and forth and there's a lot of attack. After all, campaigns are contests of ideas. They're contests of character. What I don't like about the attack ads... I sort of call them the pro wrestling forms of combat..it's all about artifice and fakery and distortion and forfeit. And the viewers know that.
Let's turn it into a boxing match. Usually if you put the candidate on the screen all the time, you accomplish that. You hold the candidate accountable. If he wants to attack his opponent, let him do it himself. And that doesn't necessarily get rid of the attack side of it, but it makes a much healthier dynamic.
STEVE TALBOT: What kind of resistance have you been getting to this proposal?
PAUL TAYLOR: In the networks, so far, PBS has said they will do it. TCI, one of the major cable program providers, is actually doing something like this. Fox has said they will do it. Just today, as we're holding this interview, CBS has announced that they will do this format - not as I have proposed in the prime time entertainment schedule, but within their news programming. And it seems to me that's about half a loaf, and I congratulate them for that.
Slowly, this thing is building. I started this at the beginning of this year. It was sort of just me. Now we've got a little coalition of people, of like-minded people. And it's very gratifying. They come from lots of different fields, including five former network anchors. And the first to sign up was Walter Cronkite, and having Walter Cronkite on your team... I can tell you is a big help.
We ran an ad in the New York Times a few weeks ago, the typical open letter to the networks, full page ad. It had 77 signatories. As I said, 5 former network anchors, I think 9 senators, 6 former national party chairmen - 3 democrats, 3 republicans, leaders of all the public interests groups, corporate ceo's. It's a nice, diverse group. And it's a high-minded group. And our effort here is to embarrass - embarrass is perhaps the wrong word.... our effort is to appeal to the better angels of the network executives and say, "look, here's lots of folks that think this is a good idea for democracy. We think something's broken in the way the conversation happens on television now. Let's see if we can't try to fix it."
And I think in the end, they will come around. The resistance is, they don't want to go into prime-time. They worry about giving-up a few minutes a night because that's ad revenue. But I think even more than the few minutes of ad revenue, they worry about the clicker. They worry that if they offered a candidate free access at let's say, 8:58 in the evening for a couple of minutes in the last few weeks of the campaign, America would use its clicker and go off into the cable universe or go off to the bathroom... and they would lose that audience for the 9 o'clock show.
I don't know whether they're right or wrong. I say, let's do this on a voluntary basis. Let's test it this year. And in my judgement, the ultimate test is not the ratings of CBS, NBC and ABC. The ultimate test is, are we informing more voters and more viewers, getting them better information so they can govern themselves? And if we're doing that - and I believe we would be doing that - then it's a worthwhile initiative, even if some people do go to the bathroom.
STEVE TALBOT: Now, the other side of this cynicism about the political process is the press. There's a lot of cynicism about us in the press corps. It seems what you're offering is a kind of C-SPAN alternative, but in network prime-time.
PAUL TAYLOR: Exactly right. There is a lot of cynicism about the press, and this is in part a response to that cynicism.
One of the objections I've heard from people in the networks to this proposal is, "we would abrogate our journalistic responsibility just to let the candidates have direct access to the voters without journalists. My God... they'd spin the poor voters. They'd fool them. They'd get some clever writer, and they'd weave a tale and the American public would be duped. It's only the journalists that keep them from being duped." And I must say I find that response both pompous and slightly laughable.
Here's my favorite statistic, not only has the average sound bite on the network evening news for a Presidential candidate gone down from 42 seconds in 1968 to 7.2 seconds in 1996 and the 1996 primary, but, in terms of the 1996 Presidential primary, the reporters covering it got 6 times more air time than the candidates running in it.
Now, I spent 25 years as a journalist, and I'm very proud of political journalism... I do think we have an absolutely essential role to play as watchdogs, as scrutinizers, as truth tellers and everything else. But 6 to 1, that is scrutiny with a capitol "S." And I think the American public's a little fed up with us. And I think that we owe it to the American public....and frankly, we owe it to journalism every now and then to back out of the picture.
I think that the most sacred transaction that happens to democracy is the transaction between candidates and citizens. In the format that I'm proposing, you go into prime-time and on a Monday night Bob Dole will have a couple minutes and on a Tuesday night, Bill Clinton... on a Wednesday night, Dole... back and forth... if there's a major independent candidate, that candidate would get time as well. In the intervening, 24 hours the whole journalistic world would get their whacks at it, as they should. But let's carve out some moment here where the journalists do back out of the way.
STEVE TALBOT: What are your colleagues, former colleagues, telling you about this proposal? Are people upset at all? This idea that you're taking journalists out of the picture...
PAUL TAYLOR: It's been a mix. I think a lot of colleagues share the same frustrations that I have about political journalism... that we do sometimes get in the way. They can read poll results just the way I can read poll results, and they see that the public's estimate of politicians is pretty damn low. But then you go a little bit below that and that's where the political journalists are. So I think in there heart of hearts, they understand that there may be something wrong.
Now, when a journalist knows that the public doesn't like what that journalist is doing, there's a tendency to say, "well, that's because we're doing our job. And part of our job is to deliver the bad news. And in society, we're not supposed to be the most popular guy on the block." And that's exactly right. So there's a tendency when you get criticism, to kind of rally around the First Amendment and say, "rah, rah, we're doing it right."
But my own sense is that a good bit of the criticism about political journalism is not so much about aggressive watch dog stuff, it's about this kind of reflexive, smart alacky cynicism. I think a lot of the language, particularly of television punditry, is in that mode. And I think it does a disservice to the political process, and I think it does a disservice to journalism.
Anyway, but the reaction - its been interesting because a lot of colleagues have been very supportive. But a lot of colleagues haven't. And I think they do see it as a threat, but they don't think this will change much. They think this is sort of pie-in-the sky, quixotic notion you could really fix things.
And, you know, I find myself feeling as if we as a society are probably more cynical than our condition and our circumstances warrant. I mean, let's look at who we are as a people at the end of the 20th century. Our ideas dominate the universe. Our popular culture dominates the universe. We have defeated in this century fascism and communism. We've had a pretty terrific run. We have problems sure. But should we all be going around sort of bitching and moaning at each other that, you know, none of our institutions work. I don't think that comports with reality.
STEVE TALBOT: I want to ask you a little bit about your own personal story, because you were in the business for a very long time and at the top of the game -- Washington Post, covering presidential campaigns. What attracted you to political journalism in the first place?
PAUL TAYLOR: The attraction to political journalism was probably a fascination with Teddy White's Making of the President series, which I read as a young adult. This was noble men and women playing on the grand stage of history. Teddy White had a wonderful ability to draw that portrait and then to also draw out all the lovely fine, minor details. So it just seemed to me to be almost a kind of romantic enterprise... to be able to have a front row seat at that particular circus. I guess it was also the fact that I enjoyed writing and considered it an intellectual challenge that I have always found stimulating. So that's what drew me to it.
STEVE TALBOT: It's funny you should mention the Theodore White, because a lot of people, like Jim Fallows in his book and others have said that that was sort of the heroic image of presidential campaigns -- looking at the great men of history making decisions. They say that one of the turning points in our coverage was Joe McGinness' book, The Selling of the President, where suddenly the president is a bar of soap, a detergent, and you're with the guys in the back room figuring out how you're going to sell this guy.
PAUL TAYLOR: That's what's happened not only to politics and political journalism over my lifetime, but I think, in a broader sense, that's what has happened to our entire popular culture. We now know, and I think it has everything to do with television technology, how the sausage is made. And knowing how the sausage is made leads to disenchantment. I happen to think, but maybe this is hopelessly rosy, that our political institutions, in fact, work pretty well. If you put them under the microscope, everything is going to look ugly and everything will be full of warts and flaws, but that's the human condition.
STEVE TALBOT: Some critics say there's more coverage than ever but less reporting. Does that ring true at all?
PAUL TAYLOR: No, I don't think that rings true. I think the reporting's very good. I think there's a tremendous amount of excellent reporting. Are there worries that the market place pinches in and restrains good reporting? Yeah, there'll always be those little blips on the screen. But I think journalism is as good as its ever been and likely to continue to get better.
I would say the problem is a little bit different. There's more information and more good reporting than there's ever been, but there may be fewer and fewer consumers of this information because it competes in this total information culture....this incredible explosion of a zillion different kinds of media.
One of the things that troubles me is, while there's a lot of good reporting, the lines between reporting and entertainment, which were a lot crisper when I got into the business twenty-five years ago, have come down a little bit. And I think that's ultimately not good for the craft of journalism, and I don't think it's particularly good for conveying information. So people may get their information, their reporting from Jay Leno and David Letterman and/or Rush Limbaugh or the Washington Post or the New York Times. Increasingly, it's all in one big bowl of soup. And I think it may be asking too much of the consumers to discriminate between what's real, hard reporting and what's punditry and what's entertainment.
STEVE TALBOT: All these lines seem to be so blurred today. The difference between news and entertainment, but also the line between politician and journalist...
PAUL TAYLOR: Right, and so why should we, if we all go through these revolving doors, why should we be surprised when the public starts to trust our independence less and less?
STEVE TALBOT: You covered and wrote a book about the '88 presidential campaign. Was that one of the last campaigns where print was more primary than television?
PAUL TAYLOR: Oh, I think that television had bumped us off the center stage years before. It's hard to mark exactly when that happened, but it happened and no print reporter in the last couple of decades has been confused about who's running the show. Although, maybe that's even a little bit too easy. If you're a print reporter, particularly as I was for one of the big political newspapers, in the first year or so of a campaign, you can be out there with the early birds, knocking on doors in Iowa and New Hampshire, and you can pretty much have the field to yourself. But when the voters start getting involved, boy, you get elbowed out of the action by television pretty fast.
STEVE TALBOT: It's clear that local T.V. news, sometimes national T.V. news, wouldn't know what to cover unless they've had a newspaper to read first.
PAUL TAYLOR: Yeah, there is some of that. I mean, there is a kind of food chain. When I started in print journalism, I think we used to console ourselves ...with that notion that we were the agenda-setter within journalism, that CBS News and lots of stations read the New York Times and The Washington Post andWall Street Journal to decide what to run. But, come one, these are pretty big and sophisticated news gathering operations in their own right, and they don't need to take too much direction.
Listen, we all feed off each other and that's part of what's healthy about our system.
What's interesting to me is the phenomenon of pack journalism. What I've always found interesting about journalism is that in the end we are fish in a school, and we are oriented to each other. So when one "fish" moves the "school" moves because, in part, we're insulated. We are accustomed to criticism from the outside world. We believe it's part of our duty to receive criticism, because we're supposed to be the messenger and bring bad news.
So, that criticism doesn't bother us so much. Criticism from within the tribe, from other members of the school of fish does bother us. And when one goes off in one direction and it seems like something is there, we will tend to follow.
There have been very few cases where a big publication gets off on its own gig for a while all by itself.
Obviously the most famous exception to that rule is Watergate and that's one of the reasons it had such a big impact in journalism. It was seen as a very brave thing for Washington Post to have done.
STEVE TALBOT: Do you think that's one of the reasons that Fallows, who has gotten a lot of praise for the book, has also gotten some really intense criticism from other members of the press?
PAUL TAYLOR: I agreed with the great majority of what he wrote and was very admiring of his courage for writing it, because he cut very close to the bone. He knew what he was doing and he knew that it would be hurtful to a lot of people in a lot of circles, both professional and social, that he runs in. And I think the reaction has been somewhat predictable and just as you described. It's been both admiring and critical. And in the end, it seems to me, most of the conversation that the book has generated has been extremely healthy.
STEVE TALBOT: Let's switch gears for a second. There was a New Yorker piece about you, flattering piece, but basically casting aspersions about your campaign, saying, "this is Paul Taylor's mea culpa." Tell me about that '88 campaign, Gary Hart, adultery, sex scandals in American politics.
PAUL TAYLOR: Yes, I am the guy, famously or infamously, who asked Gary Hart whether he had ever committed adultery.
I don't know... I've had a kind of complicated reaction to that New Yorker piece. First of all, there were elements that were very flattering. To be the lead guy in the "talk of the town" in the New Yorker is, I guess, some kind of rite of passage in one's life. So you take what you can get. To the extent that the article framed my decision to leave the Post and start this campaign around that episode, that's not what drove me here. But it made a good story, and I believe that that question asked of Gary Hart at that particular moment as that story was unfolding was absolutely appropriate.
I have thought it about an awful lot because it did create a firestorm in some ways, both in and outside of journalism. Got a lot of criticism from fellow journalists. I had a lot of criticism and nasty mail from people all over the country. So it did put me uncomfortably in the public eye. And forces you to examine what you did. But I will tell you, I never had a moments doubt, before or since, that that was an appropriate question.
Do I think it's an appropriate question to ask a friend, a neighbor, a typical candidate for President or any other office? Absolutely not. Did I think, under those circumstance, when the guy had in effect been caught by some other journalist and had denied any wrongdoing and said, "look, I've always held myself to the highest standards of morality. Judge me by those standards..." I think he invited, in effect... that was the question that he asked for.
But I found the experience uncomfortable. I found it uncomfortable to be on the other end, to be in the public eye. And I chose to stop writing about politics a year or two later. I had a discomfort figuratively looking through a keyhole and wondering or asking about what a candidate did in his most private moments in his bedroom. That's not what drove me into political journalism. And it may have been what helped drive me out of political journalism. Again, not because I thought I did anything wrong, but I just decided there were other things I could do with myself.
And there is some debasement of the political dialogue here. I think journalists have a very important role to play in asking about the character of the men and women who seek public office. And it's perfectly legitimate, but there ought to be boundaries about the way we ask those questions. I'm one who believes that one's sex life should be considered private. Absolutely.
Bill Clinton has his own crisis four years later. In fact, in some ways, a much more difficult crisis. Here the crisis was the press hounding and making allegations about a woman coming forward and saying, "I had a 12 years relationship with him..." And Clinton said, "look, I already confessed in a general sense that our marriage has not always been perfect. I'm not going to talk about it anymore." And his political support stayed with him and he weathered the crisis.
And in the end, it seems to me that the American public was able to get beyond the titillation of the story. Some of them probably didn't vote for Bill Clinton because they think of him as a womanizer or a slippery fellow and not telling the whole truth. But clearly the majority was able to say, "ok, we know this about him, or we think we know this about him. Let's move onto other things."
STEVE TALBOT: How does the public relate to reporting on the private lives of public officials?
PAUL TAYLOR: The majority of the American public apparently decided that, you know, "ok, let's move beyond that and let's judge him by a broader set of measures than merely the way he conducted his personal and private life."
In other words, I think it is possible for the American public to make rather mature judgements here. And I'm not saying whether one judgement is right or whether one judgement is wrong.
Going back to my experience with Gary Hart... there was an extraordinary breadth of opinion in the letters that I got. Some people who said, "what he does in his private life shouldn't make a difference. Judge him only by his public standard, his public performance."
And I'm sympathetic to that view, although, you know, there are times when it's difficult to separate the one from the other. But I am sympathetic to the view that politicians do deserve a zone of privacy. There are times when in effect they violate their own zones of privacy. It is, I think, another development of the television era. These politicians, they come into our living rooms every night, or certainly during campaigns. And we know them as living, breathing, feeling human beings. We get interested in who they really are. They know we're interested in it... increasingly they campaign, not just on their ideology and their platforms, but on their biography and or autobiography. So they tell us who they are and they show us their wife and they show us their kids and the paint a portrait. Is it any wonder that curiosities develop? Are they really who they say they are? How do they lead their private life?
I think it's an area that the press needs to treat gingerly, to respect privacy, but when, for whatever reason, boundaries are crossed, you do have to ask the tough questions.
STEVE TALBOT: Is John Kennedy going to be the last President to be able to sleep with a Marilyn Monroe and not have it reported at the time?
PAUL TAYLOR: I don't know. We'll see where we are with those standards. My guess is that over time, the standards that are imposed on elected officials are roughly in sync with the kind of standards that society wants to impose on itself, generally. We don't want to impose higher standards, but we would like reasonable standards of behavior and decorum.
STEVE TALBOT: You were in South Africa reporting for the Washington Post. What sort of impact did that have on you?
PAUL TAYLOR: Well, it was a wonderful reporting experience. I was there from '92 to '95 during the first democratic election in the country's history that made Nelson Mandela President... And that was in many ways the election that I always wanted to cover. It was a thrilling, moving experience to see what that represented in the history of this sort of damned country that had gone through such agony and oppression. And the triumphant nature of it. Here was a country that everyone thought, when the end-game came, when the great denouement of apartheid came, it would be a big racial shoot em up.
Well, it wasn't a big racial shoot em up. Both black and white figured out, "let's talk our way to a better place." And they did. And to watch that, to watch the human spirit rise to the occasion was a wonderful story to report. I don't want to sound all rosy-eyed because South Africa is actually, remains, a very difficult country and is going to be a hard place to manage for a lot of years...
but that in some ways, I think, made me more idealistic and more hopeful about the possibilities of reinvigorating democracy in this country.
This goes back to my motivation for trying to encourage a healthier discourse -- the notion that political institutions are precious and they are worth taking care of, and that's why I'm working to improve the political conversation in this country.
STEVE TALBOT: Have you crossed the line forever? Do you miss journalism? Do you ever consider going back?
PAUL TAYLOR: I don't know. I know what I'm going to be doing this year. I have a specific reform project that I want to try to help get accomplished. I'm sure I'll always write in one form or another. I am still connected to the world of political journalism right now. I'm just wearing a different hat, but I'm talking to a lot of the same people. So in that sense, I'm still of that world.
STEVE TALBOT: Let me ask you about the ill-effects of tv talk shows that both James Fallows and Howard Kurtz have written about. What do you think of these shows?
PAUL TAYLOR: I think they send the wrong message.... they all serve power, fame, money, and I'm not sure in the end that journalists should be motivated by power, fame and money. Corrupting is a little bit of a strong word. What I believe is the journalists who are on the shows are very good journalists. They're in the know. They are articulate. And I admire most of them. And I count many of them as friends.
I don't think they put forward a very attractive face of journalism when they go on those shows. They sound to me like what the typical newsroom conversation will sound like.... that edge, that attitude, the notion as both Fallows and Kurtz point out... in the end, the way you ought to think about politics is with a kind of smirk and a swagger. I've grown up in a newsroom. I've had a zillion of those conversations. I know how to talk that way. And I know what it springs from. You get pretty hard bitten when you're a journalism.
I don't think we ought to take that show on the road, quite frankly. It's just common sense, there's certain things you don't want to show off. I think the sadness I have is that I think the public increasingly talks that way about politics too. They pick it up from the shows. And from Leno and Letterman and all these other sorts of things that are half-way between entertainment and news. You know, we're a culture that sort of prefers Dana Carvey's George Bush to George Bush's George Bush.
And there's a particular element to these shows, I must say, really bothers me. When I started out in journalism, "Meet the Press," some of the older, original shows were very stately. The candidate or public official comes on and in a neat row, reporters one by one ask a question. And it's really a show about the public official, and the reporters are there -- what I consider to be in their place -- asking questions off on the side. Now what happens is the shows are about the reporters. And so the candidate comes on. Sometimes he sits with the reporters. Sometimes he's on the screen. And they joust back and forth. Then typically during the last five or ten minute segment of the show, the candidate leaves, and we're just left with the host, the reporters, talking, in a sense, behind the back of their guest. That's not being a polite host. And the idea that we market this as journalists, we present ourselves as loyal American journalists... I don't think it's a good model. And it's a sadness to me that the bright twenty-year-olds that are starting out in journalism now may have this, as their career goal. I don't think it's a healthy career goal.
STEVE TALBOT: People tell stories about how on the campaign trail the public reacts to Sam Donaldson or Cokie Roberts as the celebrity, not the politicians. What do you make of that?
PAUL TAYLOR: Some of that is earned, you know. Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson are excellent journalists, and they're smart about the subject matter that they cover. But some of it is our celebrity culture. I have a notion that as journalists we ought to try to resist being a part of that celebrity culture as much as we can.
And I will tell you, I've been a journalist in a half dozen different states in this country. I've been a journalist in one foreign country. There is no journalistic culture that I know of that is anything like Washington D.C. In Washington D.C., it's the journalist who sits on the electronic throne and everybody else sort of comes and goes. I think that relationship is way off the mark, and it doesn't exist anywhere but here.