Reporter Who Quit

A conversation with Paul Taylor -- by Mark Schapiro.

(Schapiro reported for FRONTLINE's "Why America Hates the Press." He also writes this week (10/21/96) in SALON'S"Media Circus" on the ABC/John Stossel reporting flap. )


Paul Taylor, Washington Post political reporter for fifteen years, was slated to oversee its political coverage in '96. Instead, he quit to start the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, a group which persuaded the networks to donate airtime for Bob Dole and Bill Clinton to speak directly to Americans in two-to-five minute segments during the final weeks of the '96 campaign. (Treated in the U.S. as a radical idea, in every other developed democracy it's standard procedure, not even a subject of public debate.)

Outside of Washington, Taylor is perhaps best known as the reporter who popped the question about adultery that forced Gary Hart out of the presidential race in 1988. We avoided that well-trodden path (at my behest, not his), and instead talked from his home in Bethesda, Maryland about his disillusionment with political journalism and his new role as insider-turned-press-critic, a switch that doesn't happen very often.

Here's our conversation........

Mark Schapiro: YOU'VE BEEN AT THE TOP OF AMERICAN POLITICAL JOURNALISM. WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE FROM THE OUTSIDE?

Paul Taylor: The main actors in this great exercise of democracy--the candidates, the journalists and the public--are not working very well together. They wind up bringing out the worst in each other. Instead of getting nourishing campaigns, we get campaigns in which the dominant form of communication is the thirty second attack ad, the seven second sound bite, with candidates who'd rather claw each other's eyes out rather than offer affirmative visions of what they want to do in the country. You have journalists who want to point out the artifice, and the voters who get discouraged and drop out of the system.

No one actor is any more responsible than any other, but I would love for that vicious cycle to get broken... my notion is to offer some free time to candidates. Let them talk directly to the voters. I do think journalits have been guilty over recent years of not allowing that to happen, of insisting that everything a candidate says is immediately seized upon, analyzed, scrutinized...My solution is not less analysis, but more direct information from candidates. I've heard candidates complain to me, 'the public never hears what we say anymore, all they get is the spin'. I think that's a legitimate worry. To me the remedy is to have a healthier, more nourishing discourse in the campaign, and better, more balanced form of journalism that naturally follows.

BETTER IN WHAT SENSE? RONALD REAGAN WAS QUITE SUCCESSFUL IN GOING OVER THE HEADS OF WASHINGTON JOURNALISTS TO SPIN QUITE A MASTERFUL PORTRAIT OF HIMSELF INDEPENDENT OF JOURNALISTIC SCRUTINY.

PT: Are there people in the modern era able to breakthrough on their own terms? Yes there are. Some in the newsroom did let the president for a period of time get away with it. But I don't have a great many fears that a charismatic leader will come and strip away the power of the press to scrutinize....Do I fear that the poor voters will be spun to death? The voters aren't fools, they bring their own filtering mechanisms. .

IS THE PRESS INSERTING ITSELF MORE ACTIVELY PARTLY AS A REACTION TO THE REAGAN ERA?

PT: Not really. I think it's a reaction to a long term trend of cynicism on the one hand, and a reaction to the particular dynamics of broadcast journalism. News and public affairs have become profit centers, so part of the way to bring in the profits is to make sure you have compelling personalities delivering the news or the punditry. So you have an investment in a George Will or a Sam Donaldson or Dan Rather. Those personalities become more important than what they're punditing about. I think that dynamic is a problem.

Go back to the sixties and seventies, the earlier years of television journalism. You had fewer pundits, anchors who tended to recede more. You had longer sound bites from the politicians. That relationship has changed steadily over the past two decades. The average sound bite of presidential candidates on the network evening news this year was seven seconds. In 1968, it was 43 seconds. Something has changed.

AND PUNDITS AND COMMENTATORS ARE FILLING THAT GAP?

PT: For every one minute a candidate talks, you have six minutes of commentary and analysis. Commentary and analysis is good for a democracy, an expression of a free press, rah rah rah. But at some point, enough already. If you do that to the exclusion of letting citizens hear also from the candidates, the balance is out of whack. At some point you're just in the way... and television is an extraordinarly powerful medium. It tends to deconstruct and demystify, it tells the masses how the sausage is made, which can lead to disenchanment.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH, 'SHOWING HOW THE SAUSAGE IS MADE'? GOING BACK TO NIXON, FOR JUST ONE EXAMPLE: HE BUILT UP A MYSTIQUE AROUND HIMSELF. THEN WOODWARD AND BERNSTEIN FOUND OUT HOW THE SAUSAGE IS MADE. SOMETIMES IT DOESN'T TASTE VERY GOOD.

PT: Or in other countries in Africa, where leaders have maintained their mystique quite successfully and are taking their publics down a sinkhole. So I understand, that it goes back to a comment by (former Israeli Prime Minister) Shimon Peres, who said, 'television has made dictatorship impossible, but democracy unbearable'. Some of that is right. I go back to the South African experience, or the successful presidents in our own history, Roosevelt in particular. Yes it can be abused, but a little bit of mystery in the dynamic between leader and follower can be healthy.

WHY? YOU'RE SUGGESTING THERE'S A VALUE TO MAINTAINING A CERTAIN MYSTIFICATION OF THE POLITICAL PROCESS, AND POLITICAL LEADERS.

PT: Because sometimes leaders have to ask followers to accept some level of faith and trust that it's going to be okay. If you're able to put your leader up on a pedestal, not blindly but with some reason, and that leader is helped by some level of mystification by the office and the act of politics. If you have enlightened leadership it becomes a very effective tool. Things would be better if people, knowing how the sausage is made, were able to say, 'okay, but the sausage still tastes pretty good'.

WHAT TURNED YOU OFF TO POLITICAL JOURNALISM?

PT: We're stuck in these campaigns that don't deliver a nourishing discourse. I was frustrated. I felt I was in a box. I couldn't figure out how to write my way out of that box. Rather than feeling lousy at the end of a campaign, I thought, 'This isn't the grand noble adventure that originally attracted me to the field'.

WAS THAT 'BOX' CREATED BY WHAT YOUR EDITORS EXPECTED OF YOU, OR BY THE NATURE OF WHAT POLITICAL FIGURES THEMSELVES WERE SAYING?

PT: A little of both. If you have a campaign that's driven by soundbites and attack ads, you've got to write about them. The tendency then is to write about who's the spin doctor and who's the ad-maker and let's watchdog the ads. There's value to all those things, but on another level you begin to accept those as the most important political reality.

From my persective, it became increasingly dreary. And then in terms of what editors expect, the way it works in newsrooms, you've got a whole culture of newscraft that mixes analysis with commentary, this sort of sneering tone. That is increasingly what is prized and valued. I was writing in that voice. At first it didn't bother me that much, it was part of the sport of it, the challenge of it, but over the years I found myself hoping that I was never a cheap shot artist.

But you push the edge of the envelope because its where you get your professional kudos. I thought that maybe I could get my professional kudos in some other way. I stopped in 1990, started a family and children's beat for a couple of years, then went over to South Africa in 1992.

YOU REPORTED FROM THERE DURING THE HISTORIC CHANGES. WERE YOU INSPIRED BY THE WAY THE PRESS OPERATED IN SOUTH AFRICA?

PT: Not particularly from the press, but very much from the drama that was occurring in this country's history. The country had dug itself into such a deep hole, and the accepted wisdom was that the only way change would come was from a big race war. But by and large very smart leadership was able to convince black and white constituents, somewhat reluctant constituencies, to talk their way rather than shoot their way into power. That was really a thrilling thing to be able to observe and report on. For me, the key ingredient was trust. Here was a moment in South Africa, where politicians stood up and said, 'heh this is the way we're going to do it'. Mandela stood up with the black population, most of whom wanted to shoot their way into power, they wanted that psychological validation. And de Klerk stood up and said to whites, 'you know what fellas, we've got to give it up. It ain't working anymore'. They were scared out of their wits. And that was true statemsanship, moral leadership of the highest quality.

It fired my faith in the human spirit--we can get it right. And it reminded me that if you have a country willing to invest a certain level of faith and trust in its leadership, you can accomplish a lot. That helped engender this sort of reformer thing in me... I saw the potential for politics to be more uplifting.

WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT SOUNDS LIKE A FAILURE OF AMERICAN POLITICAL LEADERS AS MUCH AS THE PRESS.

PT: Our political system, it seems to me, is in a defensive crouch. Although given the cynical political sea that our political leadership has to swim in, I don't hold them exclusively responsible. Everyone's partly to blame, part of a vicious cycle, where there are no rewards from trying to call for political sacrifice in our current political environment. Its a dysfunctional triad between citizens, journalists and the candidates--everybody's an accomplice. Everybody behaves rationally given the way the political landscape is arrayed before them.

SO YOU'RE TRYING TO CHANGE AT LEAST ONE ELEMENT OF THIS PICTURE?

PT: Yes, I'm trying to break into this vicious cycle in at least one place--in the belly of the beast, where candidates communicate to citizens on television. Let' s make it easier for better communcation to happen, and hope that it begins to move things in a healthier direction. The solution I believe in is free airtime for candidates. I think that offers the greatest potential to trigger a lot of other healthy reactions, improving the information flow, increasing voter participation. Maybe not overnight, but over time improve the atmosphere of political discussion.

IN MANY WAYS THIS CAMPAIGN IS BEING FOUGHT ON THE ISSUES. KEMP GOES INTO FERVENT DETAIL ABOUT SUPPLY SIDE ECONOMICS. GORE TRIES TO EXPLAIN GOVERNMENT LIKE A TEACHER. YOU HAVE CLINTON AND DOLE, WHOSE DIFFERENT VISIONS FOR THE COUNTRY ARE PRETTY CLEAR....AND THEY GET BELITTLED IN THE PRESS...

PT: ...And the other part of the {debate} coverage-'Jesus we had a serious discussion of issues. But there was no blood on the floor, it was boring'.

RIGHT. SO THE QUESTION IS: DO PEOPLE ACTUALLY WANT TO SEE THE CANDIDATES, UNFILTERED?

PT: You're describing the problem, and we've got to sail into a pretty stiff prevailing wind in another direction. At the moment it is hard to interest the mass public. The figures of viewership on the conventions, the debates, on political coverage is down down down. The judgement is that it's a boring campaign and people don't really care. I don't think our response should be let's walk away from it. I think our response should be, let's try to find new forms to draw people in. And thats what my approach is all about.

THERE ARE OTHER APPROACHES BEING TRIED AROUND THE COUNTRY TO STRENGTHEN POLITICAL COVERAGE--IN NORTH CAROLINA, FOR EXAMPLE, THE NEWSPAPERS ARE COORDINATING THEIR POLITICAL COVERAGE AROUND CERTAIN ISSUES THEY PERCEIVE AS BEING MOST IMPORTANT TO THE PUBLIC.

PT: I was a little discomfited by this group think. If the net result is a number of papers getting together to decide what important issues are and publishing them in a joint effort to explicate those issues, something is off kilter. Let' s not forget, we are led by people who seek office, and the back and forth of a campaign is important and should be covered.

IN CITIES LIKE CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA AND TULSA, OKLAHOMA, THERE ARE EXAMPLES OF A NEW 'PUBLIC JOURNALISM', IN WHICH LOCAL MEDIA OUTLETS ARE TAKING AN ACTIVE ROLE IN TRYING TO SOLVE PROBLEMS OF THE COMMUNITY. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS APPROACH?

PT: My feelings are, about 90% of what I understand to be public journalism--getting better connected to communities that journalistic organizations serve, finding out what's on their minds and reporting about it--is just good, old fashioned journalism. Knocking on people's doors, talking to them, then writing about it, that's what good journalism is all about.

But there's an element of public journalism which says that in addition to that, maybe we as a newspaper or television should take a more proactive role. If we've discovered crime is the most important issue in our community, let' s try to do something about it. Hold a forum, bring together the business people, the community people, the police and let' s see if we can come up with an action plan to solve this big issue. I think that raises some problems, for the obvious reason that who's gonna report about this? Say if instead of everybody coming together and agreeing on a ten point plan, they starT throwing furniture at each other? Well, how are you going to report that if you have a stake in having brought everybody together?

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO AFTER THE ELECTIONS?

PT: After the election, I'm hoping to expand on getting candidates direct tv access to the voters by taking the campaign to the state and local races--where the discourse is even worse than it is in presidential campaigns.


The pay-off to Paul Taylor's campaign for free tv timeslots for Dole and Clinton to speak directly to Americans began October 18th, 1996. That night, and on every weeknight through November 1st, the candidates will have two-to-five minute segments to talk about issues facing the country.

WHERE/WHEN: CNN's Inside Politics; C-SPAN; PBS at 7:57 p.m; CBS Evening News; NBC's Dateline ; and Fox in various prime-time slots. Check with your local stations for dates and times.

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