The Ordinary American, Under Stress and Oversimplified
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page C01
The executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" is fed up with the media's role in the 2004 campaign.
"It's a standing joke around here how little regard I have for the over-coverage of American politics," Jim Murphy says. "The endless analysis of strategy, the endless inside baseball -- it's for political junkies, not the general audience. So much gets written and broadcast that just makes people's eyes glaze over."
So Murphy has launched a series that tries to bring ordinary folks into sharper focus. Each "What Does It Mean to You?" segment zeroes in on one person with problems and examines what President Bush and Sen. John Kerry would do to fix them -- an approach that has its own pitfalls.
One segment highlighted Catherine Hill, a Washington woman who was thrilled to get her grandchildren into an experimental school-voucher program. Bush supports vouchers, Kerry says they would hurt the public school system -- a pretty straightforward rendition of the issue.
The same goes for a segment on a laid-off Ohio teacher, Kassie Anderson. While Kerry would spend more on education, CBS reported, Bush has already boosted spending -- and neither man's plan would necessarily restore Anderson's job.
But the 2 1/2-minute pieces, while an eternity in television time, leave little room for complexity. And some seem to subtly suggest that spending more government money may be the clear solution. After all, if you train the camera on someone who needs help, the natural reaction is to wonder why the politicians aren't helping -- and that image tends to overshadow more abstract questions about cost, quality and whether taxpayers should foot the bill.
Take Carolyn Samit, a woman with an immune disease who needs intravenous antibiotics to stay alive and whose monthly health insurance bill has rocketed from $212 to $4,419.
Kerry's big health plan "includes funding for catastrophic illnesses like Carolyn's," reporter Elizabeth Kaledin says. "President Bush's plan, which calls for health credits for low-income families, would give Carolyn Samit about $500 a year." Samit then says, "I believe that Mr. Bush doesn't give a damn about me."
While Kaledin noted Bush's criticism that the Kerry plan would "break the bank," there was no mention of potential problems with the Kerry plan or whether it would really cut premiums for the millions who don't have life-threatening illnesses. And Samit left the implication that she would die under the Bush approach.
"The opportunity for Bush-bashing in a situation like that was so great that we bent over backwards," Kaledin says in an interview. "We really tried hard to come back and say, 'But he doesn't want to raise taxes.' "
Another piece focused on stem-cell researcher Doug Melton, whose two children suffer from chronic diabetes. Bush's policy of restricting such research "has created obstacles for Melton," Kaledin reported, while "John Kerry, on the other hand, is promising to increase federal funding and open up the field."
"The challenge for us is finding these compelling stories and telling them in a fair and balanced way," Kaledin explains.
Asked about the personalized approach, Murphy acknowledges that "nobody's representative of everybody." But at least CBS is trying to translate campaign-trail rhetoric into kitchen-table terms.
"The drumbeat is constant about television's lack of interest or ability to cover issues well because they seem too intellectual or dry," Murphy says. "We're trying to tell people exactly what they're going to get with their vote."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Life aboard the campaign plane of John Kerry, here playing with a football, is examined in "Politics & the Media" on the Discovery Times Channel.
(Jim Bourg -- Reuters)
_____More Media Notes_____
Dude, Where's My Agenda? (washingtonpost.com, Jul 20, 2004)
Paint by Numbers (The Washington Post, Jul 12, 2004)
After 'My Life,' A Payback Backlash (The Washington Post, Jul 5, 2004)
Phoneless Reporters Can't Make the Call (The Washington Post, Jun 29, 2004)
Hear No Lichtblau, See No Lichtblau (The Washington Post, Jun 28, 2004)