The Ordinary American, Under Stress and Oversimplified
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2004; 8:17 AM
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."
Ken Grubbs was director of the conservative National Journalism Center until he wrote a piece criticizing Washington Times founder the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Now he's out of a job.
The organization arranges internships and seminars while recruiting conservative and libertarian speakers for college campuses. Grubbs, an editor at the Times in the 1980s, has written for the American Spectator without incident, but his July 2 piece for the Wall Street Journal triggered his downfall.
Picking up on a Capitol Hill appearance by Moon, who proclaimed himself the Messiah and was crowned by one congressman, Grubbs wrote that the incident "has got to be freshly embarrassing to the many fine journalists who work at the Times." He also noted that the Times "has never been a mere lapdog" to Moon's Unification Church.
Ron Robinson, president of Young America's Foundation, which oversees the journalism center, says he dismissed Grubbs because "I don't view the role of director as criticizing the media, writing commentaries attacking the media. I didn't expect Ken to do it." Such pieces make it harder for the center to place interns, Robinson says, and was the "final straw" because under Grubbs fundraising and internships have lagged.
Grubbs says that his writing "only builds our integrity" and that Robinson's request that he clear any freelance pieces amounted to "prior restraint. . . . He said, The Washington Times has been very good to us, has covered our events, and you've impugned their integrity. I don't think he understands journalism, and there was a culture clash."
Inside the Bubble
The most absurd moment comes when New York Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren tells a John Kerry staffer: "I'm told I have to be escorted to the bathroom." He nods.
"But I really have to go to the bathroom."
"Politics & the Media," a documentary airing at 8 p.m. tomorrow on the Discovery Times Channel, provides a backstage look at life on the campaign plane, the scramble among photographers, CNN's Super Tuesday coverage and the role of the Web.
Wilgoren, who's embedded with the Kerry campaign, tells an interviewer for the channel affiliated with her newspaper: "A really big problem in the press corps right now is just a feeling that there's really a total lack of access to the candidate."
Times correspondent Adam Nagourney objects to not-for-publication schmoozing on the plane: "You don't want to be in a situation where a candidate is coming back and going off the record because I think ultimately that benefits the candidate and not you."
No less an authority than Howard Dean says candidates can't trust any off-the-record agreement with a dozen reporters because they all "fear . . . that one of them will cheat and scoop all the other reporters."
Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, describing the president's "deep distrust of the press," says, "The Bush administration's spin can be quite exhausting because some days it doesn't matter who you call, they all use the exact same phrasing."
So how much do journalists learn about candidates like Kerry by trailing them around the clock? "They're always on," says CNN's Candy Crowley. "You never really know who that guy is."
Footnote: The Times editorial page has now joined the newsroom in admitting mistakes during the run-up to the Iraq war: "We did not listen carefully to the people who disagreed with us. . . . If we had known that there were probably no unconventional weapons, we would have argued earlier and harder that invading Iraq made no sense."
Picture of Restraint
One of the memos to the Fox News staff from Senior Vice President John Moody that didn't make it into the anti-Fox movie "Outfoxed," as posted on Wonkette.com:
"The President and the PM of Canada meet today and will make remarks at midday. Take the remarks, even if Jacko is singing on top of a truck with no pants on at the time."
Newsweek has got a fascinating couple of grafs on the media swirl surrounding Cheney:
"The Cheneys have been inadvertently amplifying the noise. Interviewing Dick and Lynne Cheney at the vice president's mansion, C-Span's Steve Scully asked, 'What is it going to take for reporters to stop asking the question whether you are going to be on the ticket?' Cheney muttered, through barely open lips, 'In the run-up to the convention, people don't have much to talk about, so you get speculation on that.' He laconically added, 'When we get to the convention, I think that'll put an end to it.'
"A suitably low-key, dismissive answer. But after the camera was turned off, Lynne Cheney, who had been forcefully interjecting herself throughout the interview, lit into Scully. She chastised the interviewer for questioning her husband's place on the ticket, according to a source who has spoken to the Cheneys. The outburst seemed uncalled for; Scully is about the most mild-mannered, nonconfrontational talk-show host in Washington. Asked about the incident by NEWSWEEK, Mary Matalin, the former White House aide who acts as an informal media and political adviser and part-time spinner for the Cheneys, explained that Mrs. Cheney was irked because the interview had been pitched by C-Span as an 'at-home-with-the-Cheneys thing,' not as a hard-news interview."
When Steve Scully ticks you off, you're being a tad defensive.
Rich Lowry sees a hidden motivation in the dump-Cheney stories:
"It's not going to happen. But the media and the Democrats want it to happen, so it will be a topic of intense political conversation -- President Bush dumping Dick Cheney from his ticket.
"It's not going to happen, because Bush is loyal to a fault, and Cheney is, in any case, popular and valued within the administration. As a White House aide says: "He's smart and tough and trusted and discreet. At Madison Square Garden during one of FDR's conventions they unfurled a banner that read, 'We love you for the enemies you've made.' That's the way we feel about Dick Cheney."
"The frenzy over kicking Cheney overboard has been ignited by a stray comment advocating it by former New York Sen. Al D'Amato -- who the New York Times accurately describes as 'once influential' -- and a Newsweek poll showing the Bush ticket would be marginally more popular with someone besides Cheney in the No. 2 slot. According to Newsweek, John Kerry and John Edwards are beating Bush and Cheney 47 percent to 44 percent. But if Bush added John McCain on the ticket, he would be winning 49 percent to 47 percent. Both results are within the margin of error -- so, in other words, the race would be basically tied either way.
"If Bush dumped Cheney, any bounce he would get in the polls would dissipate quickly since people would soon focus again on what they like and dislike about Bush himself. Bush would risk alienating his base, which loves Cheney, and prompting an intraparty bloodbath if he picked the alternatives bandied about most often, McCain or Colin Powell, both of whom have more cachet with journalists than Republicans."
InstaPundit says he started the ball rolling back in '02 with this Condi-for-veep post:
"I have to say, so far her candidacy looks pretty good. She ought to be unbeatable: a black woman who can't be portrayed as weak on national security. If I were a Republican nabob I'd want to nominate her just to watch the Democrats trying to figure out how to run against her. . . .
"But why wait until 2008? Cheney's health seems, as far as I can tell, to be fine, but by the second term he'd be three years older, making health questions a vulnerability for the ticket. Run Condi in '04 and you get to strengthen the ticket (imagine all the historic firsts) in '04 while strengthening her for '08. . . ."
The Boston Globe sees Bush cozying up to the right wing:
"As Senate Republicans began accelerating the debate over gay marriage last month, President Bush got a warning about the potential for political fallout. Representative Charles Bass of New Hampshire, sharing a ride on Air Force One, told Bush to 'back off this gay marriage thing, that it was going to be devastating for him in the Northeast,' where voters have a famously libertarian streak. . . .
"In response, Bass said, Bush 'looked at me like I was crazy.' The president ignored the advice and actively supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that was defeated in the Senate last week.
"In light of polls showing an excruciatingly close presidential race, the incident offered a telling glimpse of Bush's political mind-set: With just 108 days left in the campaign, the president is still proudly in step with his conservative base rather than gravitating toward more centrist issues as candidates usually do at this point. On issue after issue, from stem cell research to Cuba policy, Bush has shown little appetite for 'tacking to the middle,' as political operatives call it -- and his campaign advisers freely describe their strategy as one designed to motivate millions of conservatives to vote rather than attract the narrow slice of the electorate that is still undecided."
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman does some interesting digging on the Stern front:
"To the naked ear, Howard Stern is still our regent of raunch. Lately, he has groused to his loyal listeners about the zit on his nose and the cellulite on his butt, dished about his morning trysts with his model-girlfriend, and opined on the watchability of DVD porn.
"But Stern has also ushered in the era of shock-jock politics, so when he split for a long vacation at the start of July, he minced no words:
"'I'm not only anti-Bush, I support John Kerry . . . He's going to be the guy who gets us back on track. . . . Our audience is really making a difference in this upcoming election. . . . It turns out everyone listens to us, especially a lot of dudes who are swing voters.'
"This might seem a bit outlandish, the idea that Stern, who features a 30-second audio clip of flatulence on his Web site, would fancy himself a presidential power broker. . . . But he has been railing against Bush for months, on everything from Iraq to gay rights, and this is a guy who each week commandeers 8.2 million pairs of ears; only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have bigger audiences. . . .
"Naturally, Stern's attacks have drawn the attention of Democrats - who decided last month to commission a poll about Stern. So they hired President Clinton's former pollster, Mark Penn. And they were pleasantly surprised to learn that - contrary to the stereotype - Stern's acolytes are not just kids who party hard and wear their baseball caps backward.
"The first surprise, according to Penn: nationwide, 17 percent of all likely voters polled listen to Stern. The second: Stern fans are just as likely as non-fans to attend religious services daily or weekly; just as likely to be highly educated; more likely than non-fans to have young children at home; and more likely than non-fans to own a gun. In other words, average Americans."
Time finds one group gunning for Kerry:
"Of late, the N.R.A. has been uncharacteristically quiet. The lobby has given the Bush ticket just $1,250 this year and spent nothing at all on supportive issue ads, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and FEC records.
"That is set to change. The N.R.A. claims Kerry has voted against its positions 51 out of 55 times. He has supported banning assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets, requiring background checks at gun shows and regulating gun sales over the Internet. 'John Kerry hasn't fought for gun owners' rights once in 25 years,' asserts N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, who says the group will attack Kerry's record in TV spots that will begin airing this week in Washington and other large markets. The tag line: 'How can you keep a straight face and talk out of both sides of your mouth?'"
Jeff Jarvis hits one liberal group from the left:
"MoveOn is not good for liberals' image. It makes them (us) look so . . . what is it? . . . shrill? TV Barn reports that MoveOn will launch 'two major legal actions challenging the network's use of the tagline "Fair and Balanced".' And on what absurd basis are they filing those suits? The constitutional right to PR? Aren't there better causes to be fighting for?"
Here's some manly rhetoric, as reported by the Los Angeles Times:
"Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger mocked his opponents in the California Legislature on Saturday as 'girlie men,' and called upon voters to 'terminate' them at the polls in November if they don't pass his $103-billion budget. Using tough rhetoric that borrowed from his days as a bodybuilder and actor, the governor said state lawmakers are telling 'lies' and are 'back to their old habits' after a post-recall burst of bipartisan collaboration."
© 2004 washingtonpost.com