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 21/2-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."