Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT IT TAKES....In the New York Times today, conventional wisdom guru Mark Halperin says that he's finally learned his lesson: he now believes that political reporters should spend less time covering campaign horserace trivia and more time covering the candidates' actual qualifications to run the United States. Halperin's road to Damascus moment has already been thoroughly mocked throughout the blogosphere this morning, so I'll refrain from adding to the bonfire. But I am curious about his explanation for two decades of merciless campaign gossipmongering:

More than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes," about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns.

I'm not alone. The book's thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage.

I've never read Cramer's book (though several people have recommended it), but it sure sounds strikingly familiar. Teddy White's famous "Making of the Presidency" books, starting in 1960, were all narrative tick tocks that emphasized the grueling nature of modern campaigns and their obsessive focus on strategizing and press relations. Joe McGinniss's 1968 The Selling of the Presidency was all about the Nixon campaign's marketing strategy. Even quintessential outsider Hunter S. Thompson, in his 1972 dispatches for Rolling Stone (later collected in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72), mostly spotlighted personalities and campaign minutiae.

These were all tremendously influential books long before Cramer wrote What It Takes. And while Cramer might have taken personality-based campaign reporting further than anyone had taken it before, my (imperfect) memory of day-to-day campaign reporting from 1976 on suggests that suprisingly little has changed in the past three decades. Daily campaign coverage in every race I can remember has mostly been about polls, personalities, campaign strategies, speeches, debate performances, the expectations game, and the all important horserace. Today's coverage may be more intense and even more personality driven than in the past, but it's a matter of degree, not substance.

So what's really changed? The coverage itself seems to have evolved, but it hasn't morphed into something entirely new. Perhaps it's this: in the older books, the fact that presidential candidates had to survive an ungodly gauntlet of scrutiny and rubber chicken banquets was reported as a fact of life, but it was (again, to my recollection) mostly reported as an unfortunate fact of life. As in, "How unfortunate that some of the people best suited to be president will never have a chance because they aren't suited to the preposterous rigors of modern campaigning." Maybe after 20 years of this, Cramer provided the press for the first time with a rationalization for its part in this destruction test: don't think of it as unfortunate, think of it as necessary. By making a mountain out of every molehill, reporters are actually providing a stern test that eliminates weaklings who shouldn't be trusted to have their fingers on the button.

Perhaps. But regardless of whether this is true, it's merely a rationalization. Contemporary campaigns may be even more grueling than they were a few decades ago — thanks to modern technology, longer primary seasons, and a bigger press corps — but I doubt that What It Takes is really reponsible for the media's current fascination with personality and horserace journalism. That's always been there.

And the reason for this is pretty simple, too: campaigns are boring. When you cover a candidate every day for months on end, listening to interchangeable stump speeches hundreds of times and being bustled around like cattle to anonymous coffee klatsches and flesh pressing events 16 hours a day, you're going to seize on almost anything to break the monotony. The candidates mostly won't talk to you, after all, and there are only so many times you can write 3,000-word thumbsuckers comparing the various healthcare plans on offer. What's more, the code of objectivity in American journalism actively prevents reporters from writing about whether the various nominees "have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world." That would be too much like taking sides. Unless and until that changes, they'll continue to relieve their boredom by writing about supposedly more neutral topics like polls, insider strategy, and what "many people" are saying.

So while it's nice to see Halperin's mea culpa, I think I'll wait to see if he actually changes the way he covers this year's campaign. And then we'll see if anyone follows suit. My take: since modern press coverage is not a result of the individual foibles of modern campaign reporters, but is rather a natural response to the realities of modern campaigning and the modern media environment, the respective odds are slim and none.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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We live in a country where more than 50% of the electorate still believes that Iraq attacked us on 9/11. That pretty much sums up the cluelessness that pervades our political culture. There is no hope.

Posted by: global yokel on November 25, 2007 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Currently re-reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Still rings true today in an eerie way.

Really sick of the way the media covers the news anymore.

The paper for the state of Arkansas (I refuse to utter it's name) is a shameless shill for the republicans. I buy it for the comics.

Posted by: whitewaterbadboy on November 25, 2007 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

It would be nice if somebody would write a 3,000 word thumb-sucker comparing the various health plans on offer at least once, but that would require analytical thinking and ferreting out actual information--skills no longer possessed by political journalists.

Posted by: john sherman on November 25, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Halpern and Joe Klein will be two of the first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

[Sadly, that is mostly a joke.]

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 25, 2007 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

the odds that mark halperin is going to change his style aren't "slim;" they are "none." the rest of halperin's column proves it.

Posted by: howard on November 25, 2007 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

What all above said with regard to getting more of the same ol' shit.

Posted by: Apollo 13 on November 25, 2007 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

What John Sherman said. Once would be nice.

Posted by: Trevor on November 25, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Nice post, Kevin.

A major reason the campaigns are boring is that they're way too long. And they will continue to be long for the foreseeable future - no amount of campaign fundraising laws or other controls are going to make people take less time, rather than more.

The only thing that could shorten the seasons would be if there were maybe two primary elections where some guy got in at the last moment and won - like Gore, or Bloomberg. Then people would try to copy them and the campaigns would become a little shorter, the reporters would be less bored, and the coverage would be less on strategy and silly stuff.

Posted by: lampwick on November 25, 2007 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

Obviously there is no particular merit to the changes in campaign process and political reporting in the past thirty years. Compare the Nixons, Carters, Reagans, and Ws of the past three decades with the TRs, Wilsons, FDRs, Trumans, Eisenhowers, and Kennedys of an earlier age.

The process has deteriorated, as has the end products of the process. A grueling, petty, silly, and demeaning election process and political reporting doesn't filter out the dross -- it filters out the quality candidates.

Posted by: McCord on November 25, 2007 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

Umm.. Kevin, I think you better go back and read HST's "Campaign Trail '72." I remember reading it each week as the installments were published in Rolling Stone. While it did cover the candidates personalities in, how shall I say, a "unique" style, HST was also a policy wonk.

Posted by: charlie don't surf on November 25, 2007 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Shorten the campaigns drastically.

In an era before television, it might have made sense to allow time for candidates to crisscross the country and give many voters the chance to see and hear them in the flesh. These days it doesn't matter.

My prescription: No campaign events of any sort before summer. Single national primary (under uniform rules) in September. No conventions. Election (also under uniform national rules) on a weekend in early November. Done.

(All the preceding is unconstitutional; fixing these problems is going to require more than tinkering - c'est la vie.)

Posted by: jimBOB on November 25, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Shortening the campaigns is not the answer. If the story is about HRC's cleavage, or John Edwards' haircut, or how much Thompson reminds us about Grandpa, then ten seconds of it is too boring.

What Kevin said is correct--Halperin doesn't know how to change, so he won't change.

The only answer is for national newscasts and respectable newspapers to take a vow that they will fulfill their duty to inform their viewers. They will cover issues and qualifications. They may complain that doing so will lose them viewers and readers, but those complaints run hollow when you look at how many viewers and readers they have lost doing it their way. There are very few people left for them to lose.

The 24-hour news channels should be charged with false advertising--you can watch them as long as you want to, and you won't learn anything about the news.

The one good change that has happened is that, thanks to the internet, there are places that people who give a damn can go to and learn about what is going on in the world.

Posted by: reino on November 25, 2007 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

[Thread Hijack by TOH deleted.]

Posted by: Knavin' Dumb on November 25, 2007 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

My beef with the media's political coverage isn't so much about the horse-race mentality of it, but that the media has at recent times appeared to openly choose sides, and then skewed its coverage accordingly.

We saw Al Gore ridiculed and mocked by correspondents and talking heads for everything from his choice of earth tones in his wardrobe to his stiff delivery of campaign speeches.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush was praised by the same media as "endearing" for wearing a cowboy hat and clearing brush on a livestock-less Texas cattle ranch, and he was called "folksy" for his ability to mangle the English language into near-incoherence.

Vietnam War hero John Kerry was ripped to shreds by a media that obligingly disseminated the full-throated bullshit of a thinly-veiled GOP front group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, just as four years earlier the same media allowed these same clowns to call former Vietnam POW John McCain's mental and emotional stability into open question.

Yet to this very day, George W. Bush has never been called to account for his whereabouts during a sixteen-month period of that same war, when he was supposed to be serving in the Texas Air National Guard. While Bush apologists will insist that the CBS News / 60 Minutes debacle exonerated their man, they still can't tell where he was during that period in question.

Hours and hours of breathless coverage were devoted to the overblown "scandals" of the Clinton administration, yet the media turned a simultaneous blind eye to he blatant cronyism and rampant insider dealing that were quickly becoming the hallmarks of Tom Delay's "K Street Project" and the GOP-controlled Congress.

Again, while the media raked President Bill Clinton over hot coals for his indiscreet sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, they ignored the then-well-known fact amongst Capitol Hill staffers that the then-married House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- the man who was seeking Clinton's impeachment over that indiscretion -- had ensconced his own mistress on the House payroll as a member of the Agriculture Committee staff.

Finally, we have the Valerie Plame Affair, which the media collectively poo-poohed as a non-story, for what they saw as a very good reason. After all, several formerly well-respected members of the D.C. press corps apparently colluded with the Bush White House to first disclose the identity of a covert CIA operative as political retribution against her husband, and then hide behind the First Amendment to cover everyone's asses in this most disgraceful episode.

Therefore, why should it come as any real surprise to see FOX News in open alignment with the Rudy Giuliani campaign?

The American media itself really needs to be held responsible and liable for its prominent role in allowing our country to fall into its present fix, simply because the "Fourth Estate" failed so miserably at fulfilling its primary raison d'etre during a most critical juncture in our history.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on November 25, 2007 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

If we're looking for suspects in the fostering of gossipy, insider, strategy-and-tactics-focused, substance-free political reporting, we cannot overlook Cokie Roberts.

One could listen to an entire season of Roberts' reporting during an election campaign and hear nothing about a candidate's substantive positions on issues. Just a series of gossip and tactical ploys that proved as ephemeral as a breeze come election day.

Posted by: fidelio on November 25, 2007 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

Halperin, Robert Novak. A year to election day. I'm going long on noseplugs.

Posted by: Canaan on November 25, 2007 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

I think it was Cramer who told a story on himself about Hunter S. Thompson and Walter Mears, the old-fashioned, legendary AP political writer.

Cramer was dissing Mears to Thompson in the Boys on the Bus, calling the guy who had gotten to know Barry Goldwater in 1964 by killing a bottle of tequila together the epitome of crony journalism, exactly what his new approach sought to kill.

So Thompson told him -- look, just TRY to do what Mears does, cuz he's "the best in the goddam world. He can get out a coherent story with the right point on top in a minute and thirty seconds, left-handed."

That's what's missing, partly cuz TV can show you the actual event (but then there's the editing, and whatever it is that CNN does): but most cuz we devalue the skill.

But just TRY sometime to listen to a 25 minute speech in front of a crowd of 10,000 people who gathered over two hours, and then write 800 words reporting the most important thing first, with a nut graf and an explanation of who was in the crowd, what worked with them and what didn't and show why your readers should care -- in the time it takes to get to the phone and call it in, without getting anybody's name wrong.

Mears himself tells a story about the importance of actually meeting crowds -- Goldwater flew into West Virginia during the '64 campaign to a surprisingly huge crowd. His staff spun that as proof that the campaign was gaining traction.

Mears worked the line, and found out that most people had come to see Goldwater's brand new chartered jet (the 727 had just been introduced), which they didn't think could actually land on the short runway. Since these folks all worked at or near the airport, a big crash would have been decisive for their jobs cuz it would have meant no more 727s.

Confucius said it long ago: "The way of the great learning lies in intimacy with ordinary people."

A good reporter should be utterly invisible in a crowd unless he's actually asking YOU a question. Think Katy Couric or Tim Russert fit that bill?

Posted by: theAmericanist on November 25, 2007 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

It's been a long, long time since I read What It Takes, but the thing I remember most from it was not candidates having to overcome grueling campaigns, but candidates having to overcome horrendous events in their real life (ie: Bob Dole courageous rehabilitation from his battle wounds; Joe Biden's wife and kids killed in a car crash the day he was sworn into the Senate). Maybe Cramer did have the mindless trivia, I don't remember, but he did try to make the candidates human with examples of what made them what they are. Now it seems the MSM decides what they are and harvests examples to prove it.

Posted by: Martin on November 25, 2007 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on November 25, 2007 at 3:38 PM

Aloha, Donald. Excellent comment.

See also The Rudy News Network for more background on Faux News ties to Giuliani.

Posted by: Apollo 13 on November 25, 2007 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

What Donald said. I wouldn't mind gossipy, gotcha, chatty coverage nearly as much if it were just a reasonable facsimile of fair. Making fun of Gore's delivery *and* Bush's pretend ranch, say.

Yeah, it would be *even better* if we got coverage like Krugman pointing out that Bush was lying about his numbers. But just some kind of evenhandedness would be a huge improvement over what we have.

Posted by: EmmaAnne on November 25, 2007 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks, Apollo 13. Even as we speak, the media is furiously trying to disassociate the Giuliani campaign from both the federal indictment of his former mobbed-up police commissioner, Bernie Kerik, and former Kerik moll Judith Regan's lawsuit against FOX News.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on November 25, 2007 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

Halperin, as always, manages to make his own conduct, and that of the press corps, disappear--even as he pretends to apologize for it!

Quite a trick!

Halperin writes:

The fun-loving campaigner with big appetites and an undisciplined manner squandered a good deal of the majesty and power of the presidency, and undermined his effectiveness as a leader. What much of the country found endearing in a candidate was troubling in a president.

Really? In what way was Mr. Clinton's effectiveness undermined? Who was endeared, and later troubled, by his big appetites and undisciplined manner? Halperin tells us it was "much of the country."

He's M.S.U.

He's equally evasive on the coverage of the Bush camnpaign:

many voters liked his straightforward, uncomplicated mean-what-I-say-and-say-what-I-mean certainty. He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House;

A candidate for President who "did not lust for the White House?" Good God! As Mr. Somerby might say, just try to believe it!

The capper:

So if we for too long allowed ourselves to be beguiled by “What It Takes”

Beguiled? Halperin sounds exactly like Millie, the all-too-willing baseball groupie in Bull Durham who rationalizes her own wreckless behavior by saying, "I got lured."

If the people covering our selection of the Leader of the Free World are so weak-willed that they can't resist the siren song of gossip, innuendo, and trivia, the Republic isn't just in trouble. It's already lost.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on November 25, 2007 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

Teddy White's "Making of the President" series were a breath of fresh air in the coverage of campaign and the first two - 1960 and 1964 - are particularly good. Of course he was lucky. He could go inside and not get spinnhed as much as nobody realized the importance of that then. Read the books. He likes everyone! He thinks of polkitcs as a noble pusuit. And he also discusse the politcal climate of the country and the issues roilinmg the debate. By 1968 theyre were other concerns. I think the best work that year was "An American Melodrama" by three Brits from the "Insight" team of the Sunday TIMES.

But all ,of theswe works were by people who took politics seriously. Ben Cramer doesn't. Halperin doesn;'t. How can he? Drudge rules his world! It is a far different media environment today and I wish we had people like White - or Peter Lisagor, or Jack Germond (who wrote a wonderful book on the deterioration of his craft)- around now to report on politcs. Instead of the Halperins, Kleins and MoDos who sit at the feet of "Dean" Broder.

Posted by: richard locicero on November 25, 2007 at 6:26 PM | PERMALINK

My perception is that the campaigns (particularly primaries) are too long and because they are so long they are boring.
No candidate is going to tie him/herself to a particular policy or program with nearly a year to go before the first primary! What happens is fistfuls of platitudes and a lot of glad-handing; I can see how that could become boring, to the reporters and the readers.
I really see little hope until a coherent policy on primaries is adopted; two or three scheduled a month apart, no campaigning until three months prior to the first primary. However, there are constitutional problems, I understand.

Posted by: Doug on November 25, 2007 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

KDrum stares into air as the press corps misconduct of the last 20 years is disappeared by Halperin.

These lost boys of our liberal blogosphere...

Please read some Howler and understand and internalize it.

Posted by: Chuck on November 25, 2007 at 7:03 PM | PERMALINK

A shorter campaign season would help as would some comprehension of the knowledge, skills and ability required for the job of POTUS. Currently we are doing beauty pageants. I'm so weary of the predictable post-election media dismay when the new POTUS doesn't seem to realize that its time to stop campaigning; "Campaigning" is the only skill our current process selects for!

But the media is about selling airtime to advertisers, not about informing or educating. A long campaign season gives them more air time, hence more profitability. We wish they were the fourth estate, because we wish SOMEONE were minding the keepers, but the media have zero incentives to change. Given "Donald in Hawaii's" eloquent review of dismal media misdirections, one wonders if media profits are highest when the media coverage supports the worst.

Posted by: PTate in MN on November 25, 2007 at 7:03 PM | PERMALINK

The horserace is much easier to talk about than the candidates' actual qualifications and the possible effects of their policy proposals. Most reporters aren't really qualified to write about policies and have no institutional memory to draw on. They'd actually have to study the issues rather than simply watch the candidates.

This is compounded by the fact that the news readers and commentators make so much money these days that they no longer have a stake in the outcome. No matter who wins, they still have homes in the Hamptons and on Nantucket, better health insurance than you and I can dream of. To them, it IS all a game.

Our soldiers are being killed and crippled, 40 something million Americans have no health insurance, and we are so far in debt because of this useless war that our grandkids will still be paying for it when we're gone. But Mattews, Russert, and their overpaid buddies, spend their Sundays sitting around and joking.

Posted by: slideguy on November 25, 2007 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

The very first chapter of Cramer's book tells the story of Bush Sr. throwing the first pitch at an Astros game in 1986. It has an unflattering portrayal of Dubya in it, showing him throwing a tantrum to Lee Atwater because Craig Fuller (Daddy's then-chief of staff) got better seats than he did.

If Halperin is saying that What it Takes shaped the way he and others in the media cover campaigns by focusing on personality, then he's saying that he and those others purposely ignored Cramer's portrayal of Dubya as kind of an asshole throughout the 2000 campaign.

Posted by: Chris on November 25, 2007 at 7:20 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, but you guys are gonna have to give up YOUR illusions, too.

1) Politics isn't a game -- but it isn't about the policies YOU want, either. Most of the folks posting here have opinions that don't command a plurality in their immediate families, much less the nation. We've all had a clear lesson recently: ya think it's EASY to manage disagreements like that just to get to the pumpkin pie, much less to actual decisions and measureable progress?

2) Candidates for national office used to be chosen by their peers, numbered in the thousands if not hundreds, rather than by millions. Senators, for example, were chosen by state legislators for a REASON: the Founders wanted people who understood the business of representative government to be 'the saucer into which popular passions would be poured to cool'.

Now because Senate campaigns cost so much, the Senate is far more skittish than the House, which is characterized by representatives choosing their voters by drawing the districts, not the other way around.

But of course, YOU guys want to tweak the First Amendment rather than examine real solutions.

3) The primary system in which registered Democrats and Republicans choose delegates who choose the nominees hasn't exactly covered itself in glory: I doubt our current President would have been the choice of experienced political professionals. (He wasn't chosen by THEM, after all, not by Senators and Representatives and Governors and Mayors, now was he?) Vietnam sucked, to be sure, but LBJ wasn't so bad at the job: he killed Jim Crow. Compare that with the many achievements of Jimmy Carter.... and Bill Clinton.

Compare FDR... and JFK.

Then look at the post 1972 Democratic nominating system: ye gods.

The legendary guys in the smoke filled rooms weren't stoooopid, yanno. For every utter failure (Harding), there are more than a few genuine successes (Truman).

4) The media was part of that vetting, remember. Wilkie bluntly told a few key reporters in 1940 that he no longer lived with his wife as her husband -- and they refused to write it, because he trusted them. The thing is, it was mutual: they trusted HIM.

Illusions now shattered, huh?

So, folks: if you're not willing to give up what you most hold dear in at least two or three, if not all of those points: you're just blowing smoke complaining about the system.

Posted by: theAmericanist on November 25, 2007 at 7:34 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin says: there are only so many times you can write 3,000-word thumbsuckers comparing the various healthcare plans on offer.

john sherman beats me to the response: It would be nice if somebody would write a 3,000 word thumb-sucker comparing the various health plans on offer at least once, but that would require analytical thinking and ferreting out actual information--skills no longer possessed by political journalists.

Darn tootin'. So far this year in the WaPo, I think I've seen one compare/contrast of the candidates' plans on any issue, and that looked at just the Dems, for purposes of deciding whether they were lying or not. (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards each got two Pinocchios on Iraq. Rudy, Romney, etc. got zero, because the WaPo hasn't done a similar feature on them.)

And what Donald from Hawaii said. Mahalo, dude.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on November 25, 2007 at 7:54 PM | PERMALINK

The biggest flaw to Halperin's argument is that he perceives nothing prior to 1988. That was before his time, apparently, and nothing important could possibly have occurred of import before his arrival. Or, considering the length of time he's been on the beat, before his brain arrived at somebody else's formula.

Richard Nixon, for example, mastered campaigning but had a few problems presidenting. So did others prior, though with more straightforward primary seasons and the advent and evolution of television campaigns, direct parallels before 1956 are harder to draw.

But with Halperin's lightbulb flash, I can presume that the entire spectrum of the MSM will quickly reform into a single line behind The Halperin, ready to dive off the new great cliff he has defined.

It must be convenient to be able to last in one's profession with only one original thought every 20 years. I just hope he's made 122 million copies of it so all the voters will be able to recognize that political campaign journalists are serious now, which will spare us all from having to think these things through.

I recall, when a journalism student, the who, what, when, where, why and how of reporting. My instructor used to advise "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

It all seems so naive now, the very notion of reporting the facts, free of the encumbrance of any formula beyond asking questions and challenging information that is suspect 99.9% of the time.

And I pulled that 99.9% figure out of my ass, too, which wouldn't be challenged if I was campaigning for president, even under Halperin's new testament.

Posted by: Kevin Hayden on November 25, 2007 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

But just how much news coverage was there back in the 1970s? If in those days there were about 8 hours of news each day by tv stations, with let's say 2 hours of political coverage and only 30 minutes not horserace....perhaps today we have 100 hours of news each day on our tvs, with 60 hours of political coverage....and still just 30 minutes not horserace.

Posted by: catherineD on November 25, 2007 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

Here's Halperin's most egregiously deceptive line in his op-ed:
But their success came not because they convinced the news media (and much of the public) that they would be the best president, but because they dominated the campaign narrative that portrayed them as the best candidate in a world-class political competition.

Clinton and Bush "dominated the campaign narrative"? Halperin not only forgets to mention who created the "narrative," he manages to describe, in active voice, the role of the candidates. Clinton and Bush "dominated"!

But who created the narrative in the first place? Who reinvented each new fact to fit the narrative once it was established?

If Mr. Halperin believes that the candidates shaped their own narratives, he really is a fool. If he doesn't believe it, he has gone to great pains to avoid the subject entirely.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on November 25, 2007 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK

The insane emphasis on polls is especially bad. Part of the problem is the media attempting to come across as neutral and objecive. Another part is that readers/viewers really don't want detailed policy/issue coverage.

It might be better if the media dropped the pretense of objectivity. The NY Times could report on issues with an admitted liberal perspective. Concervative papers could do the same thing.

Another possibility would be candidate who attempted to fore the media to focus on the important issues. Perot was an oddball, but to a certain extent he was successful in forcing the press to focus on certain issues. There could be an opportunity for another candidate (probably after nomination or after a large lead in the primary process) to try to change the method of coverage, such as, by pledging to forego normal political advertising and spend his money only on issue dicussions. It possibly could move the media back in that direction. Otherwise, I don't see the media changing their approach to any significant degree.

Posted by: brian on November 25, 2007 at 9:04 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, well swell. Here's Drudge on Buchanan's new book: http://www.drudgereport.com/flash9pb.htm
No way to know if it's spun or not, but assuming it's basically accurate, then I think Buchanan is on to something till the parts where he goes nutters on immigration. Cut that out and he (as told by Drudge) seems pretty saavy.

Posted by: hollywood on November 25, 2007 at 9:13 PM | PERMALINK

I also remember from Cramer's book how Gephardt announced his candidacy with an inaccurate account of his own family history at the urging of his consultants. It had something to do with Gephardt recasting his republican anti-union father and family wealth in their rural hometown to his family being driven from their hometown by the depression and his father being a union supporting liberal democrat. It was amazing and comical to read.

Posted by: brian on November 25, 2007 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

I remember when Gary Hart was competing with Mondale the struggle had see-sawed enough that many delegates pledged to Mondale said they would switch to Hart if he won California and New Jersey on the same day. This was the closest I think we have ever come to real convention in my lifetime, and was wondering if it might not be time for it to happen again. Suppose Hillary locks up a lot of delegates on Feb 5th then implodes, or at least has a big stumble, on her old cattle futures or billing records or some other lie the MSM has allowed to peter out without resolution and ignored for the last 10 years... I agree with The Americanist above, I think a collection of county chairmen and other informed party-members sitting in a four-day convention could do a lot better than the last few candidates that have run the gauntlet of primaries and caucus fandangos.

Posted by: mr insensitive on November 25, 2007 at 11:19 PM | PERMALINK

Buchanan is nuts. He is still driven bonkers by the Warren Court, he suggests an import tax that will bring back the Great Depression, and he wants to spend trillions of dollars to end immigration (including the immigration of specialists). Don't give him too much credit for figuring out that the Neocons are idiots--lots of people have done that.

Posted by: reino on November 26, 2007 at 6:11 AM | PERMALINK

When all else fails, do the math: Just watch ratings and share, correlated with the amount of air time for candidates vs. correspondents.

Somebody did the stat once that in political campaign coverage during the dinosaur era, with just the three networks, viewers would get a candidate's own voice for as much as 45 seconds in an ordinary news story.

But by the time CNN got off the ground and the dominance of CBS, NBC and ABC was broken, that was down to less than 10 seconds. Correspondents set up news "reports" about candidates with 15-30 seconds of their own voices explaining the significance of what viewers were about to hear and see, then the candidate for perhaps 9 seconds, then more edited and digested video to reinforce the correspondents' set-up, finally a 5 second conclusion.


Cuz the correspondent, not the candidate, is the property of the media. People watch CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox NOT to see the real world as through a window, but to see it interpreted by Wolf Blitzer, Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams and Brit Hume. Those characters are their product, the franchise.

Contrast the ratings and share for the News Hour, which does long segments that are just the candidates: there's no money in it. It's hard to build an audience for "the news" cuz the news is changing all the time: viewers like the continuity of looking at news readers and correspondents who will reliably sound just like they did yesterday.

It's not an MSM phenom, either. The same thing happens on the Web: very few blogs are simply links to primary sources; all the most popular political ones are ideologically predictable snarky commentary.

Posted by: theAmericanist on November 26, 2007 at 7:44 AM | PERMALINK

There's a simple solution for this.

Less coverage.

As Kevin says, campaigns are necessarily extremely repetitive. As Nixon once said, it is not until you've reached a point where it is barely possible to get the sentence out of your mouth because you have said it so many times that it begins to enter into the national conversation.

So don't assign a reporter to every campaign. Have a reporter or two follow each campaign for a week, and then go home, awaiting developments. Major addresses are available on the web or in other video forms, so you don't need to be there.

Posted by: jayackroyd on November 26, 2007 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

There is nothing wrong with examining personality as part of campaign coverage. What is wrong is that the superficial and jaded press personalities think superficial and jaded political personalities are better than genuine and down-to-earth. They seem to be bored with the politicians who are genuine and not flashy and pretentious. In 2000 Al Gore represented intelligence and decency but he bored the silly superficial jaded press personalities. Now it's John Edwards. Decent and hard working but not flashy enough. Because of this superficiality and tendency to dismiss the better candidates, I think we're doomed.

Posted by: Chrissy on November 26, 2007 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

"What It Takes" probably could not be done again. Cramer had unprecedented access to six major candidates for two years. A great book.

Posted by: Matt on November 26, 2007 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

Cramer's book ranks with Halberstam's Best and Brightest as a completely worthless "classic" -- far, far too long, overwritten and underedited, and of absolutely no interest to anyone who is not a journalist.

Posted by: Auto on November 26, 2007 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Man, is that apples and oranges: Cramer and Halberstam???

Halberstam was an impact journalist. His Pulitzer for foreign reporting (on Africa AND Vietnam) was earned the hard way, with his ass in the grass; he covered the civil rights movement and wrote some good books about sports. He was not a one-trick pony.

Halberstam's Vietnam writing in particular helped to create, and then epitomize the classic (and wrong) progressive view of the war: it was a "quagmire", we didn't know what we were getting into. The Best and the Brightest is all about hubris.

It is NOT his best Vietnam work (his actual reporting was better), but Auto dissing it as a "worthless classic" is just ignorant. The Best and Brightest sorta like dismissing that whole talking pictures thing cuz 'it's been DONE, man'. But nobody who has made a movie since about 1930 can escape the talkies culture, and nobody who writes about war since 1965 can escape Halberstam's impact.

But he was still wrong.

The best short work on Vietnam is still Ellsberg's counter to Halberstam's "quagmire" myth, where he showed that decisionmakers knew exactly what they were doing in Vietnam -- consistently choosing NOT what they knew was necessary even to have a shot at winning, but ONLY what they figured was necessary not to lose: 'the stalemate machine'.

That's what impact journalism does: it changes the way news is reported and the way people think about it.

I don't think there's any comparison with Cramer's work (and I like Cramer): he didn't change how news was reported (cuz the horserace/personality approach was there long before he was), and he sure as hell didn't change the way we think about Presidential politics.

Posted by: theAmericanist on November 26, 2007 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

On the face of it, I'd say that Halperin is covering his ass now that the internet, Nexus and blogging have brought a small degree of accountability to some portions of the media.

Unfortunately Kevin seems all too willing to let the dysfunctional press along with his stuff about poor journalists slaving away to make a silk purse out of the boring sow's ear of campaigns they're forced to slog through, it's a wonder they're still sane. Gimme a break.

Keep it up, Kevin, and one day you'll be admitted into the club.

Posted by: Horatio Parker on November 26, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

What's more, the code of objectivity in American journalism actively prevents reporters from writing about whether the various nominees "have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world." That would be too much like taking sides.

Frank Bruni, Ceci Connolly, Kit Seelye, Anne Kornblut, Patrick Healy, Adam Nagourney – have you actually read any of their “reporting” over the last eight years?

Posted by: Hugh Gordon on November 26, 2007 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK

So why make reporters follow the campaigns around, if it's so boring and repetitive? Let the reporters go find something interesting to do. They can ask the candidates questions by e-mail if they need to know something. And if the candidates have something new to say, let 'em announce it.

Posted by: SqueakyRat on November 27, 2007 at 1:35 AM | PERMALINK

"nobody who writes about war since 1965 can escape Halberstam's impact."


I won't dispute that Halberstam once had major impact on attitudes toward Vietnam, especially among elite opinion. (I seem to recall a survey among readers of the NY Review that Best and Brightest was THE book that shaped their thinking on the war.)

But that was 35 years ago.

Nowadays, Best and Brightest is a book more cited (and honored) than read. It is unreadable -- 800 pages of unedited ranting. I doubt a single reader ever managed to slog through to the end.

Look at more recent works on the war, the academic stuff in particular, and you'll see that Halberstam is more or less ignored. And yes, the Ellsberg stuff holds up much better.

Think of Best and Brightest as Vietnam's version of Lawrence of Arabia's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (although not as well-written). Both purport to be histories written by someone with firsthand experience that may have helped shape comtemporary attitudes.

But no one today reads Lawrence to learn how the British incited the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War.

Just as no one today reads Best and Brightest to learn how we got ourselves into Vietnam. To a post-Vietnam reader, it is -- I'll say it again -- a "worthless classic."

My comparison of Cramer and Halberstam is an apt one. Both books are more honored than read. (Yes, Halberstam had more impact.) But to outsiders, the high regard that journalists have for each of these books is puzzling.

Posted by: Auto on November 28, 2007 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK



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