Panel Discussion: The Congressional Races; What Do We Mean by the 'Right' Questions?
Following is an edited transcript of the second part of the Nieman Foundation's Watchdog Conference on covering the Congressional and Presidential Elections in 2000. Titled "Are We Asking the Right Questions," the conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington October 18, 1999.
Ray Suarez, Senior Correspondent, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, former Host, National Public Radio's "The Talk of The Nation"
- Ronald Faucheux, Editor and Publisher, Campaigns & Elections
- Lee Hamilton, Former Congressman
- Gwen Ifill, Host, Washington Week in Review, Senior Correspondent, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, former Senior Congressional Correspondent, NBC-TV News
- Geraldine Ferraro, Former Congresswoman
- Geneva Overholser, Columnist, Washington Post Writers Group
- Mike Pride, Editor, The Concord (N.H.) Monitor
Ray Suarez – I have to thank Bill Kovach for even remembering that before we enter a new congressional cycle one of the questions that reporters don't usually ask but we're getting an opportunity this morning to ask is are we asking the right questions. Because it is the reporter's core belief that he or she is always asking the right questions. So what do you mean are we asking the right questions? Our interest is the national interest and our service is the public good. If only people we're asking the questions of would understand that.
I think we can do better and I think this morning's meeting is based on that premise. Asking the right questions on a regular basis becomes tougher and tougher because we have to ask them for so darn long and of the same people. So I think it's more than fitting that at this time where we seem to be gearing up and getting into harness again that we pause for a moment and talk about what we think we should be talking about.
Our panel this morning includes Ronald Faucheux, Editor and Publisher of Campaigns & Elections, which is not a generalist publication but watches the generalist publications and understands what's going on in the inside of campaigns. Former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, a 17-term veteran, now happily not retired. Gwen Ifill, my new colleague at the News Hour and Host of Washington Week in Review. A former US Congresswoman and Vice Presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. Geneva Overholser, columnist for The Washington Post Writer's Group. You'll remember her as the Ombudsman for The Post as well. And Mike Pride, Editor of The Concord Monitor in that very famous quadrennial airplane destination for many of you up in New Hampshire.
So let's start with Ron Faucheux. Let's talk about the cycle and who sets the agenda. During the past week we've had a couple of critical votes, some interesting debates and people have been nervously circling them, speculating on whether they're going to be things that come up again in the year 2000. Like the comprehensive test ban treaty and some other debates that have been animating Capitol Hill. Who is going to decide what questions get asked next year? Is it the press in response to agendas coming out of the campaign offices? A little of both, or the other way around? Candidate Complaints: No One Covers Their Answers
Ronald Faucheux – Being from Louisiana and having grown up in Louisiana politics I'm used to the key question for politicians in campaigns: whether or not they think they're going to be indicted and if so, when. So broadening it to all these high sounding issues is certainly a pleasure. Political campaigns have become positioning exercises in putting your opponent on the defensive. And they've become an exercise in developing messages that zero in on the differences between candidates, not the similarities between candidates. To understand how the candidates look at it and the pressures on candidates I think you have to understand that.
They are now in a position, not because they want to be there but because everything has brought them there, where they're not really complaining about the questions the press is asking. What they're complaining about is that nobody's covering their answers. Those candidates who try to talk about issues, those candidates who try to talk about relevant connected issues, are finding it very, very difficult to get that out in the course of a political campaign. Until Axes Start Swinging, Campaigns Are Boring
We have now gone beyond the information age to an entertainment age where the competitive pressures to entertain people are so great that it's difficult to do anything else. One of the things we have found in looking for campaigns specifically that are good examples and case studies of where candidates talked about real issues, where there was an encouragement on the part of the media and the civic community for candidates to talk about real issues, is that when they do, when there's a minimum amount of negativity, when there's a minimum amount of name calling, everybody sort of throws their hands up and says this is boring. And until the axes start swinging we're not going to cover it any more.
I think at the congressional level in particular there's a tremendous amount of frustration in terms of candidates being able to talk about issues, to get across their point of view, and to respond with contrary information that people hear and that's covered outside of a short sound bite or outside of a 30-second ad that can contribute to the process. Political campaigns in this country are particularly bad forums for the discussions of real issues. It is no wonder that the connection between that and what happens in government seems to be less and less.
Suarez – Lee Hamilton, did you find that in your last couple of campaigns you were seeing more and more of what Ron was just talking about? Political Setting: Equilibrium
Lee Hamilton – Ron, I'm reminded that General DeGaulle once met with a group of reporters and he said I'm ready for your questions to my answers. I'm not at all sure what the questions we have here are but I think I'll go ahead and give you my answers anyway. Let me give you several very quick impressions. And I'll try to follow your admonition about being brief. Number one, I think the political setting today is one of equilibrium in the country. It's really quite extraordinary. If you look at the state legislatures they're very evenly balanced between the two parties. We've got divided government in this city. A five-seat margin in the House, Senate fairly close. So you really have an extraordinary evenness, if you would, in the balance of political parties in the country.
Secondly, the stakes in this election are as big as they ever get. You've got a president that's going to have a profound impact on the Supreme Court. The Congress, of course, is up for grabs, in the House certainly, maybe even in the Senate. You're going to have a census taken and that means redistricting and that will determine the balance of power in the country in the decade ahead. No Dominant Issue
The next point is what Andy Kohut says in his poll and that is, it's quite extraordinary there just are no dominant issues today. The one thing that I would add to Andy's poll is that I have found that the family is a tremendously important issue with most Americans. It comes at you in a lot of different ways. It certainly is involved in almost all of the social issues. But nothing is more important to Americans than the family. And anything that touches it is of interest to them. What Is Role of U.S. in World?
Now, what are the questions that are the right questions to ask? I put forward two. One, with regard to foreign policy, every candidate should be pressed on the question of what is the role of America in the world today. Again referring to Andy's poll, and I agree with this, people are interested right now in the question of intervention. When do you intervene, how do you intervene, with what tools, with what kind of support and so forth. But this really is the key foreign policy question and every candidate ought to be pressed on it very, very hard. What Is Role of Government?
The second question that ought to be asked is the great question of American politics and that is the question that we have wrestled with since the beginning of the country. What is the role of the government? What is the role of the government in meeting important needs of the people? What is the role of the government in providing opportunity for people? What is the role of the government in reflecting the core values of our society? What is the role of the government in curbing the excesses of the marketplace? If you want to understand a candidate you want to understand how that candidate views the role of the government in American society today.
The final comment I'd make is that, again referring to Andy's poll, he notes the potential of health care. I very much agree with that. I think health care bubbles and seethes beneath the surface of all recent political campaigns. It may or may not become the breakout issue in the year 2000. I don't know. But I certainly see it as a very, very important issue.
Suarez – Lee Hamilton is the Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In the coming year Gwen Ifill will both be asking the questions of political candidates and then talking to her colleagues who are coming back in from the wars, back from the front, as the new host of Washington Week in Review. So she's in a tremendous seat to watch all this roll out. What are you looking forward to? Medicare and Social Security
Gwen Ifill – I'm hoping that everybody in here will tell me what questions I need to ask during the next year because I really don't have a clue. But I'm hoping that you can figure it out. It seems to me that especially when it comes to congressional elections Congressman Hamilton really hits the nose on the head. There are some very key issues which are going to play out over the next few weeks or months in Washington, which are going to determine exactly how people view not only the presidential elections but also especially, I think, the congressional elections.
The two basic questions, especially for Democrats in Washington, is whether they can retake the House. Every time another Republican announces his retirement, like John Porter did last week, there are cries and shrieks of anguish because there is such a narrow six-seat margin now that nobody knows how it's going to turn out. So there's a lot of attention being paid to that, not only by Democrats but also by Republicans who are trying to recruit Democrats to become Republicans.
Also, the secondary question has a lot to do with what we've seen happen in the last week here in Washington. Which is will anybody care if the current relationship between Congress and White House is so embittered and divided that nothing seems like it can get done? If it seems that international treaties cannot pass because at least one of the reasons being because of lingering bitterness among congressional Republicans to a Democratic White House. Or if it seems as if a budget, 13 appropriations bills, cannot be enacted without continual delays because of payback on the part of the Democratic White House toward a Republican Congress I think people are going to continue to turn away. And they're going to continue to question themselves why it's important that they care what the makeup of Congress or the White House is.
There are key, key issues which if politicians and people seeking public office don't address this year will only result in the continued turnoff of people who vote. But also if we don't ask those questions as reporters we will have fallen down. Medicare. There is no question that we have been, politicians at least, elected officials, public policy experts have been driving home the point now for some time that if you don't do something about Medicare, Social Security, other entitlement reforms, that we're all headed downhill and there's no way to get a grip back up. There seems to be no movement on that right now. The fallout from that, the connection to that, is things like HMO reform and health insurance. On Health Care, the Uninsured
You can see who's the most concerned about that if you look at Andy Kohut's poll. But you also have to understand that in a time of prosperity people are maybe feeling good about themselves but there may also be some room for them to wonder about the people who aren't as well covered. The incredible growing numbers in the ranks of the uninsured at a time when the nation is supposed to be doing so well. Less potent, at least it seems that way so far this year in Washington, has been the question of taxes and whether people's taxes are cut. That used to be the cutting issue. No-new-taxes was the thing that brought George Bush down. (I almost said George W. Bush. What does it mean that you start to refer to a former president by his son's name?) But it was the issue that brought people down on President Bush. And now it's the issue that may or may not cut because of the prosperity.
The other question, I guess, which is a fallout a little, is a twist on what's happening with the presidential campaign. We're all, especially reporters, caught up with the idea about whether Al Gore, for instance, is suffering from Clinton fatigue. If Al Gore is suffering at all from Clinton fatigue perhaps Americans are also suffering from Congress fatigue, at least if there's nothing to demonstrate. Our role as reporters, of course, is to make sure that these issues stay front and center and that they get at least asked. We can't always guarantee the answers. I wish I could. But there's a way that we can at least make sure these are the issues which people care about and that the questions get asked and that somebody is in a position to feel like they have to develop an answer even if it's not the most satisfactory one.
Suarez – Geraldine Ferraro has seen a lot of these questions from both sides of the continuum. As an elected public official, as a national candidate for vice president, as a co-host of Crossfire. And then most recently as an author who then talks to reporters who may or may not have read her books. So she's seen it all. Economy Still an Issue
Geraldine Ferraro – I've got some of them for sale. Thanks, Ray. I must comment, though. We are supposed to be either journalists or political thinkers. I'm not quite sure where I fit. I don't think I fit into either. For one I'm going to be starting a column next week for The New York Times syndicate, a biweekly column. But I don't think anybody would call me a journalist. After seeing how I did in my last Senate race I think we would all agree I'm not much of a political thinker. But in any event let me just make a comment about the congressional races since that's our topic for this particular panel and focus a little bit on the Senate races that are going to be coming up. In particular when we get into the Q & A, if you want we can discuss the New York Senate race in which I am really very, very interested.
I think this is a great opportunity in this election cycle for Democrats. Both in the House because of the narrowness of the margin that the Republicans hold and in the Senate as well. Though I think it's less likely that the Senate will turn in this election cycle. We do have in the Senate considerably fewer seats being run for reelection. In addition to that I think we do have the issues this year. Whether or not people vote on them is questionable. I think some of the issues obviously – the economy, as long as it continues going well, and we have to see what happens with the stock market today. But as long as it continues going well and people are comfortable with how they're feeling I think that that will still be an issue in campaigns.
I think that health care is very much an issue. Watching Bill Bradley come out and make that his first issue he has brought forward, and to do it in a way where he can get both conservatives and liberals saying this is really a good idea, let's see what more he can develop on it, I think it's important that we take a look at that. I think the actions of both the House and the Senate on this health care bill will give Democrats sufficient fodder in the election campaign. 'Virtually a Do-Nothing Congress'
The spending of the surplus. I think Democrats will use that, the spending of the Social Security Trust Fund. And I also believe that you will find a good deal of discussion of the politics of the House and Senate over the last number of years. That they are virtually a do-nothing Congress. They can't get things done. Watching Larry Eagleton this week on television talking about the fact that he, as a Republican, was terribly upset that this treaty was turned down based on politics was really interesting to see. When Republicans start beating up on Republicans that is most helpful, obviously, for Democrats.
I'm not quite sure whether or not the national campaign at this point, if we can talk about the impact that that's going to have on the House and Senate races. Because though the poll that was taken seems to almost consider Gore and Bush a done deal I'm not quite sure of that. And I'm not quite sure of exactly what kind of impact they will have when it gets to congressional races on election day next year. Is it going to be a tight race? We don't know. We don't know how many questions the press is going to ask of these individual candidates as they get through all the primaries, whether New Hampshire is going to be a little bit tougher on them than say people in New York or people in Indiana. But it's going to be, I think it's just too early to say what impact the presidential election will have. Unlike '84 where we did impact on the congressional races.
And certainly I'm sure you remember in 1980 the effect that the Carter loss had on the congressional races where we lost so many members, especially out in California. I don't think this national race is going to have that same kind of impact because, again, of how reporting has changed in the last 20 years and how the current Congress is constituted.
Suarez – Geneva Overholser's column appears in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Dallas Morning News, which, for those of you who travel a lot, you could read her column on the road. She's set policy as a newspaper editor, been on editorial boards, been an editorial page editor and an ombudsman. So has been uniquely positioned to watch the internal process of setting an agenda for a political staff as it heads out to cover a campaign. Public Concerned About Tone of Coverage
Geneva Overholser – I think that one of the questions we need to think about is not only what questions are we asking and what issues are we being sure are raise, but the tone of our coverage on all those questions and all those issues. In the seven years I was Editor of The Des Moines Register in that other quadrennial airplane destination and in the three years I was Ombudsman at The Post and now as a columnist when I write about media issues I am struck continually by how powerfully readers feel and viewers feel that we are often out to get somebody and often out to drag down the process. And we have all kinds of reasons why we understand that we've got to do unpopular things. But I think it is very easy to brush off the powerful feeling that the public has that we're in fact doing more to harm our democracy than we are to assist it.
It's something we ought to pay more careful attention to, whether we're talking about personal coverage or issue coverage. I think people are very much interested in individual candidates, in their character, in their personal lives. I think we're well advised to do the kinds of profiles we do, even the lengthy ones that we tend to laugh at among one another. Did you see that seven-part eye burner on George W. Bush? [in The Washington Post] That kind of coverage as opposed to the kind of an incessant did-George W. Bush-ever-snort-cocaine and the question that dogs him on the campaign when in fact we're the ones who are dogging him. The public is getting this. We're not hiding this from the public
Or when we're covering issues the kind of lead that says: In a desperate attempt to save his faltering campaign today Al Gore does this and that. I think that this kind of coverage is not only putting people off the political process but holding up an inaccurate mirror and putting people off media. So it doesn't serve us terribly well. We tend to think this kind of thing contributes to our being interesting. I'm reminded of how Congress, when it hears blowhards talk about how much they hate the United Nations, then concludes that the public hates the United Nations when in fact the average American doesn't feel that way at all. We shouldn't be following what Kohut called that needle on the chat shows when we determine how we want to cover. Excesses of the Marketplace
One of my favorite comments when I was Ombudsman of The Washington Post was from a fellow who said to me, could you just give us the facts, I can supply the cynicism. I think it's something we all ought to keep in mind. I am very heartened that twice this morning we have heard, in Bill Kovach's words, talking about the increased impact of monopolies in our country, and in Congressman Hamilton's words, talking about the government role. But I think it was guarding against the excesses of the marketplace. I think the public is far more interested in this than we are acknowledging. When I have written about media being particularly affected by these profit pressures resulting from corporatization and increasing monopolies I keep hearing people in different walks of life, be it law, the arts, universities, express the same kinds of concerns I think we ought to be talking more about this.
I also wish that we would portray America as others see us more often. I was struck in this test ban treaty debate that if more Americans could see the kind of coverage about America's role in arms control, for example, before a debate like this and certainly during it, then we'd have a much fuller sense of where we stand in the world.
Suarez – I don't want to, Mike, give you the idea that I think people should only go to New Hampshire once every four years. As somebody who's been to Franconia Notch and visited Portsmouth a lot and took my kids to see the Old Man of the Mountain, I think it's a great place. So I don't want to leave that on the table. Let's talk about the particular madness that is your patch this time of year. In New Hampshire, Grassroots Politics Works
Mike Pride – What I wanted to do was something a little bit off the wall. Because I guess my participation here is a little off the wall. I'm not really engaged in these congressional issues the way the other panelists are. First I want to say that Geneva's column is also available in The Concord Monitor, but we don't have an airport so you'll have to read it on line or subscribe by mail.
I have Congress fatigue. I think at least in part it's because our senior Senator is Bob Smith. But that's not the whole story. So what I thought I would do is talk at the outset for a minute or two about the New Hampshire legislature, which is a body that's much nearer to my heart and nearer to the coverage in our newspaper, The Concord Monitor. It's really an interesting comparison, I think, between what I see as a dysfunctional Congress here in Washington and the legislature in New Hampshire. Because it is a 400-member House and a 24-member Senate. 424 people who come together, a citizen legislature. It's also split. We have a Democratic governor. We until two years ago had a Republican legislature in both houses, both chambers. We now have a Democratic Senate.
In the last three years our legislature has passed gay rights legislation, it has stricken down 1848 abortion laws, it has passed state aid to kindergarten, it has passed the Martin Luther King holiday. The House has voted for an income tax, which is a cardinal sin in New Hampshire. And the House has also said no to gambling. These legislators get together every year and they accomplish things. They respond to the public, they're close to the public, they're connected to the public. They have to go back to their towns and they have to stand on their record. They have to talk to the people about what matters to the people and they have to come to Concord and vote, make decisions and stand by those decisions and then stand for reelection.
There are a couple of differences, I think, that are probably distinctions between the way our legislature works and the way Congress works. One of those would be that our legislators are basically unpaid. Another would be that they basically have no staff. So really, it's a shoestring operation. On the other hand, when they come to vote what they're influenced by is not where the money is coming from or how much there is. That's a very different kind of construct, I think, than we have here in Washington. I don't want to paint it as an idyllic situation but you can really get a very strong sense of how grassroot politics is supposed to work in this country if you come to New Hampshire in a year other than a presidential election year.
Basically, that would be my main point. I can certainly comment on these other issues and I can also talk about presidential politics and what's happening right now. One comment that I would make, an extension of something that's already been said in terms of our coverage, I think it's wonderful when Bill Bradley gives a speech about health care that that's what the press writes about. I think it's disgraceful that when Al Gore gives a speech about how Washington ought to pay its share of special education in the communities what they write about is whether or not Al Gore is failing as a candidate or not.
Suarez – [Candidates often come out with a message of the day] but reporters don't write about them. Gwen, I'm wondering if that's a fair comment. Reporters say to themselves wait a minute, I'm not going to talk about what he wants to talk about, what she wants to talk about, I'm going to ask them what I want to ask them about. Then we go back and bemoan that they're not talking about the issues. Are Candidate's Day the News?
Ifill – Ray, as with all difficult questions there are a lot of different answers. One of the answers is that a lot of the time they are coming out and deciding what they want to talk about and it may not be the issue of the day. I guess the best example I can think of most recently was Al Gore when the test ban treaty failed. He was in Seattle and had some reporters on his plane and was in a fairly good mood by all accounts. Then he heard that the test ban treaty had failed. This is something which I think the White House saw coming for at least a week, as it witnessed by their desperate attempt to have it pulled from the calendar. That failed. He then immediately displayed anger to the reporters traveling with him, which was duly reported. Then he turned around and, unbeknownst to the White House, immediately recorded a television ad politicizing what everybody had claimed was an apolitical issue.
Now, at what point in the coverage of these series of events do you write about Al Gore's political motivations? And at what point do you write about his genuine distress at the failure of the treaty? Ideally you write about all of them and you try to integrate them. But the fact is that the White House's distress at failure of the treaty was being amply covered. In fact, the President that day was giving an hour-long press conference mostly devoted to that subject. So you had to cast a more critical eye, I think, on a presidential candidate's response to that. Especially since he was the Vice President and the President was already speaking for the administration.
We also have a couple of other problems. One of them, and Geneva touched on it a little bit, is that we are not a monolith in what we cover. When we talk about the press we all fall into kind of old fashioned notions of what the press is as if we all speak with one voice and cover things the same way. As somebody who's spent 15 years in print and only the last five or so years in television, I'm here to tell you that there is a dramatic difference in the way print and television cover the same events. And it's changed dramatically in the last five years in television. The advent of all news or so-called all news cable networks has really changed the way the debate is driven. If you're a responsible viewer, reader, whatever you have to know that there are lots of places to get your information. The Internet didn't exist in the way it does five years ago, news sites. And newspapers didn't cover things with the variety in the way that they do right now.
You can pick up The Washington Post and read a seven-part profile of Al Gore, George W. Bush, but you'll also read the stories that begin, "in a blow to his faltering campaign." You have it all. But the biggest problem, by my lights, is the fact that so much of our coverage in politics and everything else is being driven by the soap opera mentality. The idea that there has to be a running story and that every night there's got to be a snapshot with a punchy question in which somebody has to say yes or no and that's all. That doesn't really bring enlightenment. I'm not even sure it brings viewers. But it's part of the way that we cover the news now. And it's not changing. We're not going backward. It's just something that we have to figure out a way in our responsible coverage to integrate the fact that people are getting their news a lot of different ways and they're asking questions a lot of different ways. And ways which are not satisfying to journalistic purists but also may not be satisfying to people who would much rather be watching a rerun of Friends. So that's just a challenge that we kind of have, not only in this year and not only in politics but in everything we cover.
Suarez – I'm glad you put in that qualifier, so-called, on the 24-hour news services. Geneva, let's talk about responsibility then. We've alluded a couple of times to that lead, you know: Seeking to gain favor with the nation's largest health employers union, the candidate said today. If part of our responsibility is to give the public a sense of what people really believe and help them form a vision of what a candidate might do if elected, how useful is that? It shows that we're clever and we can see through the veil of somebody's motives. But that just, as you mentioned before, makes us sound lousy. When Interpretation Overshadows the Events
Overholser – Again, it's an exceedingly complex issue, right? Because we could certainly say it's our responsibility to let the public know that this is a candidate who cut a midnight deal with this effort in mind in response to this kind of challenge. I think those are all pieces of information that we have decided we can and need to give readers in order to help them really understand a candidate. My problem with that is that when we start putting it in the lead instead of saying first here's what happened. I can't tell you the number of times when I was at The Post, whose political coverage I certainly admire in many ways, I'd have readers call and say I had go to the jump to see what this bill said. I mean we've got it introduced at the midnight hour in response to this kind of debate because this candidate has this problem or this politician has this problem. And you don't find out what it actually is or what it might do for you or again you until you get to the jump.
So it seems to me that part of what we need to do is recognize that readers don't understand that we've kind of changed these rules about wait a minute, do you separate news and opinion. And we're not nearly as clear as we sometimes think we are about labeling the difference between a straight news story, and I'm talking about print here because I really don't know broadcast as well but I know there are parallels. Not labeling a straight news story and labeling an analysis story. We sort of do it oddly in The Post and The Times. It's interesting to see. I ask you to think about this when you look at the coverage. You'll see an analysis slug on some stories that are less egregiously opinionated, in my view, than on some of the straight news stories. We need to give people the facts and we need to tell them what we, quote, really think is going on. But we need to separate the two or at the very least put the facts up higher and our opinion about what's really behind this lower in the story.
Suarez – Right. We don't want to set up a false dichotomy that by saying in order to curry favor with the nation's largest hospital employers union, that that's incorrect. Lee Hamilton, Geraldine Ferraro, there must have been times where you've picked up the paper and just been terribly frustrated by the fact that what you said and why you said it was buried but they were right about that other stuff, whoever was writing the story. They may have gotten your motives or the calculus correct. But that seemed to you beside the point. Reporters Want to Play in the Policy Game
Hamilton – I would often say in Indiana – probably should not say in Washington – that there are no journalists in Washington. In a sense, of course, a very real sense I was just being facetious. But I am impressed about how many people in the media in this town really are not much interested in doing what I at least would consider the basics of journalism. Which is to ask questions and to explain and to examine and to describe. What many are interested in is being a player in the policy game. In other words, they really want to impact policy a lot more than they want to pursue the business of journalism. And I don't mean to be too critical. I'm a big consumer of the press. And I admire many people in the media. And I think they have a very, very tough job reporting what goes on in this town. But nonetheless, I think there's been quite a sharp emphasis in much of the media today.
Just to give you a story, I was walking through the airport a couple of years ago. I was walking behind two United States Senators and a few steps ahead a very prominent news personality whose name you would all know. And I was interested in the reaction of the people coming towards me. They all recognized the news person and none of them recognized the U.S. Senators. It just seems to me the news people today have become the celebrities in many ways. And they want to be policy players.
The other point I would make and I guess, Ray, this picks up your point is that it is very hard to get your views as a member of Congress across on any issue. The news people basically are not much interested in it. And maybe that's a correct perspective, I don't know. But they're really not fundamentally interested in what your views are with respect to any particular policy issue. The third point I'd make here very quickly is that I guess this picks up on what Geneva said. We had this big debate on the nuclear test ban treaty. I don't recall any news media describing what was in the nuclear test ban treaty. I kept looking for a summary of what was in the treaty. It's a complicated treaty. It's a very involved treaty. The newspaper articles would describe it in two or three sentences. What they were interested in is what the President said about it, what this Senator said about it and so forth. That's all valid. But the American people ought to know what's in the treaty. And they sure couldn't find out by reading the American press. Bridal Suite More Important
Ferraro – If I could… I have on more than one occasion as a candidate felt that the press kind of ignored the substance and went with something that was a good news story in their eye. And I'll give you a for instance. In the Senate campaign that I just recently ran a year and a half go I did a little bit of a tour of upstate New York. We started in Syracuse. Went from Syracuse to Rochester, from Rochester to Buffalo and then back. And I was traveling with, I'll be specific, with Adam Nagourny of The New York Times.
When we went to Syracuse I met with a woman who was with the Urban League and what she was doing, which I found fascinating, she had put in a housing project a computer center. She got contributions from America Online and from various different agencies to get the computers in there. The great thing about this room was that it was used for kids who are in the public school up there who are poor kids who live in the housing projects and don't have computers at home. So it was allowing them to have a place where they could practice their computer skills. In addition to that, because kids are the ones who get in trouble between 3 and 5, when parents aren't home, it was a safe place for those kids to be where they'd be kept busy. There were welfare mothers in the apartment complex. They could go in there and learn a skill so that they could go from the welfare to workfare. And there were elderly people where it could be used as a line to help them in case of emergencies.
I sat and talked to these people. Actually left there and came out and talked about the possibility of maybe doing something legislatively when I got elected. Went from there to an event at the University of Syracuse, spoke to the law school. Spent an hour speaking to students, answered every one of their questions about issues. Those kids were really very smart and asked a lot of tough questions. Went from there to an event that night where I did an event on women's issues. It was a women's group. To Rochester, spoke with some people and I forget what the events were. And then went to Buffalo. In Buffalo the mayor endorsed me in a school and we were talking about the school construction bill. And then we came home.
On the way home I talked to Adam and while we were chatting he asked about the people up there. And I said gee, they're really quite nice. I said as a matter of fact, did you see that guy in the hotel. And what had happened in the hotel when we went to Buffalo was they put me into the bridal suite, which was their best suite. And I thought it was very sweet.
P.S., that was the bulk of the story. I was frustrated. I said how do you have a story that comes out that doesn't mention any of the things that we did, none of the issues? I mean Adam is a very, very good reporter. I don't know why that happened. I really don't. But it does happen. The New York Times is not a paper that you would say gee, that's the kind of story they sell. That was the focus of that story, which really annoyed me and it made look almost vacuous as far as what I thought was important or not important. And I thought it was unfair.
But if you take a look, again, when you're talking here about issues everybody's here sounding as if that's really what people are always reporting. If you look at the front page of this thing. People don't know the issues except as you report them. If you report about Hurricane Floyd that's what they're going to know about. If you don't report about East Timor they're not going to have a clue as to where it is, let alone what's happening on it. It's what you do. And what you do is in large measure – here comes the cynic right now – based upon your bottom line, whether it's the newspapers or it's television. When I was on Crossfire it was based on ratings and I can't imagine it's changed since.
So I think in large measure when you talk about reporting and how voters feel and whether or not they're going to go to the polls and whether or not they care about issues I think you've got to sit there and say to yourselves, what are you worried most about? And what are you doing when it comes to reporting? Are you more worried about the bottom line, are you more worried about ratings? Or are you really worried about getting the news to the public about the candidates and about the issues?
Suarez – Ron Faucheux, is the kind of coverage the two former members of Congress described, driving technique, tactics and practice at the end of the campaign, that you write about? Money Needed to Get Views Across
Faucheux – I think that it is. And I think that they've described it very well. But I think what it's doing is that it's not only affecting how candidates attempt to deal with the press and the media. It also puts candidates in the position where they know they need the money to buy advertising to get around this process so that they can get messages across, be they superficial or intelligent or whatever it may be. It's in the eye of the beholder. Because they don't feel like they have a way to get that across through the media. Obviously reporters would say their job isn't to serve as the messenger carriers for political campaigns and they certainly shouldn't. But I think that there is, as you said at the beginning of the panel, a disconnect between what's important in government, what's being covered in campaigns and what candidates are trying to say all at the same time.
Suarez – Mike, you're our emissary from out there. I don't even know if you know the answers to some of these questions. The Same Story Day After Day
Pride – I can talk just a little bit about how we approach a trip like Geraldine talked about. We have a lot of presidential candidates coming into our area for three and four days. We attempt to cover them whenever they're in our circulation area. I would say that our congressional coverage or our coverage of other election campaigns is patterned after this. But you can imagine what it would be like for our readers if we just sent a reporter out and said write down what the candidates say, write down who they meet with and what kind of interaction they have with people. If John McCain comes to our area for three days and talks to four, five, six different kinds of groups the kind of coverage we would be giving them would be the same story three days in a row, or basically the same kind of story.
Now, reporters certainly can't ignore what happens on the campaign trail. But you need to shape that campaign coverage in a way that's going to make the most of your reporters' access to the candidate. When John McCain came on this particular trip he was attempting to, shall we say, retool his abortion position. And this seemed like an important thing for our reporter to focus on. This was not what John McCain was focusing on when he came to talk to the Rotary Club and the veterans groups and the other people in town. We managed to get some access to McCain on that particular day and wrote a story that was focused almost entirely on his effort to switch his position on abortion and how that was playing with the public, by talking to the people who came to the event.
The next day that he was in town he was speaking to a veterans group as part of his itinerary. What we decided to focus on was his effort to play his war hero status, fold that into his candidacy. To what degree was his candidacy going to be based on his war hero status? And how was this playing with the public? What was it about McCain's military experience, his experience as a POW, that people might look at and say this is what qualifies him for president? So that was the focus of the story that day. That wasn't all that John McCain did that day. It wasn't following him one pace after another through his day.
So that gives you an idea of the way we approach campaign coverage. With a candidate like Bradley, for example, we might do a story where we say leadership is a big issue for Bill Bradley. So what in his past might you look at that would give you an idea of what kind of leader he is? In the case of Bill Bradley we did the same thing we did with Jack Kemp in 1988 and that was go back to his teammates. On the basketball court in this case, in the football field in the case of Jack Kemp. And just talk about what kind of a leader he was on the court. What kind of a leader he was in that team. And got a lot of the old New York Knicks to talk about that. And it turned into a pretty good story.
So I think we definitely do sit back in the office and try to figure out how we ought to cover these people. We don't sit back in the office and say we ought to send our reporters out wherever they are and write down whatever they do and put it in the paper. Timberland Boots and Berry Pie
Suarez – See, in the dueling accusations of cynicism both sides may be right but very heavily complicit in the kind of coverage we're ending up getting. When a campaign is thinking heavily about whether the candidate should wear bone or khaki chinos and choosing what kind of Timberland boots the candidate is going to wear to the berry pie supper because it makes a good picture that you do want to see on the front page or you do want to see on that night's evening news, reporters think that they will thus up the ante and be smarter than that and not fall for the Timberlands and the chinos and the berry pie. So they are going to ask the zinger. So campaigns then cover up more and try to control how much line they let out and what they say and how they're going to say it.
So you've got this arms race. A sort of arms race of declining information going on. Speculation in the absence of information generated in frustration by reporters who don't find campaigns communicative or real. Then, in the response to that hit piece, campaigns cover up more and only let reporters talk to candidates in front of just folks, which makes them seem petty, stupid and like a pack of braying hounds. Then you see that on television and people say god, what a bunch of jerks. There's two sides in this dance and they're both busily stepping on each other's feet. It's not just one side or the other. National or Local?
Overholser – Could I ask Mike something that follows up on your question, Ray? I was very interested to hear the way you were talking about this. And I must say, not without sucking up to you since you take my column, which of course I want to do, this is a terrific newspaper that Mike runs. I'm very interested because clearly it's a locally focused newspaper. And yet, with New Hampshire's role in the presidential process it plays a national role. So when you look at something like this, now it's clear you're taking a candidate like McCain and you're trying to advance an important national story when he's kind of in the midst of his abortion segue. I mean his change on abortion. But I mean do you think to yourself OK, I'm going to do this because this is an important national story? The abortion story is important locally and nationally. If your reporter presses him and he changes and it becomes clear why he's changed or how much he's changed or whatever on abortion, that's an important national story. But you also obviously are thinking about what your readers need to know about McCain. The people who didn't talk to him at each of those gatherings where John McCain went. So how do you balance those two needs? That's part of what maybe Congressman Hamilton was talking about when he said we want to be part of the policy making. In a sense you're pressing McCain because you feel that we need to know what he thinks on abortion. But that responsibility versus what do your readers just need to know broadly about McCain. Most of them would probably say I'm more interested in the whole picture of things about McCain than I am your pressing him on abortion. Most Important: Access to Candidate
Pride – I try to put myself in the place of my readers. I'm trying to say if my readers had access to John McCain in the last two days, in the paper what they've read is McCain flip flopping a little bit on abortion, that's something they want to know about. That's a very current issue and it's an important issue to all my readers as well as to the political process. So to me the most important thing and the most important issue in trying to shape this kind of coverage is access. If you can, during his campaign day in which he doesn't have any scheduled stops where he's going to talk about abortion, if you can get your reporter 20 minutes with John McCain to talk with him about abortion, and therefore advance the story from his perspective but also found out what it is that the people he's speaking with think about this issue and how this is going to play out in the campaign, to me that's really the way to do it. If the reporter comes back and says the access was canceled and I really can't advance McCain's speaking about this issue, I couldn't get to him, then we have to can that story and use the more boring story about John McCain's waving to a bunch of people on airport tarmacs or wherever he was.
Ferraro – Didn't he raise any other issues besides abortion that he would want your readers to know about?
Pride – We're going to see John McCain 30 or 40 times during this campaign coming to our area. I think we'll be able to cover everything that he says. I also believe very strongly that our coverage has to cover the stump speeches. The stump speeches are really important in campaign coverage. They're often overlooked. Often you read a story about inside baseball on the day that the stump speech is made. So that's something that we also really, really focus on is what the candidates actually say. We don't ignore that. It's just that if you're going to be covering a candidate for three days in a row you'd better figure out a way to focus those stories on issues or the stories or not going to be read. You're not going to be doing what you're supposed to doing, which is standing for the readers and giving them information about what matters to them. Big Bad Wolf and People of Good Will
Ifill – It's a real chicken and egg question about where the cynicism begins and where it ends. There's no question that the old fashioned way of covering a political campaign is to say "he said today." And that at some point people who manage political campaigns figured out there was a way to get that in the paper the way they wanted it told from their point of view, which wasn't always the fullest point of view because it's a competition, it's a political campaign. And so newspapers and television began to accommodate that. They realized that the balloons and the setting and the flag factories were as much a story about what was being beamed home as what was coming out of the candidate's mouth. Particularly if the same thing was coming out of the candidate's mouth and had been adequately covered in the past.
So we find ourselves in this interesting position of attempting to put the news in context. Do not think for a minute that the news that you read in your newspaper or that you see on your television is decided by the person you see telling it to you or the byline necessarily on the story. It's decided by a whole set of complex factors. Geneva touched on it briefly when she talked about the corporate nature and the competitive nature of television news and certainly newspapers. And that's ratings are driving a lot of that. But also there's something else driving it.
Just assume for a moment that there's a big bad wolf somewhere who's making us all do things for the most basest, corporate, competitive, profit driven reasons. Set that aside, just assume that's true. But then move on to the fact that there are people of good will and good journalistic integrity who are attempting to tell the story more interestingly. Who are attempting and sometimes failing, as probably is the case of the wedding suite story, to tell you something that you didn't know before and put that personality in some sort of context. So that you understand a little bit more about who it is you're talking about, not just he believes these five things which we told you about yesterday. Let's tell you about him or her.
Sometimes we do that really clumsily. And sometimes we do it in an enlightening way. And sometimes it leads us to another story. For instance, in The Washington Post story about George W. Bush, the series, it didn't really spend a lot of time talking about his drug use but it provided you this incredible context of his entire life. Which if you had the time, which most human beings didn't, to read it all you could come away with a fuller understanding of who he is. That is the backstop for the daily he said this yesterday stories that gives you context.
Once again, it's something I come back to, I think, every time on part of a discussion when we talk about the media and that we have this incredible, gaping, clear fault. But it also is a time when there's just more information available than ever. And you don't have to rely on just your morning paper to tell you everything you know about these people. And you don't have to rely on just the NBC nightly news or the News Hour or Jim Lehrer to tell you everything you know. There are a lot of ways and there's a lot of responsibility on the part of the consumer to find it. Again The Times Story on Ferraro
Suarez – Clearly, Geraldine Ferraro, you saw that story as a missed opportunity. But let's talk about how it could have or should have been different to fulfill its function as information to the voters of New York. I had no doubt previous to hearing the story that you were for poor children having enhanced access to computers. But it should also be remembered at the community activist level that this was like hitting a home run. If you get a major party candidate to visit your center in a mid sized city in your state you expect to get a little mileage out of that because finally somebody is shining a light on something that you haven't gotten anybody else to shine a light on in the more legitimate, more widely heard about media. So I'm sure the women who run this center were as disappointed as you were. Ferraro
Let me just say that I think what Adam was doing – my poll numbers were very high – I think what he wanted to show was that my numbers were due to my celebrity. And that you saw the celebrity when you were out. You get a bridal suite, you get upgraded, people are very nice to you. I considered myself a serious candidate. Yet everybody knows I'm in favor of taking care of women and children. I mean that's not anything new. People who have known me for 20 years speak up on that. And for those of you who didn't know me in my days as assistant D.A. it was however many years before that.
But the thing that was different, for instance, about this place, and by the way we didn't go to Rochester. We went overnight. That's why I couldn't remember what we said and did there. When we went into this area in Syracuse it was putting together a program that took advantage of – It was good for corporations, they were getting tax deductions. It was good for the community. It was doing all kinds of wonderful things to address all the problems that we have today with reference to teenagers getting in trouble after school, with reference to little kids, poor kids, not getting the same opportunities as kids who are well off or in the middle income range. It was about those mothers who were going from welfare to workfare. It's about the elderly being afraid in some of these communities. That's what it was about. And it was what could we, what would I, as a Senator, do? That was the issue.
It's more than yeah, I support women and children. It was if I get down to Washington what I'm going to be able to do is work to put together a program that will allow access of these computers into areas like that throughout the country. We'll use it as a model. That to me, I think, was different. And I came back, believe it or not, and called Carol Mosley Braun and said you've got this school construction bill going, what can you do? Take credit for this, I don't care. If you can come up with something that's wonderful and do it ahead of time. That to me is news. I mean it's a different approach to something. And it wasn't my idea. It was the woman's idea who was at the Urban League. So you're right, she should have gotten some recognition for it.
But it was just one of those things. My problem is, as some of you in the press know, if I don't like something I'll call you up and tell you. I called and I said why didn't you report the other stuff? And he said you didn't discuss issues. I said who was that little guy who was with me the whole day? I said was that not you? And he did not say very much after that.
Suarez – Lee Hamilton, I wanted to ask you about novelty, about familiarity and about the difficulties, if there are any, in running your 15th, 16th and 17th campaigns. What were the responsibilities of the papers in your area when covering your opposition as a new flavor as opposed to you, a very known quantity in your area? And did you see differences in the way you were being covered? Listen to the Community
Hamilton – Ray, I don't know if I understand the import of your question. Except I think there is a responsibility on the local press, when they're dealing with members of Congress. Obviously at least House members are not national figures in a political sense for the most part. Maybe some are. But the local press, I think, has a real obligation to try to make clear first of all what they think, what the press thinks, are the major issues in that area. Not what the candidate thinks but what the press thinks the major issues are. And one of the responsibilities of the press, it seems to me, is to listen in their community, in their area, to their constituents, to their readers, so that they make the analysis of what the issues are.
Candidates believe they know what the issues are. But candidates' view of what the issues are are usually very strongly colored by the candidate's own political biases or views. So the local press has the obligation to try to understand the whole candidate, both the incumbent and the opponent. And to present that to the constituency of the media as clearly and precisely as they can. I think my own view on that is that's best achieved through very extensive interviewing with the two candidates. I apply that both to television and to the media. To the extent that they do not do that, then they're falling down on their responsibility, regardless of what the bottom line is. There is a responsibility that the press has, that the media has, to the public. To the public good. And that responsibility runs far beyond the bottom line and the profit and loss. That responsibility is a key part of representative democracy. It is to make clear to the people what the choices are in a political contest. A representative democracy doesn't function very well unless the people know the fundamental facts about their candidates.
Suarez – The reason I ask the question is that you'll often hear candidates refer to paid media and free media. Those of us in this room who work every day in news rooms are free media. So we are manipulated for the opportunities to show the candidate in some context, in some form, either on television or on the radio or in the next morning's paper. This is a very different ball game for incumbents and for challengers. It's a much bigger part of the campaign for underfunded candidates. Yet I'm wondering if paradoxically once you've been around a long time it is harder for the people in your own back yard to focus that much on what you're saying. If you do a hearing on farm land conservation in an Indiana district are they going to say that's just politicking, it's an election year, he wants to get on TV? Or will you be able to talk about farm land conservation? Don't Let Candidate Control You
Hamilton – I think once you've been in office for a period of time people get a fairly set view of you as a person, as an office holder, and it's very, very hard to change that. It may even be impossible to change it after a period of time. But I have my own sense of priorities in my congressional district as to what I think are important. I don't think the media should accept that sense of priorities. I think it's your job to push and to probe and to ask me a lot of tough questions, whether I've been in office one term or 15 terms. You have a responsibility to press the candidate. Don't let the candidate control you. Don't let the candidate spin. You should analyze what the problems are in the district and ask that candidate about them and press him very hard, whether he's been there a short time or not.
Ifill – But how much of that then is the press setting policy?
Hamilton – You're asking questions that you think are important. The candidate is responding to give answers to your questions. In a sense the press is setting the agenda. But I'm saying I think that's an appropriate role for the press. And not to accept the agenda as put forward by the candidate. I don't look upon that as determining policy, however. I think that's a difference. By-passing the Media, Going Direct to Voters
Suarez – Ron Faucheux, I'm wondering if we can look forward to a more press-free future for campaigns. As more campaigns try to figure out ways to get around, over or under the conventional means of story telling that we're so familiar with and go right to voters so that the head piece in tomorrow morning's paper is dwindling in importance.
Faucheux – The campaigns are certainly trying to do that and they'll continue to try to do that. I don't think they're going to be able to create a press-free environment. Because the press still has a tremendous amount of power, as was just said, in terms of setting the agenda. Regardless of how it's covered, whether it's always covered the way everybody wants it to be. With so much information being available that doesn't necessarily mean that that information is going to be digested and used. But the press will continue to play a role. Certainly in national campaigns and even at the congressional level.