Panel Discussion: The Presidential Campaign
- Judy Woodruff, Anchor and Senior Correspondent, CNN News
- David Broder, Columnist, The Washington Post
- Michael Kelly, Editor, National Journal
- Susan Page, White House Bureau Chief, USA Today
- Alan K. Simpson, Former Senator
- Dale Bumpers, Former Senator
- Shelia Tate, President, Powell Tate public relations firm
Following is an edited transcript of the fourth 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.
JUDY WOODRUFF, MODERATOR
ANCHOR AND CO-ANCHOR OF INSIDE POLITICS
There are very real questions again in this presidential campaign about whether we're doing the right job and whether we're asking the right questions and whether we're representing the people we write for and report for, the public, as well as we should. I wish that I could have been here. I've got a thumbnail sketch of what I think that all of us, no matter which direction we come from, whether we're in television or whether we're in print, we do sense that there's something about the system that needs fixing whatever our perspective is. We're very fortunate that we have to talk about this today six extraordinary practitioners. Some from the political side of the business and some from the reporting side of the business.
I'm going to start out with a very general question. Then I'm going to throw it to David Broder. Essentially, David, when you see these polls and Andy Kohut's report, the public seems to be coming back to us and saying we'd rather hear about the issues, we'd rather hear about the background of these candidates from a public policy standpoint. We really don't care so much about personal details of their lives. And we'd rather not hear, at least I gather this is what we're finding in this latest poll again, so much reporting about the horse race. Is that the sense that we in journalism have? Do we understand what it is that the public wants to know? Or does it even matter to us, David?Horse Race Journalism Is and Should Be Part of Coverage
COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST
It ought to matter. The horse race thing is a question that always devils panels like this. All I can tell you is that in my experience every time you come back from a trip, wherever it may be, the first question that anybody asks in the news room is how's it going, who's ahead. This is a contest and it's a race and I think we'd be blinding ourselves to reality if we didn't recognize that this is a contest. That doesn't mean we can't do other things. But we ought to acknowledge, I think, that horse race journalism is going to be part, and ought to be part, of what we do.
I think there's room for doing both the other things. There are questions that people legitimately have about the government that affect their lives directly. Examples at the moment. We know that the boomers are going to be retiring in ten years. We also know that our retirement and health care system for seniors at this point is a nonfunctional system. Legitimate to ask and push hard for answers from the candidates about what will you do. Because that issue is going to be on your desk.
We know that there are unanswered questions on the world scene about what are the ground rules for when the United States intervenes or doesn't intervene. Legitimate and important to ask the candidates do you have some rules that you would apply or would you just deal with every instance on an ad hoc basis as we've mostly been doing up to now? I think those concerns that you hear from the voters are important cues for us as to what we ought to be asking the candidates about. The harder part is how we can help the voters figure out who the hell these people really are and how they might operate. We've slowly gotten better at probing those questions. I think while it verges on the personal it's important to know what kind of family forces shaped these people.
If somebody has grown up in a dysfunctional family, that's going to affect the way that they behave. You don't have to look any further than the examples of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to see how that can change politics and policy in the country. But it's also important for us, and I think it's something we're capable of doing without pretending to be psychiatrists, to find out about what their peer relationships have been, what their relationships with their staffs have been over the years. One thing that I'm currently engaged in is trying to get these candidates for president to talk about what they've learned or sensed about the relationship between presidents and congresses. It's been a perpetual problem for every recent president. What have you learned from that? I was down asking Governor Bush that question last week about what he took away from watching his father struggle with Congress.
Those are things which are not intensely personal but maybe will give people clues as to who these people really are and how they might function in the office.
Woodruff – Alan Simpson, would you agree that it is important for the press to look closely, deeply at the family background of these candidates? That it does matter whether they've had, whether you call it a dysfunctional family or whatever, and we do need to know their personal relationships with staff and others to see how they interact with people? Are these important?'Everyone in This Room Will Flunk the Test'
FORMER SENATOR FROM WYOMING, NOW LECTURER, INSTITUTE OF POLITICS, THE KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
I think, Judy, that the term is "closely, deeply." What is closely deeply? In the earlier part of the program Steve Brill made the comment that there are many media sources who have spent thousands of dollars and man and woman hours in Odessa, Texas with somebody who's a drug counselor hoping and praying they can find the person who counseled George W. Bush, if he had this problem. Which in my mind is a total waste of energy and human endeavor. But that's my view and that's only because I was on federal probation for shooting mailboxes and slugged a cop in Laramie. I think those things should go unwritten, for God's sake. But they looked all over for that when I ran so I put it out there first. And [former Secretary of Defense] Dick Cheney, when he went through his confirmation, had a DWUI [driving while under the influence] when he was at the University of Wyoming and he told [Senator] Sam Nunn if you're going to bring that up I'm going to bring it up first. So it's easy to talk about all that stuff when you're out there in the fourth estate but how would you feel if it were happening to you? That's the difference. I think it's absurd to dig deeply into the life of a person who's 50 about what they did when they were 18. Because everybody in this room will flunk that test. It's perceived by the public as banal and offensive and puerile. When they see the person from the media asking that question they think the guy's a jerk. Their question immediately in their own head is what did you do. That's where Bradley unnerved the whole crew when he turned to the bunch and said did you ever smoke pot?
Woodruff – You're referring to one of the Sunday programs?
Simpson – Yes, I was. Anyway, enough of that. I just think "closely, deeply." I agree with David in the sense of you want to find out who these people are. But that's not hard to find out. You talk to their brothers and their sisters and their colleagues and their old roommates and the best man at their wedding. That's enough. You don't have to go back into court records 30, 40 years ago, with glee. I think it's a real mistake. And I think it will be more and more unproductive because the public is tired of it.
Woodruff – Susan Page, should there be any limits on what we can look at and look into in the background of a presidential candidate?How Relevant to Performance in Office?
WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY
I think one of the legacies of the Monica Lewinsky controversy or scandal is that Americans hope to have a president that they know a lot less about his or her personal life. I think a lot of reporters feel that way too. For various reasons, and some of them quite legitimate, we explored in great detail the most personal details about President Clinton, more than we wanted to know. We mentioned previously the cocaine reports or rumors or speculation about George W. Bush. I spoke to an alumni lunch last week at Marymount College, which is a Catholic school. It used to be a girls school; I guess it's coed now. So this was not exactly a group of your most liberal people, a rather conservative group. And I asked the luncheon how many people thought it was legitimate to explore whether George W. Bush had ever used cocaine because it reflected on his character as president, was it an appropriate question to pursue? Not one person in the room raised their hand. Every single person at this group said that they didn't want to know and they didn't want the question raised.
I think you do have the standard of showing the relevance to his performance in office. So for instance, if you think a person had a dysfunctional family life growing up, that's relevant only if you're sure it relates to his ability to lead or to relate to Congress or to act in an honorable way. In itself it seems to me it's not an appropriate subject to pursue in great depth.
Woodruff – I can also see, though, why in a group of women alums they might have been reluctant to say yes, I'd like to know.
Page – That's also possible.Media Creates a 'Cult of Personality'
Woodruff – Sheila, so where does that leave us? I mean in terms of lines that should be drawn. You've been inside the White House, you know a lot of journalists, you've talked to them about how they make these decisions. How do you make the decision about what's OK and what isn't?
PRESIDENT, POWELL TATE PUBLIC RELATIONS, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY TO NANCY REAGAN
I spent one of the longest years of my life as the campaign press secretary in '88 for George Bush. So I have that experience to speak from. I think the question of where you draw the line has to be answered on that side of the table. Democracies depend on a free and open and unfettered press. But the press has to be respected and has to be credible. When the press steps over a line they know it. And they tend to redefine what's private and what's over the line in every new circumstance. I think that's where it belongs. I think the press can't foist it off on the political side. We all have opinions but I think the final determination of what's beyond the pale has to be made by the press.
I think part of the antipathy you see toward the press among the public at large is due to the creation of a cult of personality in the media that is very dangerous.
Woodruff – Michael Kelly, should the press be worried about what the public thinks about us?
Heart of the Question Is Bill Clinton
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE NATIONAL JOURNAL AND EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
I suppose so. Speaking as somebody who once pleaded nolo contendre to an alcohol-related incident involving a homecoming at the University of New Hampshire in 1975 I share Senator Simpson's belief that some things should go unprinted. A good many things. There is an interesting distinction here that should be raised and it gets lost all the time. This happens over and over again in all areas with press coverage. We tend to, in our large sort of packish way, go about things in an unthinking fashion, without drawing important distinctions. This conversation is inescapably revolving around Bill Clinton and his woes. That actually is at the heart of this question.
In 1992 when candidate Bill Clinton was confronted with Gennifer Flowers and with the draft issue what was interesting to reporters covering him was not the specifics of either one of those alleged misdeeds. It was the mounting evidence, and evidence that mounted bit by bit and more by more over time and got quite serious, that in this candidate for the presidency you had a person who had an unusual relationship with the truth, with the business of telling the truth. A person who was unusually willing in his answers to these issues to go much further than most people would in flatly denying things that were so and to play games with the truth and with the semantics and so on that were unusual. And I think reporters got a sense that this said something important and in a fundamental way, in a deep, important way about this person and what sort of president he might be, something that mattered here.
We more or less dropped it or it dropped itself or something. At any rate things went on. We eventually got to the point where I think it became clear to a lot of people that this issue that people first suspected in 1992 was in fact core, that this was core to the whole presidency, the entire being of Bill Clinton as president. It mattered a great deal, as we saw last year, in terms of what happened directly in his presidency. But we have taken away from that, it seems to me, a kind of unthinking impulse that because the externalities of something might be the same that we are obligated to somehow pay intense scrutiny to this sort of character issue (we call it in shorthand) any time it arises. Did so and so use cocaine? Did so and so once have a run in with the law? Is so and so divorced? Did so and so commit adultery?
These things in and of themselves, it seems to me, properly don't matter. They don't matter in the overwhelming majority of cases. The only times they do matter is when you have reason to think, from evidence and I suppose even to some degree from gut instinct, that you're dealing with somebody whose character is fundamentally flawed in such a way that it actually is a job performance issue, that it would matter as to what sort of president that person would become. This is simply not the case, it seems to me, in the huge majority of these cases. If a certain candidate for the presidency went through a period of drug use or anything like that or infidelity in marriage or something 20 years ago, X years ago, in and of itself I don't see where that is something that perhaps we should report.
Woodruff – Who's to determine who has a flawed character?
Kelly – I'm perfectly willing to concede, having raised this point, that the divining of when something is appropriate to raise, when it does rise to this fundamental level, is perhaps an impossible question to answer. But I think we should at least be thinking about it rather than by rote going through the sort of ridiculous exercise of running down a list of presidential candidates and saying to each one OK, did you ever smoke pot. As if it mattered.Ultimate Power Belongs to Public
Page – But you know, Judy, Sheila said that it's up to the people on this side, it's up to the press to decide when these questions get raised. But there is no press to decide. The fact is that even if the Washington Post and the Atlantic and the National Journal and USA Today decided there was a certain sort of question we weren't going to ask it wouldn't matter. Because Matt Drudge would ask it and talk radio would ask it. And the world of the news media has gotten so that it is not possible for the press to decide not to pursue these questions. What I think really has happened is that the public has decided what they are going to discount as issues. We've certainly seen this over and over again with President Clinton where there are issues which we see as character issues and explore in great depth and even through impeachment. The public decided these were not the issues that mattered to them and they were going to discount them. That seems to me the reality of the world we're in now. Candidates can choose not to answer questions and some reporters can choose not to ask them. But at the end it's in the power of the public to decide whether the questions and the answers matter.All Politicians Lumped Together
Woodruff – Alan Simpson, if that's the case why can't you give those of us in the so-called mainstream news media a pass on this? If it's our brethren who we're not responsible for who are asking these questions then is there really anything we can do about it?
Simpson – There's the real issue. Think of how many times the media has characterized all of us as jerks, thugs, adulterers, poops, boneheads, squirrels. Because there are 535 of us and maybe 30 of them are up to those tricks. And all of us get the blame. That, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what you're going to get. Because that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the crop you've shoveled on all politicians for the weaknesses of a few. Whenever there is one of those things, a guy who said he was in Korea and he wasn't, the guy that was infidelity or drunk, we then are lumped together with them and that's the territory. You get the territory.
Woodruff – So there's nothing that can be done?
Simpson – Yes. You go into your own profession and your craft and you try to weed those people out or at least target them. I would say look, that's not me. I've done a lot of squirrelly things but you're not going to distort who I am. Anybody who's as much of a pro as everybody at this table, whenever somebody pulls one of those off you don't sit there. Because you are going to be blamed and you are going to be equated with them. You know that's the way it is. And you repudiate those people.
Woodruff – David, I keep talking about us in the mainstream media as if we are sort of above this. Susan suggested it's really impossible to ignore some of these questions. They're going to get asked regardless. Do we have the ability to turn the other way if Matt Drudge or the National Enquirer – name the publication, somebody – is out there reporting it, can the rest of us just say we're not going to engage in that?Put Revelations in Context
Broder – We have the ability to put it in context that makes sense from our own judgment about our own responsibilities. First let me just say parenthetically I think Simpson is right that the press has institutionally contributed significantly to the caricature of politics that the American people have today. If you say, as I try to do, that by and large there are fewer hacks in Congress now than there were when I started covering it and that the standard of ethics, including financial ethics, is much higher now, people look at you and say what planet are you from. But the caricature that he's talking about is something to which we clearly have contributed. He's right about that.
Woodruff – Is there anything that can be done about that?
Broder – There clearly is. Because we have the option of writing about the 90 percent of the people who are doing an honorable job and a good job. In fact, given the public attitudes toward politics when something works in government we ought to take note of it. There was an award ceremony in this city a few days ago for innovations in American government. Ten or 12 programs that were singled out because they worked for the American people. I would argue that that's news. But it didn't get treated as news in most places. Come back to Michael's point and to your question. I think the way in which we can perhaps deal with this iffy kind of, this murky area that Michael was talking about, if we start with the public record and the public activities of public people and then see what questions are raised by that. I'll give you one example. There was a presidential candidate a few cycles ago I was writing a profile about. I did what you normally do which is say who should I talk to, who are your friends in town? He mentioned Senator Bumpers as one of his close friends. I went to see Bumpers and Bumpers said why are you asking me about him? I said because he told me you're one of his closest friends. He said, he said that? That told me something about the character of the relationships that this particular candidate had or didn't have. That's what leads you into saying what is it about this candidate that would make his relationships with political peers so attenuated as they are? That's important for a president because a president only gets stuff done by being able to persuade other politicians that it's worth doing.
Woodruff – Sheila Tate, is it possible, whether it's David's formula or another one, to say that it's all right to look? Not only all right, we should be looking. Somebody's running for the highest office in the land in the most powerful country on earth. Shouldn't we be looking just about everywhere for information on them? Start with their policy record, start with what's above the fold, if you will, but then ask all these other questions.
'Didn't Talk to the Rags, period.'
Tate – The truth of the matter is the opposition campaign will do most of that work for you. Frankly, if I were in a media position I would be more concerned with defining what the role of the media is. I sometimes think the media thinks it's the setter of the agenda I'm dragged back to my roots in my journalism education where I came to really believe that the press was there to report on, not create, news. Sometimes the biggest problems the media have are when it forgets what its role is. When you talked about we in the mainstream media versus these unwashed unworthy – I've got to remind you that in the early '80s CNN was not mainstream media. CNN was anathema to the networks. CNN was considered, in some cases, as bad as Matt Drudge in terms of being unworthy to be in White House press pools, for instance. Now we have, I believe it's on Fox but I'm not sure so I don't want to – well, I've already said it. But that's another problem. National Enquirer has its own television program. Does that make it mainstream media? My policy when I was in the White House was I didn't talk to the rags, period. If they called I was the cleaning lady if I happened to pick up the phone. I simply wouldn't let them quote me. Because I didn't want them to have that credibility. I guess I made that decision based on my own set of values about what was appropriate and what wasn't. But it seems to me you've got to be very careful about defining what the proper role of the media is. On a presidential campaign there are huge stakes, everything is micromanaged by the campaign managers, if they're worth their salt. What the media's challenge is, when a story does develop, is to take that story and get to the bottom of it. Not to go looking for stories they can create out of whole cloth. I think that I'd be happier as a voter if I knew the press was watching and listening with a critical ear to what the candidates were saying and I knew that reporter was going to follow that one all the way to ground.
Woodruff – So Susan Page, why isn't that enough? Why isn't it enough that we do just follow the candidate around, listen to what they have to say and analyze or whatever?Raise Issues Candidates Avoid
Page – Because the candidates often are trying to avoid tough issues, not address them. If you talk about what the role of the media is in a presidential campaign or other campaigns, it's to raise the issues that the candidates most don't want to talk about. There was an election cycle where neither candidate in either party wanted to discuss the savings and loan scandal even though that was going to be this huge issue as soon as one or the other of them won the White House. That was a case where the press did a disservice by not forcing that issue to the forefront. I would just say in response to what Sheila said that there are a lot of unwashed unworthies in the mainstream news media. We wouldn't deny that. But one of the ways that you put things like these character questions that we talk about so much, or the horse race questions that we get criticized for, one way to put them in their proper context is to also cover the policy and substantive questions that we do the weakest job on. The fact is we're much more delighted to cover the horse race or whether somebody ever –
Woodruff – It's easier.
Page – It's easier, it's more fun than to cover education policy or what somebody will do about Medicare. One problem we have is that once a candidate gives a speech and we cover it on the day he gave the speech then it no longer seems like news to us, although six months will pass before the public is paying the slightest bit of attention. It'll be news to them up to the election day. So if there's one mission that it seems to me that we ought to really address ourselves to it's not to not covering character issues or not covering horse race but to do a better job on the issues that actually have an impact on people's lives.
Woodruff – Michael and David, how do we do that? Is there some sort of unseen pressure out there on us in the press to make these stories juicier and more fun?Pay Attention to the Substance
Kelly – I think a simple way to do it – and this is something I notice all the time writing a column – when you set out to try to learn something about a subject, to write about it, you go to the clips. It's very easy to gather this stuff now through Lexis and so on. You can gather all the clips you want and get a wide array covering the whole range of the public discussion of the issue. Read through it all and find at the end of it that you have no mastery whatsoever of the substance of the issue. All you know is the strategy and tactics politically. You know what the reporters think, the reason the President or the White House did such and such and the reason the Republicans did such and such. You know that over and over again. There are five stories and a news analysis and three columns about that. But you will find in the mainstream press, and I'm talking about us unwashed unworthies, not the people we heap scorn on, a great dearth of the articles saying here is the substance of the argument. You look at the case in point. There's probably been 500 stories on the Senate's rejection of the comprehensive test ban treaty. 90 percent of these stories you'll find in the mainstream press are strategy and tactics stories. A reader, even a dedicated intelligent reader, could be forgiven for believing that this entire debate was utterly unserious on both sides and involved nothing of substance. That it involved on one hand a Republican Congress that wished to give the President a black eye and humiliate him for reasons solely of personal animus. And on the other hand, a president who was calculating to receive a black eye so that he could gain a campaign issue for his vice president. That is a message that we are communicating, I think, to voters. One thing we could do is fairly simple, is to at least start running some stories in the newspaper about paying attention to the substance of the thing. There's a real substantive argument about that treaty. There's a real argument for signing and there's a strong real argument against signing it. That alone would be a step, it seems to me.
Woodruff – David Broder, you're a close observer of the way we do things in the journalism business. Why don't we do more of the kind of reporting that Michael is describing? Is somebody telling us not to?Focus on What's at Stake
Broder – It's hard. You have to actually know something to write about what the controversy over the test ban treaty was about. You don't have to know a hell of a lot about Jesse Helms having one agenda and Bill Clinton having a different agenda. The most useful point about this that I've ever come across was in a book a few years ago written by Jeff Bell who turns out to have an important part in American political history. By knocking off Cliff Case in a Republican Senate primary in New Jersey he gave us Bill Bradley. He's now working for Gary Bauer. He wrote this little book a few years ago about the elite and the masses. And what he said in that book that I try to remember, not as often as I should, is that the mass of our readers care about what comes out of an election. The elites care about who comes out and how they manage to do it. If we could manage to focus ourselves more on what's at stake in election, what's going to come out, rather than the who and the how we could probably be of a lot more use to the public.
Woodruff – But why don't we do that? Susan. Why aren't we doing that? Is there a voice upstairs (I don't mean god)). Are our editors saying don't do it, don't make it serious, don't make it substantive?Trapped by Tradition
Page – I think it's just the whole way the system is set up. It's the way that we've traditionally covered campaigns, which is being on the road with candidates, which doesn't encourage you to do reporting that requires you to know other things or talk to experts. It's our concept of what is news. You know, we think the story that leads the newspaper needs to have a yesterday in it, it needs to be something that has happened, it needs to have some element of conflict. So and so said yesterday, this was announced yesterday, this train crash happened yesterday. But I do think we're in the process to some degree of redefining that and of having more respect for stories that are substantive and stories that are trend stories as opposed to this happened yesterday stories. One of the things that's forcing us that way, if you look in the Andy Kohut poll and you see what issues you are interested in, ordinary people versus elites. You see that ordinary people – whoever they are – I guess I would put myself in that category, care first of all about flexibility for working parents. I've got to say that's a big factor in my life. Providing health insurance for all, Medicare reforms. The elites, by the way, are not all interested in those subjects. Those are things that really matter in people's lives. I know that in my paper we make this very conscious effort to try to figure out what matters in people's life and cover that. We may not do it so well but we're making an effort to do that. I do think there's a trend in mainstream journalism toward addressing that and getting away a little bit from some of the who shot John yesterday stuff.
Woodward – I was going to ask Alan Simpson, do you see a trend out there? Are we putting the brakes on this sort of fixation with the personal and the sensational? Are we getting more serious and more responsible?Get Back to Basic Reporting
Simpson – It's been a great honor to be where I have been. I went up there [to Harvard] for a semester thanks to Marvin Kalb and I've been there four years. I've got to get out of there because people in Wyoming are very troubled that I'm still there. I'm going to get out and brother Pete and I will go back to the University of Wyoming. But I'll tell you what I've seen through the Nieman Foundation and Bill.[Kovach]. I've seen these issues addressed in ways they were never addressed five years ago or ten years ago. Because, and it was said, not by me, but I have said it, not today, that if there is one thin skinned branch of society thinner than all the rest of the epidermises in the whole world it's journalists. Years ago the quick response was, you jerk, you don't understand the chilling effect, with violin music. Or the people's right to know, with more violin music. Or you're trampling the First Amendment and all that. And what I see now is that you of the mainstream, the good guys, are tired of what politicians get tired of. Getting on an aircraft and they say what do you do for a living? You say I'm with government. And what do you do? I'm a journalist. Oh, you are? I want to tell you something. And so you get tired of that. It's embarrassing. Who likes to be part of a craft/profession where people don't hold you in respect? What I see, I see it in my classes, I see it with the Nieman Foundation, I see it with The Boston Globe and it's very real. Things like this were never held ten years ago because we don't do anything wrong. We in the media don't make mistakes. And now after what has occurred in this horrible experience with the President incumbent and [Kenneth] Starr and the rattlesnake venom between Starr and Clinton. Both of them in a way have destroyed the other one. They are going to brood about it a long time. There will always be an asterisk by their names. I think, what Michael Kelly said (he had a lot of heads nodding) out in the real world of just tell us about these things. The who, what, when, how, where, why was what I learned in journalism in Cody High School. That has to be the guts of journalism. If it's not, then take your damned opinions and put them on the inside of the paper. Take your anonymous sources and stick them somewhere else. Anonymous sources will destroy journalism. And what will destroy politicians is guys who run around saying I want to go off the record. No responsible journalist should ever listen to a politician who says I want to go off the record. Just take your notepad and tear out.
Woodruff – In the day to day, minute by minute, world of covering a presidential campaign, Michael Kelly, when you've got to turn in a story that your editor is going to like and that you're going to be proud of, are these the things that are going to be foremost in your mind?'News and the Culture of Lying'
Kelly – They can't be. There's a fundamental reason here. I don't want to get too abstruse. David mentioned a small book. There was a small book I read a few years ago called "News and the Culture of Lying." [by Paul Weaver]. It's a quirky interesting book. It argued that the fundamental thing that we do, the way that we shape the news as defined by the who, what, when, where, why formula, the ordering of things, is in the best of cases with the best of intentions a kind of lie. Because what happens in life really is that every day there is not order but there is chaos. All of this stuff is going on all around the place and a lot of it is conflicting with each other and a lot of it doesn't make any real kind of sense. The reporter, more than anybody else, knows this. Because the reporter gets out of bed and goes out into that chaos and by 5 p.m., or earlier if you have to file a budget, has to try to impose some sort of order on it. There isn't really an order. But there's no other way to do it. You cannot call your editor and say you know it's just a mess out there and it's frankly confusing to me, I don't know what to make of it. And you can't call your editor and say I know you sent me to the biggest hearing on the Hill today and everybody else is covering it but I have to tell you, the entire thing is a sort of stage show, it's a kind of fraud, it's not real at all and we shouldn't pay that much attention to it. When I was reading this book, at the time I was reading it, I was talking to a young reporter, as it happened, who had been sent out to cover a church burning. This was during the spate of stories, the big run of stories, about the burning of African-American churches. She had been out to cover a church that was burned and it was an African-American church. I asked her what she had discovered in her first day going out there. She said the fire chief said they didn't really know what had happened and they didn't know the cause of the fire and it might be lightning and it might be this, might be that. So it wasn't really sure but there was a lot of emotion there and there were people weeping and there were a lot of people saying that this was part of the sort of national hate spree that we were on supposedly and everything. That was what she knew. So I said you have two options. You can call up your editor and say there's a two-paragraph story here saying that there was a fire but we don't know anything it really. Or you can lead with a story about people weeping amid the charred ruins of yet another African-American church and say in passing that we don't know that this was a hate crime but tie it into the whole national scene. Which one did you file? It was option B, as it turned out. This is the nature of our business. I think this treatise I read had some real truth in it. We see a very complicated world every day. We go to the university, cover a demonstration and on some level we know that the truth is that there's 200 people demonstrating and they're demonstrating because we're there. There's 10,800 people who are going to class. But we don't file the second story. We file the first story because that's how we define news.
Woodruff – A lot to think about. Sheila.Two Deaf Ladies at a Rally
Tate – On a presidential campaign, though, you can look at, if you are out on this traveling road show, which is a made for TV movie. I mean I was a press secretary to a presidential candidate and I never understood. Maybe Alan Simpson can explain this. I never understood how going to a rally in a town square where everybody wore strange hats and screamed a lot changed voters' minds. But it does. And I remember when Jim Angle was with National Public Radio. He had the ability to step back and look at some of this silliness. He did some of the best reporting on the foibles of campaigning. I think this would be a great way to keep your head screwed on right if you were a reporter on a campaign. He once did an interview in Anchorage, Alaska when we were on the ground for a rally in the freezing cold. He interviewed two deaf ladies about what they had gotten out of it. Of course, they had gotten nothing out of it because they couldn't hear anything. He did the cutest interview with them and the sister who had brought them and the experience. I do think that the issues that really matter in deciding a presidential election are the economy and national security issues, defense issues, war and peace. The degree to which those issues are stable, where there's not a big concern about either one of them, the other issues surface. What the media has to consider and judge is how closely those issues are held. People will respond to a poll and say yes, we must deal with health care, we must deal with education, we must deal with this. But if the economy turns bad all of that sinks way to the bottom and they care about jobs and the economy. If there is a real external threat of some kind that becomes the only issue that decides, the serious issue that decides the election.
Page – So the lesson of that is that the worst place to cover a campaign is on a campaign, right?
Tate – I wouldn't disagree with that.
? – Deaf women at a rally are cheerleaders who are railing against the ACLU when they don't know what it is. The best place to cover a campaign are the places where we're increasingly covering campaigns. We now have a reporter who does nothing but cover campaign money and so do other newspapers. That's not a beat that ever existed before at my newspaper. Now it consumes a person full time. If you're on a campaign then you tend to go to the rallies and think they matter. You start to think it matters who a candidate's pollster when frankly I think it matters not at all. If you're not on a campaign maybe you focus on who's giving money, which is an important issue, or what's happening with the economy and what prescriptions.
Woodruff – David, is that feasible? I mean for news organizations not to send somebody?Polar Opposites
Broder – We've got now two polar positions here. Simpson saying just follow the candidate and tell us what he or she is saying. And Susan saying get the hell away from the candidate and find out what's going on. I think it's useful to do both. We have some obligation to be a transmission belt for these people who are seeking the most important office in the country. But I have to respectfully disagree with my friend over there. Because if you cover the candidates by and large you will hear them saying the same things day after day. Which they need to do for the sake of repetition and to drive the message home. But it becomes pretty quickly a fairly empty exercise journalistically and I think a fairly not useful exercise from the public's point of view. The missing piece and the one that I think Andy's survey touches on, the most important players in any election are not the candidates, not the consultants, not even the glorious press. It's the voters. And you never make a mistake spending a lot of time listening to what the voters are bringing to the table. They will tell you what the election is about. And they will, most of the time, tell you if you really listen to them how the election is going to come out.
Woodruff – Alan, you want to respond?
Simpson – You mentioned the word, Sheila, "mindless." And it is, some of it. We've all been through these. It's October and it's Halloween and so you're met by a group at the bus depot in costume and it's really something kind of unbelievable. Then they hand you a hat.
Woodruff – You don't mean journalists, do you?'Eating Beans Again and God Almighty'
Simpson – No, I'm talking about the public. But remember, the mindlessness is involvement. To what looks to be mindless, to those people, they've been a waiting a month knowing the group was coming through there. They want to show off, their chamber of commerce wants to show off the town or the city. They've put a lot of heart and care and love into greeting Bill Clinton or George Bush or Dukakis. What looks to the jaded as not one of those again, those hay bales and they're eating beans again and god almighty, I can't stand it. To those people, they've been waiting a long time and they've done what David has seen and he writes about. During that time of sitting at that hay bale they got to ask that guy a lot of questions. They got to say how do you feel about this? They brought other people in to ask them how they felt about it. It's corny but it is involvement. And that has to continue. At least it does continue in little places in Iowa and New Hampshire and places like that. It's got to be part of it.
Woodruff – I want to throw it open for questions from the audience.A Few Specific Examples
Q. – I'm Morton Mintz. I was at The Washington Post for a long time. I want to follow up on something that Steve Brill said at the luncheon that maybe some of you did not hear. Just on one point. He was emphasizing the need for the press to ask specific questions. He thinks get yes or no answers. One of his examples was the income and wealth chasm in this country which is growing and growing. And as a corollary to that the use of the tax code to subsidize the highest salaries in private life. I want to follow up on that by giving you a few specific questions of the kind that I don't believe are normally asked and that I think are important, partly because when David or others go out to talk to voters the question is what do the voters know to ask about? Here's one. It was emphasized on 60 Minutes last night. It was why Americans are paying more for prescription drugs, even those made in this country, than people in Canada pay or in other countries. Another one. How many of those voters that you may talk to know that the congressional budget office said in April that if the limit on mortgage debt were to be reduced from $1 million to $300,000 over a ten-year period starting in the year 2000 the federal revenues would be increased by $43.8 billion. That's real money. How many reporters on the campaign trail are going to ask about whether drugs purchased by Medicare patients should be purchased en masse like for the VA or Medicaid to lower their prices. One more to back this up if I can. In May of 1988, a campaign year, the surgeon general of the United States said that cigarettes, quote, are addicting in the same sense as are drugs such as heroin and cocaine. That story was on the front page of newspapers all over the country. It was played on the evening news and all of that. I never heard of a reporter asking a presidential candidate or a Senate or House candidate a question such as, do you agree or disagree, if you disagree do you have any scientific evidence for your disagreement. And are you taking money from tobacco companies? If you do, what's the difference between taking that money and money from the cocaine and heroin cartel? It's still a live question, by the way.
Page – I think those are great questions to be asked. But I would argue that in many cases they are being asked. When you talk about the differential in the cost of prescription drugs in the United States and Canada, that's part of the debate over prescription drug coverage for Medicare. There's no doubt that we should do a better job of covering the substantive issues. But I think that's an area that the press has explored. And the wealth chasm, the growing gap between rich and poor in this country, you know, Bill Bradley is giving a speech Thursday of this week on child poverty which is part of that. That's one element of the story of the growing chasm between rich and poor. I think it is a subject about which there has been some coverage. So I do think those are good questions to ask but I guess I would argue that to some degree at least they are being addressed.Let Candidates Choose Their Issues
Kelly – I don't have any complaint with asking specific questions or tough questions. It is of some concern to me that when you go down this road, and we saw this with the experiment in, I think, the last cycle of civic journalism in, I think it was North Carolina. That you get into an area where it becomes an obvious question whether or not it is the press' duty and the press' privilege to decide what the candidate should be running on. And what are appropriate and what are inappropriate platforms with which to appeal to votes. I sort of feel that any candidate should be able to run on whatever platform or whatever set of issues that that candidate chooses, including if he chooses to be demagogic.
Woodruff – So if they want to ignore the savings and loan crisis that Susan reminded us of?
Kelly – I think if they want to ignore it, let them go and ignore it. And if a reporter wants to haul them up on it, let them haul them up on it. But I get nervous about a prescriptive set of questions that we're going to ask every candidate the following ten questions or the following 20 questions. Because then what we're saying in essence is this is what we have decided are the important issues. And I'm not sure where we got that right.Ask Factual Questions
Broder – There's some variant on what Mort is proposing that I think is useful and that we don't do very often. Which is simply to ask factual questions of candidates.
Woodruff – You mean how do you know about, those kinds of questions?
Broder – I did this once on Meet the Press with then Vice President Bush and got thoroughly reamed by Barbara Bush for doing it. I asked him how many Americans do you think there are that don't have health insurance today? It's useful to know what their picture of reality is in the country that they're attempting to govern.
Woodruff – Is it fair, Alan Simpson and Sheila Tate, for the press to ask those do-you-know kinds of questions?
Tate – I suppose it's fine. I don't think it's going to help the voters a whole lot to know if the President knows the price of a carton of milk. But you know, it occurs to me that the kinds of questions that Mr. Mintz is talking about, or that David is talking about, are frequently asked during debates. Those are asked by journalists. It seems like the kind of forum where those kinds of questions can logically be asked of all the candidates in one form or another at the same time.'Let Them Bitch and Whine and Snort and Bellow'
Simpson – For me, I loved the town meetings. I held them all the time. Two or three, four a day sometimes. Two hours a crack. Just speak for ten minutes and let them just bitch and whine and snort and bellow. I'd stay right there till the end and they'd finally drag me away. Because I loved the interchange. When a person gets this tidbit of fact from the Reader's Digest they come in to the town meeting. You know, what are you doing, Simpson, you don't buy your own food and you've got a big car and they're putting you up. I said where'd you get that crap? Well, I read it somewhere. I've got it right here in my hand. I said well, read it off then. Then they'd read it. And they'd say tax cuts are for the rich. I'd say let me put it this way, 1 percent of the individual taxpayers pay 30 percent of the taxes in America and 5 percent of the individual taxpayers pay 50.2 percent of all the individual income taxes. So if you give a tax cut who the hell do you think will get it? They look at you. They say let's get rid of these tax [deductions]. They've got that written down. Get rid of these tax [deductions], by god, we'd solve the world. I say OK, let's get rid of two. Two we need to get rid of. One important one to get rid of is home mortgage interest deduction. Wait a minute, Simpson, I've got another. And then the other one we need to get out of the way is the employer's deductibility of employees premium on health insurance. They say wait a minute. And that's what it's about. It's about them educating the politician and we educating them. But boy, you better go do your homework. And for every journalist that doesn't do their homework there are probably two politicians that don't do their homework and they don't like that kind of forum. If you love politics as I do, or teaching as I do, then you expose yourself to every type of question, public, personal, private, and then give them your side.
Tom Rosenstiel – This year a lot of people have talked about the return of the smoke filled room, if you will. That the parties, particularly perhaps the Republican party, has tried to preset the election before voters have had a chance to be involved. To some degree some have argued that the press has been complicit in this by covering the internal workings of the campaign more. I guess the question is, to what extent should the press feel an obligation to involve voters, to engage voters, to increase participation? To what extent should we be keeping the playing field level for all of the candidates until the primaries are underway? Is that an obligation that we have? Is that part of our responsibility?
Page – We have seen incredible developments this year with the front loading of the schedule where no voter anywhere in America has cast a ballot yet that matters but we've had a series of things that have. We had a silly dinner in Iowa that forced out a former vice president from contention. We've had money as the first primary. We had an AFL-CIO endorsement which is clearly a smoke filled room kind of situation. Gave a big boost to another candidate. It seems to me it's very dangerous to allow things like the people who contribute money are the people who go to a straw poll in Iowa to determine what choices voters are going to have when they finally do get to cast ballots. I'm not entirely sure it's within our power to level that playing field, though. Maybe David has a better sense of what we can do about that.
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