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Panel Discussion: The Presidential Campaign, Page Two

Continued From Page One.

Press Should Not Try to Be an Equalizer

Broder – For better or worse we have to try to deal with reality. Alan Keyes is not George W. Bush. There's just no way to pretend that those are on a par. Doesn't mean you don't cover what Alan Keyes does or says. But it would be ridiculous to try to say that the press is going to serve as the equalizer among candidates. There is no screen for anybody to pet through to become a presidential candidate. All you've got to do is say I'm a presidential candidate. And we'd be damn fools if we treated them all as if they were the same person.

Rosenstiel – David, do you remember a panel like this several years ago when the media was talking about whether the issues really are important? David brought up the fact that at the University of Illinois they had a mascot who was an Indian and they brought that out and that was a big issue between Paul Simon and Lynn Martin. And David, I agree that that shouldn't be but somebody got up and said if we wanted to make it an issue we did. What business is it of yours?

Woodruff – I want to go back to the question. I want to ask if that got at what your question is.

Rosenstiel – I think to some extent it does. I think David addresses the point that you have to take reality as it comes. I think that to the extent that we, especially early on, focus our stories around things like fundraising, strategy, horse race, those play to the strengths of the front runner. They reinforce the weaknesses of the laggards. If you were to cover how people make decisions, their record, their kind of staff people they have around them, that's an area where everybody is equal. Everybody has those things. I'm not sure what the answer is. I myself don't know what the answer to my first question is. But I think that we do make choices here in our coverage. And to the extent that we cover things that accentuate who's ahead by their nature, while we can't ignore those things, we may increase the public anger towards the press because we're shutting them out, we're not writing to them.

Broder – One thing that sort of relates to the question you raise is after each presidential election I realize all the very stupid mistakes I made at the previous one. At the end of the '92 election one of the mistakes I felt I had made was not paying enough attention to candidates who I thought didn't have a chance to win. It was true they didn't have a chance to win but they had a lot to do about shaping the debate. Paul Tsongas I didn't think really had a chance and I didn't pay too much attention to him. But his voice had a big impact on the conversation that the candidates who did have a chance to win had. The same was true with Ross Perot. So the degree to which you cover the subject of the conversation as opposed to the horse race, it seems to me, gives candidates who are not leading in fundraising or leading in the polls a better chance to have their voices heard and to be treated in a serious and appropriate way.

Woodruff – One of you want to comment on the role of us in sort of making it a more even playing field out there?

Republicans Want to Win Regardless of Philosophy

Simpson – Republicans want to win. And they know as they sit around after the present incumbent has had two terms and they realize that 20 percent of them, or at least a great number around the United States, voted for Ross Perot and gave them Bill Clinton. They've got that sorted out. It's like drilling rock but they've got it. They want to win. And when you want to win regardless of philosophy – I think things will come up now in the campaign on abortion, immigration, all those hot button, emotion, fear, guilt, racism buttons, that he will deftly handle those because they'll say OK, he didn't answer it the way I wanted it but I've had it. I've got 50 bucks on this guy and I want to win. I'm tired of losing.

Woodruff – Are you actually suggesting, Alan Simpson, that there are some Republicans out there and others who may be supporting George W. Bush even though they may not agree with him on everything?

Simpson – You bet. This trip. The winner. They're looking for a winner. Looking for an Ike.

Q. – I'm Kathryn Kross with Nightline. Interesting that the Internet hasn't come up in this at all. And wondering what the journalists on the panel, how that changes what you do and how you do it. Especially assuming that we're moving towards a situation where news organizations can track politicians, their records, their stances. Like Steven Brill said, you can have a yes-no-and-wouldn't answer kind of column. How does that change what we do and how we do it?

Resources of Internet Belong to Everyone

Page – It's such a huge resource for voters or people who are interested. Now they don't need to hear an account of what a politician said in a speech. They can go on line and read the speech or even hear the speech. It acts as kind of a safeguard against misquoting somebody. About two years ago I pulled a Newt Gingrich quote out of a wire story and put it in a story. I must have gotten 15 calls from people who had read it on the wire or read it on the web and felt it wasn't fair, that it had been pulled out of context. In that way it's incredibly useful. It changes to some degree what it is we do. Because the things that we go out and cover that used to be exclusively ours now belong to everybody.

Kelly – I agree with that completely. I think it does two things. One, it has already pretty much destroyed the old media's ability to serve as a filter, to decide what is and is not fit to print and fit to air. You can't do that any more because there are people out there who are setting up shop in their basement with a web site and it costs them nothing to do it. They're, in effect, in the publishing business. They might get 300,000 page hits in a month and they're deciding what's fit to print, no matter what you decide. Susan's other point about the information, to me it's extraordinary the way this has changed everything. It's changed what it means to be a reporter. I was doing a column a while back on proposed regulation to change federal banking regs so that –  I think it was called the Know Your Customer Act. Should have been the Big Brother Act. It was a proposed regulation to tell banks across the country that they had to file with the federal government a whole set of personal information about their customers beyond the stuff we have now if there's a $10,000 withdrawal. The federal agency put up the proposed regulation change and all of the supporting documents on its web site as a public service during the comment period. This agency told me they usually get 250-300 comments on this. This time various talk radio hosts and organized groups and so on found it on the web page, sent it all over the Internet. They got 11,000 comments. All but one were negative. This wasn't brought to them courtesy of any of us. It was just out there. And they had to scrap the regulation. That kind of thing has changed all the dynamics.

Unidentified – Hasn't it in a way made the news media more important? Because from the standpoint that somebody's got to be going through this massive list of whether it's comments, issues, whatever, and deciding this may be more important than this. You may argue that we may not be the ones who should be fulfilling that function. But otherwise the public is faced with unfiltered – is that OK? Maybe that's OK.

Broder – Some people want it sorted for them and some people want to do the sorting for themselves. There are plenty of shortcomings in the press or the media, some of which we've touched on here today. The great boon is, and I see it in my reporting when I'm out of this city. You can go into any community of any size now in America and you will find a self-selected group of people who are every bit as well attuned to what's going on in public affairs, every bit as well informed as anybody you'd run into at Brookings or at the Heritage Foundation. They're with it. For them this is a golden age because you've got the Internet, you've got NPR, you've got the cable news channel like your own, Judy. You've got C-SPAN. You've got three national newspapers which we never had through most of our history. Two of which happen to be among the very best papers in the country. And Susan's paper which is week by week a better and more serious paper than it was the week before. It's a great time for people who want to be informed.

Q. – I'm Chris Marquis with Knight-Ridder newspapers. It occurs to me that our political campaign season is painfully long, to the extent that by the time people go to the polls to vote they've largely tuned out on the process. The campaign season is so long that a lot of reporters are forced to scrape perhaps the bottom of the barrel in search of new angles on stories. I was wondering if you saw a role for the media perhaps in abbreviating the campaign season.

Long Campaigns vs. Insider System

Broder – Can I be blunt about that? You can't have it both ways. American people no longer trust politicians to make the important choices in their lives. They want to make those choices for themselves. If we went back to a system where the presidential candidates were chosen by the insiders, by the bosses, if you will, you could have a much shorter and a much less expensive campaign. What these people are doing basically, going around the country now, is introducing themselves to people who have chosen for perfectly reasonable good reasons not to pay attention to them. Last cycle we had Senator Dick Lugar running for president. There's probably nobody who has contributed more substantively to the process of government in this country over the last 20 years. Nobody knew who the hell he was. If they want to choose the presidential candidates for themselves, make up your mind, it's going to take a lot of time and it's going to cost a lot of money. If you want to make that choice yourself don't whine about the time and the cost.

Woodruff – Anybody want to comment on what David said?

Tate – You know, most of the American people ignore most of this up until about Labor Day of election year. Then they really pay attention. Unless there's a huge story of some kind. But they have more common sense and more equilibrium in their lives. And they block it.

Q. – I'm a UC Berkeley student. What does it say about journalism when we can't ignore what goes on, what's written in the press for the entire span of a campaign up until two or three weeks or a month before and then start paying attention? Are we missing something? Is there something that we're not doing, or that journalism is not doing, that makes it that unimportant so that we can just ignore?

Tate – I think that the average citizen in the United States has a lot more pressing issues and concerns that are closer to home for them. It doesn't mean that if their Senator or their congressman comes back and they have a chance to sit down with them that they aren't engaged. It's just that they're not obsessed like we are. In Washington we just obsess over all this. They just filter a lot of it out and they don't worry about it right now. They've got to worry about this and they've got to worry about getting the kids school clothes and they've got to worry about this, that and the other thing and this is not the top priority for them. Frankly, I see it as a healthy sign. What's not healthy is people who refuse to inform themselves at all. And frankly, there's a lot of that.

Woodruff – Should it be a top priority for them?

Television Dominates Campaigning

Tate – You can take a horse to water. There's no power in the world, including the press, that can make people do something they don't want to do. What's wrong, frankly, is that it's so dominated by television. Campaigns are developed for television. And they always will be as long as television is where 80 percent of the people get their news is from television. Their national and international news. So you will have sound bite campaigns and you'll have campaigns that depend on good, strong, solid pictures. And the rest of the stuff that we all obsess about will be of less importance. I know that sounds terribly cynical but I've been there. I've had the field producer for a major network come to me in September of the election year and say George Bush will not be on our network tonight because he didn't throw red meat. Which means he didn't attack Michael Dukakis. He gave a significant speech on education. At that point in a campaign it's vitally important to be on television every night. Actually it's even important what your place is on the show. It affects numbers. It's just bizarre but it does. So it doesn't take more than a few episodes like that to realize that the candidate is being told by television if you want to be on start throwing the red meat, start attacking because you're not going to be on otherwise. Then, geez, you might not get elected and you might not have a chance to put all these policies into effect. It's really, it's an ugly process, it really is. I wouldn't want to go through it again, frankly. But television has an enormous amount of power over elections.

Woodruff – I certainly can't speak for all of television. I was just going to say that I can't speak for all of television but clearly that has been and continues to be a real problem for those of us in television who cover politics. In the heat of the presidential campaign when we're all vying to see who gets on the air unless you work specifically for a political program like Inside Politics you're competing with everything else going on in the world and you are concerned about keeping an audience. And those are very real concerns. Susan.

Page – We've got a presidential candidate now in Bill Bradley who's trying not to follow the traditional way of getting attention and in fact refusing to. You know, Gore makes a charge, he declines to respond. He's going about this his own way and a different way than throwing red meat. We'll see. He's had some success so far, unexpectedly. We'll see how he does. I wonder also if while television is, of course, enormously powerful if the profusion of outlets both on cable and C-SPAN and the Internet don't dilute that somewhat and make it less important what one field producer for one network can do even if it's one of the three major networks. It seems to me that their ability that they had in 1980, for instance, to really just hold in the palm of their hand a great portion of the American audience is now, that hand is open now and there are a lot of different places that matter. There's not one or three places that can determine whether a candidate gets heard.

Woodruff – Anybody agree, disagree with that?

'The Camera Does Not Tell the Truth'

Kelly – I wanted to pick up on a point about this power of television and its power to shape campaigns and so on. It seems to me it is almost as if at times that we in the writing business have, in covering things that happen, events that may be described, whether it's politics or in war, election campaign or a battle, or whatever, that we have almost made some kind of collective decision that television does that job of describing for us. That the camera is so much better at capturing the physicality of something, the event, its reality, that a writer's chief job is not to describe it, not to paint a picture, a narrative in the way that writers used to. And I think this is wrong. I think the camera does not tell the truth and a writer's nuanced description can much better capture the truth. Also, if you ask the question about why people tune out what we do and why they're not focused, I think that our abandonment of that kind of reporting – self consciously writerly coverage of an event, whether it be political or something else, by a good feature writer in the local paper, whatever, that our abandonment of that robs our readers of a lot of the pleasure of reading about politics. When you hear Alan Simpson talk about the political scene that he's been part of there's a real texture there. There's a real sort of vibrant joy and even savage joy to politics. There's a lot of pleasure in this. We used to have more writers who understood that part of the business, not the whole business, but part of the business of writing about politics was in a sense to be a dispatch writer. Like you were out covering a war. To file that kind of evocative, textured writing. A certain restoration of that might restore some public interest.

Q. – I'm Seth Effron. I'd be interested in your points of view on the role to which news coverage of presidential campaigns and campaigns in general has had an impact on voter turnout and the fact that voter turnout has actually been decreasing. Is there an issue there? Is it a need to have more coverage, for example, of voters? Or to what extent has our coverage contributed or not contributed to that?

Good Politicians Hesitate to Run

Simpson – Let me throw one that will be very controversial and you knew I would. I think for one thing the quality of the candidate has gone down because no one wants this kind of surveillance. To go back and pick through your life. I know a lot of good people, both parties, who just say if you think I'm going to do that. I remember [Senator Dale] Bumpers. I said you know, Bumpers, you ought to run for president, I wouldn't vote for you but I think you'd be a hell of a good hand. And he said I've got five reasons why I won't. I said what are they? He said I've got five sons. And he didn't want them exposed. [Senator] Sam Nunn. I said Sam, I'm there every day with these fine gentlemen and women, Sam, how about you? This was during the time they were all toying with it. And he said I've got two reasons, got two kids. One of them is in New York, nearly anonymous, the other one is in Georgia doing wonderful things, I don't want them exposed to this. Obviously that isn't the reason that they didn't do it but it is a reason. Then get back to the point there are less people voting and so on. I think it comes from the disgust that comes from this continual – Jesse Ventura was at Harvard the other day. The media asked him nothing but about the Playboy interview and the students asked him about why he wanted a unicameral legislature, what he was doing for globalization in Minnesota, what he was doing for civic participation. This is what the students asked him while these slavering people came from all over the United States to ask about the Playboy interview. That turns people off. The final result is the politician hopes and prays that the participation will go down because he'll connect with the people that have the brains to pick through it and let the others stay home. Let them stay home. They're jerks. Stick with the guys that are going to read and write and stick with you and have it right here.

Woodruff – You think that Playboy interview was a smart thing for him to do?

Simpson – No. They asked me once to do that. They said you're kind of colorful. My staff said if you do that you won't have anybody working for you because you will get your foot so far down that I would be destroyed. Two days with me wired up. It would be the end of the earth. Be terrible.

Woodruff – The question was about whether we are one of the reasons voters are not participating.

Voters Don't Like to Be Manipulated

Broder – I think I've made this argument other places. Let me just do it very shorthand. I think we may have contributed to it. I'm not sure. I don't understand entirely why this has gone down. But the great influence on my generation, old geezers reporters, was of course Theodore White. And what he showed us with the first of the making of the president books was what a compelling story you could tell if you really got inside a campaign. For several cycles after that we tried to the best of our ability, which was not great, to get as far inside the campaign as we could. It coincided with the rise of the political consultants. As we got further and further inside we got more and more captivated by the evil genius of these people who were managing the campaigns. Without intending to we sent the message to the voters, you may think you're making a choice but folks, they're manipulating you. People don't like to be manipulated. And when they said hey, politics is all about manipulating us the one way you can get yourself free of that manipulation is to get out of voting.

Woodruff – Can we turn the clock back? I mean are we too far?

Broder – No, we can't. Again, I keep coming back to the same point. We will not make a mistake for any hour that we spend out talking to voters. We will be in one way or another improving our coverage of what's going on in politics.

(Bill Kovach replaces Judy Woodruff as moderator)

Economy Always No. 1 Issue, Except –

Q. – I'm Mary Dejevsky from the London newspaper, the Independent. Sheila Tate said that if there was one big external enemy perceived and that, as it were, became the issue of the campaign. You mentioned the economy, given what happened with the economy last week and what appears to be continuing today, would the people on the panel like to forecast maybe what effect that will have on the calculations and the dynamics of the campaign?

Kelly – I think the economy is always the number one issue in a presidential election unless you're in some kind of terrible war or near war. It gets less debate when the economy is good, as it's been for several years. If the economy seems to be seriously going south, and there certainly were some warning signs last week, then it becomes much more vocally a part of the discussion. I think there's no issue that matters more to people than a low unemployment rate, a low inflation rate and a general sense of prosperity. It's issue number one but unspoken when the economy is good. It's issue number one and spoken if the economy does not seem to be good.

Kovach – Has it factored into your political writing about this campaign yet?

Kelly – When we talk to voters, as David suggests we do, about what they care about most and what they're looking for most in the next president the ability to keep the good economy going is always number one or right at the very top of their concerns. It's a less interesting conversation if the economy is going well and candidates in both parties basically are sending the message I'll continue these policies, I'll reappoint Alan Greenspan. Then there's not the conflict that makes for an interesting story. That changes if it seems like we need to change policies, not continue the policies that are now in place.

Kovach – But the shift that might be signaled by the latest turn, where does that show up, David?

Character Questions Very Important

Broder – I've just started this most recent round of voter interviewing for our paper. I don't want to be held to this if the next two weeks gives me some reason to reconsider. But what I've heard so far suggests to me that old fashioned character questions are going to be very important this time around. The suspicion or the fear that some people had that because the public didn't want Bill Clinton thrown out of office that therefore character issues were not important, I think that's probably going to turn out to be a misjudgment. What I'm hearing is American people want a damn near iron clad guarantee they won't be embarrassed again by a president, that they won't have the painful experience trying to explain to their children what these stories about the President are really about.

Kovach – And how does the press do that without probing so deeply into the personal experience of a candidate that they draw the public criticism they draw when they do that? I mean Andy Kohut's poll says they were interested in character but not in personal behavior so much. I thought Charles Krauthammer's column the other day saying I'm a former psychiatrist and I can tell you that no matter how many hours I spend with a person probing their innermost secret I really don't know them. So how does a journalist fill that void?

Broder – I go back to what I said before. That I think we can as reporters explore the character of their relationships, particularly with their political peers. I mean I'm fascinated by and I've yet to read a clear explanation about how Steve Forbes runs Forbes magazine. If he's going to run the country I'd like to know something about how he runs Forbes magazine. That's not probing into his private life. But it might actually give you a clue as to what his pattern at least of management would be that he would bring to the White House.

Kovach – And as a political consultant and as a politician you would accept that coverage?

Tate – Yes, and I think consistency in approaches to issues would give you some sense of the character of a person. If a person changes his position frequently based on current polling I think that's a big issue. It always has been. But it's a real character issue.

Integrity Is What Counts

Simpson – Instead of the word character I use integrity. Maybe they shouldn't be in juxtaposition but if you have integrity nothing else matters and if you don't have integrity nothing else matters. That's where people are going this time. And then – now, don't throw anything – go look up the word deceit in the dictionary. It means to intentionally mislead. That's all it says. Therefore this President is the master of deceit. He has deceived his wife, his daughter, his cabinet and us. This has the American people terribly troubled. Forget impeachment and blue dresses and all the rest of that. They're going to try to come back with maybe it doesn't matter what party. But it won't be Gore because he will be tarnished as the man that stood with the master. It may be Bush. That's who I'm supporting. It may be McCain, it may be Bradley. But it will not be Gore because unfortunately he is part of this. Just like you and journalists are part of Matt Drudge. And I, Al Simpson, unfortunately am part of whatever jerk did something last week in politics.

Kovach – I'm not sure I'll accept that. Matt Drudge is a free speech advocate but I'm not sure he's a journalist. The character issue, the legitimate issue and the probing can go as deep as it has to go to show that?

Simpson – You're looking at me?

Kovach – I'm looking at you because you say deceit but we're talking about a man who was questioned publicly, openly during the campaign on these issues.

Simpson – I never smoked a lot of any stuff but I drank everything that was produced. I thought formaldehyde had an alcohol content but it didn't. I tried that one night. If the other stuff had been there I'd have tried that. Because that's the way I was at that time of life. Al Simpson at 20.

Kovach – I wasn't trying to question your character.

Watch Out, the Public Will Turn You Off

Simpson – Yes, you were impugning. It was a horrible thing. No, I just say how deep do you go? And when Judy started it was the word clearly or how deeply. I'm just saying that if you as a craft want to go deeper the American public will not be going with you. Because every single one of them has had something happen to them which they choose to leave out of their life. And it's deep. Stuff that can mess up their marriage, can mess up their relation with their kids or their boss. And they don't want that to come out. So why do they want to watch this futile exercise? You keep doing it, deep, shallow or whatever, and the American public will just turn you off.

Kovach – I agree. And I agree with what David said. And that's the conundrum. I mean if the public wants a leader who is not going to embarrass them and have no idea what these people have in their personality and in their character who are running for president then how does the press help the public come to the judgment that they're choosing the right person who's not going to embarrass them? That's the problem we've got to solve. Not right this minute.

Kovach – David, do you have anything to add?

Broder – There is so much that's accessible to us if we just do the reporting in their public lives that we ought to pretty well mine that before we decide we've got to go beyond that. The presidency particularly is an office that functions, if it functions at all, on the basis of the person in that office being able to establish relationships of trust and persuasion with other politicians and the public. The campaign itself is a good test of public persuasiveness. But we are better positioned than most individual voters are to be able to write about what those who have dealt with this person over the years in public roles have concluded about this person. One of the lessons that I come away from – I think Michael's right, don't try to base everything on the Clinton analogy. But as one who dismissed much too readily the view of Clinton that was developed over many years by the Arkansas press corps that I would not want to make that mistake again of ignoring sometimes the very different view of the Washington politicians.

Closer Connection With Public's View

Kovach – just said may be one of the most important lessons that the national press corps can draw from the last eight years of American politics. And that's a closer connection between what we're observing or what you're observing here and what the rest of the country has seen and been seeing all along. And if we can bring that connection closer through political journalism out of the national center then I think we'll have accomplished something And while we didn't raise all the questions that should be asked in this campaign I think we've started a conversation that's going to be useful to all the political observers and journalists. And I want to thank everybody for their engagement here.

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