Monday, July 23, 2007

Reporting on Reporting: Ruff Cut

I should have posted this much earlier, but here are my notes from the political media forum at Dartmouth last week. If you are a poli-dork, you may find this useful, otherwise please don't read. Note: the words below are some mixture of paraphrase, summary and direct quotation. Do not take as pure fact.


In your role as an intermediary on informed consent. What do you most hope for? What do you most fear? Read below for my notes on the respondents answers.


Hope: take these 17 candidates, try to show audience who they are, what makes them tick, where they want to take the country, stance on issues

Fear: youtube videos can get in the way (can add) fears the balance will shift toward

DW: illuminate what happens behind the scenes that candidates don’t want people to see, try to explain it

Fear – the trend where campaigns create ads to leak to media but not run on tv free buzz & media. Be careful and discerning about what is a legit ad.

WS – trying to bring old media values to internet. Simple goals – tell readers something about the person who is next president that has predictive power about how he will behave in office. Useful info to predict who will win. Press fails terribly in that. Takes some responsibility for not showing how conservative Bush would be in 2000. Fell for Compassionite Conservatism on the 863rd time he said it.

Fear – loves the NH primary, “fears the calendar will go Iowa, NH, and then bedlam” People will Choose a candidate with no thought, no deliberation, no time to adjust to info post-NH. Followed by 9 months of buyers remorse with little or no access to the candidates. Bad for democracy

KT – economic reality of the business. Time is half the size it was in 2000. Cites lack of bureaus both there and at the Globe. Recently wrote a story about Obama telling constituencies things they didn’t like to hear. Used to have a week for it, now needs to do it in one day sometimes.

RW – able to compile a lot of information about each candidate, all the votes, all the money, all the ads. Internet can offer those goodies as well as long form reporting.

Fear – the pack journalism and intensity to get a story can create bad judgment by writers. Cites the Hilary ’84 video, says all the energy who went into that could have been better used doing actual reporting.

Suskind – the enemy (politicians) knows that we (the press) are weakened. The giant word “message” is debilitating to the press. Back in the day, Walter Pincus said, corporate didn’t give message until after. (Now they do it before). Calls it the dark arts.

Pincus - In 1974 we didn’t have a slug everyday called POTUS. Most days he didn’t do anyting interesting.

This changed in the 80s with Reagan. Did something silly every day just to get out message like cutting a ribbon or saying something on the lawn. President off message can be criticism.

Journalists goal is to fight message. Their goal is to kill them.

Compassionate conservative. What a line, ingenious. “In fact, a lie!”

Message tries to start the seedbed of a question. I call it a discipline punishment curve. Don’t talk to reporters without permission. Stay on message.

The challenge of these people (points to panel) is to punch through message.

Rules of the game to punch through message:

DC – start with message, useful to dissect what it is. What it is they are selling. Often we buy what we shouldn’t but mostly we pick it apart. Truth spotting – taking the rhetoric and matching it up with facts. Research shops have been gutted. “We’ve basically outsourced our research to the campaigns” There used to be robust orgs for truth spotting. Truth squadron

DM – following andidates repeatedly. Putting it on record that you are asking the questions. You can’t make them answer questions, but you can show that they won’t answer. Ask what their messages mean. Be specifici in questions.

WS – you have to remember how disciplined the candidates are. I talked to someone saying how galling it is to have only one minute, staffer said one minute answers keep the answers from being a bunch of soundbytes. Will not use material from a campaign about another candidate without being able to source it.

KM –truth squatting tends to go after little truths. She was the reporter to whom Gore claimed Love Story was about him. Less than one sentence in a 9-page story. More true than not true. Said in passing in a 3.5 hour interview But still created a media frenzy and marked his character. So horrified to see what can happen. Truth squatting another way of saying “gotcha”. Easy to get, anyone can get. If there are 4-5 journalists, it is useless for her to be there.

RW – a lot of campaigns run on leaking oppo research. News doesn’t do a good enough job of citing the sources. Swift Boat examples, thefact that there was a media storm to check facts only made the ads that much more important. Be careful not to be manipulated.

Suskind – the leadership of this great nation will be determined by a 3am half truth.

Campaign aide – we look for things that are a little bit false, but hard to prove false. These things move, can get 3-4 days of making opponent defend.

I can say with almost 100% surety that there will be at least one Swift Boat type thing this time around.

Sounds like Lewis Black.

How do we avoid being manipulated. Avoid the little salacious truths.

What feeds informed consent? The little things that we bicker about. Or the bigger truths.

How do we guide to the bigger truths?

DM – how candidates manage their campaigns can be a sign of how they will run the oval office. Can give a sense of how careful things are scrutinized.

WS – in further defense of Edwards on the haircut. What clearly happened was a muchkin paid for it with the wrong credit card. The bigger thing is that the people who scrutinized didn’t catch it and undo it.

Questions from the audience:

Where is the coverage of the 2nd tier?

DC - The process is driven by polling and money. I don’t think anyone has been uncovered to the point they would be invisible.

Geffen said Bill Clinton is reckless, won’t support Hillary. Is Bill as First Man a legitimate story?

KT – whenever I talke to democrats it doesn’t take long to get from Hillary to Bill.

DM – she is making Bill the centerpiece of her campaign. The coverage isn’t what he would do as first man, but rather how he is affecting the way her campaign is being run.

Back to the first question.

KT – Kuci is the only one advocating a single payer system, wants all the troops out immediately. Wants him there even though he can’t win.

WS – ranking candidates based on polls even though voters are saying they aren’t firm. Many things can happen. 6 months is a long time. Anyone who runs once and doesn’t come close renders himself a vanity candidate when he runs a second time.

DC – web and digital products drive broadcast themes, not vice versa.

KT - 2 things that drive up voter turnout – knowing it is a close race, or knowing that the two candidates are different and the vote makes a difference.

DM – responsibility lies with voters for being too lazy. Voting is relatively easy these days.

How often have you failed to report something because you feared something was too out of mainstream?

WS – more of a problem is people thinking I am not left enough, example giving the same coverage to Liebermann as Lamont. Danger these days to write something that doesn’t fit talking points.

DM – too often people think journalists have an agenda, really they just want to put out the best product.


Can truth triumph?

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