News & Politics

Bill Clinton Is Right About Campaign Coverage

The media have hit a new low in superficial reporting.
"No wonder people think experience is irrelevant. A lot of people covering the race think it is." -- Bill Clinton, December 4, 2007.

He might be the former president of the United States, but when Bill Clinton dared critique the press for the vacuous way it covers campaigns, he got smacked down by the media elites who unleashed their contempt and, fittingly, misstated what Clinton had said.

Such is the state of affairs where, as Clinton noted, campaign issues have faded so far in the rearview mirror for the press that they've dipped below the horizon. What's worse is not only has the press shifted into hyper-horserace mode where tactics reign, but lots of media players can't even do the horserace stuff right. Bloomberg's Al Hunt displayed that nicely with a recent tactics-only campaign column where he mangled a key fact in order to prop up his favorite narrative.

Actually, I don't think 'horserace' accurately describes the type of campaign coverage from this cycle. What we're seeing flourish this time on the trail is something else entirely. It's coverage that's often saddled with inane trivia about tactics and delivered with a faux breathlessness, in a way that traditional horserace coverage never was.

I'm almost nostalgic for the days when the press paid too much attention to campaign consultants since at least those dispatches had some substance to them. This is a new, more disturbing (immature?) brand of pseudo-journalism that's delivered with an extra dose of attitude and that informs and enlightens even less. And in recent weeks, Democratic front-runners Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY), former Sen. John Edwards (NC), and Sen. Barack Obama (IL) have all suffered at its hands.

Let's start with the former POTUS and the instructive episode that unfolded after he accurately bemoaned the lack of substance from the campaign media. It happened in New Hampshire, during a stop at Keene State College where Clinton made reference to a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that found very little press attention was being paid to issues.

"One percent of the press coverage was devoted to their record in public life," said President Clinton. "No wonder people think experience is irrelevant. A lot of the people covering the race think it is (irrelevant)."

He added: "Sixty-seven percent of the coverage is pure politics. That stuff has a half life of about 15 seconds. It won't matter tomorrow. It is very vulnerable to being slanted and rude. And it won't affect your life."

The comments seemed reasonable enough, but the next morning, ABCNews.com's The Note, the proud protector of the Beltway CW, lashed out:
This time [Clinton's] complaining about the media coverage -- surely, if reporters just paid more attention to wife's record, she'd be handed the nomination on the silver platter her husband thinks she deserves. "One percent of the press coverage was devoted to their record in public life," the former president said.
(We can think of two ways to get the press to focus more on Sen. Clinton's record. The first has to do with a couple million documents sealed away in Little Rock. The other has to do with not allowing the would-be "first laddie" anywhere near the trail -- or, at least, anywhere near the commission of news on the trail.)
First, don't you just love the condescending tone, as The Note lectures the former president (aka the "laddie") and one of the leading Democratic candidates on how to run the campaign after one of them had the audacity to question the campaign coverage.

Secondly, The Note, still clinging to the Whitewater narrative of the '90s, is convinced there's a treasure trove of juicy Clinton material buried in a mysterious mound of paperwork, and that if reporters could just get their hands on it they could finally tell the real Clinton story.

And lastly, do I even have to point out that The Note completely bungled the context by suggesting that Bill Clinton had selfishly complained only about the press coverage that pertained to his wife? Wrong. Clinton was complaining about the substance-free coverage that all the Democratic candidates were being saddled with. But The Note, blissfully unaware of the facts, suggested Clinton's critique had been made in a partisan context.

As for Clinton's actual point about campaign coverage being void of substance, The Note never bothered to refute the charge. How could it? The day Clinton made his observation, ABCNews.com itself pretty much proved his point when, in a round-up of the day's key Clinton-related news stories, it highlighted one of its own dispatches about how the Clinton campaign had dropped a Celine Dion song as its campaign theme. It presented that breaking news nugget as further proof that it was "another rough stretch for Camp Clinton." No joke. Also, that same day, the artwork for The Note featured a photoshopped image of Clinton dressed up as a man and a photoshopped image of Obama dressed up as a woman. Again, no joke.

Speaking of Obama, there's already been lots of discussion about The Washington Post's decision to run a Page One story surrounding the persistent campaign rumors about Obama being a Muslim, without making clear first and foremost that the rumors were not true. Instead of debunking the story, the Post, through clumsy writing and derelict editing, actually gave the rumors more credence.

What's been overlooked is the fact that the very first sentence in the article was factually inaccurate: "In his speeches and often on the Internet, the part of Sen. Barack Obama's biography that gets the most attention is not his race but his connections to the Muslim world." [Emphasis added.]

When the article was published, I went to Obama's official website and looked through the previous nine speeches posted there. Combined, they total nearly 26,000 words, yet there is not a single mention of the word "Islam" or "Muslim" in any of the speeches. The Post, in its lede, simply concocted the idea that Obama himself was discussing "his connection to the Muslim world" in his speeches.

Unfortunately, when journalists get up a head of steam on the campaign trail, facts often don't stand a chance. Which brings me to Bloomberg's Al Hunt. Here's what Hunt wrote on December 10, about Clinton's campaign: "Her once-commanding advantage over Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire -- the two critical initial contests -- is evaporating."

My friendly wager for Hunt is a simple one: If he can go to Pollster.com, which has posted every significant Iowa poll conducted this year (nearly 70 total), and he can point to two consecutive surveys that indicated Clinton ever had a "commanding advantage over Obama in Iowa" (i.e. 10 or more points), then I'll gladly buy him a super-cool Media Matters for America trucker hat. But I'm not worried that my wallet will take a hit because the notion that Clinton once had a "commanding advantage" in Iowa is pure fantasy. As the surveys at Pollster.com indicate, the race has been a three-way back-and-forth all year between Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. (Of all the Iowa polls this year that showed a clear leader, Obama was leading in four of those polls, Clinton in seven, and Edwards in seven.)

The other instructive portion of Hunt's column that cannot be ignored came when he wrote about how the Clinton campaign was frustrated with the press coverage to date:
And her campaign has a near-obsession with what it perceives as a hostile press. They were incensed at a New York Times story that reported skepticism about Hillary's contention that her proposal to overhaul health care would help a lot more people than the plan of her rival. The best advice to them: Get over it.
Get over it. Have more honest words ever been typed up? The press is going to do whatever the hell it wants during the election season, so Hunt suggests the Clinton campaign (and any other candidates, presumably) is wasting its time raising concerns about news articles. As for the Times article in question, the one about health care, was the Clinton campaign justified for being "incensed?" Hunt couldn't care less. But it's worth noting that the article was so shoddy that even one of The New York Times' own columnists, Paul Krugman, publicly criticized it, pointing out what he thought were the reporting failures in the piece. But again, for Hunt and most of the media elites, it's completely irrelevant whether campaign stories are accurate or not. And if candidates complain, then they deserve to be ridiculed for doing so.

That's always been the media's ironclad rule whenever a Democrat has the audacity to criticize his or her press coverage: It's never the media's fault. That's why MSNBC media analyst Steve Adubato rushed to defend the press after Bill Clinton simply referenced an academic study's conclusion that the overwhelming majority of campaign coverage has been substance-free. "That's completely untrue," wrote Adubato, who offered no proof to refute the study's findings.

Things went downhill from there when Adubato argued that the Clintons have never been the victims of bad press and suggested the Clintons don't actually welcome examinations of their records. He wrote:
Bill and Hillary want the media to focus on are only the positive aspects of her experience but won't say a word about such topics as "Travelgate;" "Whitewater;" exactly how Vince Foster died.
The idea that a media analyst for MSNBC would refer to Travelgate, Whitewater, and the death of Vince Foster with a straight face and treat them as serious press inquiries, when in fact all three media concoctions represent prime examples of how the press vilified the Clintons without cause over the years, is just remarkable. (Does MSNBC's media analyst need a Whitewater primer?)

But remember rule No. 1: It's never the media's fault.

Americans can't stand today's campaign coverage

If arrogant journalists think they get to have the last laugh -- that they have total immunity and that they get to make the rules and decide the campaign narratives -- than they are painfully out of touch. Because more and more polls indicate that news consumers are fed up with the shallow, pointless type of coverage that the mainstream media is producing.

The most recent manifestation came in the form of Harvard's Center for Public Leadership National Leadership Index. The ongoing survey included interviews with 1,207 adults nationwide and focused mostly on leadership issues, but also asked people their impression of the media, and specifically, how the media is covering the campaign. The results?
[T]he press receives the lowest ratings of all. This is troubling, because democracies rely on a vibrant, probing, and trusted press. This year, we dig more deeply into the public's views on news media election coverage. The key finding: Americans' lack of confidence in the press stems from deep unease about bias and editorial content.
According to the survey:

  • 88 percent agree that the news media focuses too much on trivial rather than important issues.


  • 92 percent say that it is important that the news media provide information on candidates' specific policy plans, but 61 percent believe that the news media is not providing enough coverage of policy plans


  • 67 percent say that coverage of embarrassing incidents or mistakes that make a candidate look bad is not important, but 68 percent say the news media is providing too much coverage of embarrassing incidents and mistakes


The conclusion was painfully obvious: Citizens claimed they were getting "exactly the type of campaign coverage that they want the least," according to the report.

In other words, news consumers want issues, issues, issues, while the press obsesses over tactics, tactics, tactics.

Here's how expansive the issues vacuum has become: It's not merely that the campaign press corps doesn't dwell on substance and issues, it's that the press often doesn't even acknowledge that issues exist. Two recent examples of that phenomenon come to mind. The first was the Democratic debate held in Iowa on December 4, and hosted by National Public Radio, and the second were the first installments of The Washington Post's "Front-runner" series, which profiled the candidates.

The NPR debate, by today's media standards, was almost freakishly focused on issues. Specifically, it centered on three topics that NPR had pre-selected; Iran-Iraq, the rise of China and immigration. Tuning into the broadcast was, at times, like listening to a two-hour policy seminar, as the candidate dove into details at length. The mainstream press, though, either mocked the proceedings (the New York Daily News dismissed it as a "snooze"), or simply ignored it, since substance is not welcome on the media's radar.

For instance, the day after the debate at Mark Halperin's campaign portal at Time.com, The Page, there were nearly 50 links to news items regarding what were seen as the most important campaign developments within the previous 24 hours. But the fact that seven Democratic candidates had staged a debate where they discussed pressing issue for two hours did not make Halperin's cut for being newsworthy about the campaign.

Fast forward to the next Democratic debate in Iowa, held December 13. During that forum, the candidates addressed the economy, tax policy, free trade, and crop subsidies, among other issues. What was the press most interested in afterwards? Clinton's laugh. "The cackle was the talk of the spin room after the debate," wrote The Washington Post's Dana Milbank.

God help us.

Speaking of the Post, perhaps the less said about its "Front-runners" series the better. It's difficult to put into words just how vacuous the early efforts were, and particularly the package the Post put together on John Edwards, which was published December 11.

Question No. 1: What did each of the four pieces in the "Front-runners" series on Edwards all mention? Answer: His expensive haircuts. Question No. 2: What did none of the four "Front-runners" items on Edwards mention? Answer: What proposals he's made while running for president. Why? Because they're irrelevant.

All four of the Edwards pieces failed miserably in providing readers with any helpful insights about Edwards' campaign or about the candidate himself. But perhaps the most egregious piece was the one written by the Post's fashion editor, Robin Givhan, headlined "Working It." In it, she claimed to be able to divine all sorts of insights into Edward's character -- into his personal shortcomings -- based on what color shirts he wears and the way he points his thumb up when he gesticulates. I'll post a sizable chunk just so you can soak in the absurdity:
Sometimes Edwards channels Johnny Cash and wears a black shirt with his jeans, and one half-expects him to break into a country ballad about growing up as the son of a millworker -- just in case there's one living soul left who is unaware of that biographical detail. The candidate is also a firm believer in rolling up his sleeves for emphasis.
[...]
His body language doesn't match his workingman wardrobe, either. He has a tendency to underscore his points with a familiar gesture that surely must be attached to the gene that harbors political striving: the thumb jab. To hammer home a sentence, he pounds away at it with his hands curled into a thumbs-up configuration. Does anyone other than a politician jab their thumb into the air as they speak? Who has ever witnessed thumb jabbing on the factory floor? In line at McDonald's?
Edwards dresses like the common man, but every gesture is a reminder that his life has been undeniably exceptional.
She thinks the presidential candidate might break into song because he sometimes wears a black shirt? She thinks a presidential candidate is weird (read: phony) because he does something with his thumb that supposedly nobody standing in line at McDonald's has ever done?

I don't care if you're Democrat, Republican, or Independent; nobody running for the White House deserves to be subjected to that kind of nonsense. And from a fashion writer?!

One furious Post reader wrote in and denounced Givhan's "Front-runners" work as "idiotic" and "offensive," while another suggested it represented "a new low in superficial coverage." You'd get no argument from me.

And that's why I fear it's going to be a very long 2008.