Moyers: How Money and the Media Are Shaping the 2012 Elections (And Why You Should be Watching the Fox News Debates)

Editor's note: The following is a transcript of a Bill Moyers interview with media critic Kathleen Hall Jamieson about money in politics, the media's missteps and the way the GOP's jeers shape debate results. Check out the website for Moyers' show Moyers and Company here. 

BILL MOYERS: Kathleen [Hall Jamieson] is an accomplished author, analyst, and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Among Annenberg’s projects are two websites I consult every day -- and -- both of which have the admirable if nearly impossible goal of keeping politicians on the straight and narrow, or at least factually accurate.

Kathleen, welcome.


BILL MOYERS: You and I have watched a lot of debates over the years. What do you think is different about these from all those we've watched?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The debates this year have a downside that I find very worrisome. The upside is they've done a very good job sequentially vetting alternative Republican candidates. But by permitting audiences to cheer and jeer and boo they have created a context in which the viewer at home is not watching the candidate and responding to the candidate, but is instead responding to the interaction between that candidate and an audience.

It pushes us as viewers back into a spectatorship position as opposed to an engaged viewer position. And I'm concerned that when you hear cheers and boos you are being cued to response to the question and the answer in a way that doesn't let you, yourself, reflect on the meaning of that answer. And simultaneously you're minimizing the likelihood you're going to actually remember the answer.

If you go to we've done a series of pieces to show that. And we've basically said, "Let's listen to the piece in which you've got the cheering and booing. Now let's listen to it without. In which one do you hear the answer more clearly? Which one are you more likely to remember?"

And there's one more thing that would worry me if I were one of those Republican candidates and if I were for example somebody for the Republican National Committee or somebody who wanted ultimately a Republican to be elected. I wonder about the moderates who are sitting in their living rooms watching. What do they think when they hear an audience boo a member of the military who says, "I'm gay"?

What do they think when they hear an audience ostensibly a Republican audience at a Republican debate booing Juan Williams when he asked the question about President Obama and the food stamps in relationship to a position that Speaker Gingrich had taken. What do you they think when they hear someone who doesn't have insurance and as a result might die and you hear somebody cheering and saying, "Yes, they ought to die." Now, those weren't the candidates. Those were the audience.

BILL MOYERS: So what did you think when Newt Gingrich announced after he was told that the audience would not be allowed to applaud, to be cheerleaders, he said, "Okay, then I'll not participate. I'll not participate." I'm summarizing what he said. "I won't participate unless there can be an audience there." What did you think about that?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think that the advantage that Newt Gingrich has had in debates is an ability to play very effectively to the partisans in the audience. I think he is not understanding how some of those exchanges can come off to independents and moderates whom he would ultimately need were he the nominee and wanted to win the general election.

We know that moderates, particularly moderate women, do not like rudeness or incivility in politics. And when audiences engage in it and when candidates play to elicit it I think they may be drawing they may be inviting inferences that are inappropriate about Republicans and Republican audiences.

BILL MOYERS: Have you seen a race that changed leads so often?


BILL MOYERS: I haven't either.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: But I think it's been healthy that the leads have changed. Because ordinarily we lock down to two candidates very quickly and everyone else is marginalized. And as a result they get fewer questions in debates. Their questions tend to be about the frontrunners as opposed to about themselves. And so the whole journalistic context begins to shift.

And in an environment which there has been an alternative to Mitt Romney featured at different points throughout the process, at least you've had the chance to look carefully at what those person's positions on the issues were.

With the exception of Ron Paul all of the other major contenders for President have had their moment in the media spotlight. And the media in general have done a good job exploring their plans and the implications of their plans. And the debates have featured their strengths and their weaknesses.

The debates actually made the candidacy of Newt Gingrich and helped the candidacy of Rick Santorum. A lot of debates, but the debates mattered. Secondly, this has been a year in which journalism can be proud of the quality of the interviews that have been done of candidates. And the liberals or progressives who don't watch Fox have missed something important.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Because the Fox interviews of the candidates have been strong and substantive. And importantly the candidates have been held accountable for their advertising and for their more extreme statements. And so if you watched Fox you heard Bill O'Reilly for example challenge candidates who called Barack Obama a socialist, Bill O'Reilly defining socialist and asking how it is that they can apply that label to President Obama.

You also heard Fox commentators and anchors holding candidates accountable for misleading advertising. In one segment Rick Perry was asked how he could possibly say that the president had said that Americans are lazy. Wasn't the referred in that statement actually investors rather than Americans in that APEC statement by President Obama?

That point made in a Fox interview. If the partisan media or the partisan-leaning media will hold the candidates on their side of the aisle accountable as well as some on Fox had this year, then there's a real upside to the rise of that form of media.

BILL MOYERS: The knock on the left is that Fox News is an arm of the Republican party. What accounts for a different approach to Republican candidates this year?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: One of the things that one has to be careful about is saying that everything in one media environment is exactly the same. So there's a great difference across the programming on MSNBC, there's a great deal of different in the programming across Fox. There are places in both of those networks in which you have strong traditional journalism.

But the point this year that I think is worth making is that the Fox debates have been strong and have held candidates accountable and the Fox interviews have, as well. We haven't had a chance to see something comparable on the Democratic side because of course we have an incumbent Democrat.

BILL MOYERS: Here's something else.

Let me play an ad that got a lot of attention still troubles me all these months later. This is an ad run by Karl Rove's super PAC against Elizabeth Warren who is a candidate for the Senate from Massachusetts running against Scott Brown. And we'll come back to them in just a moment, but the Karl Rove super PAC ran a couple of ads that turned out to be truly distorted and misrepresentative and even fraudulent.

ELIZABETH WARREN IN POLITICAL AD: This thing I’m going to promise is that I’m going to be a voice in the room on behalf of middle class families.

NARRATOR IN POLITICAL AD: Really? Congress had Warren oversee how your tax dollars were spent. Bailing out the same banks that helped cause the financial meltdown. Bailouts that help to pay big bonuses to bank executives, while middle class Americans lost out. Later, Warren on a charm offensive with some of the same banks that got bailed out. Tell Professor Warren, we need jobs, not more bailouts and bigger government.

BILL MOYERS: Those ads have been widely deconstructed and shown to be wrong or deceptive or outright untruthful. Elizabeth Warren didn't create TARP for example, the Republicans under Bush did. She didn't bail out the banks, Bush and Obama did. She didn't side with the big banks. She wanted to hold them accountable. Yet these people can lie about a candidate, they can lie about Scott Brown and get away with it.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In Massachusetts you also had attack ads by third party groups against Scott Brown, one calling him Bobble-head Brown that made many of the same sorts of inappropriate inferences. And as a result Warren and Brown have reached a pact that is another solution to the problem.

They have asked that third party groups simply stay out of their race and they've created a penalty structure. So if a third party group comes in on behalf of one side that side will pay half of the amount that the super PAC or the third party group has paid for an ad into the charity of choice of the other candidate.

Now, the third party groups could still come in, but that kind of a pact increases the normative pressure on the groups to stay out. This was going to be a race in Massachusetts in which we were going to have third party war on each side. There was going to unprecedented amounts of money on each side against each of those candidates 'cause it's such an important symbolic seat.

That pact is a model for candidates in other states. And some candidates are exploring it in other states.

If this pact works it could become another kind of solution to a problem out there of third party air pollution.

BILL MOYERS: My friend, Normal Lear, awoke in a dream earlier this week and he wrote a piece that he's he said to a lot of us saying he wishes Obama would have a second thought, be born again on this and go to the public and say, "You know, I've changed my mind. We're going to fight this campaign on your donations, on your contributions, no big money, no super PACs." Norman says it could it could radically alter the environment in our country now if Obama changed his mind and said, "Let's do it the right way."

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You can understand from the Obama campaign's perspective why they would not want to enter a playing field in which they are carrying a substantial disadvantage. And as a result I can understand the decision that was just made.

There is a very high risk in the strategy that you just articulated that one would not be able to raise comparable amounts of money. One of the news networks calculated what it would be the equivalent of someone who's middle class giving the amount of money that Sheldon Adelson had given to Gingrich and said essentially it's pocket change for him.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If you have the capacity to raise very, very, very large amounts of money that are simple pocket change to the people who are giving it and the alternative is you have to raise hundreds of thousands of contributions individually, the effort the campaign would have to make in order to get to that donor base and get that raise would be such that it would probably be extraordinarily difficult to execute the rest of what a campaign needs to do to win.

So I'm sympathetic to the idea that they're going to engage in playing on the playing field that they're being handed. I'm disappointed that it is the playing field that they're being handed. Because I'm afraid that one of the lessons from the Obama victory is that money when there's a differential matters. It shifts the voting perceptions in who you're likely to vote for. And it does it very clearly.

What does it mean in the general election? Net advantage: Whichever candidate can raise more money. Net advantage to the person with more billionaires in pocket unless one can mobilize an awful lot of small donors.

BILL MOYERS: You and I talked during the campaign about Obama's speeches, his campaigns. We never asked the question, "What happens if the economy comes apart, collapses? What-- what makes us think this young man can respond to what he's not even campaigning on?" Then of course in the fall of 2008 the economy, the financial system comes crashing down, something that hadn't been discussed and something he with his inexperience had to deal and hasn't (many of us think), done very well at it. How do we judge a presidential candidate on his or her capacity to deal with a catastrophe that hasn't even been thought of during the campaign?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, first, we got to watch in real time in 2008 as the two candidates responded to the crisis. And if you looked at what Senator McCain did and what Senator Obama did I think it's reasonable to say that Senator Obama engaged in a kind of calm, deliberative, systematic set of moves that suggested a kind of leadership capacity that may not have been suggested by the activities that McCain engaged in.

But I think there's a larger question. We make the assumption that candidates have a high level of control over the economy. We make the assumption that when the economy is getting better they deserve credit, when the economy is not doing better they deserve blame. The president of the United States exercises relatively little control over the economy. This is a big, complex world and you've talked about it in your earlier programs.

There are many factors largely beyond the control of the president of the United States that presidents just simply have to confront. I mean, at the moment you've got a European crisis that the United States doesn't have a whole lot of ability to act within that is going to have a great deal of affect on whether this recovery continues to claw its way forward or not.

And so we campaign in the unrealistic expectation that presidents can do more than they can actually do. They abet that illusion and then when they don't we say, "Oh, you've failed us, you've failed us." And a candidate who campaigned on the fierce urgency of now and on change, imply quick change by his, by virtue of his leadership played out an illusion that you knew was going to be dashed by his presidency however successful. Because presidents have to govern among other things with the Congress in a context in which there are real constraints on what we've got available for revenue.

BILL MOYERS: I was just about to say to you that we're also this year electing an entire House of Representatives, every member's up for election or every seat is to be filled and a third of the Senate. Who's paying attention to the congressional races out there into which the super PACs are pouring huge sums of money that nobody's talking about?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The tragedy of the demise of good local journalism is that we do not have an intelligent focus at the local level on congressional races. There isn't a good way at the national level until a theme across all of the races begins to emerge for national media to do this job.

And as a result occasionally a congressional race will be featured nationally, but it's not going to be terribly helpful on the ground for individuals who are trying to make a congressional decision. When we don't have good local newspapers covering their community and covering the mayor and the governor and the members of Congress, we lose a lot in our capacity to elect effectively.

BILL MOYERS: Given what you say, what we both know, democracy at that level is in serious trouble because citizens can't know who's funding the campaigns, who's spending the advertising or how to hold 'em accountable?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When you have debates as citizens pay attention to debates they can learn through debates.

BILL MOYERS: At the local level?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: At the local level debates are still the most likely way the easiest way for people to gain information about candidates' differences and similarities. When candidates at the congressional level are campaigning on a national platform it becomes very easy. What's an important question this year for a member of Congress? Did you support the Ryan plan for Medicare? Do you favor a voucher-ized alternative to Medicare as we know it?

Another question for congressional candidates: Do you favor the Republican national position that many of the social programs should be devolved to the states in the form of block grants? If you can get the national position of a party clarified and the members of Congress start to run on that position or alternatively the other side attacks on that position, then you're knowledge of level about Congress is increased. Because essentially electing members of Congress and electing a president are electing someone with the same philosophy.

BILL MOYERS: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you. I'll be seeing you at this table often in the coming months.


[vimeo_embed expand=1]

Kathleen Jamieson on Political Obstacles to Truth from on Vimeo.


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