Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Never Say "I've Seen It All". 

I have been paying attention to politics since Watergate interrupted my after school programs in 1974, and have been a junkie ever since.  What I have witnessed since 1974 is a trend towards the bad and not the good.  Gridlock was the good ol' days--now it is dysfunction and anarchy.  My interests have also included presidential elections, and in particular, candidate debates, and much like the evolution of government, this too has taken a turn for the worse.  But as bad as debates have been, I must say the GOP candidate debate in Colorado this evening was two hours of some of the worst in politics that I have ever seen.  And remember, I sat through VP candidate Stockdale's cringeworthy performance where he forgot to turn his hearing aid on.  So let's get to it.

The blame and disgust I have is not for the candidates--the candidates will be candidates--though I believe we have seen a new low when a U.S. Senator is willing to call another political leader a "liar" only because a partisan witchhunt in the House did not yield the results he was after (but then again there was a U.S. Senator a couple of years ago who called the President a "liar" during the State of the Union address).  So for me, when Donald Trump is one of your frontrunners, "august" is probably not going to be an adjective that sticks.  No, my disgust is aimed directly at CNBC, which moderated tonight's "debate". And "moderating" is probably too kind.  CNBC zipped around the stage with very little followup, it tried to hit candidates with negative statements that the moderators failed to back up or simply got wrong (thus adding extra "oomph" to the liberal bias accusation), and delved in totally ridiculous questioning ("what is your major weakness?", as if...).

Once the 2016 election cycle has passed, can we begin to talk about some honest reforms to this system of debates, which face it, is not designed to bring forward substantive issues, but is instead to design for economic windfall (the advertising) and to pimp a network's new lineup (some god-awful show called "The Profit").  How about in 2020:

 And there needs to be a penalty for saying things that are patently untrue. Just what do I mean? Take a look at Politifact's critique of the Denver Debate.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Head Scratcher 

I have taken a leave of absence from this blog for far too long, and I promise to get back to writing about the media. And to make good on this promise, I give you this story that appeared in the August 26, 2015 issue of The New York Times.

It is a story by reporter Trip Gabriel, title "Test for Trump: Turning Crowds into Real Voters," and  starts on A1 and continues on A11. On the front page, before the leap, the story would lead you to believe that Trump's campaign is a joke, whereas after the leap, you have an entirely different perception.

On A1, Gabriel begins: "Donald J. Trump, it is abundantly clear, is not a conventional candidate. And neither is his approach to recruiting campaign activists." Proof? Trump's Iowa campaign Chairwoman is Tana Goertz, who "has no political experience, picks the campaign's county leaders 'The Apprentice'-style--in head-to-head tests of public speaking, organizing and salesmanship. A stopwatch is involved."  Goertz, it would seem, is herself a former participant on the now-defunct Trump show, "The Apprentice".

But then, on pg. A11, 11 paragraphs into the story, Gabriel explains that Trump is running a traditional, "retail politics" sort of campaign in Iowa.  He writes: "Mr. Trump has put in place a robust field operation...grounded in the most time-proven methods." "He was the only candidate of 17 Republicans to plan a volunteer for all 11 days of the Iowa State Fair."  "His little noticed volunteers collected hundreds of cards with voters' email addresses, provided invaluable contact data to activate more volunteers."  And Gabriel admits that it "...was a far cry from the early days of his campaign, when actors were reportedly hired to fill out the crowd when he announced his presidential run."  Furthermore, Trump has hired a "...30 year veteran of Iowa campaigns" who "has built one of the largest field teams of an Republican candidate this year: 10 paid staff members."  Included in this field staff is another veteran of Iowa politics, who has been "recruiting a captain for every one of the 63 precincts" in her assigned territory.

I get it. Trump is a joke who has made this process so far a laughing stock with his coarse language and his incredible insensitivity to those who does not respect or like. But that should not give the venerable Times the freedom to misrepresent the competence of his campaign at this point in time.

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Attribution in a Fragmented Media Environment 

Sourcing is a valuable part of the press-government relationship in the United States.  The ability to obscure the identity of a source enhances the media's ability to get valuable information and insight into how power is exercised in the public trust (or so they tell us).

Generally speaking, the levels of attribution are as follows:

The Off the Record agreement has proved especially troublesome in today's fragmented media environment.  Who a reporter is has proven problematic.  For instance, a blogger who happens to overhear a conversation by a policy maker and reporters while riding  a train back to Washington DC and decides to blog about it. Is the blogger under any obligation to hold the information? Nope. Is a blogger--who has not gone to college to get a journalism degree or who has not worked in a conventional newsroom, and has not adopted the rules of professional journalism--obliged to respect "not for attribution" while sitting in a room with journalists, who have agreed the background agreement as a condition of listening to an insider speak candidly about his or her experiences inside government or corporate America? Nope. 

Thus government and corporate PR professionals tell their clients that they should never assume Off the Record, and that they should be mindful of what they say when dealing simultaneously with multiple reporters--given that some of those reporters may not be professional journalists, who subscribe to a set of rules, norms, and ethics.

I say all of this because it seems that there is also another variable, aside from media fragmentation, that implicates respect for attribution.  Let's say that you have agreed to a meeting that is closed to the press and off the record to all attendees.   Those who agree to terms will show up, those who don't, won't.  You speak candidly, and then lo and behold all that you said turns up the next day in a news story. 

If all of this sounds familiar, it is because it happened just a little over a week ago, and the pol in hot water is Secretary of State John Kerry.  Secretary Kerry had been invited to speak to the Trilateral Commission, famed boogeyman of Right Wingers, but to the more stable, an organization designed to foster greater international cooperation (whose North American Chair is Joseph Nye, an esteemed international relations/foreign policy scholar of some repute). 

At the meeting, Secretary Kerry told the audience that unless a resolution could be found in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Israel risked becoming an "apartheid" state.  Apartheid by itself is a controversial term, and when applied to Israel, by the Secretary of State, it is the sort of controversial terminology that would generate ALOT of attention in an important election cycle.  And by a lot of attention, I mean a lot of page visits by interested readers who came via Twitter, Facebook, media redirects, and text messages.  It is the sort of story that could enhance the bottom line of the news company that scored it, as well as to increase the celebrity status of the journalist who broke it.

Which bring me to my point.  The journalist who broke the story was  "The Daily Beast" Josh Rogin, and here is how he reported it: "It wasn't the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast."

The suggestion? Some anonymous figure surreptitiously taped the Secretary and then spirited that tape to the reporter.  Rogin was forced to come clean after the event organizer, Joseph Nye, sent a letter of apology to Secretary Kerry, blaming Rogin for "sneaking" into the event and recording the Secretary's comments.  After, Rogin finally came clean and posted his confession on a "Daily Beast" article titled: "Damned Right I Taped Kerry's Apartheid Talk". A confession, not an apology.

So what of an attendee's obligation to respect the attribution rules? Here is where it gets good:

If a reporter agrees that a conversation or event is off-the-record, then of course he cannot print what was said during that interchange. But the unwritten rule—the one that directly applies here—is that if a reporter enters an off-the-record event uninvited and has not agreed to the off-the-record terms, he is free to report what happens inside that event. It’s the responsibility of the event organizers to keep reporters from entering events without invitations. As long as the reporter does not misrepresent himself and does not attempt to conceal a recording device, the event is fair game. That’s the rule.

As Rogin explains it, he "technically" is not in dutch with his professional ethics because he was not invited, did not lie about who he was (because he was not asked), sat in the front row and did not hide the fact that he was taping the event.

Nobody ever asked me who I was. I didn’t have a name tag but many of the invited attendees weren’t wearing theirs so nobody thought anything of it. As the approximately 200 attendees got settled in for the Kerry speech, I found a seat in the corner, opened up my laptop, placed my recorder on my lap in plain sight, turned it on, and waited for the fun to begin.

 In the spirit of South Park, I call Shenanigans

It is the competitive nature of the news business to get the scoop, but it appears that it is also the competitive nature of the news business to violate the ethics of attribution. Protestations aside, Rogin knows he did wrong, or why else hide his role when the story first broke?  

For bloggers, I can understand not being a part of any agreements that are made between journalists and sources.  But Rogin is no blogger.  He sacrificed both his ethics and the long term interests of all journalists for short term gain of popularity and helping his company's bottom line. If nothing else, every insider from this point forward should think carefully about any agreement made between herself and Rogin, for fear that he may violate it as a result of a technicality. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Same Old Song and Dance 

If you are an Aerosmith fan like me, then you know the song "Same Old Song and Dance" off the Get Your Wings album. That is the song in my head as I read the recent Politico expose on the levels of press management to which the Obama administration has reached, outstripping and outpacing anything attempted by his predecessor(s). If you have been following the press and the presidency as I have, you will know that this is a familiar tune, starting with the authors of the textbook in press management, the Reagan administration.

The Reagan administration--with the Great Communicator at center--was masterful in managing the press, creating a number of new techniques to give the president control over his message--things such as the "Message of the Day", calling the press on deadline to release news, and inventing persons such as the "Chicago Welfare Queen" in order to demonize welfare recipients as well as the entire welfare system.  Despite the fact the press knew that no such person existed, they would often continue to report on the 'Welfare Queen" in Reagan's speeches as if she did exist.
The press responsibility of playing watchdog had so faltered in Reagan's 8 years that Mark Hertsgaard titled his 1988 book on the press and the Reagan administration On Bended Knee, claiming that when the press comes to challenge the president, they do so from a subordinate position.

In the Bush I administration, despite the fact that he served only one term in office (and blamed the media for that), many marveled at the ability of the president to control the press, particularly where it came the use of military force.  Thus during the march to war with Iraq in 1991, the Bush administration carefully controlled the political debate  in a way that the argument was whether the US should use unilateral force to eject Hussein or  use multilateral force to eject him. Thus at the center of the debate, beyond dispute, was the use of force.  The debate was not whether we should use force or should continue economic sanctions.  And then when we got to the war, the Bush administration was masterful in controlling press access to the battlefield, as well as sanitizing the ugliness of war--smart bombs, guided missles, Patriot Missles, and referring to body bags as "human remains pouches".

Next came Clinton. Despite his rocky start, Clinton smartly went out and stocked his office with folks from the Reagan administration, including David Gergen, who exerted message discipline and regulated press access.  The Clinton administration also took advantage of the variety of new news formats in order to make their case with the American public--appearing on "Larry King Live", "Arsenio Hall", and "Oprah Winfrey". Clinton understood that these formats would enable him to reach audiences who normally do not pay attention to the news and at the same time avoid tough questioning.  Furthermore, the Clinton administration made extensive use of the "Satellie Media Tour", which allowed the White House to connect with local audiences through local television news stations and talk radio stations.  Clinton invited Talk Radio to come to the White House and broadcast live from the White House lawn during their effort to overhaul health care in 1993.  During impeachment, the White House built a War Room that created two different kinds of presidential communication: The War Room, run by folks such as Paul Begala and Rahm Emanuel, would deal with the ugliness of the Monica Lewinsky controversy. They would engage in the bare knuckled tactics of battling Ken Starr and the House Republicans.  Clinton would lead the other type of communication, which was strictly presidential--above the fray, on the business of governing, and leading the U.S. into the 21st Century.  The brilliance of the Clinton media machine was captured by Howard Kurtz in the book Spin Cycle.

And then we get George W. Bush, and people marveled (at least in the first term) at his masterful handling of the press.  In large part, Bush was helped by the 9/11 attacks, which sent his public opinion numbers into the stratosphere.  It would take awhile for the press to write critical stories of the administration for fear of being branded al Qaeda surrogates.  But even without those terrible attacks, Bush would have been just as masterful in his press management abilities.

First, Bush had a knack for handling the press, and most importantly, with cutting down on unauthorized leaks from the White House.  During his father's administration, W was brought in to stop leaks, something that he got very good at doing.  So he did not have to worry about leaks in the way other presidents did.  And clearly Bush was helped by a very good communications team, whose point man was Ari Fleischer.  Jonathan Chait, writing for The New Republic, chronicled Fleischer's brilliance in handling the press in a 2002 article titled "The Peculiar Duplicity of Ari Fleischer".

The Bush administration would insist on top-down message control.  For instance, the only person authorized to speak daily to the press was the press secretary.  All of the agencies would get their message marching orders from the White House Office of Communication. And in a particularly brilliant move, the White House also insisted on picking the press secretaries and deputy press secretaries at all the bureaucratic departments and agencies, making sure there were Bush loyalists in place to keep an eye on a potential cabinet member about to "go native".  The Bush first term media manipulation successes were documented very well by Ken Auletta in his piece, Fortress Bush. My favorite line from a reporter--it doesn't matter who you speak to inside the Executive Branch, they all say the same thing. It is as if there is a mind meld in place.  In addition, the Bush administration also took advantage of the rise of conservative media--in particular, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.  The administration would create an echo effect in all of its messages, a strategy documented by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella in their book, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment.

Which brings us to the Obama administration and this treatise by Politico on how they are the zen masters--Jedi Priests of media manipulation and management not seen by any president yet.  As I said, same old song and dance.  So why is it that each new president excels over his predecessor, regardless of party?  I can think of at least four reasons to provide light to this question:

1) The Building Blocks answer--each new president comes into office with a lot of information about what does and does not work.  Thus a new president, if he is smart, will not start from scratch, but instead build upon the successes of his predecessor.  Take two presidents--Carter and Clinton.  Carter decided to take the media playbook, and chuck it right over the rails of the yacht Sequoia  just before he sold it.  As John Maltese argues in Spin Control, Carter made a decision to mothball the Office of Communications and instead speak plainly to the American public. As a result, he lost control of his image and his message, and ultimately his presidency.  Bill Clinton, when he came into Office in 1993, almost repeated Carter's mistake by not tending to the messaging needs of his administration. Only after the disaster of health care and the Republican victories in 1994 did Clinton right his ship.  Each president wants to make life easier for his successor (if you believe Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy), thus each leaves a president a number of strategies to deal with the Congress and with the press. Wise presidents make use of those strategies and build upon them.

2. Resources.  The communications resources that a president amasses is something that has continued to grow from Reagan through Obama.  The president has a lot of control over information, which is ultimately what the press is after.  By controlling how that information is handled and released, a president can go along way in controlling the way the news is framed.  Control the frame and you control the agenda. And isn't agenda control the essence of political power anyway?  Resources is a two edged sword.  For the news media, it means a lack of resources.  As a result of corporate downsizing, newsrooms and reporters are expected to do more with less. James McCartney and John Herbers were already sounding the warning siren back in 1999, when they wrote that in DC, not only were entire news bureaus disappearing, but those who stayed were saddling their reporters with more beats.  Rather than a reporter covering a physical beat such as the State Department, now one reporter was tied to the "National Security Beat", covering State, Defense, National Security Agency, CIA, and the White House.  Naturally where a reporter is taxed this way, his or her critical abilities are greatly diminished. The dwindling supply of resources in our newsrooms is a problem that continues to get worse, and so long as the balance favors the president, so will the president's ability to dazzle all of us with media control.

3. Technology: This is ever increasing the advantage into the hands of those with information.  Technology has helped the president get around the press and connect directly with whichever citizenry they are trying to reach.  As I mentioned above, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton all used satellite link ups to connect directly with local television, where the questions would be soft and their message controlled (see "Spin" for a glimpse). 
After the introduction of the Internet, and with the advent of communication technology, Presidents have found new ways to work their message without bothering with the filter.  Many of the techniques used on the campaign are exported directly into the White House.  Thus Obama has spent more time with Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook than he has with the New York Times or ABC News.  In fact, back in 2010, Lloyd Grove of "The Daily Beast" pronounced the White House press corps dead and the dawn of the "filterless presidency".
In addition to expanding technology, there has also been the fragmentation of the media universe.  In addition to the problems of polarization, media segmentation allows presidents to reach out to specific audiences. Whether it is the Golf Channel, the NASCAR channel, or Lifetime, presidents do not need the filter in the way they once did.  The dramatic changes over the last three decades in our media environment has meant easier times for a president and his communications team.

4. Public Disdain: And of course the last thing that has aided presidents in their ability to control the press is the continuing public disdain for the "Fourth Estate".  James Fallows, writing back in the mid-90s, identified a half a dozen reasons why Americans hated the press--from the continuing rise of infotainment to the refusal of the press to hold itself to the same standard it judges others. For Fallows, these were deep seated problems that have extended over decades, and until the press begins to deal with the problems, they simply will not have the support of the American public.  Fast forward to today, and these problems have only gotten worse, as documented in this insightful study by Jonathan Ladd.
This is not just an academic problem.  The press needs the support of Americans if they are to fulfill their First Amendment obligations to challenge power.  Those in positions of power--say presidents--are likely to take the press seriously if they believe that Americans are taking their side. But that has not happened in a long time. Most Americans today believe the press is immoral, likely to cover up mistakes, and biased. Thus in Gulf War I, when the press complained about being kep in pools far away from the fighting, most American complained that they were interfering with the war effort, something that "Saturday Night Live" picked up on in a skit on the press briefing before the War began.  The questions the press asked: "What date are we going to start the ground attack?", "where would you say our forces are most vulnerable to attack?", and "what would be the one piece of information that would be most dangerous for the Iraqi's to know?".
So if you think you have seen the last of these articles on president and media management, trust me, you haven't.  Instead, Same old song and dance.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Obama's Signing Statements, First Term 

I have done my counting for President Obama's first term signing statements, and if you believe that he promised to use them in only the most extreme circumstances, than you can breathe a sigh of relief.  Here is what the first term of each President has looked like from Reagan through Obama:

President  Challenge       Con    Rhet     Total
Reagan 51 34 106 140
BushI 246 118 105 223
Clinton 55 27 141 168
Bush II 713 86 23 109
Obama 78 10 21 37

Obama has issued very few signing statements in his first term in office.  From 2009-2012, Obama issued just 37 total signing statements, compared with 100+ from each of his predecessors. Interesting, the President who comes closest to Obama in total number of signing statements is his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, who has been the most reviled where signing statements are concerned. 

In Obama's final year of his presidency, he issued seven signing statements, and none that challenged any provision of law.  But before we break out the cigars, it is important to note that Obama issued the third most challenges, coming in behind George 43 and his father, George 41. So he may have not issued many signing statements, but he gets his money worth when he does.

It is hard to know whether these numbers are indeed completely accurate.  In one respect, the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents have now been adding keywords to their entries, so signing statements now contain the label "bill signings".  In the other respect, according to a January 2010 NY Times report by Charlie Savage, the administration claimed it would not use  the signing statement to voice disagreements with law where disagreements have already been made, and may instead use the OLC to voice new disagreements--and OLC opinions are not always published.  So we are left wondering what these numbers really mean.

You would hope this would be an issue the Congress would take more seriously, and not just when it comes to partisan advantage.  Despite what some scholars think about congressional oversight of the signing statement, the fact of the matter is there is little to no evidence that Congress has a handle on how, why, and when the president uses the signing statement, burglar and fire alarms notwithstanding.

Thus I have taken advantage of the administration's "We the People" project to ask the administration to make the signing statement transparent, and allow a tracking mechanism similar to the executive order.  You can find the petition at: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/publish-each-and-every-refusal-enforce-laws-president-signs-his-bill-signing-statements/wdmSnGlg?utm_source=wh.gov&utm_medium=shorturl&utm_campaign=shorturl

Please take the time to sign my petition if you think this is an issue that warrants attention.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Everyone seems to agree that a key role of the media in a democratic society is to serve as the watchdog on behalf of the citizenry of those who exercise power--public and private.  Furthermore, most people would agree that a key role of the press in a democratic society is to provide accurate and untainted information in an election so citizens can best choose the person who is most in line with our interests.  This would include cutting through the clutter and lies that are at the heart of political advertising in political campaigns.

Political advertising, as we well know, is not subjected to the same regulations as commercial advertising--government does not insure the political ads are being honest in the claims they make. Somehow giving government that role violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, and yet in other democratic countries, it is accepted that government, who supposedly is working on behalf of "the people", checks the veracity of political ads.

Since government cannot do this, the job naturally falls to the media--that independent institution with standing in the Constitution.  But the media in the United States is also subject to a greater power than the people--it must bow to shareholders, who seek a return on their investments.  Because this is true, fact checking advertising by the press is something that went by the way side beginning in the 1980s, when the media in the US went through a massive transformation, resulting from downsizing and consolidation.  "Do more with less" was the motto.  And when the media was challenged for neglecting factchecking advertising--something that everyone agrees is at the core of its functions--well the reasons offered had something to do with "objectivity" and avoiding the taint of "bias". See, if the media challenged the things featured in a political ad, that was seen as taking sides, and taking sides is not being objective.  Objectivity, of course, is the Rosetta Stone of American Journalism.  No matter that in the past, particularly in the late 19th century and early 20th century, journalists who were considered muckrakers saw it as the essential mission of journalists to challenge the powerful--thus journalists brought down the political machines that choked democracy in big cities across the U.S, as well as shining a light on the mistreatment of workers in stockyards, coal mines, and manufacturing.

It wasn't until the Internet came along, and with it a non-media, not for profit organization called Factcheck.org, that brought factchecking back into the newsroom.  Factcheck.org was run out of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and former CNN reporter Brooks Jackson.  They began to challenge the factual basis of political advertising about a decade ago, and because they had the market to themselves, they generated a lot of traffic from people looking to separate truth from lies.  The site also challenges Internet rumors, and can be a great resource if you have loonies in your family tree who feel compelled to alert you to the impending take over of the US by the United Nations.

In 2004, the site was mentioned by VP Dick Cheney in his debate with John Edwards, though Cheney gave the web address as "Factcheck.com". A supporter of Kerry-Edwards quickly registered the domain name, and for every hit on Factcheck.com, it directed the person to an anti-Bush website.  But because of the interest in fact checking, the news media in the U.S. began to return to the business of fact checking ads as well as claims/assertions made in town hall meetings and in debates. Thus the Washington Post created their own column, "The Fact Checker", that rated ads by how many Pinnochios it registered (Pinnochio being the wannabe boy whose nose would grow whenever he told a lie. If an ad received four Pinocchios, rest assured it was an outright lie.

Similarly, the Tampa Bay Times created "Politifact.com", where they would measure an ad on a "Truth-O-Meter", where it could range from "Mostly True" to "Pants on Fire", as in "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire".  And it is Politifact that is the subject of this posting.  The Internet has been abuzz with a story coming out of Politifact, where it awarded Mitt Romney's campaign ad about Jeeps being made in China as the "Lie of the Year"! Some context: in the closing days of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney ran an ad in Ohio claiming that Chrysler--who makes the Jeep--had begun the process of shuttering its manufacturing plants in Ohio and shipping them to China--thus American jobs being sent overseas to China.  This at the behest of the Obama administration.  The ad--which was desperate in its design--provoked an instant negative reaction from the press, politicians, and especially Chrysler, which held its own press conference to take the unusual step to denounce an ad run in a presidential campaign.  It is still somewhat of a mystery why Romney's people thought this ad was a good ideal, but for whatever reason, it backfired in a big way.
So why is the newspaper in the business of handing out awards?  Well for the same reason that Time Magazine has been naming it's "Person of the Year"--it boost circulation size.  Politifact has banked on the ideal that naming the Romney ad the biggest pants on fire of them all would generate buzz, and that buzz would find bring it lots and lots of unique visitors to the website, and lots and lots of unique visitors equals more money from advertisers. So Politifact decided to make news, rather than report, not for anything noble as democracy or maintaining an informed citizenship, but solely for the bottom line. Which means that this exercise in fact checking by the media is subject to market demands irregardless of whether the public wants them continued. Sure enough, if fact checking becomes more a cost than a benefit, we may very well return to the days of Factcheck.org owning the entire market to itself.

I am reminded of a scene from the movie "The Rainmaker", featuring Matthew Damon as an idealistic young attorney going up against a corporate lawfirm. At one point Damon asks the lead attorney for the insurance company he is suing, played by Jon Voight: "I'm just wonderin'...do you even remember when you first sold out?"

Game Change, Part II 

Following the 2008 election, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann published Game Change, a behind the scenes look at the Democrat and Republican campaigns for nomination and then for the presidency. 
Game Change was a fascinating look at the complex and Machiavellian power plays by candidates and staffers looking to win the presidency.  Parts of the book are simply stunning: for instance, a whole chapter dedicated to the strained and weird relationship between John and Elizabeth Edwards (and before we learned of his affair).  The public persona of Elizabeth Edwards was shattered, as the authors showed her to be a mean, thin skinned woman who brow beat her husband at every step of the way.  And John Edwards, the good looking, down home Southern Gentleman was proven to be little more than an opportunist.  For instance, when it became clear that he was not going to win the nomination, he began to bargain his delegates for an important Cabinet position in either the Clinton or the Obama administration.  Things got so bad in the Edwards campaign--between John and Elizabeth--that early on his own campaign staff began to worry about what would happen if he actually won the presidency, and thus began to contemplate whether they should go public and end Edwards campaign for the good of the Party.  It never got to that.
Game Change also gave us an interesting glimpse at the Clintons, a co-equal partnership of two giant egos.  How Hillary planned revenge on staff who left her campaign to work for another, and how Bill, supposed surrogate of Hillary, often caused her more pain than help when he would go off script and attack Barack Obama, or how he would suck the media oxygen out of a room, leaving little chance for Hillary to gain her own media time for herself (there is a wonderful example in a grocery store).
HBO decided to produce a film of the book, and instead of looking at the complex relationships of the various campaigns, they instead decided to focus on the pick of Sarah Palin, and then to document the strained relationship that emerged between McCain aide Steve Schmidt and Sarah Palin.  Particularly in Palin's tendency to not stick to the McCain script, and instead go it alone, something the McCain people referred to as "going rogue". This would often generate more negative coverage than positive, but Palin was not concerned about how she appeared to the mainstream media, but instead was more concerned about how she appeared to conservative audiences, who loved her.  Her problem was believing that these audiences were the typical voter, and not atypical.  But the McCain-Palin dynamic--which ended with Schmidt leaking information to the press designed to undermine her standing as it became clear McCain would not win--was just a tiny part of the book.

Heilemann and Halperin--due to the success of the book--committed to writing another book about the 2012 race.  Apparently that commitment has been formalized, a Penquin picked up the publishing rights to Double Down: Game Change 2012. And HBO has picked up the rights to film another movie.

My problem from the time the two reporters announced a 2012 book is that the book would not be as raw and candid as the Game Change book.  Here is why: campaign books are nothing new.  From Timothy Crouse's Boys on the Bus to Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys with George, campaign books or documentary films are a staple of presidential elections, but usually do not have a wide audience, and instead are produced for a more academic audience. Game Change was able to leap out of the box and find a larger audience.  Because of its success, I am certain that the campaigns in 2012 who spoke to the two reporters did so with an eye towards the audience reading their book. Thus what they say is likely to be filtered. Furthermore, since 2012 featured an incumbent president, I am certain that the book will focus more on the Republican primary and then the Romney general election campaign.  And HBO will once again be producing charicatures of the Republican candidates, only furthering the cries of media bias.

For my money, the best campaign book on the 2012 election cycle has been the three part (although part three is not yet out) series produced by Tom Bevan and Carl Cannon.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Breaking Trust 

Newspapers have played an important role in American politics: To help citizens make choices about who best represents their interests come Election Day.  Thus in the 2012 presidential election cycle, around 200 newspapers have made their endorsement for a presidential candidate, including nineteen Ohio newspapers such as the “Akron Beacon Journal”, the “Cleveland Plain Dealer”, the “Columbus Dispatch”, and “The Cincinnati Enquirer”. Notably absent among the endorsers is the “Dayton Daily News”.

So why has the “Dayton Daily News” decided to eschew this cherished tradition? Is it they have little faith in either candidate to fix the significant problems facing the country? Or on the contrary, do they believe that both are equally capable of fixing the significant problems facing the country?

Julia Wallace, the publisher of the “Dayton Daily News” has provided two answers to the mystery. First, she claims that readers do not want the newspaper telling them who to vote for, but instead prefer an accounting of the facts for their own personal use in arriving at a decision made on their own.  Second, “some readers” believe the newspaper is biased, and thus to prove absence of bias, the newspaper is not picking a side. This will “prove” fair and balanced coverage. And I have a bridge to sell you.

In the past, citizens used party identification to help cut through the information morass on Election Day.  But party identification is no longer what it once was—instead, citizens are left to their own devices to cut through campaign double-speak, negative advertising, and the partisan vitriol that passes for political discussion on the Internet. 

For many citizens, the last port of refuge in helping them make their decisions on Election Day is the newspaper endorsement.  A 2010 study made this conclusion: “Newspapers’ political recommendations matter and persuade readers to vote for different candidates.” If the publisher and editors of the “Dayton Daily News” were true to their public, they would go beyond just the presentation of facts and help their readers to vote—even if the reader uses the recommendation to make the opposite decision—the newspaper has still influenced the decision. And second, the publisher and editors should not care that a certain segment of the population believes in media bias. It is certain that these citizens’ perceptions are not going to change because the newspaper has decided to withhold their choice.

Citizens need help on Election Day. They look to their friends, neighbors, family members, and to their hometown newspaper to help with electoral decisions.  And when the newspaper fails to offer that help, it lets down the citizenry. And given voter turnout over the last 50 years, we need all the help we can get. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Memorandum of Understanding 

There is controversy afoot regarding Candy Crowley's role at the Hofstra Townhall debate tomorrow night.  It seems that Ms. Crowley has been vocal that she will take a fairly active role in holding the candidates feet to the fire if they refuse to answer the question asked by citizen attendee or if they revert to their various talking points.  As Time Magazine points out, Obama and Romney are united in filing complaints with the Commission on Presidential Debates claiming that Crowley's position violates the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the two sides that sets the terms of the debates, from room temperature to podium height. The MOU is a fascinating document that up to very recently has not been made public.

The issue raises an interesting question. Can a journalist, who is not a party to the agreement, be bound to the terms?  In this case, the two candidates argue that the MOU stipulates that the moderator has a limited, passive role in the debate, which aside from Jim Lehrer rubs against the instincts of journalists.  We will know by tomorrow night just what kind of influence the Commission actually has over their moderators.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Congress and Tweeting 

The Hill had a nice article examining who is behind the tweets from Members of Congress.  They found (not shocking) that most MCs do not write their own tweets, just like most do not write their own constituent mail, instead shifting it off to staff and interns.  But the MCs are missing an opportunity looking at Twitter like constituent mail--the connection it makes with constituents.  As one MC noted: "...people notice and appreciate that he writes his own because 'people really hunger for authenticity on the part of the elected officials."

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