The Meta-Coverage (or, Those Manly Candidates redux)
By A.D. Freudenheim  

17 October 2004

In a column this week titled “Courting the Finicky Women,” The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd bristlingly noted how un-enthralled she is with President George W. Bush and his challenger, Senator John F. Kerry – how uninteresting the debates were, how automatic were their responses, and how unscintillating is both candidates’ vision for the future of the United States. She wrote, much as I did a week ago, of “missing the unsentimental fireball Howard Dean.”[1]

From a different vantage point, Eric Boehlert, writing for Salon this week, attacked the blasé nature of the campaigns and the coverage, pointing out that Kerry’s victory in each of three debates (seeming victories, based on most polls) was treated as routine, even insignificant, despite the theoretical impact of these debate on the Senator’s chances for winning the election. Boehlert criticized his colleagues, concluding that Kerry’s victories “should have been the night’s obvious talking point,” and implying a media bias in favor of Bush.[2]

Good grief is all of this tedious! Is there anything worse than reading the journalistic meta-coverage: the critiques of the candidates and their campaigns, and occasionally the critiques of the coverage of the candidates and their campaigns, by the same journalists who so blatantly take a pass on actually doing their jobs in the first place, or who do little to call their colleagues out on their passivity? These two articles are just a tiny drop in a vast ocean of non-news that passes for American journalism. (And, of course, I am clearly contributing to this situation, too.)

First, Boehlert’s article. Almost every one of the reporters Boehlert mentions (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, and CBS’s Dan Rather, to name just a few) not only responded to the debates and the campaigns in the manner Boehlert rightly complains about – they also are journalists in a position to influence how boring, or not, the election process has been to date. These reporters have had opportunities to interview either the candidates themselves or the officials working for them, and to ask questions about policy and planning issues, about the proposals they have made for how they would lead the nation, about their plans to address health care, social security, taxes, even the war ... the list of potential topics for discussion is long indeed. Yet serious efforts to discuss policy issues never happen, not with American journalists. They ask the questions, but they do not insist on the candidate’s answering them, for the sake of the people they purportedly desire to lead. Boehlert notes that the pundits complained the third debate was, in the words of Crowley, “a bit of a wonk fest,” and perhaps this is not what people want to see and hear. But wonkiness aside, the underlying issues are still of critical importance to us all.

For example, Kerry has, throughout the campaign, carried on with an entirely unrealistic set of message points about solving the Bush-created security crisis in Iraq, repeating a mantra about increasing multi-national participation in rebuilding that nation, and stating flatly that he will speed up the process of training the Iraqis to take over securing themselves. Well, how? As many commentators (including those named above) have noted in their role as pundit, Kerry’s plan is terrific-sounding but likely impractical and ineffective; it is, in many ways, a continuation of the drifting policies of the Bush administration, with a slightly better emphasis on coalition-building. Making this point as a pundit, however, is very different from doing so as a journalist in the middle of a dialogue or debate about such a policy with the candidate. Don’t the American people deserve to hear Senator Kerry acknowledge that, in fact, there is little he can do, as president, to change the war in Iraq over night, and that continued American deaths are likely for the duration of our involvement there? Even if such an acknowledgment were to come with a direct criticism of the Bush administration tied to it, still, doesn’t America have the right to hear the truth from Mr. Kerry, and not just the message points?

Likewise Mr. Bush has been allowed to talk about this “coalition” that is helping American efforts in Iraq, or the amount of money returned to middle-class Americans through his tax cuts. But the coalition is an illusion – 30-some nations providing a few thousand troops, at most, and little financial support as well – and the Bush tax cuts have clearly and unambiguously benefited the rich to a greater degree than anyone else. Bush agrees to precious-few interviews, so the opportunities to question him directly have been limited (he is media-phobic because he isn’t so bright, as was amply demonstrated a year or so ago when he agreed to speak with NBC’s Tim Russert), which made the opportunity to do so in the three debates all the more important. Opportunities that passed by Dan Rather, Charlie Gibson, and Bob Schieffer as if they had never happened in the first place. Moreover, when Karl Rove or other Bush administration and campaign officials go in front of the media, they echo the same message points – and are just as happily allowed not to answer tough questions. Again: don’t the American people deserve to hear, clearly and unambiguously, an acknowledgment from the Bush administration that their fiscal policies benefit the wealthiest 1% of Americans more than anyone else? Do we not have a right to hear our own president admit the truth about the vast Iraq war coalition he mentions so persistently?

The candidates have addressed many of these issues themselves, in the debates that these same journalists found so boring: Kerry has attacked Bush, Bush has attacked Kerry. This is all well and good; the value of the debate format is exactly that, allowing Americans to see the candidates address issues on their own. However, it cannot take the place of the pursuit of truth even by (partisan) journalists seeking to protect one campaign or the other. Asking tough questions, and pressing for truthful answers, helps to inform Americans about the candidates, and can reduce the efficacy of attack ads – or at least make them more focused on substantive differences between the candidates rather than scare tactics – and can help ensure that the candidates we can choose from are the best, the brightest, and the most effective. All of which should go a long way to addressing Maureen Dowd’s complaints, and my own, about how unscintillating Bush and Kerry are, and how much the honesty and passion of Howard Dean are missing at this moment in time.

American journalists: what are you afraid of?

[1]Courting the Finicky Women,” by Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 15 October 2004.
[2]The media reaction: Ho-hum, just a Kerry sweep,” by Eric Boehlert, Salon, 13 October 2004.
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