White House Bookmaking
One of my favorite moments that I witnessed in journalism was a meeting at the Hartford Courant between the new boss, the executive editor who came directly from the hallowed New York Times, and a half dozen or so underling editors on the paper, including myself.
Richard E. Mooney was tall, thin, preppy in style, patrician in demeanor. Nearly everyone in the room was put off. An outsider hired to run the venerable Courant in 1976, hired by the locally grown management, too.
My hopes soared after he brought in the paper’s chief political reporter, Jack Zaiman, the guy who’d been covering politics in the Connecticut for eons. Zaiman was an old time reporter, aimable, mild-mannered and trusted by all the political people in the state with their trial balloons and one-liners. Mooney had a special interest in politics and wanted to make his first mark in coverage of the Presidential campaign that year.
The new editor asked Zaiman what was going on, and the reporter replied with a detailed account of the minutae of campaign strategies. He speculated about how various sound bites and tactics would play out on election day. Mooney stopped him, and said, “Jack, I want to cover the election, not handicap it.”
Wow, I rarely heard such good sense in a newsroom ever. No matter what anyone says about the vacuity of political discussion, the news is largely a bunch of crystal-ball stories about strategy, like those about Mitt Romney’s decision to show up tieless in jeans. Those outnumber the stories about Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital at least 20 to 1, probably more like 1,000 to 1.
In Hartford, Mooney’s skepticism only served to galvanize the grumbling (if grumbling can be galvanized) among the locals. It certainly didn’t change the way the paper covered politics.
It’s now 36 years later and not much has changed. The news business, which does a lot whining these days about its coming extinction, likes to warn us that democracy itself will be threatened if the deep reporting that is done only occasionally disappears entirely.
Maybe they’d have a point if they did a lot of deep reporting, but they don’t. Oh, they do some, but when they do, they let the story evaporate while they fall over themselves to resume staring at their crystal balls.
The big papers today are filled with speculation about the effect of the latest employment statistics are going to have on voters. The campaigns are sending out their spins on the numbers. Within a few days, the pollsters and focus groups will take over. But when the opposition party starts shouting that they are the job creators, not one of these serious reporters stops their stenography to demand to know just what the candidates think they might do. When the party in power claims the economy is coming around, no one asks for proof. Generalities and simple solutions printed verbatim are the rule in news, though they look like ads to me.
But in defense of the editors of the big papers, they are giving the people — a vast majority of them — what they want. The fault, at heart, is in ourselves. Very few people seem to know or care much about politics or government. They look at pictures of the candidates for the White House and make their choices. In any conversations I’ve had, the people, the voters, the ones who make democracy work, never know more than a few minutes of cable television news gives them, but most don’t even get that far.
The campaign experts know this and take great pains to photograph the candidates striking poses that remind me Soviet propaganda posters, shot from underneath as the candidate gaze up to the heavens and into the future. And the newspapers run these. The photographers stand beneath the podiums where the campaign experts put them and snap away, while the writers copy out the words and at best wonder which of the statements will turn people on and which will turn them off.