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E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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January 21, 2004

Guest Critic: Cole Campbell on the Day After Iowa

Who created the frontrunner dethroned in Iowa for a new front runner? It was the campaign press. But on the morning after, the campaign press pretends it does not exist. Cole Campbell, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, comments.

Innocent in Iowa
by Cole C. Campbell

In today’s simultaneous coverage of politics and coverage of coverage of politics, we get discordant signals about the role of political journalists in our political discourse. The discord is evident everywhere, but it is particularly apparent in The Washington Post’s coverage of the results of the Iowa caucus – and its coverage of the coverage.

In Tuesday’s Post, the paper’s political writers paint a dynamic picture of an exciting upset of Howard Dean by John Kerry. They use bold, declarative statements to make sense of this political turn of events. But these statements cite few, if any, expert sources and offer few, if any, arguments to justify the claims offered. It is a heady blend of sweeping characterizations based upon unstated, taken-for-granted assumptions.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Howard Kurtz, a reigning lord of press criticism and commentary, scolds his colleagues across the news media for making a big deal about the supposed dramatic surprise of John Kerry’s showing, noting “it was mainly a surprise because the press for so many months had been trumpeting a Howard Dean-Richard Gephardt showdown.” The press had focused on Dean’s money and volunteers and Gephardt’s union backing, but paid no attention to factors that led to Kerry “roughly doubling Dean’s vote total,” Kurtz notes. “To put it mildly, you didn’t read it here first. In other words, just about everything you heard and read about the Iowa caucuses in November and December was wrong. Particularly those endless pieces about the importance of strong grass-roots organizations. The press would have done better if all the reporters had taken a long vacation.”

You’d think journalists so clearly in error would sober up, reflect on their misfeasance and offer cautious summaries or humble hypotheses about what happened in Iowa. Nope. Instead we get the same sweeping characterizations about the new set of political facts.

Dan Balz, in his Page One piece for the Post, says Iowa voters “dealt a serious blow to the once front-running campaign of Howard Dean … and to predictions that the Democratic presidential race might end as quickly as it began.”

Dean’s vaunted grass-roots movement, which fueled the former Vermont governor’s rise to the top of the Democratic field with money and energy in 2003, failed its first test at old-fashioned politics, falling far short of the bold claims of its architects.

Dean now has a week to regroup for what will be a critical test in next Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, where retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark has been gaining ground on him and where Kerry will now be a major factor in the outcome.

Organizational prowess, considered the hallmark of the caucus process here, proved no match for the messages and momentum that built behind the candidacies of Kerry and surprise second-place finisher Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as voters began to take a more serious look at all the candidates in the last two weeks.

In another Page One story from the Post, John F. Harris describes Dean as having been “dethroned … from the near-invincible position he had seemed to enjoy at the start of the year.” While Dean’s “insurgent candidacy … seemed to dominate the Democratic contest, the Iowa results amounted to a validation for two polished and more conventional candidates.”

These characterizations beg several questions. Who enthroned Dean and named him the front-runner? By what criteria can journalists claim he has been dealt a serious blow or dethroned? Who vaunted his grass-roots movement, and who characterized his position as “near-invincible”? (By what criteria of invincibility?) Who decides that New Hampshire is a critical test for Dean, but not others? Who will decide whether Dean passes it? Who pitted Dean’s organizational prowess against Kerry’s and Edward’s “message and momentum”? Who says – and exactly what does it mean to say things this way – that voters “began” to take a “more serious look” at “all the candidates” in the last two weeks? (What had they been doing in earlier weeks? Looking facetiously, or at only some candidates, or not at all?) And who has the prerogative to describe the candidacy of a former governor as an insurgency and the candidacy of a first-term senator, taking on the same political establishment, as conventional politics?

We know the answer: The campaign press corps. But the campaign press corps’ stories citing all these factors, causes, dynamics and developments never mentions the centrality of the campaign press corps in picking what counts and doesn’t count in explaining—or explaining away—political reality. The campaign press corps pretends it doesn’t exist, except to observe and explain. It pretends it is a political innocent.

Howard Kurtz points out that the press, on its own terms, paints a portrait of politics that may or may not – not, in this case – comport with reality. And he suggests that Dean’s front-runner status – bestowed by the press – became the justification for intensive press scrutiny in recent weeks (the same time voters “began” to take the candidates seriously). Will Kerry and Edwards falter under similar strip searches?

Balz and Harris, meanwhile, shake their Etch-a-Sketch clear and start drawing a new portrait without in any way acknowledging that the portraiture is based on their own terms— deciding who is a front-runner, who deserves to be presented as an underdog, what counts as political savvy, what’s worth being vaunted, and on and on.

Given the political worldview defined by this kind of pressthink, several reflexes kick in and take over coverage this time of year. Two of the most obvious leap out in the Iowa caucus coverage.

1. Candidates are slotted into pre-scripted categorical roles: These are the BIG WINNER, the BIG LOSER, the SURPRISINGLY STRONG FINISHER and DEAD MEAT. The candidates’ objective in any early test is claiming not delegates to the nominating convention but the (temporarily) coveted crown of FRONT-RUNNER. Hence Calvin Woodward writes in his Associated Press account:

With a decisive victory in Iowa, John Kerry reclaimed the high expectations that ushered in his presidential candidacy, staggered Howard Dean and moved on to New Hampshire as the newly minted front-runner.

Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards buried Dean in third place Monday night in the Iowa presidential caucuses … For [Richard] Gephardt, it appeared the battles were over..

2. In the early primary season, the point is not winning or losing as defined by party nominating rules, but meeting, exceeding or blowing expectations. Bryan Keefer lays it out in the Columbia School of Journalism’s new Campaign Desk blog that Iowa and New Hampshire “are the playing field on which reporters set the bar for the expected performances of the candidates. Exceed these expectations – as John Kerry and John Edwards did in Iowa – and the press is positive; fail to meet them, and the press warms up the funeral dirge for your chances, as Howard Dean is finding discovering.”

These two elements of pressthink are so obvious, routine, ritualized and repeated year in and year out it almost seems trite – it is trite – to trot them out again. But it is important to connect them to the third axiom of the press in the early primary season. Political candidates must fill certain roles for campaign narratives to work. Political candidates must be sorted, and expectations are a great device for sorting. Who better to assign roles and evaluate expectations than the uninvolved, politically innocent press?

3. The press is the central player in politics to political insiders – not the candidates, not the voters – and insiders acknowledge it even while maintaining as orthodoxy that the press is innocent of influence.

Consider how the candidates immediately positioned themselves after the Iowa caucus results were in. They began talking about themselves in terms entirely shaped by expectations and degrees of separation from front-runnerdom. Howard Dean took refuge in the only safe haven for failed front-runners – reclaiming his year-ago status as underdog. “If you had told me a year ago that I was going to finish third in Iowa, I would have been delighted,” he told Larry King. Kerry cast himself as “Comeback Kerry,” positioning himself as the Seabiscuit of American politics, front-runner and underdog rolled into one pint-sized horse with heart.

The candidates are trying to reposition themselves in the idiom of the press, capitulating to pressthink’s assignment or roles and expectations in order to improve their standing in the eyes of the press or to induce the press to transmit and reinforce this new positioning to prospective voters. But they never blow the whistle on the press’s centrality. When John Kerry notes that “not so long ago this campaign was written off,” he doesn’t add “by the news media.” That would break protocol by acknowledging the unacknowledgeable centrality of the press. It’s okay to bash the press for doing its job poorly; it’s not okay to explain how much space the press occupies in your every calculation of politics. That would make you appear calculating (when in fact you are simply being realistic).

And so the press covers new developments without acknowledging the actors and agents truly responsible for these developments— journalists themselves. “Conventional wisdom was turned on its head tonight,” NBC’s Tim Russert said during Monday night’s broadcast coverage of the Iowa caucus.

Russert never owned up to who the keepers of conventional wisdom are— he and his colleagues. The press tells itself that it is not implicated in the politics it molds and shapes. It presents itself as a campaign innocent. But everyone involved knows better.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 21, 2004 5:15 AM   Print


Campbell nails it, right down to the implication contained in his kicker ("It presents itself as a campaign innocent. But everyone involved knows better."): Many, if not most, voters aren't "involved" -- they don't understand, or, at best, misunderstand, the role the press plays.

(Full disclosure: Campbell was my AME 15 years ago.)

Posted by: Lex at January 21, 2004 6:05 AM | Permalink

This is as true as it gets, and sadder than sad.

Since the press has taken over the process, there has been an abominable electoral process.
Is it coincidence or could there be something to this? It may also be responsible for the low turnout at the polls in most of our elections.
While the press would not accept this blame, I find that it is obvious if we are to be honest, and I don't believe the media has the capacity to be honest. Their only goal is to puff themself up for more money contracts, even if it is at the the cost of our country's democracy.
How shameful. How utterly disgusting. That is why we should boycott through sales of products of their sponsors, and also cancel subscriptions to newspapers. In other words hit them where they their pocket.
We are told by the press that a candidate is not "electable". Who says? Stop the damned polling too while you are at it, because it is NOT indicative of real America.
People have to rise up against this NOW, or forever be doomed.

Posted by: Barbara at January 21, 2004 8:28 AM | Permalink


It gives me a sense of sanity after all the media frenzy. I completely agree with your assessment of the press and their agenda. It is easier for me to see this, since I grow-up in a country were the press was totally controlled by the government and it was hard to convince people that what they read was pure fantasy. I wish there was more straighter reporting like yours.

Posted by: Ricardo at January 21, 2004 9:07 AM | Permalink

I've come here time and again to defend the press against unfair or uninformed generalizations from all the self-styled critics of the blogosphere but seeing Howie Kurtz's comments in the context of Campbell's critique forces me to admit my colleagues on the campaign trail blew it badly this time. And by extension their editors who should know better bought their line and ran with it repeatedly.

But the blogosphere blew it too, because all the focusing on Dean's wizbang grasp of technology -- combined with the coverage on all the pro-Dean blogs -- obscured the fact that he wasn't getting any traction in Iowa.

Any reporters who saw Dean's account of the campaign and the gushing enthusiasm of his blogging volunteers might well have said, "damn, this guy's on to something."

What he wasn't on, apparently, was the minds of many Iowa Caucus attendees.

Posted by: tom mangan at January 21, 2004 9:58 AM | Permalink

JonStewart did a pretty good job of lambasting the BigMedia for
* ignoring issues to just talk about horserace
* totally blowing it in all their predictions, and never admitting it.

Posted by: Bill Seitz at January 21, 2004 11:11 AM | Permalink

To my mind, there's a lot more at work here than just the self-grandizement of the press corps. It's about managing the electorate; repeating over and over again who is electable and why we should consider them so. Read Noam Chomsky for an excellent analysis of how power elites remain in power. We have the world's most elaborate propaganda machine, designed not to look like what it is, because we don't do propaganda here, do we? There's 49% or so of registered voters who won't go to the polls because they know from experience that their issues will never be addressed by "electable" candidates. The job of the media in this country is to marginalize any candidate with a message which might wake up those voters and get them to the polls, pure and simple.

Posted by: Tom Nichols at January 21, 2004 12:20 PM | Permalink

Mr. Campbell's fine analysis is more or less a translation of what some speak of as the production and manipulation of the "spectacle." What I would ask Mr. Nichols is, could he please unpack a little more his reason for stating that the job of US media is to marginalize potent candidates? It is one thing to identify something as propaganda, and another to discern to whose service it is being put, and why. Not disputing the observation, just curious as to what train of logic leads him thither.

Posted by: Tom Matrullo at January 21, 2004 12:46 PM | Permalink

The media in this country is dominated by a small handful of wealty and powerful conlomerates. They contribute heavily to both major parties, and expect influence for their contributions. They want candidates who will play by the rules, which are simply that what's good for corporate wealth and power is defacto good for everybody else. If you own the political process by direct money influence on the office holders / candidates, do you want an outsider with grassroots support and grassroots money to be a viable contender for high office? You, the corporate owner of the media, are able to set editorial policy and have ultimate control over coverage and the message that coverage conveys through tone. Propaganda is the manipulation of information to convey a message. For example,take a look at the picture of Dean that pops up on the MSNBC cover story on the race in NH. Impression? Angry guy. Not somebody whose message is about change which falls outside the narrow confines of "centrism". The media message over and over again on Dean is this guy is too angry to be electable, not what plan does he have. Scare people away from anybody who, like Dean, opts out of the system as defined by those who hold power. Again, Mr. Matrullo,read Chomsky. He does a far more eloquent and thorough job with this than I ever could.

Posted by: Tom Nichols at January 21, 2004 1:16 PM | Permalink

While I agree with the thrust of your comment, Tom, I think you're overstating a few things and overlooking others. Please forgive me if I'm missing your point, but your tone was a bit dismissive.

First, several aspects of the Dean campaign are indeed impressive and will have a lasting impact. Number one is fundraising. He raised more money in a few days, with virtually zero overhead, than any one of his opponents raised in an entire quarter.

The campaign's ability to mobilize volunteers in "meatspace"via the Internet was equally notable. One can attribute this in part to his followers' fanaticism, but I don't doubt that the Internet will be a part of any serious campaign from here on out.

Yes, there was a lot of "gushing" from both the campaign and the press, and both were blinded to the reality on the ground. But there is no disputing that Dean was on to something.

Reading the post-mortems, it's becoming a bit clearer to me why that something failed to translate into a win in Iowa.

• Dean did bring many new faces. So new, in fact, that they failed to grasp the nuances and power structures of the caucus process.

• Dean volunteers were successful in canvassing; so successful, in fact, that some voters thought they were obsessive kooks. They may have even inspired older voters to get out to stop Dean.

• Dean was on the minds of many caucus attendees, but not necessarily in a good way. Many had though about supporting him (helping explain his high poll numbers beforehand), but had doubts about his electability (which was reinforced by events and coverage just prior to the caucus).

I think the lesson here is not that the press was hoodwinked by the Deaniacs. Dean's novel approach was successful in many ways and worthy of attention (though probably not as much as it received).

The story that was missed was how that approach meshed with a traditional caucus system and traditional voters, and competed with traditional campaigns.

Posted by: Grant Dunham at January 21, 2004 1:17 PM | Permalink

Oops. I should have directed my comment to Tom Mangan

Posted by: Grant Dunham at January 21, 2004 1:19 PM | Permalink

Well written, great piece! Keep up the great critical work. Thanks!

Posted by: David at January 21, 2004 2:40 PM | Permalink

Excellent comment by Grant Dunham - indeed the story in Iowa was how the Dean campaign intersected with traditional politics, for both good and ill, and how in the rush to cover the 'New new thing' the press missed the actual effect it was having on VOTERS, who after all, are supposed to decide these things after all. The Dean campaign missed the effect as well, but still managed a third place finish from a guy who was statistically insignificant a year ago. The story lies in the differences betweeen those Iowa voters who chose to support Dean, Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt. But that would be boring. Right?

Posted by: El Payo at January 21, 2004 3:07 PM | Permalink

This article is a bit pre-mature considering how non-standard Iowa caucuses are.

Posted by: pb at January 21, 2004 4:10 PM | Permalink

Grant, you don't get it.

You can come up with reasons for IOWA now that it's over, but "electability" and "angry" were pushed heavily by the media with little or no factual basis to support them.

Why is Edwards more "electable"? The media has repeated Edwards won because of questions on Dean's "electability" several times, yet you never get any reason for it. Its just televised push-polling (polls that ask if you'd vote for candidate A if you knew *blank*- telephone polls that insinuate the candidate A has done something horrible).

The media pushed the need for an Anti-Dean as if it was an emergency. Somehow the democratic party was being driven off of a cliff. "Oh no who's going to emerge as the Anti-Dean before it's too late?"

Posted by: 5yrsfwd at January 21, 2004 4:49 PM | Permalink

Excellent article, and some very good comments about the role of the media in rolling out the RNC talking points about Dean - angry, gaffe-prone, unstable, unelectable over and over and over again. The message to Iowa caucus goers, very highly motivated to find the best candidate to beat Bush, was to find the anti-Dean.

Not only does the media have its narrative, but the RNC can play them better than the devil can fiddle.

There seems tremendous antipathy in the media to Dean, at least in part, IMO, because of his direct, unmediated approach to his supporters.

Posted by: Aeolus at January 21, 2004 11:49 PM | Permalink

Interesting points. One comment I would have is that figuring out who would have won was very difficult. The polls were unreliable, and Dean really did blow it in the last week or so.

Your main points - that the press fails to acknowledge its centrality as a means of sustaining its unaccountability and that media politics presents a hugely dominant and silent narratively squeezed power structure - is dead on.

Posted by: MattS at January 22, 2004 1:11 AM | Permalink

To quote Rittenhouse Review, in the context of the post-Iowa Dean speech to his campaign

"It’s just the latest of the media’s effort to steer their collective coverage away from the hard stuff, like issues, issues they have proved time and again to be incapable of understanding, in order to focus on such fun Alpha-girl trivialities as the candidates’ appearances, personalities, “character,” and relationships, as if the presidential aspirants were running for Prom King or Prom Queen."

As long as they can keep their readership focused on the drama, the conflict, the narrative, they don't have to reveal their pervasively stunning ignorance of everything that serious candidates are talking about.

And they won't give the candidates the courtesy of actually quoting them in any representative form, or at any length. Won't quote, can't summarize because they understand politics, not policy.

Posted by: Aeolus at January 22, 2004 11:33 AM | Permalink

Good grief, all you have to do is look at the 2000 election and how the press repeated over and over again, Gore's "lies", even though his comments were explained and proven to be accurate. The press never corrected their distortions.

Another contrast that I see so clearly was the focus on Gore's clothes. (Brown tones, etc.)Has there ever been a comment on Bush (outside of the flight suit)wearing forest service green when he is pushing his agenda or any number of other wardrobe changes. What the media is doing to the whole election process is frightening imho.

Posted by: Jojuno at January 22, 2004 12:54 PM | Permalink

Hi Cole. Good Piece.

I have read other postmortems of what the press did wrong. They are important. But the election coverage has, what, eight more months. What can the press do differently to help us get the real story? Cole or Jay tell it here or come to the Public Journalism Network to tell us. A nice 10-step plan would be wonderful.

Posted by: Leonard Witt at January 22, 2004 3:09 PM | Permalink

Improving political reporting, for anyone who wants to:

Realize that much newspaper reading is now done on the web, or can be reinforced from the web for people who are interested. It's not all that hard to link to documents, statements, policy papers that you reference, especially if you are reporting on a complex statement or extended testimony.

Put some substantive reporting on issues in your stories, with representative quotes, and enough depth to cover a complex issue. Candidates are frequently talking seriously about issues like health care that may in fact not fit into twenty words or less. If reporters don't understand something about budgets, economics, health care, have them read something.

Forget he-said, she-said reports where every comment has to have a rebuttal to represent "the other side". Stories need to manage to tell at least one side well. Dueling sound bites are just noise, with no room for signal, especially if one side just lies. There's another newspaper tomorrow that can carry the next story. Some of us also think that some issues do not have two partisan sides, but rather an entire spectrum of opinions that might be important. Getting the nuance of a candidate thus becomes pretty durned significant.

Stop reporting spin stories that are obviously manufactured. (Pretty much anything that appears on Fox). Have the guts to refuse to be part of anyone's propaganda operation.

Stop reporting "gotcha stories" where a simple slip of the tongue or mis-statement is magnified into some hypocritical farce, like the "Dean says he's religious but he thinks Job is in the new testament story.

Give your readers some credit for intelligence, like the fact that they might have actually read yesterday's news and the news from the day before. A reader who is following a Presidential race probably knows a little about what's going on, and doesn't need the constant recap of what happened yesterday.

Stop reporting on sweaters, fashions, images. This is actually serious stuff that affects the lives of millions of people. You treat it with less respect than high school sports.

There is far too much emphasis placed on process, horse-race stuff, with insider spin from campaign officials. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ .

Write well. Quote accurately. Read the transcript and cut and paste to get the best of the story accurately.

Cut candidates a little slack. The tension of constant public appearance is a strain for anyone. Many talented people refuse to run for political office at least partly because they don't want to deal with the casual viciousness of the ghoulish media.

Posted by: Aeolus at January 22, 2004 8:04 PM | Permalink

There's something of a contradiction between the contentions in the article that A) The press controls the electoral process and successfully manipulates it to pick establishment candidates, and B) the press is often wrong in its predictions about who will win and doesn't know a damn thing about what the results of the electoral process will be. I'm not suggesting that either statement is really wrong, just that people are still groping with how complex the role of the press really is. It is both proactive and reactive; there is a certain amount of unspoken anxiety underlying campaign reporting because journalists are constantly forced to be both but can't totally admit to either. To admit that you don't really know what the public wants undermines your authority as an "expert", to admit that you shape and manage what the public wants seems undemocratic and makes you sinister.

Also, all candidate selection in mass representative democracies involves mediating institutions. Better to think about what the old mediating institutions were and the ways in which the press may have replaced them than to counterpose the press to a mythical direct democracy that has never existed. It's a clearer starting point.

Posted by: Marcus Stanley at January 26, 2004 11:28 PM | Permalink

From the Intro