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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