January 29, 2004
Why Are You Such a Loser, Dennis Kucinich?
That's what CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked the candidate after the votes from New Hampshire were in. How would you answer it?
On the night of the New Hampshire primary, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Congressman Dennis Kucinich after Kucinich, a candidate of the Left, had received a tiny share of the vote twice— in Iowa the week prior and now in New Hampshire.
And Wolf Blitzer, who has a journalistic mind not just conventional, but wholly conventional, asked Kucinich to kindly explain why he, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, was such a loser. I was folding socks at the time, so I did not write down what exactly Blitzer said. And it was not on a regular CNN show, so the transcript has been hard to find. (Help: If you have it, email me please.)
Lacking the text, I have just the effect of Blitzer’s question, the gist— which is arguably the unit TV communicates in. Blitzer was showing he could be “tough” with Kucinich about the uncomfortable but critical issue of unexplained loserhood. You have to go back in years to your own high school and try to hear Wolf saying what he essentially did say to the candidate that night: why do so few people like you, loser?
Then Kucinich gets handed the mike. How would you answer in the thirty seconds provided? Explain your own ineptitude for our audience, please.
But then, “why are you such a loser, Dennis?” is asked not for the benefit of the viewing audience. It is not for voters’ ears, either. Blitzer asks it for reasons wholly internal to his profession, and the only interest served, I think, is the journalist’s. Everyone else loses, especially Kucinich, whose minute of public humiliation may not be Wolf Blitzer’s aim, but is the certain effect.
When the press looks for its credibility problems today, it ought to look more at moments like these. To me, it’s in-credible, Blitzer’s question. The public service validity I assign it is zero. Most of the audience, most of the time, senses the bad faith in it, whether we “like” Kucinich or not. In a catalogue of low points for the campaign press (which, done well, is an idea for a kick-ass weblog… ) this was one.
Political man gives it his best shot. He runs in order to speak to the country, and to see if the country listens and responds. It is for others to say why he failed when he is still in the campaign to succeed. Intuitively we know this. Blitzer, in a boorish way, does not.
Man, why are you such a loser?
It is a question ignorant of its own psychology and effect, and thus it advertises the journalist as someone capable of a certain cruelty, which is not a moral category you want to be in. But the most striking thing about “why do you think your campaign has been a total failure so far?” is the impossibility of Kucinich answering it without appearing to prove the premise.
Explain why you “failed,” and you have almost given up… a loser. If Kucinich denies that he’s failed, then he’s a loser, because anybody can see that winning one and two percent of the vote is failing. If he ducks the question and goes into another advertisement for Dennis Kucinich, that’s what losers do.
Blitzer is a pro. He knows how to ask what the pros, in a calculus all their own, call the tough questions, which includes a great many, like Blitzer’s, that can be predicted at rates close to 100 percent, causing some in the audience to wonder: what’s tough about that? And this is the sense in which Wolf Blitzer is a tough interviewer.
But he’s not the only one who acts this way. Back in December Ted Koppel of ABC was the questioner at a candidates debate, and the following went on: (As narrated by Howard Kurtz.)
Kucinich said that to kick off the debate by talking about endorsements “trivializes the issues that are before us.”
Koppel voiced his apparent disdain answers to what informational need?
Why are you such a loser, Kucinich? addresses which urgent issue?
And when ABC News political director Mark Halperin describes his approach as, “Hand the candidate a rope and let him decide if he’s going to hang himself with it,” what principle of public debate is served?
In my view, there is no informational need to which these tactics answer. There is no issue they intend to address. Some would say, “why are you such a loser?” has entertainment value; thus it gets asked in an entertainment medium. But this is really a way of saying, “Don’t you get it? Journalism is dead.”
When the press thinks about credibility problems, it sees cases where its standards were violated. This is logical, but incomplete. With more imagination, it might see how normal practices, within the standards of the tribe, can also make a performance non-credible. Cruelty is not credible. It just sends a jolt of power through the pro.
Post-script: After I posted this, a reader (thanks, bluepilgrim) sent me the link to a transcrip of an earlier interview between Wolf Blitzer and Dennis Kucinich. It’s from the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary. Not the one I saw, but the same behavior is in evidence. Blitzer demands repeatedly that Kucinich declare himself a loser; and he wants to know when the candidate will recognize reality and withdraw from the race:
BLITZER: How does it feel to be at the bottom of the polls, you and Al Sharpton? But you’re still running, you’re still enthusiastic, you’re going out there and doing what you’re trying to do. What’s the point?
See also, Stirling Newberry, Nothing But Net, on the Kucinich candidacy.
Read The Note, from ABC News, on the decision to stop devoting a producer full time to Dennis Kucinich.
Posted by Jay Rosen at January 29, 2004 4:20 PM Print
Playing the crowd. The reporters should run if they think that they are that good.
With Blitzer, in Kucinich's shoes, I would have said "Well, I have more votes than you, so I'm not that bad off".
And as for Koppel, Kucinich was on the money.
Twits abound. Some are just better paid than others.
Thank you, thank you for your comments! Is there any way we can stop this nonsense?
Posted by: Plenty at January 30, 2004 8:24 PM | Permalink
letters to the Editor? Rate their programs? More sites like this and get them distributed via E-Mail.
Posted by: Ronald Schmidt at January 31, 2004 3:53 AM | Permalink
one way to stop this nonsense is to turn off your TV
Posted by: steve harley at January 31, 2004 2:38 PM | Permalink
Wolf's question was of course silly, if he phrased it as you suggest he did. But a variation on his question would be quite legitimate:
Why hasn't your message resonated with voters? Why is it that Dean seems to have captured the liberal activists who might be expected to comprise your core support?
That's most definitely NOT a question that someone other than Kucinich must answer. (My own guess, based on quite a few casual conversations with non journalists, is that activists have become quite pragmatic in this round--they are not perhaps willing to vote for ANY Democrat, but they are looking for someone who can mount a real challenge next fall).
The fact is that horse-race coverage is a legitimate piece of broader coverage. And I must say I count myself with those readers of yours who say the Dean's scream hurt him even before it began bouncing around the media echo chamber. My sister, who lives in Vermont, emailed me that night that people had recoiled a bit--and these were Dean supporters.
That said, I would agree wholeheartedly on Koppel's performance at the debate. In his terminal condescension, he embarrassed himself and other journalists.
Posted by: michael powell at January 31, 2004 2:40 PM | Permalink
Maybe the biggest problem here is that except for their employer, these reporters have never been made accountable.
In little ways I begin to see that accountability happening, as the press and the media "get" that they are being evaluated too, not just given the right to "cannabilize" people in the guise of an interview or press report.
As a psychologist I recall my training in doing psychotherapy. And one supervisor would often ask us if our question was for the benefit of the patient or just out of curiosity. We had to learn to analyze the question before we asked it, to consider it's effect upon the listener, to keep in mind the purpose of the interview, and to restrain certain impulses in view of our task on behalf of the patient.
Has journalism lost its mission? It sounds like there needs to be a process where reporters are subjected to the same critique process we would use to evaluate teachers, therapists, physicians, and other service personnel. We're not going to return to a restaurant if our choice of entree is belittled. We won't return to a physician or dentist if our physical ailment is belittled.
Sadly, much of what appears on a news program seems to be appealing to the same audience and using the same tactics as the talk-shows and reality shows, where people are deliberately humiliated or exposed as "entertainment." I have long been bothered by the type of comedy on TV as well, but at least in this case there is a script and the people are actors.
To me the humiliation of people in an interview is another example of a civilization in decline. Rome provided entertainments where people were thrown to lions. We moderns just throw them to the media!
I appreciate that these issues are being debated and I can see this debate is slowly percolating into other areas. A good sign!
Posted by: Mary Ann in Milwaukee at January 31, 2004 3:00 PM | Permalink
off topic but the priority ought to be:
its the electoral infrastructure stupid and not the economy.
the next big investigation commission will be in early 2005 and it will be about ballot box integrity and this election will be stolen through the voting machines and now ought be the time for the investigation or there will be no legitimacy to the government and the implications of that are vast.
Posted by: baxter case at January 31, 2004 3:24 PM | Permalink
Continuing slightly off-topic, to push the voting machine mess I'd like to see big headlines everywhere such as:
US VOTING MACHINES LESS SECURE THAN LAS VEGAS SLOT MACHINES
Which is true based on many sources (Google if you want to read about it). There has been some coverage of this, but nothing approaching its importance. And I figure mentioning Las Vegas might catch people's attention. Maybe they can even figure out a way to tie it to Paris Hilton to get a few more people to notice, or editors to run it. Or maybe: MONEY MORE IMPORTANT THAN DEMOCRACY
Based on general media patterns, as mentioned in the post above it will probably only get the attention it deserves after a fiasco in November. Sigh.
Posted by: Todd G at January 31, 2004 4:43 PM | Permalink
I would suggest that each candidate adopt a token response to these questions (example: "...and when did you stop beating Your wife?") that signals to both the interviewer and the viewing public that the candidate will not participate in such demeaning exercises.
Posted by: Darrell Moore at January 31, 2004 5:35 PM | Permalink
The new term is: Electotainment.
Posted by: Bentpenguin at January 31, 2004 10:11 PM | Permalink
Taran: I admire your weblog.
About this comment, "The reporters should run if they think that they are that good." I think I know what you are getting at. One of the neglected factors in these "encounters" between journalists and candidates is the knowledge wars that go on.
The horse race narrative is partly about displacing (dumping) forms of knowledge other than the ones that go into the savvy art of winning. The journalist masters "winning" (or thinks so.) Therefore the journalist's knowledge matters most in the account.
Tom Patterson, a political scientist now at the Kennedy School, showed in his book, Our of Order that the space alloted to politicians to speak in their own words had decreased steadily in news accounts, from the 1960s to the 1990s. There was a corresponding rise in the portion of the news where the journalist is the one speaking, perhaps paraphrasing or commenting on what the pol or candidate said. Or sneering at it, which became common.
That's what I mean by a knowledge war.
Michael Powell of the Post: Thanks for reading PressThink and dropping by to comment. I agree that there were many legitimate questions to ask about Kucinich's performance at the polls. Only some are reasonably put to the candidate himself.
At Koppel's barbeque, for example, he wanted the candidates to raise their hands if they thought Howard Dean could beat Bush. Of course only Dean did. So Koppel asks John Kerry: why didn't you raise your hand? Kerry's answer was perfectly stated: "For a very simple reason, Ted -- I believe in my candidacy." And he was right to say that.
The lesson, for me, is: questions that force the candidate into disbelief in his own candidacy, or that try to, are dishonest. Also vain, unlikely to "work," and mostly a power trip for the one asking.
Your question for Kucinich, "Why is it that Dean seems to have captured the liberal activists who might be expected to comprise your core support?" is not only more humane; it actually has some politics in it.
It locates Kucinich in political space. It credits his run with a plausability that did not pan out. It asks about a particular group of people-- liberal activists. It isn't empty. Therefore it isn't cruel.
Briefly about Dean Scream. It is not clear to me why establishing that Dean blew it, lost control, and suffered real damage in the eyes of voters and supporters, prior to the press getting involved, means that the press is not responsible, too, for the proportions the incident assumed, once the press (TV news) did get involved. Is there some rule that there can only be one actor, one mover, one place to "fix" responsibility?
Okay, so The Scream is not a media invention, you cannot "blame" it all on the press. In my only mention of it here, I said there was "dual responsibility." There's the reality of The Scream. Then there's the reality of the screaming about The Scream.
Finally, to everyone. See this excellent analysis of Kucinich's candidacy along Michael Powell's lines, by Stirling Newberry at BOP.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 1, 2004 12:05 AM | Permalink
A reader, Marylaine Block, wrote me with this:
I couldn't agree with you more. I'm an Iowan who participates in the caucus process, which means we have a rare opportunity to question candidates ourselves. Most Americans have to rely on the press to be their surrogates, asking questions on their behalf. And I have to say, in all the 24 years I've spent attending campaign events, I've never once heard anybody ask questions as stupid and un-useful as Blitzer's. I've never heard anybody ordinary Iowan ask gotcha questions. I've never heard ordinary Iowans piling on, amplifying miniscule non-events.
None of us, given the opportunity to sit down with somebody who might become president would do what Diane Sawyer did in her excruciating interview of Dean and his wife, for instance. I didn't caucus for Dean, incidentally, but I don't have to be one of his supporters to be outraged by the fact that she didn't ask a single question about policies and issues, because that would have taken time away from replaying the "scream" at least three times, and asking repeatedly about his anger. (If ever there was proof the man can control his anger, it's the fact that he didn't say "screw you, lady," and walk off the set.)
We Iowans, and I presume New Hampshire voters as well, ask about the things that concern us -- I always ask them what they'd do to reverse the extraordinary secrecy of the Bush administration, the increasing denial of access to public information, and the increasing intrusions on our privacy and civil liberties.
I'm sorry that the rest of America has to rely on campaign reporters and political ads to help them decide how to vote, because they are lousy surrogates for us. I'm glad that you and many others are holding campaign reporters accountable for their inadequacies and distortions. I wish I thought it would do any good. I've been reading CJR for years, and the books by [Tom] Rosenstiel and Kathleen Hall Jamieson and others that report on how the press has misreported various elections, and what I've noticed is that campaign reporters never, ever learn. Every year they go out and do the same thing, or even worse.
Thanks for your commentary.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 1, 2004 2:20 PM | Permalink
I disagree with the characterization of Blitzer's questions. He wasn't asking, in my view, Why are you a loser? He was asking, Given the fact that you are attracting about 2 percent of the electorate, what's your rationale for continuing to run?
That's a perfectly legitimate question, which Kucinich answered.
There are dozens and dozens of people running for president every four years, some serious, some looking for attention, some just having fun. Not even C-Span has the time or manpower to give all of them airtime.
Kucinich doesn't get that many more votes than they do. Why, then, should be keep getting invited to appear in Democratic debates? Why does he merit Wolf Blitzer's attention? Or ours?
Those questions aren't over the top or out of bounds. Neither were Wolf's.
And Kucinich -- who can take care of himself -- did a great job of answering them. The process worked.
Posted by: Ken at February 2, 2004 2:27 PM | Permalink
Kuchinich should have asked Blitzer why he changed his name to "Wolf" when it's really Leslie.
People in the public eye -- particularly political candidates -- should be armed with information about these "journalists" and slam them with it repeatedly and hard.
Posted by: David Ehrenstein at February 2, 2004 2:37 PM | Permalink
Kucinich should have responded to Wolf, "How do you like working for a news network whose clock is cleaned daily by Fox News? And if you'll allow me a follow-up, Wolf your cume in this segment isn't even as big as NPR's so could you explain to me why you don't retire?"
Posted by: Michael Goldfarb at February 2, 2004 3:16 PM | Permalink
Michael, good point.
And ask one of the columnists of Capital Gang how many people read their columns. Not the circ of their pubs, but the actual number of readers.
They have the numbers, but they don't like to talk about them, for obvious reasons. ;->
It turns out they aren't as big as they'd have you believe. A pointer from Instapundit is worth a few local newspapers.
Posted by: Michael Brandes at February 2, 2004 3:30 PM | Permalink
[i]The lesson, for me, is: questions that force the candidate into disbelief in his own candidacy, or that try to, are dishonest. Also vain, unlikely to "work," and mostly a power trip for the one asking.[/i]
I agree - they're dishonest. They not only attempt to extort a sort of emotional seppuku, but they dishonestly (or naively) presume an inevitability that's simply absent in the real world (as Dean and Gephardt recently discovered).
[i]Your question for Kucinich, "Why is it that Dean seems to have captured the liberal activists who might be expected to comprise your core support?" is not only more humane; it actually has some politics in it.[/i]
[i]It locates Kucinich in political space. It credits his run with a plausability that did not pan out[/i]
This I would rather strongly disagree with, and on two grounds. The one is our just-met false presumption of inevitability: the reality is that it ain't over til it's over, so the 'did not pan out' past tense is inappropriately self-fulfilling.
The other is what I might call 'Chicago School' political beliefs, namely that the worlds of theory and practice are always coextensive; that voters make their choices in a dispassionate environment in which all candidates have received impartially complete coverage from the press.
In fact, of course, the worlds of political theory and practice are as unalike as those of economic theory and practice. In the run-up to Iowa, Kerry and Edwards got much more favorable coverage than Dean did, according to a study by CMPA (http://www.cmpa.com/pressrel/EW200402.htm). It had its effect. And Kucinich, of course, got no coverage--remarkably, not even from CMPA.
But that has been Kucinich's fate since he declared for office. Compare Kucinich and Dean just after Kucinich announced in February '03, when their poll numbers were jointly bumping along the bottom in the statistical noise.
Kucinich is a 4-term Congressman from a big-city district in a big state. He took the seat away from an incumbent Republican, and his re-election numbers have steadily risen, reaching 74% in 2002. He has won legislative office at the big-city, big-state, and federal level, and functional management and chief-executive offices at the big-city level. Besides his congressional seat, he also took the mayoral and state-senate seats away from incumbent Republicans. And every office he has held is in Democratic hands today. He is the elected co-chair of the largest Democratic caucus in Congress, and the hero of the attempted takeover of Cleveland's public electric utility (in which his toughness and integrity saved Clevelanders about $300M so far, but cost him re-election, 15 years on the shelf, and very possibly the offices of Governor and Senator). A child of working-class poverty who knows what it is to be homeless, he and Al Sharpton are (I think) the only non-millionaires among the candidates.
So what, exactly, makes Dean so obviously a 'serious' candidate and Kucinich a 'vanity' candidate?
When I asked that question, I was told it's because Dean has run such a great campaign, getting all sorts of support and enormous amounts of money, while Kucinich is such a dud that he's got almost no press and no money.
But when I ask for documentation that the money and support for Dean came before rather than after the press buildup, nothing happens. It was an article of faith that Dean and Kucinich fully deserved their polar-opposite positions. (And, predictably, it is an article of faith today that Dean wuz robbed by the Media Inc thugs, though Kucinich of course was treated perfectly fairly!)
Posted by: Mairead MacDonald at February 2, 2004 5:37 PM | Permalink
Ken. If I understand your point, you are arguing that Blitzer had a legitimate question in mind, which ultimately amounts to why does Kucinich keep taking up political space when he stands no chance to become president?
"Why does he merit Wolf Blitzer's attention?"
Or, if we phrase it from Wolf's vantage point, "Why, Congressman K, am I still interviewing you, after your one percent here, two perfect there?" If this is Blitzer's attitude, then he is actually calling himself or his producer an idiot for having Kucinich on the air at all.
Remember, this was the second time that day Kucinich had been asked to appear on CNN for questions from Blitzer. There has to be some reason for asking him on. Either he's a serious candidate worth interviewing as he makes his run, or he is a fringe person whose animadversions are meaningless and not newsworthy.
The premise of a news interview is that the subject is potentially newsworthy. To turn around and make the interview a defense of one's news worth makes no sense. Nor is it fair.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 2, 2004 10:05 PM | Permalink
"Either he's a serious candidate worth interviewing as he makes his run, or he is a fringe person whose animadversions are meaningless and not newsworthy."
I think that's exactly what Blitzer was trying to find out.
If I understand your point, it would be fairer for CNN NOT to invite Kucinich on the program than it would be to have him on and ask him to justify his candidacy.
Is it unfair to ask candidates why they are running for president? If not, then why is it unfair to ask them why they are continuing to run, especially when they have garnered so little support?
I repeat: Kucinich had no trouble answering the question. Seems to me he'd prefer to take a crack at it than not be invited on the program at all.
Just for the sake of argument, would it have been fairer to ask, "Rep. Kucinich, so far you have collected 2 percent (or whatever) of the votes that have been cast. What is your strategy for getting elected president?"
Or are questions about electability, campaign strategy, etc., off-limits because they're unfair to candidates who aren't doing so well?
If the point is that the media focuses too much on these kinds of questions than what a candidate has done or will do, we agree with each other.
Posted by: Ken at February 3, 2004 11:22 AM | Permalink
It's interesting that Blitzer, a former chief lobbyist for AIPAC deigned not to put the loser Lieberman on the spot. Lieberman had name recognition, a massive campaign staff, five times as much money on hand than Kucinich, the backing of the DNC, and the guy's singularly unpopular with voters. That, on top of the fact- Lieberman cost Al Gore the Presidency. Anyone but him on th ballot, and Gore would have won.
Posted by: Susan L. at February 3, 2004 6:31 PM | Permalink
I decided to stop by ABC's "The Note" this morning to see how they were wrapping up the results from the seven states that held primaries/caucuses yesterday, and I was startled to discover that while today's edition links to more than thirty different articles not a single one was from a paper in a state that voted yesterday. (Instead, we got plenty from the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and other "national" publications.)
It's not as though ABC has ignored the local publications in the past-- they've frequently featured columns from local gurus and articles about who's sewn up which endorsements.
The decision by ABC's Political Unit that it's not worth paying attention to what the papers on the ground report about the day when people actually cast their ballots is rather breathtaking. It would seem that the only things that are significant are results in relation to the final poll standings and the ability to convince local politicians to appear on a stage with you.
Indeed, today's edition of The Note does feature articles from Tennessee, Washington State, and Michigan, which will be voting in the next ten days. But I would bet that these states-- and their local reporters-- can also look forward to getting ignored once the scrum has moved on.
Jay gets it right when he compares Blitzer's question to high school fare. Blitzer was using the legitimate question of "Why isn't the public responding?" as cover for an expression of contempt. But there's nothing unusual there. Sticking with the high school metaphor, it's important to remember that a great many reporters started their careers at school papers, kissing quarterback asses and padding college apps and desperately trying to convince the world that they weren't losers. Having made it to professionaldom, they can never quite lose that fear of slipping into dweeb category; and thus, they tell political stories as if they were episodes of Sweet Valley High. Kucinich is a dweeb in this narrative; and Dean was too weird. Thus we end up with candidates who reflect the press's longing for normal.
Don't worry, Wolf -- John Kerry won't embarrass you.
Posted by: Jeff Sharlet at February 5, 2004 8:57 PM | Permalink
"Or, if we phrase it from Wolf's vantage point, "Why, Congressman K, am I still interviewing you, after your one percent here, two perfect there?" If this is Blitzer's attitude, then he is actually calling himself or his producer an idiot for having Kucinich on the air at all."
Isn't that a silly comment? Why am I taking notice? Why I am even responding to it? You tell me! Tell me why I should respond! HAH!
Meta-messages (Google on it), and statements disguised as questions. I heard there is an old Sufi saying: the truth of a statement is not in what is said, but in the effect. It's all the rage now: we musn't listen to what the administration says, but what it does -- and likewise for the press.
Fight with your wife: ask her why she can't accept you for who you are (with your dirty socks on the dining room table). A question does not, of course, put the inquirer in a passive position, or necessarily seek any information, but may be purely a rhetorical device (with a tip of the hat to Socrates).
The current crop of Republican spinners (spiders weaving webs) are masters at this (some Democrats are catching on). The press asks a difficult question, and the politician responds not with an answer, but a statement he wants to make -- possible only tangentially related to the question.
"How does it feel to be at the bottom of the polls?" --- Well, Wolf, by pacing myself I've already had two big wins against Gephardt and Mosely-Braun, who have dropped out, so I've reduced the field of competitors by a quarter. More are teetering on the brink. It won't be much longer before the non-serious sprinters have all fallen by the wayside and the race can begin for real. It's good to know that you appreciate the long term strategy of my campaign. Thanks for asking.
Kucinich might do OK -- with eight younger siblings he probably has lots of practice with meta-messages.
Posted by: Blue Pilgrim at February 6, 2004 1:28 AM | Permalink
I believe this is the transcript you were looking for (Wolf Blitzer interviewing Dennis Kucinich)