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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 then voiced his apparent disdain for Kucinich, Sharpton and Braun, asking whether they would eventually “drop out” or continue a “vanity candidacy.”

Again, Kucinich punched back. “I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country,” he declared to loud applause. Koppel had become one of the debaters, and he had just taken a hard right to the jaw. The candidates, many of them, were in open revolt against the moderator.

Koppel pressed on, telling Sen. John Edwards that “you’re not doing terrific in the polls either.”

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?

KUCINICH: Well, you know, like a lot of Americans, I understand what it means to be down there but keep climbing up. And I think that in a sense my whole life is a metaphor for the striving of Americans who want better jobs, better education and health care, and who want peace. And so I think people identify with someone who hangs in their, keeps trying, and in this case, trying to achieve peace in Iraq by bringing our troops home.

BLITZER: I saw you when I was out in Iowa. You’re here in New Hampshire. You’re clearly pushing forward. How frustrating does it get, though, that you are not registering really in any of these polls?

KUCINICH: First of all, I’m not frustrated. I live each day with a grateful heart. I’m an optimist.

This is a 50-state election and the territories. And I have a national campaign. I have an organization that keeps getting stronger and stronger all the time. So I’m looking forward to the entire campaign.

BLITZER: So what are you saying, you’re going to be in this until when? At what point — we saw Dick Gephardt drop out. We might see some other candidates drop out after New Hampshire. What about Dennis Kucinich? At what point do you say, you know what, I can’t go on?

KUCINICH: I’d say probably after I take the oath of office and get ready to do the job as president. That’s when the campaign ends.

BLITZER: Be serious.

KUCINICH: I am serious. I’m in this all the way, Wolf.

BLITZER: What does that mean you’re in it all the way? At some point you’re going to run out of money, your supporters…

KUCINICH: Well, actually, you know, even after Iowa, where I had one percent, I had people who kept sending me money. And we raise $20,000 a day, and we’re raising money through the Web. And we’ll keep doing that.

I raised over $5 million the first nine and a half months. Four million dollars will come in matching funds on top of that. And we’ll raise another $1 million by the beginning of February.

BLITZER: So you’re going to keep on going?

KUCINICH: I think a $10 million campaign isn’t anything to sneeze at.

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